Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A New Day; A New Blog


Shalom, dear friends: I know that it's been a long time since I've posted here but I've not been completely inactive. A number of sermons have been posted online (via the Media Downloads button) and now we are developing a new site called Messianic Insight Media which will be devoted to audio versions of the sermons and eventually, we hope, video as well. It will be up and running soon with a posting appropriate to for the Passover/Resurrection Day season. Blessings to you and all those you love, Faithfully in Yeshua, Ben

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sermon on the Mount: The Beatitudes

Two notes. Two notes in a symphony ended one era and began another. The first two notes of Beethoven’s third symphony marked the end of the Classical period of music and began another—the Romantic; a highly formalized art form gave way to one rooted in emotional expression.

That’s how revolutions begin: a student dreams of changing history; a composer is hammering at his piano in a hidden room; a single gunshot ignites a battlefield. In 1880, when Edison got the first contract to electrify homes in New York City, he hadn’t yet solved the problem of the light bulb—and then he also had to invent the whole system of generating and delivering electricity to homes and streets. Two years later, in September 1882, they turned his system on at 3 in the afternoon. Within a few hours, the city watched as darkness fell and never came, pushed back with a steady, unblinking light unlike any that had come before.

Today, it’s hard to recognize when such a transformational event takes place anymore. We’re so used to tectonic shifts in technology and communications. But what you find in Matthew 5—the Sermon on the Mount—is no less a revolution: whatever followed those words of Yeshua could never be the same as that which came before.

The photo above is a view of Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) from the heights over the lake. The scenery is in direct contrast with Israel’s grand Messianic visions, yet there is something remarkably fitting about this setting:
not the splendor of Jerusalem but a hilltop view of Kinneret;
no gathering of sages and scholars, but talmidim (disciples) from the ranks of the am ha’aretz (common people);
none of the ranking men of the Sanhedrin to hear his words, but “lost sheep” of Israel in search of a shepherd.

The image of Yeshua is fascinating. Surrounded by those who have followed him and those who’ve been seeking him out; he arrives and does not stand to make an address. He sits down—in the custom of the rabbis—and begins to preach with absolute authority; unlike the rabbis, however, he quotes no one as his teacher except His Father in Heaven.

Many observers see Yeshua presented here by Matthew as the new Moses. He has already spent forty days in the wilderness seeking God—not unlike Moses spending 40 days on Mount Sinai before bringing down the 10 commandments. Furthermore, the opening words of the Sermon are not new commandments—but a powerful testimony of God’s new relationship with His people.

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the Land (earth).
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (NIV; Matthew 5:3-12)

That word “blessed” is translated in the Greek text that scholars use as makarios (μακαριος)… which is certainly not what Yeshua said; he may have used Aramaic or Hebrew; the word in Hebrew is asher, which is much closer to our word, “blessed.” But the English word “blessed” always seems a bit ambiguous (rooted in the word “blood”—as in consecrate by sprinkling with blood). Blessing can be any number of acts or statements:

• Pronouncing something holy: “And God blessed the seventh day”
• To confer a promise of happiness or prosperity: “We bless you from Zion”
• Express our wishes for happiness: “Bless those who persecute you”
• Invoke or confer spiritual benefit on an object or person: The blessings for a meal
• To extol or glorify with spiritual intent: “Bless the Lord, O my soul…”
• To be esteemed or accounted as a recipient of spiritual benefit: “All peoples of the earth will be blessed through you”

But here the word is translated in its simplest form as “happy.” How inadequate. It’s not only happiness, but all the benefits of blessing. Of course, Yeshua is not simply speaking to his followers of a prescription for being “happy.”

Are these conditions in which we would like to find ourselves?

Blessed are the poor in spirit / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn / for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek / for they will inherit the Land (“earth”).

The poor in spirit are those whose poverty is overwhelming; but it is not a question of being financially destitute, but spiritually bereft by the knowledge that our human nature is itself weak: weakened by sin, by life’s interminable struggle, by a sense that we feel overcome by one problem, one challenge after another.

Those who mourn are not only mourning for personal loss, but the sheer spiritual vacuum of hope for life in a time of oppression, when Israel’s hills are covered with crosses and the world seems rife with injustice.

The meek are not simply those whose vulnerable state comes from weakness of personality or circumstances—but those who have been weakened by hurt, shame and the knowledge of that they are weak and vulnerable at the core of their being.

Then consider the answers:

The poor in spirit are on the verge of the kingdom of God: they are about to enter the rich abundance of all God’s blessings: personal, spiritual, physical and in its fullest manifestation on earth.

Those who mourn will receive a comfort that will restore their broken hearts and refresh the soul.

The weakest among us will not simply inherit the “earth.” This is a lame translation which I’m sad to say that Gentile interpreters have used to obscure its more pointed reference to Eretz Yisrael—the Land—the “promised land” that God gave to Abraham and which he promised through Moses to Israel. Instead, Yeshua declares here that Israel’s land will ultimately be claimed by God’s people because it belongs first to Him and then to those to whom he has chosen for an eternal inheritance.

