Shabbat Shuvah -Settling for a C+

Well, here I am, one year later, again giving the Shabbat Shuvah message. It’s a high privilege and responsibility to teach from the Word of God, and perhaps even more so on what is called the Sabbath of Repentance. So thank you, Rabbi Loren, for your vote of confidence.

Hosea chapter 14 has long been the haftarah reading[1] on Shabbat Shuvah, the first Sabbath of the New Jewish Year. It’s appropriate to begin the year with a summons to turn from our sinful ways and return to Adonai. I’d like to begin our Shabbat Shuvah message by reading two excerpts from Hosea 14. First, let’s read and consider verses 1-3.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips. Assyria cannot save us, nor can our warhorses; nor will we ever again say, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands; for in You the orphan finds mercy.”

And then we have God’s answer in verses 4-5.

“I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from them. I will be like the morning dew to Israel, he will blossom like the lily, and he will take root like the cedars of Lebanon.”

The chapter ends with these words in verse 9:

Let those who are wise understand these things. Let those with discernment listen carefully. The paths of the Lord are true and right, and righteous people live by walking in them. But transgressors will stumble in them.

Those are the very last words of the book of Hosea!

Did you notice it said, “Listen carefully…”?

It’s one thing to ‘hear’ but quite another to ‘listen’. We hear things all the time without giving them any thought… things that become just so much background noise. We tune those things out. Do you remember the Charlie Brown television specials? Whenever anyone’s parents were talking, all you heard was “wha wha wha…” meaning whatever they were saying was considered irrelevant; nobody paid it any attention.

And then there are times we are listening, but not attentively, and we quickly forget what was just said. An example, of which I am embarrassed to say I am guilty, is meeting someone for the first time, and almost immediately forgetting their name.

It’s kind of funny that sometimes when someone wants to know if you’ve really heard them, they’ll ask, “Do you feel me?”

To ‘give ear’ is to listen; to listen with intent. That means investing mental and, if necessary, emotional energy to what’s been said. God is calling Israel, and by extension, all people everywhere, to turn – to repent.

And so we are summoned, not just on Shabbat Shuvah, but really at all times, to return to the Lord. The same Hebrew word shuv which means to turn or return, is the word meaning to repent. And the swan song of Moses, HaAzinu, meaning “Give ear” (pay attention), has those same two themes: on the one hand the sinfulness from which we need to turn away, and on the other, that Adonai’s ways are just, and upright, and compassionate. It is that very compassion that beckons us, “return to the Lord your God!” Think of it as a 180° turn; reversing course.

I’d like to get very specific this morning about what it is that we need to turn away from, if we would sincerely repent, and to Whom we must turn. As was the case last year, I have a message to the broader Jewish community, and a message for our Shema family.

First, let me address the broader Jewish community, both here in Metro Detroit, and wherever in the world any of my fellow Jews may be listening. I want to highlight two particular things that have been on my heart; things that my people need to repent of.

  1. Indifference/complacency/irreverence towards God and the Scriptures

I would remind us that the Torah warns against following a crowd to do wrong; or mindlessly going along with the majority. Adonai has given us intelligence and will, and we should employ both of them; examine things on their merits, and follow the truth wherever it leads, even if that puts us in the minority; even if it means being the ‘odd man out’.

Far too many of my people hold a dismissive, in some cases even a disdainful view of the Tenach, the Jewish Scriptures. How ironic that we are known as ‘The People of the Book’ and yet it seems almost nobody’s reading that Book. Jewish people tend to be very literate, but biblically, illiterate. Few make any sincere effort to read the Bible; fewer still actually study it. And sadly, those who do study, aren’t studying the Word of God, but the Talmud – the opinions and decisions of rabbis.

If faith comes by hearing the Word, and Jewish people are ignoring the Word, is it any wonder that so many are agnostic, and others flat-out atheists? Miracles in the Bible are rejected out-of-hand, and the Book is looked at a collection of myths and glorified fairy-tales.

Let me add this: God promised in the Scriptures to send the Messiah; so how can we know how to recognize the real Messiah from the bevy of counterfeit Messiahs if we can’t be bothered to study the Scriptures. What you don’t know can hurt you and I mean big time.

Tshuvah – repentance for my people, in 5784, consists in part of turning back to Adonai, and becoming students of His wondrous Word.

  1. Yirat Adam – Fear of disapproval from others

When I am asked why most Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus, I have a simple answer (which I’ll tell you in a minute). But I will say this: the real reason most Jewish people are unwilling even to discuss the possibility that Yeshua is the Messiah has nothing to do with theology, or unfulfilled prophecy, or a lack of evidence, though sometimes those are given as reasons.

Neither is it that Jewish people reject Yeshua because of the Holocaust, though sometimes that is given as a reason; nor do Jewish people reject Yeshua because of the Pogroms in the 18th and 19th centuries, or the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th and 16th centuries, or the Crusades of the 10th and 11th centuries.

Those were genuinely horrible times for my people, but they are not the reasons, either. A thousand years before there was such a thing as a Crusade, my people were already excluding the possibility of Yeshua being the Messiah. The rabbis etched that line in the sand and the people of Israel complied.

