|Chayyei-Sarah 5770 - On Living in Pivotal Times|
by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
"If I had only lived when Yeshua walked the earth, then I could really walk with God." I would guess that most of us have heard something like this from someone or other. People imagine that living at special times, or having special experiences, creates special people living special lives. Too often, people off load their own responsibilities, blaming boring times for the ho-hum texture of their own lives. They can even be a little defensive: "If the times were different, I would be different. Give me a break."
There is a debate afoot again, an old debate as to whether the times make the leader, or the leader makes the times. In recent months, the juxtaposition of Barack Obama's election and the current economic downturn and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have encouraged some to compare these times for Barack Obama to those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Transitional times test what someone is made of. And this parasha is all about them. Sarah dies, and Abraham negotiates with Ephron the Hittite for her burial site, Abraham sends his servant to get a wife for Isaac, and Rebekkah makes the big transition of leaving her ancestral home, Isaac takes a wife, another transition, Abraham takes another wife and has six children by her, and that wing of the family grows, as does the collateral family of Ishmael. Then Abraham himself dies, and God blesses his son Isaac, who settles in Beer-lahai-roi. Transitions, transitions, transitions . . . all unavoidable issues that test our mettle.
Some months ago, Carl Kinbar, Provost of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, told me of a Rosh Hashanah sermon he heard, considering what one should concentrate on in tough, transitional times. The Rabbi delighted him with his approach: He said the core question is one of ethics-what kind of a person are you going to be, what are you going to not allow yourself to be and to do when times get tough?
These are core questions, and kind of interesting, don't you agree? But I think God's truth wants to cut us closer to the bone. We are living in times not only politically interesting, but times as biblically momentous as the days when Yeshua walked the earth, times of transition. Indeed I want to suggest that we may well be living through a Second Reformation. The first, was one that brought to the forefront the issue of salvation by faith; this one is bringing to the forefront the interfacing of Israel and the Church in the final purposes of God
And these are the times we are living in. If I am right, then we will be evaluated by God by whether we rose to the occasion, radically realigning our commitments and priorities, or, as Keith Green used to sing, God will find us "asleep in the light."
Yochanan the Immerser confronts us this week with two kinds of questions. The first is the kind we might ask ourselves in these times of transition. The second is the kind God might be asking of us concerning how we are meeting, or failing to meet the challenge of the times. This is what we will be examining today.
My major point: changing times require changing people. If we do not change with the times, we will have to explain ourselves to God. Now you might think, "No problem! I got the Yeshua card! There is no condemnation for those in Messiah Yeshua. I don't have to do a thing! Yeshua paid it all!"
Not so fast: you may have that kind of forgiveness which made you a member in good standing of God's family, but you also have accountability. The same Paul who said there is no condemnation for those in Messiah Yeshua also said something about accountability. We need to look at Paul before we get to John. (George and Ringo come next week.)
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul begins with the wondrous, life-reorienting promise of embodied immortality that awaits us as God's people, and then goes on to express its impact.
So we are always confident-we know that so long as we are at home in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord; for we live by trust, not by what we see. We are confident, then, and would much prefer to leave our home in the body and come to our home with the Lord. Therefore, whether at home or away from home, we try our utmost to please him; for we must all appear before the Messiah's court of judgment, where everyone will receive the good or bad consequences of what he did while he was in the body. So it is with the fear of the Lord before us that we try to persuade people. Moreover, God knows us as we really are; and I hope that in your consciences you too know us as we really are. (2 Cor 5:6-11)
Paul manifests a tension here that is rare in the Messianic Jewish movement and missing in my own life as well. But lately, I have been working hard to set things right, and I urge you to do so also.
Look at the four things he holds in tension:
(1) Confidence, verse 8: "We are confident, then, and would much prefer to leave our home in the body and come to our home with the Lord. Paul is confident of his resurrection destiny, finding the Spirit to be a pledge of its fulfillment, a Trust Fund we live on until we enter the fullness of our inheritance. Having not entered into that inheritance, Paul says we groan until this mortal state with all its weaknesses and temptations is further clothed with immortality;
(2) Diligence, verse 9: "Therefore, whether at home or away from home, we try our utmost to please him," and in verses 10 and 11, "for we must all appear before the Messiah's court of judgment, where everyone will receive the good or bad consequences of what he did while he was in the body. So it is with the fear of the Lord before us that we try to persuade people. Moreover, God knows us as we really are; and I hope that in your consciences you too know us as we really are."
(3) The fear of the Lord, by which I take him to mean a reverence for Messiah as the coming Judge, not returning as a Lamb but as a Lion, and
(4) A respect for the consequences of our actions or inaction: a proper regard for whom we are dealing with when we are dealing with God.
Paul calls us to hold these four realities in tension: confidence, diligence, a proper respect for Yeshua as the coming Judge, and a respect for the consequences of our actions or inaction.