What does this say about us?

Are we poor in spirit? Do we know how weak we are to sin?

Are we in mourning for a humanity that is lost and in abject spiritual poverty? And are we of any comfort to them?

Do we trust in God’s provision, or are we so assertive of our own way that we are running over those must be nurtured? Are we able to exercise a character that “meekly” trusts in our Lord?

The next three “blessings” lead us to further question where are we spiritually:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness / for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful / for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart / for they will see God.

How many of us feel spiritually dried up because of the shallowness of our religious life. God calls His spiritual leaders to love and nourish those people who are searching for him; but do people feel that our religious institutions have nothing to offer but hypocrisy and their own self-satisfaction?

Are we genuinely merciful in heart, living amongst others with real “lovingkindness;” knowing others heart to heart, given to whole-hearted relationships that are no longer superficial.

And what of those who have sought to live with purity of heart—that includes those who are truly ashamed of their sin; those who have committed to live prayerfully but fallen short; tried to live faithfully but failed. There are those who live among us with such transparency and accountability—even while they admit they can’t always win this battle.

Yeshua declares a great hope, but it’s not in the current state of Israel’s religion—and it remains just as difficult to find in our religions as well.

It’s true, the pure of heart truly do see God everywhere—but a time will come when they will see Him face to face and the struggle will end.

Those who want to have relationships grounded in the merciful, forgiving heart of God will find that this is the heart which embraces them fully and allows them to embrace others.

And those who are seeking to know and understand the Word of God and hear what God has to say to them will be fully satisfied; their deepest questions will have been heard and understood—even as they will hear and comprehend fully what God has to say to them.

The last three blessings are about the cost of discipleship:

Blessed are the peacemakers / for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness / for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The peacemaker is the one committed to bringing God’s shalom—His perfected peace in its most genuine form into the world.

The one who is persecuted for the sake of righteousness is one who sacrifices everything for the God and will surely see the fruit of their sacrifice.

And finally Yeshua applies this prophetic truth to his followers and it’s written here for the larger community of faith in Messiah: words written for those who have followed him faithfully over the past 2000 years ago: how many have endured insults, persecutions and been reviled for the simplest, heartfelt act of trust in Yeshua; such has always been the lot of those who speak with prophetic power to religious institutions that are unwilling to respond to the Spirit of the living God.

Rabbi Yeshua is “stringing these pearls” for us: each is more precious than gold or diamonds. It’s not a set of rules so much as a spiritual vision of the restored heart and mind of those who have trusted in Him.

Some fear these words—they are so powerful—what if they were a set of principles by which a believer could actually obtain the Kingdom? That’s why some theologians like Darby and Scofield insisted they weren’t for our time—they belonged to a future Kingdom.

But I believe that the kingdom revolution is for right now—in the hearts of those who trust Yeshua as Messiah. There is to be no more satisfaction with religion unless it frees us to love and trust God in this way.

And there is a warning here for those spiritual authorities who claim leadership by serving their own ends. The public acts of piety which were so common in Yeshua’s day are singled out for warning: the public prayers and acts of charity or fasting. None of it will be considered adequate for admission to the Kingdom. Yeshua not only warns us of those whose lives bear bad fruit, but those who will later use his name for evil. Those words are just as applicable to TV preachers in expensive suits as they were to ancient teachers in elaborate prayer shawls—to hypocritical deacons as much as to P’rushim (Pharisees) and Ts’dukim (Temple officials.)

There is a power waiting to be released into the lives of those who have gathered round Yeshua—whether it is on a hilltop in Galilee or the local urban jungle: it is the radical power of the New Covenant promise of the Kingdom of God.

There is a tremendous authenticity to this moment: the birth of the Kingdom of God is about to take place. Yet it won’t be a movement that transforms the nation into a mighty army for God, but in the hearts of those who are crying out for God’s reality now.

If there is any familiarity to the scene it’s because in some ways it reflects the very situation in which many of my generation came to faith: the dissatisfied youth whose parents tried to build on the self-satisfied prosperity of the post-war period and instead left their children frustrated with materialism and their lack of spiritual grounding. This is the setting in which revival transformed the world landscape—many of the most powerful global religious movements in many religious traditions were affected: the movements whose leaders are Christian, Jewish and Islamic all date back to this period. Parallel movements took place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In Yeshua’s time. Israel was also experiencing a time of radical dissatisfaction with its religious leaders: the national leadership, the Sanhedrin, was dominated by two self-satisfied groups—the P’rushim who held sway over Israel’s economic life and the Tsdukim, who were prospering from the Temple. Their king was the nasty, weak-willed Herod, the son of an evil genius who was not even considered a Jew. To add to their shame, the High Priest bought his position every year with a hefty bribe to the Romans.

If we truly take these words of Yeshua to heart, we know that nothing in our lives can remain the same. But each of us needs a catalyst for change. We need the reality of Messiah to confront us.

