Shabbat Shuvah – The Wrong Side of HIS Story

Let me give you a heads-up: this is a different sort of Shabbat Shuvah sermon for me. This is the sermon that I would want to give if Temple Israel, or for that matter any traditional synagogue, would allow me to come and speak my mind and heart. I’m not holding my breath, but you never know…

I want to begin by talking about this thing called ‘presentism’. Presentism is a relatively new word in the English vocabulary. Out of curiosity, I looked for it in my 1964 edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary, and it wasn’t to be found. Nevertheless, the concept of presentism has been around for as long as historians have written their histories and made moral assessments of past events. Allow me to offer a working definition for our purposes this morning. Presentism is when you judge everyone in the past by the standards of the present; presuming that we possess a higher morality and would never have done those wrong things they did had we lived way back then. C. S. Lewis described it as ‘Chronological Snobbery’.

Here’s a quintessential example of presentism. Across human history, in almost every country that has ever existed, slavery has been the norm, not the exception.

A person might say, “Oh, if I had lived back in early American history, I would never have gone along with slavery. I would have fought against it.” Are you so sure? You might very well have gone along with it, and I’ll prove it – for at least some people today (and I’m not referring to our people here at Shema).

Those today who, in spite of ultrasound and other scientific evidence, still advocate for abortion and use the argument that a baby in the womb “…is just a clump of cells; not viable yet; not a human being…,” are using the exact rationale slave owners in Great Britain and early America used. They argued that Black people were “not quite human,” as their rationale for enslaving them and abusing them. So if you’re going to be honest with yourself (which is always a good idea) maybe you’re not so different; you’re not so exceptional. If there is one thing more tragic than mankind’s propensity to do evil, it is our bizarre ability to rationalize it. So you see, presentism (which is a form of pride) is nearer to us than we’d like to admit.

This morning, which is Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Repentance which falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I’m going to share with you three biblical examples of people having had the entirely wrong read on an individual and a situation, and how consequential their misreading was. We look back on these three men and presume we would never have made the same mistake. But then there’s a fourth individual, and (collectively speaking) we have ALL made the same mistake where He is concerned. But I fear that we haven’t even learned from history, and I am hoping that Adonai will grant us the grace and the humility to admit where we’ve been wrong, and genuinely repent.

This morning my hope is that what I have to say will communicate well beyond the membership of Congregation Shema Yisrael, but to the broader Jewish community here in Metro Detroit, and if God wills, perhaps much farther than that.

The three men to whom I refer are Joseph, Moses, and King David.

I. Consider Joseph

Hated and rejected by his own brothers

(“You think you’ll rule over us? Ha!”)

Think about this: Joseph’s own brothers resented him for being the favorite of their father. At one point, after describing one of his God-given dreams to them, where their sheaves of grain bowed down to his sheaf, they said, “You think you’re going to rule over us? That’ll be the day!” And after that, they hated him, and eventually plotted to sell him – their brother – as a slave to a nomadic band of Ishmaelites. Joseph wound up in Egypt. Falsely accused and imprisoned there, lo and behold, God orchestrated Joseph’s rise from the prison to the palace of Pharaoh in a single day. And eventually his brothers, coming to Egypt to buy grain during the great famine, did bow down to him!

Oh, but hindsight is 20/20. Now Joseph is revered as the one whose wisdom, insight and mercy saved the Jewish people from certain starvation. The fact of the matter is that Joseph’s own brothers had a completely wrong appraisal of him!

You might say to yourself, “Hey, I wouldn’t have treated Joseph the way his brothers did.” Are you sure about that? Can you honestly say you’ve never been jealous of somebody else being favored or achieving greater success or having things you wish you had? Think again. If you or I had been one of his brothers, we almost certainly would have resented him and gone along with the plot against him. And, like his cynical brothers who, when reality set in, discovered just how wrong they were, we would also have found ourselves at Joseph’s mercy, and bowing down in fear, and humbling ourselves. But precisely because Joseph was forgiving and gracious, we would have been treated kindly.

But we’re not done yet.

II. Consider Moses

Resented & rejected by his own (incl. Korah, Dathan, Abiram, Aaron & Miriam)

(“Who made you such a big shot? You think you’ll rule over us?”)

Think about this: Moses’ own people Israel frequently treated him with contempt. Once, while still in Egypt, when two Israelis were fighting and he tried to make peace between them, one of them said, “Who made you a ruler or judge over us?” and accused him of murder. When Moses went before Pharaoh – as God told him to – demanding he let us go, Pharaoh refused, and doubled our workload. Instead of rightly assessing the situation, our people blamed Moses!

Moses courageously interposed himself between Adonai and Israel when the Lord thought to destroy us for our disloyalty and debauchery. Moses even declined God’s offer to start over with him and create from him a whole new people. He offered his own soul in place of ours, so that Adonai might spare us. And yet, for all of that, even after it was obvious that Moses was God’s man to lead the nation, on multiple occasions our people maliciously accused him of incompetence, malevolence, and were ready to kill him and return to Egypt. Even his own brother Aaron and sister Miriam grumbled against him.