Now, if you’re looking for a date or event to which to attach this institutional refusal, or to identify the individual who codified it, most scholars suggest it was in the aftermath of the failed Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, which ended tragically in 135 AD; the blame for which Rabbi Akiva laid squarely at the feet of those early Jewish followers of Jesus. From that time onward, if you were a Jew for Jesus, you were an outcast. Period.

So let me get back to the question. Why is it that most Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus? Answer: Because most other Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus.

Listen, nobody wants to be an outcast. In that regard, who can blame Jewish people for being reluctant to investigate Yeshua’s claim to be the Messiah in the face of such institutional pressure, and the ongoing censure of Messianic Jews. Nobody wants to be part of a hated class of people.

But this is my challenge to my people on this Shabbat Shuvah: if you hope to experience God’s forgiveness, you must repent of the sin of fearing people’s disapproval more than fearing His.

Proverbs 29:25 says It is a dangerous trap to be concerned with what others think of you, but if you trust in Adonai, you are safe.

I’m applying that to mean you need to marshal the courage to read and consider the Gospel. Examine the life of Yeshua; compare it with the ancient Jewish prophecies that foretold the Messiah; the miraculous circumstances of His birth; His ancestry; the very name of the village where He would be born, the timing and circumstances in Israel at His first appearance; His humility and godliness and miracle-working power; and yet that Israel’s leaders would oppose Him, that He would be surrounded by a mob of people mocking Him as He would be unjustly put to death; that He would not remain dead, but be resurrected on the third day.

It’s all there. But if you’re either too complacent to investigate, or too afraid of what Uncle Herschel and Aunt Phyllis would say, then you’re in a very bad place. And I know full well nothing I can say will change that.

But maybe, on this Shabbat Shuvah, God’s Spirit is stirring you; maybe you’re tired of living in fear of other people’s disapproval, and you know there must be more meaning to this life, and answers about the World-To-Come, and you’re willing to begin that journey of discovery. May Adonai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel give you that courage and that hunger for the truth.

HaAzinu, ‘give ear’ – that is the challenge. Be willing to admit the evidence for His being the Promised Messiah into the courtroom of your thoughts. To refuse to honestly do that contradicts the very theme of this passage of the Torah.

It was for good reason that Messiah Yeshua said, “If you continue in My teaching, then you will truly be My disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[2]

It seems to me that Shabbat Shuvah is as good a day as any to begin that journey to freedom. Tshuvah = a 180° turn… a YOU turn.

And now let me address my Shema family, those of you here, and those who are unable to be with us, but regularly watch our services and Bible studies online. We in the Community of Messiah’s Followers have areas of need of repentance as well. So… HaAzinu – give ear; listen and pay attention to these words of Yeshua:

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit… So why do you keep calling Me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say?

What did Yeshua say we should do? I found a nice list of 50 things. Mercifully, I’ll only share 14 of them with you now.

  1. Repent
  2. Love one another in such a way that people take note
  3. Settle disputes quickly
  4. Don’t lust
  5. Don’t divorce
  6. Keep your word
  7. Turn the other cheek (don’t respond to insult with insult)
  8. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
  9. Forgive one another from your heart
  10. Store up treasures in heaven, not on earth
  11. Treat others as you want to be treated yourself
  12. Strive to enter through the narrow gate (live holy lives)
  13. Beware of false teachers
  14. Go out, make disciples, spread His teachings

How are you doing with just those 14 things? You might say, “I guess I’m doing pretty good – I got 11 out of 14.” On an exam in your anatomy class, that’s 79%. That’s a C+. Are you okay with that? Should you be okay with that?

Oh, wait, there’s another thing Yeshua said to do. He said, “You are to be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”[3] Suddenly, 79% doesn’t seem so great. You see, we need to remember that God Himself, not you or me, is the standard against which everything (specifically righteousness) is measured. Adonai is perfect. He doesn’t grade on a curve.

Now you and I understand that we aren’t appealing to God on the basis of any sort of righteousness we think we possess. We come to Him on the basis of His mercy. But the danger of living in a covenant of Grace, in which Messiah has already paid the price in full for all our sins, is that we settle for mediocrity. We settle for a little bit of sin here and there. We settle for a lot less than 100%. And I think we also are failing to HaAzinu – give ear. We may be hearing, per se, but we aren’t paying attention. And the evidence of it is lives that are stagnant. We ought to be being transformed, as Rabbi Paul wrote to the Corinthians, from glory to glory. We should be utterly unrecognizable as pertains to our former way of life.

I will show you what it is like when someone comes to Me, listens to My teaching, and then follows it. It is like a man building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t act accordingly is like a person who builds a house on the ground without any foundation. When the floods sweep down upon that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.”[4]

So take this, not as a guilt trip, but a goad from your rabbi and your brother, who wants you to end well with the Lord. That’s what matters most. But let’s at least get off to a good start in this New Year. Amen?

[1] The haftarah is the weekly reading from the Prophets that accompanies the parasha. It derives from the verb 9; (pa-tar – meaning, ‘interpret’)

[2] John 8:31-32

[3] Matthew 5:48

[4] Luke 6:43-44, 46-49