In the 1740’s, the American colonies had become places that were mired in the remnants of a calcified, Puritan faith. The children and grandchildren of those whose faith had driven them to seek religious liberty in a new country—were now content to live out the appearance of being religious without any particular change of heart. The New England preachers and ther most devoted followers knew it; they’d become an unhappy, dissatisfied lot. Life was easier but the most important values of their faith appeared to be lost on the new generation. Preachers found they were no longer ministering to people of faith; they were talking to the self-satisfied grandchildren of believers.

In July 1741, Jonathan Edwards took the pulpit of his church in a small town in Connecticut and began to preach. His sermon was called "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."

Most of the sermon's text consisted of ten "considerations", which Edwards posed and justified through a combination of observations and hellish imagery. They are based on one major principle: “There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God.”

There was an outcry from the elders. The congregation, disturbed and upset, could barely keep their seats. But finally, one of the young women stood up, convicted and grieving, she cried out for God’s mercy. Numerous other young people followed suit. When Edwards finished, nothing was the same.

A revolution broke out—preachers found a way to stir people up. A revolution of preaching the Gospel swept the globe with a series of revivals that transformed the spiritual landscape.

A generation ago, a discouraged missionary from American Board of Missions to the Jews got tired of being irrelevant to a prosperous new generation of American Jews who didn’t appear to have any interest in spiritual values. He took his message to the streets seeking to reach a new generation. He was having a bit of success and then one of his tracts washed up onto a pier where a drug addled young Jewish man who had recently become involved with believers, a man called Mitch Glaser, was contemplating what to do with his life. Mitch convinced a group of his friends to join this guy, named Martin (later "Moishe") Rosen and after awhile, they gave themselves the most irritating name possible: Jews for Jesus. But that’s another revolution.

The next revolution belongs to you.

The gateway to your revolution isn’t in me: it’s not in the preacher; it’s in you. And I don’t know how it can be fulfilled by our efforts, as grandiose and purposeful as we may choose to be, but only by our surrender.

What rights do we have to claim the kingdom of God? None. We are:
• impoverished in spirit
• mourning for sin
• hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

What are you seeking? God’s mercy; a pure heart; greater understanding of yourself before God?

This is the path of faith. It’s not a glory road: it’s a path toward the cursed tree. But it’s your path. Your own revolution.

I have great affection for this story about the composer, Johannes Brahms—he’d written two symphonies and now he had to write a third—and all he could think about was those two notes of Beethoven’s iconic Third Symphony. In his lonely room where there were only two things on the wall, a crucifix and a picture of Beethoven, Brahms drifted into despair. Finally he took a holiday—and while he was in the mountains he fell in love. The melodies poured out of his heart.

Love changed what all his striving could not do.

Fear or love. Whatever path you choose—there is a revolution waiting to happen in our lives. It will change you. It won’t make you popular, or cool. But imagine what it would be like to do something that will leave a mark for God—for the Kingdom.

That’s your life waiting—the one Yeshua was describing on a hill 2000 years ago.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Entebbe: Thirty Five Years Later

“My life and death belong to me,” Yoni Netanyahu once told his younger brother, Benyamin, during an argument. Their unit was assigned to an operation and Yoni argued that he should take part—despite strict orders prohibiting brothers from joining in the same dangerous mission. Yoni lost that fight; it didn’t happen often.

As a rule, Lt. Col. Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu did not yield authority easily. Although we don't know how he might have deferred to a brother who became Israeli Prime Minister—twice. Not that Yoni lacked authority or power. He rose to command Sayeret Matkal, the elite corps of the Israeli army. And his death, which he contemplated with the same cool frankness that he used to measure any other enemy, gave his life a resonance that has been a touchstone for a generation.

Netanyahu might have remained unknown to the world. The crisis that vaulted him to fame was not unusual for its time. On June 27, 1976, an Air France jetliner on its way to Israel had been commandeered by the PLO (who called the perpetrators “a splinter group,” but their orders came directly from the highest PLO military leadership). It landed in Idi Amin’s Uganda. Faced with the type of ruthless gang that murdered most of the Israeli contingent at the ’72 Olympics, and given that the hostages were guarded by one of the world’s most brutal dictators, the Israelis appeared to have no options except give in.

A rescue team was assembled by the Israelis, but, as Iddo Netanyahu explains in his exhaustive and sometimes controversial account of the raid (reprinted in English under the title, Entebbe: A Defining Moment in the War on Terrorism) such missions were often aborted. The potential for failure was too great; losing elite soldiers might be compounded by another potential Munich-like massacre, in which a rescue mission by the Germans failed and all the hostages died.

The mission should not have included Yoni. He had just returned from an exhausting training exercise. But without him, it probably would not have happened. Only 48 hours before the raid, the Israeli cabinet had voted to give in to the terrorists.

It was Yoni’s stature, the respect he commanded both on the battlefield and at the highest levels of Israel’s military command that brought the plan to life and then kept it alive; although it bears mentioning that the entire team was much larger than his unit and they were assisted by some of the most skilled and dedicated pilots of the Israeli Air Force. Hours before the mission, Netanyahu was summoned to the office of the Defense Minister, Shimon Peres. Peres wanted to look him in the eye and ask if he could he pull it off. Yoni convinced Peres that it could be done and the minister took that confidence to the cabinet table. Following a lengthy debate, they agreed: if the mission failed, all would resign.

After completing the training of his men (the first few run-throughs of the mission made success seem unlikely), cramming countless details into their heads in the 24 hours before the raid, Yoni addressed his soldiers. His words “touched your heart,” said one. Alex Davidi, one of the men who confronted the terrorists, said, “It was a speech I’ll never forget. He gave us the confidence that we could do it.”

On July 4, 1976, a team of about 100 soldiers and support personnel in four C-130 Hercules aircraft, flew down the Red Sea and across Africa, no more than a height of 30 m. to avoid radar detection. Three of them landed undetected at the edge of the Entebbe air field; one remained circling overhead. The attack unit led by Netanyahu was only 29 men. Within 30 mins. they had freed 101 hostages, killed the terrorists and were loading them onto the transports. Sadly, three other hostages in the terminal died; a fourth who had been hospitalized was later murdered. Within 52 mins., they had fought off a counter attack by the Ugandan army, destroyed the immediate Uganadan air force planes that might have followed them and taken off. Four of the attack unit were injured; Yoni was killed, possibly by a Ugandan army sniper.

Thirty years later, Entebbe remains Yoni’s legacy. The Netanyahu family is sometimes accused of inflating the role of the commander—but they are hardly at fault for sharing what is obvious from the testimony of the men he led and repeated by his peers. Yoni was one of the great fighters in Israel’s history and the success of his unit not only stunned the world, it struck a blow against terrorism that still reverberates today.

And in time, he has become more—an inspirational figure to a generation for whom Zionism was not a tarnished ideal but a singular decision—an act of holding onto our identity in a world where every other choice is an unbearable compromise.

Has anything changed? Beset on every side, challenged by an unsympathetic chorus of nations who remain ambivalent about our survival as long as we survive, there is no greater encouragement than a figure whose courage, devotion and intelligence remind us of the cost that has been paid and why Israel goes on—though not, we confess, by the tenacity of even the bravest soldiers, but only by the grace of HaShem.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

When Did the Church Stop Being Jewish?

When and how did the church lose its original identity as a Jewish religious sect? This is a question that attracts more and more attention from Christians, but the answers are often wrong or misleading. The essential question is this: what happened to the Jewish followers of Jesus and their congregations? They wrote almost all the books of the New Testament (except for Luke/Acts); they planted all the first congregations. Where did they go and why did they disappear?

Recently, a pastor who is a friend of mine sent me this quote. One of his elders had used it during a Bible study in order to explain why the Jewish followers of Jesus faded out of Church history:

“Although persecuted by the Jews (I Thess. ii, 14) the Christians in Palestine long remained a group within Judaism. But the break became inevitable. A sentence in Suetonius' Life of Claudius could mean that as early as 50 AD rioting between Jews and Christians had broken out in Rome. In Judea the Jewish Christians kept the bridges open as long as they could, but they were severely harried and about 85, to make sure of their exclusion, a formal anathema was incorporated in the synagogue liturgy: 'May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.'” Owen Chadwick, The Early Christian Church, (Penguin, 1967) p. 20.

My friend wanted to know if the facts were correct and if the imposition of this “formal anathema” actually was a marker signifying the inevitable end of a Jewish presence in the church.

Here’s my answer, expanded for this space:

Thanks so much for your note. I appreciate that you are wrestling with this important issue of the separation of the church from its Jewish roots. Your elder used a credible source of information, but I think the information is misleading if not completely wrong. And here’s the problem: there is a common assumption that the original Jewish believers in Yeshua died out and no other Jews wanted to follow Jesus. But the facts are otherwise: historically, the Jewish believers in Yeshua disappeared because they were disowned and disinherited by the Gentile Christians who were instructed by Paul to honour them as “a remnant chosen by grace.” (Rom. 11:5; of course, the church so twisted this instruction by Paul, they eventually taught that Romans 11 had nothing to do with Jews, even though it promises the future salvation of "all Israel.")

The problem with the quote from Chadwick is that he begins with the commonly held assumption that Judaism and Christianity were already fixed as divided cultures. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were both very fluid in the first few centuries after Yeshua's death and resurrection; they had many different forms, and were not so hierarchical, nor did they answer to many authorities. Consider all the early heresies that existed during the first centuries of Christianity—from Marcion (rejecting the Jewish Bible as Scripture) to Arius (denying the divine nature of Yeshua) that would have completely transformed the nature of our faith. Judaism was equally fluid during the same period—and a single proscription from the synagogue doesn’t explain the full scope of historical events or attitudes of that period.

Besides, why would a wide ranging number of communities of Jewish followers of Yeshua—spread through ancient Palestine and North Africe—give up their identity? I have seen credible estimates that somewhere between 15-20% of all Jewish people in the first century after Yeshua became believers. They had their own congregations. In fact, their communities continued throughout the Holy Land region for centuries after 85 CE. According to the highly respected historian, Eusebius, there was a tradition of Jewish leaders of the church in Jerusalem until 132 CE, when all Jews (including Jewish followers of Yeshua) were expelled from the city by the Romans.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Judaism was transformed by the Jewish leadership in order to survive the loss of the sacrificial system. During this time, they were also fighting to resist the theological influence of the minim who were one of the few Jewish groups to survive after the Temple's destruction, an event which Yeshua had predicted! That term, minim, refers to Jewish believers in Yeshua and means, in Hebrew, “believers,” although Jewish authorities regularly translate the term in this context to mean “heretics”.

Meanwhile, the communities of Jewish believers in Yeshua continued to thrive. One of the leading Messianic Jewish authorities on this issue (my late mentor and former Prof. of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto) Jakob Jocz, points out that the insertion of the curse on the minim into the liturgy of the Eighteen Benedictions around 90 CE is probably an indication of “a new surge” in the growth of the Messianic community after the fall of the Temple (see The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, Baker, 1949), p. 55. In other words, Chadwick’s proof of a diminishing or a disappearing Jewish believing community is considered by other historians as a sign of its resurgence.

The key turning point comes in 132 CE, when all the Jewish communities in the region of Palestina rose up to resist the newly imposed laws of the Emperor Hadrian (who, among other things, wanted to outlaw circumcision, a horrific act of mutilation from the Roman perspective). The uprising was widely joined by the minim communities. But then the spiritual head of the revolt (132-135 CE), Rabbi Akiva, declared their military leader, Bar Kochba, to be the Messiah. At this point, the minim—who gave their messianic allegiance only to Yeshua—left the fight.

After the revolt failed, the devastation among the Jewish communities throughout the region was horrific; Hadrian had most of the Jewish population sold into slavery or exiled as well as destroying what was left of the Temple and sowing Jerusalem with salt. However, as Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out in his book, Hebrew Christianity, Its Theology, History and Philosophy (Baker, 1974, p. 46—the book is now outdated, but the history is useful here), the communities of minim persisted throughout the region until the Arab conquest is the mid-7th century. In fact, the original father of church history, Hegesippus (born c. 140 CE) is a member of that community—his five volume work has been lost but he is quoted extensively by another famous member of the minim community, Eusebius. There continued to be prominent Church leaders from among the minim, including Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantinople, even into the time of Constantine.

So, if the Jewish believers persisted, why did they eventually disappear—apart from the rise of Islam which swept before it all other religious groups? Why didn’t they integrate into the larger Christian culture with other ethnic Christian communities? It has nothing to do with their exclusion from the synagogue. The real reason was the onerous, racial prejudices of the early church fathers who deliberately chose to purge all evidence of Jewish roots from Christian theology.

Consider the declarations of the council of Nicea, 325: “We ought not to have anything in common with the Jews…we desire, dearest brethren to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews…” A major focus at that council was to separate forever the celebration of Easter from the timing of Passover.

By the fifth century, successive acts by church councils led ultimately to the declaration of all Jews as second class citizens in every Christian community. Until the Enlightenment, Muslim treatment of the Jews was often considered relatively enlightened by comparison with Christianity. The source of these calumnies can be placed at the feet of the church fathers who fixed in Christian theology the perspective of Jews as “Christ killers.” Gregory of Nyssa (331-396 CE) calls my people: “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the Prophets, enemies of God…”

Nevertheless, many Christians tried to maintain contact with their Jewish roots—they may have read Paul’s letter to the Romans and sought to do what he instructed: not to be "arrogant” (11:20) but instead, recognizing that the Jewish people are still “loved [by God]” (11:28).

In Antioch, the local church had sympathetic ties with the Jewish community, attending Jewish festivals and praying with them during the Sabbath. (Some think the local body included Jewish believers; it’s a matter of discussion.) But then a new pastor arrived, a monk called John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) who was later the Archbishop of Constantinople. He castigated the congregation for their behavior. Famous for his preaching (his name means “golden mouth”) he denounced the synagogue as “a place of prostitution” and “a house of idolatry.” He declared, “The Jews live for their bellies… In shamelessness and greed they surpass even pigs and goats…you should turn away from them as the pest and plague of the human race.” Those ancient sermons, in popular circulation for centuries, remain the basis of a continuing church bias about Jews as inherently evil.

It is this inhospitable climate that destroyed the relations between the church and synagogue—and devastated the relations between Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua, even as the church literally outlawed any continuing spiritual contact of Jews and Christians—forbidding shared worship on the Jewish Sabbath and definitely not at Passover (councils of Antioch, 341 CE and Lodicea, 434 CE.) Finally, these councils declared as heretical the remnants of the Messianic Jewish congregations in North Africa, often called Ebionites, which included the last remaining members of Yeshua's own family. (See Olivier Melnick’s book, They Have Conspired Against You: Responding to the New Anti-Semitism, 2007).

Much of our own perspective on this issue is so tainted by these old, ingrained prejudices that we don’t even recognize them. This is a point emphasized by my friend, Daniel Gruber (author of The Separation of Church and Faith, Copernicus and the Jews (Elijah, 2005). He asks, why do our Bibles not translate the word “Christ” in the New Testament? What is a Christ? Many people think it is the last name of Jesus—Christians know it is a title—but there is no content to it, except as the Greek translation of a Jewish term: Messiah. We don’t translate it “Messiah” because the term points to us as “Christians.” But more important, the term “Messiah” inherently suggests Yeshua’s Jewish identity, so it is rarely used. Gruber asks more pointedly: name a major creed which refers to Jesus as a Jew or as the Jewish Messiah?

The original New Covenant congregations began as Jews who followed the Holy Spirit in reaching out to Gentiles. But the Greek and Roman cultures were very anti-Semitic. They thought that the God of Israel wasn’t invisible, only ugly; they certainly couldn’t understand the Jewish dislike of pork—their visions of heaven had pigs literally jumping onto roasting skewers and I’ve already mentioned their view of circumcision. Within a few generations, this cultural divide led the early church fathers to deny the Jewish origins of the Gospel and then erase them with disdain.

Paul tried to get the early churches to understand that the unity of Jews and Gentiles was evidence of Messiah’s transformative power. In Eph. 3:4-6, he states that the “mystery of Messiah” is revealed by the Spirit of God uniting Jews and Gentiles in the Body of Messiah-but the positive attitudes he worked so hard to promote, particularly in Romans 9-11, were subverted. A new awareness of the mystery has revived with the rise of Messianic Jewish communities around the globe—but it’s still hidden from many Christians who have no knowledge of our significant growing Messianic community, particularly in Israel.

To summarize, it was not historically inevitable for Jewish believers in Yeshua to disappear from the ranks of the larger body of Messiah. There may well have been a large gap between Jewish and Gentile cultures-and between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua. But one single proscription from the Jewish community did not determine the fate of the Jewish followers of Messiah. Nor did it justify the negative attitudes towards the Jewish people which appeared in successive Church councils. But as those Christian attitudes were ingrained over the centuries, the very idea of a Jew believing in Jesus became as peculiar to Gentile Christians—who worshiped the Jewish Messiah—as it was to Jews.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Is A Blessing?

In the summer of 1741 the composer, Georg Frederick Handel was depressed and in debt. An acquaintance, Charles Jennens, approached him with a libretto taken almost entirely from the Bible. In a burst of creativity Handel began composing and in just 24 days completed one of the most famous pieces of music in history, Messiah.

At one of the first performances in London, King George II stood up. Some people think that because he was deaf in one ear, he mistook the opening chords for the royal anthem. But if you want to know why he stood, consider the words that brought him to his feet:

"…Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth...'The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord,' …and he shall reign for ever and ever. …KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."

In an era when the power of kings was fading, George, a man of robust faith, clearly understood that his allegiance belonged to a greater king from whom he sought a blessing, God's favor. Or perhaps, like so many under the spell of that magnificent chorus he felt a transformative spiritual energy at work—the deeper awareness of the presence and power of God.

That's also what we call a blessing. A blessing can be words, it can be actions and it can be a plea to the Almighty God for favor in any situation.

When Abraham stepped out of his house in Haran and decided to follow God and worshiped him all the way across the Near East, he entered into that understanding; it was clearly a process that began with a promise in which he was both the recipient and the source of blessing. That’s what the complex Hebrew of Gen. 12:3 says:

"I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you."

A generation later, when Jacob wanted the blessing of his father, Isaac, he seemed to expect something tangible in its power. And poor Esau, even though he was tricked, found out that Isaac had only a limited amount of blessing to give.

Jacob, meanwhile, not only received his father’s blessing, but after wrestling with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok, he again demanded a blessing. This time, though, the blessing came with a price and Jacob, now renamed Israel was never the same—it was transformational. He's no longer a self-made man who lives by his wits,a survivor; he's now a man whose life is gift of God's mercy. That changed attitude is also the mark of God's blessing on one's life.

Note: we’re never allowed to curse in God’s name—just bless. To curse using the name of God is a sin; not just because we might be wrong but because the curse releases evil into our midst that can’t be contained.

In time, blessings became a special privilege of the spiritual elite: the priests. We went to the priests with a blessing—a sacrifice or an offering from our best—and in turn received a blessing. Every week, we intone the fact that Moses instructed Aaron how to bless the children of Israel. Other blessings are for children, for wives, for Shabbat: often the father, as priest over his own home, provides these blessings.

But as we read even Gen. 12 closer, we see that Abraham can be blessed by unbelievers; those who treat him well also receive a blessing.

A further question follows: How can I bless God? Isn’t He the source of all blessing? Yet the psalmist says: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me…" (Ps 103).

We bless the Lord with our praise, our worship—our internal surrender that expresses itself through praise of His character, His power and Lordship: thus, the Hallelujah of a king, standing up as he sensed a greater presence before which he was present.

The effect of being blessed was originally what we might call the good life: one of peace, prosperity and the joys of seeing our children’s children, which is why God instructs Israel at Sinai to “choose life.”

The essential word of blessing is still the simplest word we know that represents the original sign of blessing for humanity. That is the word shalom. What word better exemplifies our expectation of God’s presence and his power to restore: Yeshua is the Prince of Peace; Sar Shalom. Our worship flows to him and out of our relationship comes a life filled with the promise of peace.

But through the prophets we also learn that the nature of blessing is bound up with our character. The prayers and intercessions of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah all seek blessings despite the curses which came down on Israel because of its behavior. This reminds us that blessings also have another dimension: they can bring restoration to God’s people despite their sins. (Even Abraham was restored after he sinned.)

But God does more than restore those whom he knows by covenant relationship. He also can bless whom He never knew by covenant: He can call to himself those people whom he did not know; He will bless those who never deserved His blessing. That shows us the ultimate promise of God for all nations: even those whose actions we think aren't worthy of blessing.

This power to do more than restore–to bring life and healing into places that seem hopeless and sinfully distant from God are a further sign of His of power and presence.

I recently read the story of the young woman who was divorced at a young age. Later, when she found a man who wanted to marry her, she despaired about not being able to use her grandmother’s engagement and wedding rings. They were tainted by association with her first, unhappy marriage. She mentioned to the new boyfriend that she was selling them at auction.

The boyfriend had never been to an auction—but guess where he went. A stranger kept sending the bid higher and higher, much past the value of the items but the young man prevailed—at great cost. Months later, during Christmas, her fiancee mentioned that he had one final gift for her: her heart leapt. She received the rings back—no longer tainted: they represented a rescued love: “It was the proposal I wanted, and the rings that I loved and showed how much he loved me.”

Something tainted that's rescued-or redeemed-and made new. That's the ultimate sign of love-someone cares for us so much that they don't care about the cost as long as they are able to restore what's most important to us. In essence, that is what God allows for us through his forgiveness of our sins-a blessing waiting to be received whenever we seek it.

Think of the power of forgiveness, the power of grace waiting to be released. Yeshua urges us to let go of our desire to have our own way and let God rule in all things so that we can receive His blessing; His life, His peace—Shalom.

Out of those depths of love and peace are great riches, blessings waiting to be given or restored. So, we too are called to stand up before the king and let his authority reign: "For the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, … and he shall reign for ever and ever." (Revelation 11:15)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Stuxnet Virus—A Hidden Battle for the Future of Israel

(The information below is largely based on an article that appeared beginning on page one of the Sunday New York Times, Jan. 16, 2011.)

Background

In the 1970’s, the Dutch were working on a new machine to enrich uranium. A Pakistani metallurgist working on the project, Dr. A.Q. Khan, stole the design and returned home to build his country’s first generation of uranium centrifuges which led to their development of an atomic bomb. Afterwards, Khan sold similar technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Iran’s development of a nuclear program has been in the works for at least a decade, but came under new pressures with the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected president in June 2005. He has, of course, repeatedly voiced his determination to destroy Israel and even suggested he’s a divine instrument for that purpose. No threat is more intimidating to Israel than Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear arsenal under the direction of this ruthless, single-minded fanatic.

Repeated attempts to restrain the Iranian nuclear program, including trade sanctions by other governments, have not stopped them from developing a massive, highly sophisticated nuclear generating and enriching facility in the Iranian desert near Natanz (two hundred kms south of Tehran) where the underground facility is over 350,000 square feet covered by thick protective coverings of concrete and earth. For added protection, the Russians have installed and maintain advanced anti-aircraft missile batteries to ward off the threat of Israeli or American air attacks.

Nature of the threat

The Israelis have long insisted that the Iranian program was on track to develop nuclear warheads by 2015 or earlier and sought American aid to address the problem with air strikes. This follows their strategy used in June 1981 to destroy the Iraqi nuclear facility (“Osirak,” a joint Iraqi-French project)—an attack that was widely denounced by Americans, Europeans and of course, the UN. Later assessments were somewhat more appreciative that the Gulf War was not complicated by Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons. There has been a more recent, less known, Israeli attack on a Syrian site in 2007 where the North Koreans were preparing an unauthorized nuclear reactor.

While both these attacks were capably carried out by the Israelis, attacking Iran posed many more challenges for success. The problems of distance and overcoming the Russian missile system would have stretched the Israeli air force to its limits and possibly provoked open war in the region.

With some of those concerns in mind, a 2008 request from the Israelis to President Bush for “bunker busting” bombs was refused. Meanwhile, the Israelis admitted that a successful strike might only push back the Iranian nuclear program by three years. However, when they presented the Americans with an alternative approach, a computer virus attack on the Iranian facility, Bush gave an initial go ahead; later, President Obama urged a speedy development of a stealth virus attack.

Preparing for attack

The complex worm secretly developed by the Israelis and Americans (initially denied by both governments) began with the growing awareness that the computerized controllers of the Natanz program were the most obvious weakness to be exploited. These controllers are separate computer components which oversee operational systems and computer programs. In this case, the controllers were operating the hundreds of uranium centrifuges inside the Natanz facility.

Both the Americans and the Israelis were aware of the types of centrifuge being used and called on various experts—including retired Israeli nuclear technicians. In preparation, both the Israelis and Americans built similar devices to figure out the best means of sabotage. Eventually, they learned how to speed up (or alternatively, speed up and slow down) the internal rotors causing them to wobble and then destroy themselves from the inside.

Avoiding Attention

The initial appearance of the Stuxnet virus in June 2009 did not attract much attention—it didn’t seem very active. One of the first to examine it in more detail was Ralph Langner, an independent computer security expert based in Hamburg, Germany. He noticed that the worm had only one specific aim: to attack a particular type of computerized nuclear facility and even more precisely, the computer control systems.

The ingenious nature of the virus was evident from its two major capabilities: First, programs to get nuclear centrifuges spinning wildly out of control until the machines literally self-destruct. Second, potential to send signals back to the control system indicating that the machines were doing fine—fully allowing the first part of the program to complete its destructive course without interference.

On further examination, Langner found added layers of sophistication:
1) the worm kicked into gear only when a particular array of controllers was found, i.e. those running a centrifuge plant, and it was even more precise, attacking a specific number of centrifuges: 984.
2) the dual aspect of the worm allowed the program to lie dormant for long periods of time. However, this dormancy was actually used to develop the second part of the program. The program used this down time to secretly record the normal operations of the nuclear plant. Once the centrifuges began running out of control, these same signals were played back to plant operators, preventing them from interfering before the destructive phase was completed.

In Langner’s view, “The attackers took great care to make sure that only their designated targets were hit. It was a marksman’s job. It is about destroying its targets with utmost determination in military style.”

Did the attack succeed?

Not until November 2010 did Iranian President Mahmound Ahmadinjad mention the virus attack, saying there had been minor problems but his experts had discovered it. A more accurate account of the Stuxnet’s success comes from the private, Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, which issued a lengthy report. They noted that the Natanz facility suffered a series of failures in mid-2009 that led to 984 machines being put out of service.

The report concluded that the failures were a major problem for the Iranian program. While the attacks were not successful in halting the entire program and parts of the Iranian operation remain active, other areas have been stopped. Security experts note that the worm continues to circulate and may launch again in future since it can update itself off the net.

Recent statements by Israeli officials (as of Jan 2011), including the retiring head of the Israeli Mossad, have confirmed the view that the Iranian program is no longer an imminent threat. Israelis are confident that at least another three years has been gained—they have “postponed the timetable”—with at least the same effect as a direct hit on the Natanz facility by Israeli fighter bombers.

As the Israeli pilots returned from the successful operation on Osirak in 1981, their commander led the pilots in recalling this passage from Joshua 10:12-14:

On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a human being. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Twas the night before Hannukah

I am still working on two important major blog postings, but I can't resist marking this first night of Hannukah with a little reminder that it's good to take things light during this beloved festival which Yeshua also kept. Blessings to you and hag sameach, a joyous holiday.


Twas the night before Hannukah
And all through the shtetl,
Not a bubby was stirring,
Nor boychik, nor maidel.

With my heart feeling naches,
And my head in my capele,
I had just settled in
For a nice midnite shnapsele.

O what a surprise!
With a crash like lead bagels!
Who’s that? And what
Are they trying to finagle?

When out of the fireplace
A fine fellow stepped;
You could tell was no fresser,
Or shlemiel or mere shlep.

He had a huge nose
O’er a beard white and wavy,
And he held a great bag
Stuffed like kishkas and gravy.

Now I knew he was kosher
From his first “Oy gevalt!”
And he nipped from the fridge
A little herring mit salt.

He left chocolate for Yosel
And a CD for Tzvi
And just what Shoshanna wanted,
The new Pixar DVD.

So I rushed to the roof
As he scampered away,
Where he packed up his stuff
In a Cadillac sleigh.

It was hitched to eight belled pussy cats
To pull all that loot.
Really—they did nothing—
The fake antlers looked cute.

“On Morris, on Moishe, on Tuvye,”
he cried,
“On Ari, Max, Sheldon, on Sarah and Saul.
Let’s split from this joint,
And head back to the mall.”

Then I heard him exclaim,
As they rose into flight,
“To all a good Hannukah,
I’ll be back tomorrow night!”