Oh, but hindsight is 20/20. Now Moses is revered by the Jewish community as our great teacher and the one through whom God led us out of Egypt, and gave us the Torah. The fact of the matter is that we, Moses’ own people, had a completely wrong appraisal of him. It’s too bad so few people even bother to read that Torah!

You might say to yourself, “Hey, I wouldn’t have treated Moses the way that generation of Israel did.” Are you sure about that? Can you honestly say you’ve never grumbled or complained about someone in authority, or shifted the blame to someone else when things didn’t go right, or thought you were more fit to lead than the person doing the leading? Think again. If you or I had been part of that generation of Israel in the wilderness, almost certainly we would have complained and wrongly accused Moses as so many others of our people did. And, like that unbelieving and selfish generation, we would have only realized in retrospect how wrong we were, and what a humble and godly leader Moses was; who despite the hostility directed at him by so many people and on numerous occasions, selflessly led our people, and faithfully transmitted God’s word to us.

And we’re still not done.

III. Consider David

Disdained by his own brothers / later despised by his son Absalom and Shimei

(“Who do you think you are, ‘shepherd boy’!” / “Good riddance, usurper!”)

Think about this: David’s own brothers held him in low esteem. He was, after all, the youngest of them. He was given the lowliest task – that of tending his father’s sheep. But do you recall how his father Jesse sent David to bring food supplies to his brothers while they were encamped against the Philistines? And when Goliath, the enormous Philistine champion, challenged our army and blasphemed the God of Israel, do you recall that David was upset that not a single Israeli soldier had the courage to face him? And when he inquired about it, his oldest brother, Eliav, said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your insolence and the wickedness of your heart…”

Just a few minutes later, David stood over the body of the Philistine champion he had killed with a sling and a stone. Eliav had certainly underestimated his little brother. I’m sure he regretted his words. Years later, when David became Israel’s king, his brothers, who once disdained him, would bow before him. Yet there is nothing in Scripture that suggests David ever held any grudge against them. David wasn’t by any means perfect, but he was a good and godly and compassionate man. His brothers had a completely wrong appraisal of him; as did even the prophet Samuel, who initially presumed it had to be one of the older, stronger brothers that God was intending to make the King of Israel.

Years later, David’s own son Absalom turned violently against him, assembling a faction, attempting a coup d’etat, and declaring war on his father. In his arrogance, Absalom underestimated his father’s power, and the fierce loyalty of those who still stood with him. He would pay for that with his life.

Rather than face his own son in battle, and so as not to risk endangering innocent lives should the fighting take place in Jerusalem, David chose to flee. Along the way a man named Shimei from Saul’s tribe – Benjamin – came out and hurled insults and profanities… and rocks, at David and those who were with him. He accused David of being a man of bloodshed and unworthy to lead the nation. Shimei probably felt that Israel’s kings should only come from the tribe of Benjamin. Nevertheless, in David’s humiliating departure from Jerusalem, Shimei added insult to injury. He was sure that was that last they were ever going to see of David. “Goodbye and good riddance!” Boy, was he wrong!

David’s army defeated Abaslom’s army, Absalom was put to death by Joab (David’s chief officer), and eventually David would return to Jerusalem in all his power and glory. While David was still on his way back, Shimei ran out to him and literally threw himself at David’s feet, begging for mercy. David granted him mercy at that time.

Oh, but hindsight is 20/20. Now Jewish people remember David as the great king leading Israel into its Golden Age. But the fact of the matter is that his own brothers, his son Absalom, and this guy Shimei, all had a completely wrong appraisal of David – both in his days as a shepherd boy, and in his days as king, reigning on the throne of Israel.

You might say to yourself, “I wouldn’t have looked down on David just because he was a boy tending sheep, and I would never have turned against him like Absalom did, or cast insults at him like Shimei. I would have been completely loyal to David!” Are you sure about that? Can you honestly say you’ve never had conflicts of interest, in a situation calling for loyalty? Can you say you’ve never chosen self-interest over principle? Can you say you’ve never distanced yourself from someone who was being insulted or ridiculed (maybe even someone who thought you were their friend) because you didn’t want to be insulted or ridiculed along with them? Think again. If you or I had lived in the time of David, we probably wouldn’t have cursed him like Shimei did, but I’m not so sure we would have openly declared our loyalty to him and suffered the same indignities he did during that terrible conflict with Absalom. More likely we would have played it safe and stayed home that day, rather than risk ending up on the losing side.

As we’ve seen, one of the common experiences of Joseph, Moses, and David was that, at various times, people around them had a wrong appraisal of who they were, grossly underestimating how important they would be in the plan of God, and only in hindsight realizing how consequential that mistake was. In fact, biblical history is replete with examples of people getting the wrong read on a situation, and treating with contempt people God Himself appointed to help us. Presentism (pride) would have us say, “Those people should have known better! I would have done things differently.” Are you sure about that?

Listen to what Yeshua – Jesus the Messiah said to a group of Jewish scholars: “Woe to you teachers of the Torah and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build elaborate tombs for the prophets your ancestors murdered, and decorate the monuments of the godly ones they destroyed. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have participated with them in killing the prophets.’ But even in saying that, you fully admit that you are, in fact, the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started” (Matthew 23:29-32).

And you know what? They did! The Jewish religious leaders of Yeshua’s day, fearful of losing their position of authority, conspired together to have the very One of whom those prophets had prophesied put to death. They really did finish what their ancestors started. This despite the fact that (in the words of Isaiah) He had done no wrong, nor deceived anyone… but in fact taught the most sublime truths ever heard on this Earth. Jesus went around healing the sick, opening blind eyes, restoring lame legs and deaf ears, encouraging the faint-hearted, providing food for the hungry, teaching the oracles of God, and, yes, confronting religious hypocrisy and oppression. Yeshua was everything you could ever want in the Messiah. Gentle with the hurting; fierce with the hypocrites.

And yet, my Jewish people are reluctant to even open the pages of the New Covenant to see all of this for themselves. Reluctant even to read the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the other Jewish prophets who spoke of the coming Messiah. How disheartening that we, who are supposedly broad-minded are unwilling to examine the evidence, and we, who are supposedly independent thinkers, oh so studiously avoid that forbidden subject, and cower under the warnings put upon us by today’s Jewish religious leaders.

T’shuvah (repentance) would have us say, “I am a veritable grab-bag of selfishness, short-sightedness, and folly. Lord, what can I say? What can I do? What will true repentance require of me?

Let me suggest what T’shuvah in 5783 consists of for my Jewish people. First of all, here’s what it isn’t… It isn’t going through the motions of showing up at High Holiday services and reciting long prayers. It isn’t giving large donations to charities or endowments to schools and causes. It isn’t abstaining from food on Yom Kippur, and wearing cloth shoes instead of leather. My contention is that T’shuvah for us today, right now, consists of these four things:

  1. Stop blindly following the majority. That isn’t loyalty – it’s cowardice.
  1. Be intellectually and emotionally mature enough to examine the evidence, both in the Jewish Scriptures and the Gospel accounts of Yeshua’s life, to see for yourself whether He is who He claimed to be – the Messiah and Redeemer.

We as Jews have been told from our earliest childhood that Jesus isn’t for us. He’s for them… Gentiles. We’ve been so effectively indoctrinated that it’s become a mantra for us: “I’m Jewish, and Jews don’t believe in Jesus.” No discussion allowed. No opportunity to read the Scriptures and consider the evidence for ourselves. We who are so quick to say we don’t need a ‘middleman’ look to the rabbis as middlemen, to tell us what to believe… in reality, who NOT to believe in.

Proverbs 18 says, The first to present his case in court seems right… until the cross-examination begins. What would happen to a juror in a court case who only would come into the court to hear the prosecution’s side, but refused to come back in to hear the defense’s case? He would be kicked off that jury, and rightfully so. He is unfit to render a legitimate verdict. If this is significant in a legal proceeding, how much more when it is a matter of the state of your eternal soul?

  1. When you discover that you were wrong – that we were all wrong about Him, be willing to admit it… openly. It’s a bigger man who can admit his errors than the man who digs in his heels. You know, insecurity often masquerades as anger.
  1. Having admitted you were wrong, now do the right thing going forward, and transfer your loyalty and love to Yeshua. And don’t concern yourself about people’s opinions of you. Think of it as surrendering, but in a wonderful way, and to Someone who welcomes you with open arms. And tell everyone around you what great things He has done for you!

Now let me speak directly to you, my Shema family. I know you share my heart in these matters, and that you will pray with me that more and more Jewish people, and people from all the nations, will awaken to their need, search the Scriptures, and come to know Yeshua.

But we have our own areas of need for T’shuvah.

We’ve grown complacent. Most of us – myself included – are not making anywhere near sufficient efforts to advance the Good News to those around us. We are simply not being the zealous evangelists for Yeshua that we should be. We have far too much fear of what people will think of us, and too little fear of God.

Instead of asking people directly whether they understand what the Gospel is, or who they think Yeshua is, or warning them about the Judgement-To-Come, we settle for dropping little hints here and there, hoping they’ll pursue it.

Brothers and sisters, we need T’shuvah. And I’m convinced that what T’shuvah entails for us is returning to our first love. Do you remember those early days when you first came to know Yeshua, how you couldn’t keep quiet about Him – how you had to tell everyone you know how wonderful He is? They couldn’t shut you up! We need to return to our first love, to where we are so in awe and wonder of Messiah that we can’t help but shout it out.

This isn’t a guilt trip. Just a call to us, and a prayer to God, that He would rekindle in us that love and zeal for His Son, so that we will deeply desire and take joy in doing His will, both in evangelism and in serving His people.

Lord, please hear our prayer.