I like the way the Stern translation expresses the second half of verse 11; "God knows us as we really are." We may be able to snow ourselves, and we may routinely fool the people around us, but nobody snows the Holy One. Nobody.
Abraham Lincoln said you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. To this I would add, you can fool yourself, and your can fool others, but only a fool thinks he or she can fool God. "God knows us as we really are."
Having dealt preliminarily with Paul, let's go to Yochanan the Immerser-what lessons and questions does he leave with us about ourselves and about God that might best orient us to appropriate attitudes and actions during these times of momentous transition?
In the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius' rule; when Pontius Pilate was governor of Y'hudah, Herod ruler of the Galil, his brother Philip ruler of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, with ‘Anan and Kayafa being the cohanim g'dolim; the word of God came to Yochanan Ben-Z'kharyah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2)
We need to realize that all of this took place in a very ordinary time, in the midst of normal history. It isn't as if a strange purple glow enveloped the earth preparing us for a Close Encounter of the Third Kind . . . God's extraordinary times interpenetrate ordinary times, and it is only those who are especially attentive or especially called who even notice that something unusual is going on. In fact, many people, the majority, sleep through the transitions in God's dealings into which angels long to look.
So that brings us to the first question with which Yochanan confronts us:
1. Are you prepared to believe it even possible that God is now up to something extraordinary in the midst of ordinary history? Or is your default assumption that this is an ordinary time when nothing out of the ordinary will be required of you? I have a basis for my conviction that these times are extraordinary ordinary times. If you differ, what is the basis for YOUR conviction?
He went all through the Yarden region proclaiming an immersion involving turning to God from sin in order to be forgiven. It was just as had been written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Yesha‘yahu, "The voice of someone crying out: ‘In the desert prepare the way for ADONAI! Make straight paths for him! Every valley must be filled in, every mountain and hill leveled off; the winding roads must be straightened and the rough ways made smooth. Then all humanity will see God's deliverance.'" (Luke 3:3-6)
Here we find Yochanan's second question for us. In our day, as in Yochanan's, the question is . . .
2. Are YOU being called to prepare for the great thing we sense God is up to? It is never enough, and indeed, it is a sign of spiritual indifference whenever people say, "When it happens I will get with it." You will notice in this passage that God called John to do preparatory work. I submit that in times like these, times of transition, God is calling at least some of us also to preparatory work. But if we have been unwilling to prepare for the great things God is bringing to birth, we will either not notice when they arrive, or be disqualified from enjoying them. We need to ask ourselves, "What am I doing to prepare my world for the next great thing God is up to?" I believe that next great thing is the Greater Commission, God gathering in the fullness of Israel in preparation for the consummation of all things.
Therefore, Yochanan said to the crowds who came out to be immersed by him, "You snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming punishment? If you have really turned from your sins, produce fruit that will prove it! And don't start saying to yourselves, ‘Avraham is our father'! For I tell you that God can raise up for Avraham sons from these stones! Already the axe is at the root of the trees, ready to strike; every tree that doesn't produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown in the fire!" (Luke 3:7-9)
3. The third question is, are we operating out of a sense of entitlement or are we responding to God's costly and sacrificial call to turn to Him? This is not a comfortable question. We ought not to simply assume that we will be included in what God is up to simply because we are Jews, or because we are Yeshua believers. God asks us this: what kind of a Jew/Yeshua believer are you? Are you serious about what God is doing, and are you willing to embrace the disciplines of being his person here and now for the sake of what he is up to in the world?
The crowds asked Yochanan, "So then, what should we do?" He answered, "Whoever has two coats should share with somebody who has none, and whoever has food should do the same." Tax-collectors also came to be immersed; and they asked him, "Rabbi, what should we do?" "Collect no more than the government assesses," he told them. Some soldiers asked him, "What about us? What should we do?" To them he said, "Don't intimidate anyone, don't accuse people falsely, and be satisfied with your pay." (Luke 3:10-14)
4. The fourth question is actually a perspective: God calls us to repent within the context of who we already are, in the midst of our current callings and life situation. If you are a parent, your repentance needs to be seen in your parenting, if a spouse, in your marriage, if you are a worker, in your work, if a friend, in your friendships. This is not a call to adopt a new calling leaving everything else in the lurch-it is a call to serve God as who you are where you are, and yes, to welcome new involvements and activities too as God would call you to do them, but not as an escape hatch from your life situation.
The people were in a state of great expectancy, and everyone was wondering whether perhaps Yochanan himself might be the Messiah; so Yochanan answered them all, "I am immersing you in water, but he who is coming is more powerful than I-I'm not worthy to untie his sandals! He will immerse you in the Ruach HaKodesh and in fire. He has with him his winnowing fork to clear out his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the straw with unquenchable fire!" And with many other warnings besides these he announced the Good News to the people. (Luke 3:15-18)
Three final questions: