Sunday, December 21, 2008

Blessed In Celebrations

“The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, Who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

This year, our President and his First Lady caused a bit of a stir in the Jewish community when they sent an invitation to a White House Hanukkah celebration on their Christmas stationery. Human inattention or divine intervention? Well, after all, 2008 is a year when Hanukkah and Christmas coincide on the calendar.

Here on Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn, we see the synergy every year. The street decorations include lighted Hanukkah menorahs nested in red and green garlands attended by six-point snowflakes. Looking up at our center’s second-story windows, one can see electric menorah lights casting a soft orange glow into the night. Inside are the poinsettias and the staging for the Christmas programs, alongside more menorahs and Jewish artifacts. We have Bibles and Gospel tracts here, too. Hopeless eclecticism or direct evangelism?

One of the issues of interest to some believers is the actual date of the birth of Jesus, His first tabernacling among us. Much of Christendom celebrates His arrival on December 25, also the date of an ancient Roman holiday. Russians save the celebration for early January, although even in atheism almost everybody decorated a tree for the New Year. Meanwhile, based on certain facts about John the Baptist’s chronology, Messianic believers are able to calculate the likelihood of Jesus being born during the Feast Of Tabernacles in the fall. Hanukkah, celebrated by Jesus Himself in John 10:22-23, always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month Kislev, its lunar basis roaming around on the solar calendar.

The fact of His first coming is the most important issue during this season, but this is a year in which all of the symbolic and prophetic strands intersect with a certain brightness that alerts us to the nearness of His second coming. This year, the interweaving of Hanukkah and Christmas causes us to look more closely, to sort out the facts.

The original Hanukkah is noted in the apocryphal book 2 Maccabees 10:5-8 in a text written more than 2000 years ago. After the priestly Maccabee family led a successful revolution against an evil foreign ruler, they purified the defiled temple in Jerusalem and then began specifically on 25 Kislev to belatedly celebrate the Feast Of Booths (Tabernacles), or Sukkot. What a celebration of victory, freedom and purity! Legend added to the attraction that remains even to this day. For the eight days of the late Sukkot observance, holy oil was needed to light the temple menorah. The Jews had only enough oil for one day, but God miraculously kept the lamps burning for all eight days!

Jesus Himself remembered these events, but interestingly the prophetic framework was foretold by Daniel hundreds of years before. In the 11th chapter of Daniel’s divine record, he writes of a time when the Beautiful Land would be ruled by a contemptible person who would eventually desecrate the temple, abolish the sacrifices and set up an abomination that caused desolation. Some violators of the Covenant would be corrupted, but:

“…The people who know their God will firmly resist him. Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will come at the appointed time.” (Daniel 11:32b-35)

One partial fulfillment indeed happened during the time of the Maccabees and the first Hanukkah, when they defeated the evil Greek-Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes. But it is also understood by many that this evil ruler was himself symbolic of the greater despot to come – the antichrist. Jesus referred back to Daniel’s prophecy when explaining what would happen at the end of the age. He provided details in His Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, and in His Revelation to John.

But here we are today. We remember the first Hanukkah which was the symbolic Feast Of Tabernacles celebrating the defeat of the symbolic antichrist and the restoration of God’s symbolic tabernacle. We also remember the first Christmas which was the real first tabernacling of the real Christ Who then provided access to the real tabernacle in Heaven by His Own sacrifice. And, with this year’s confluence of these holidays and so many other factors in the world, we anticipate the complete fulfillment of all things in Him, including the utter defeat of the antichrist along with his benefactor and henchmen and ultimately the glory of His final tabernacling:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” (Revelation 21:3-4)

This week, during Hanukkah and Christmas, we can resolve to let prophetic truth shine forth in our hearts and lives. Even as we contemplate and anticipate the great works of God to destroy evil and deliver His people forever unto purest worship in the Holy City, we can ask Him to fulfill this in us today:

“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blessed In Trials

“At that time His voice shook the earth, but now He has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:26-27)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live through the events of Revelation? What would you understand? How would you react? Here in long-blessed America, we as a nation have not often suffered wave after wave of unspeakable calamities. Not only our resiliency but also our capacity for repentance remain unmeasured.

Any reasonably observant person, whether a believer or not, has to admit that massive extraordinary events – as they say, of epic or Biblical proportions – are now happening in our nation and world. Each day brings another stunning financial, political or moral scandal, on top of natural and personal devastations of various sorts. I believe these are precursors of things to come, tremors before the tribulation.

They continue. Two more men became international spectacles this week because of their immense personal guilt and their far-reaching betrayals of others. One man is the governor of a major state, arrested at his home early Wednesday morning for unimaginable political corruption that shocked even the desensitized. Before and after, he has remained defiant and arrogant. The other man is a Wall Street legend, arrested at his home early Thursday morning for unparalleled financial fraud that snared even the elite. Before and after, he has confessed everything in detail.

In the midst of divine shaking and revealing, even on an international scale, God wants one small thing. He wants the heart of a person who will love and trust and follow Him, one who humbly accepts by faith His gift of the Redeemer Who alone can pay for sin. So much, for so little? Yes, the undeserving sinner great or small is the object of His love quest, that He might bless you with forgiveness and adoption as His child, a cherished heir of His entire kingdom.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Blessed In The Branch

“And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” (Matthew 2:23)

Every Saturday morning, we gather at our Brighton location for a Russian Messianic Center meeting with several immigrants who are eager to search the Scriptures and deepen their relationship with Jesus – Yeshua in Hebrew. We are not bound legalistically to a particular day, but understand Saturday’s value for Russian Jews and people drawn to the Jewish roots of our Christian faith. At these Shabbat services, we sing and pray in Hebrew and Russian (and sometimes English), we explore Hebraic insights, we consider life-changing passages, we open doctrinal and prophetic truths as we study complete books of the Bible, we celebrate Biblical and traditional holy days and the Lord’s Supper, we baptize new believers, we share testimonies, we pray for one another and we break bread together.

One verse in passing caught my attention yesterday, and I felt compelled to explore it later in more detail. Usually when this happens, I realize that God wants to illuminate something and to lead me in a particular way. So I pray and consider and search, and trust Him to show me His purpose and next steps. And, sooner or later, He makes things clear!

Knowing a tiny little bit of Hebrew, armed with concordances and dictionaries, I found a wonderful thing. The name Nazareth in Hebrew looks like this נצרת and its vital root is netzer נצר meaning branch or shoot. The exact Hebrew word נצר is used a few times in the Old Testament, most notably here in Isaiah 11:1:

“A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch נצר will bear fruit.”

There are other Hebrew words for branch or shoot, including the word used in the beginning of this passage. The Holy Spirit inspired each word for His purposes, which He teaches as He chooses. Here in this marvelous description of the coming Messiah, a key element is that He would be a Branch נצר bearing fruit. Somehow this One from David’s father Jesse of Bethlehem would be a Netzer, just a suffix away from a Nazarene.

Both of my modern Hebrew dictionaries, which include definitions for today’s use of the language, define everything related to Jesus, Christ, Christians, Christianity and Christianization with the Netzer נצר root. It might seem like a small thing to be a Netzer נצר (especially One from lowly Nazareth נצרת), but it is rather like a grand prophetic DNA linkage that descends by faith even to us!

“The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord – and He will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what He sees with His eyes, or decide by what He hears with His ears; but with righteousness He will judge the needy, with justice He will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth; with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be His belt and faithfulness the sash around His waist.” (Isaiah 11:2-5)