What Difference Does God Make?
Haftarat B’reisheet, Isaiah 42:5 – 43:10
Rabbi Russ Resnik
When I first became a follower of Jesus I wanted to share the story of my amazing transformation with everyone. But, of course, Jesus was a big barrier for most people, especially Jewish people—even after we started saying Yeshua instead of Jesus. In recent years, though, it seems like the barrier has shifted, and now it’s God himself. For lots of people, before they can even consider Yeshua, they have to accept the idea that there might actually be a God who makes a difference.
Some of these folks are doctrinaire atheists, convinced that God does not exist at all, but even more are practical atheists. They’re not dogmatic about the non-existence of God and may well be open to the idea that there’s something, or even someone, out there beyond our limited materialistic horizons. But it’s a God-concept so vague as to be mostly irrelevant to real life. Others are more positive about God, but define him after their own understanding, which usually means a God who doesn’t demand a lot.
A few years back, Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. After interviewing approximately 3000 teenagers they found broad consensus on five core beliefs:
A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
It’s a kind of generic religion that might draw on Scripture but can hardly be said to align with it. And discussions about God and “spirituality” that we encounter online or in live conversation suggest that this sort of list remains an accurate description of religion today, and not just among teenagers.
So, before we can talk about Yeshua, we often have to talk about God vs. no-God or about a personal, purposeful God vs. a vaguely imagined Higher Power.
To put this in other terms, before we can talk about Redemption, we need to talk about Creation. Sometimes we strike out in trying to tell people about Redemption because they’re not convinced about Creation. If there’s no overriding and compelling meaning to human existence, what do we need to be redeemed from, or for?
Centuries ago Rabbi Isaac commented on the opening verse of Genesis, which we read this week: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). He said that it would have made more sense to begin the Torah with Exodus 12:2, “You are to begin your calendar with this month; it will be the first month of the year for you.” This is the first commandment to the Israelites, and the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, according to Rabbi Isaac. So, why does the Torah start with the account of Creation? Because “if the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],’ Israel can reply, ‘The whole earth belongs to the Holy One, Blessed is He. He created it and He gave it to the one found proper in His eyes. By His wish He gave it to them, and by His wish He took it from them’” (cited by Rashi on Genesis 1:1).
Now Rabbi Isaac’s comment could stir up a lively discussion on current events, which I’ll happily avoid, because I’m interested in a different point right now:
God-as-Creator is a God who makes a difference in everything.
The one who creates something has rights and privileges regarding that thing. God the Creator isn’t just a vague, impersonal energy or force, but the One who has oversees it all according to his own council . . . which brings us to our haftarah for the week:
Thus says God, Adonai,
who created the heavens and spread them out,
who stretched out the earth and all that grows from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk on it:
“I, Adonai, called you righteously . . .” Isaiah 42:5–6a
God is making it clear just who is speaking to us. His creative sweep encompasses everything and everyone. He is the source of the very breath that we breathe, of the very spirit that animates us and gives us life. Therefore he has the right to call whoever he wants to whatever assignment he has in mind. I ended the quotation above in mid-sentence, because it would require an additional drash to discuss who the “you” of the final line is, and what exactly he’s called to. But the point remains: God can call people according to his plans and purposes because he created us all.
That’s a pretty simple statement, but it’s controversial today, when so many live, or want to live, as if there is no Creator. In contrast, Isaiah presents a bracing picture of God. Yes, he “created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth,” as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has it, but he’s got a more exciting purpose for us than being good, nice, fair to each other, and feeling good about ourselves.
The One who created everything has a plan to bring everything to completion, and that plan includes us.
But now this is what Adonai says,
he who created you, Ya‘akov,
he who formed you, Isra’el:
“Don’t be afraid, for I have redeemed you;
I am calling you by your name; you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1
The God who created the universe created you and me—and he calls us by name. The purposeful God of Creation has a purpose for us, for “everyone who bears my name, / whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:7). Somehow we contribute to his glory.
When we connect with the God who makes a difference, we start to make a difference too.
As we begin a new year and a new cycle of reading through the Torah together, let’s renew our walk with God the Creator and Redeemer, alert to how we can make a difference in the world he created.
All Scripture references are from Complete Jewish Bible.