THE SHEMA (Part 2)

The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt that I might be your God. I am the Lord your God! [Numbers 15:40-41 (NLT)]

great blue heronIn its entirety, the Shema consists of three sections: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–2, and Numbers 15:37–41. The second paragraph of the Shema repeats the first one’s commands regarding the binding of God’s words to hands and forehead, writing them on the doorways and gates, teaching them to the children, and talking about them throughout the day. The primary theme of this paragraph, however, is that the promised land and the people’s enjoyment of it depended on their faithfulness to God. As long as they loved God and served Him with heart and soul, the people and land would be blessed but, if they turned aside to serve other gods, God’s wrath would result and things would not go well for the people or their land. In this warning, that is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament, we see the fundamental Jewish belief that reward and punishment are based on the fulfillment of God’s commandments.

The third section of the Shema required the wearing of tassels or fringes (tzitzit) on the hems of clothing. Like the tefillin and mezuzot commanded in the first two sections, the fringes were a visual reminder to obey the commandments and “be holy to your God.” The final command of this last section was to remember the Exodus and that it was the Lord who brought them out of Egypt.

It was a Biblical commandment to recite the Shema twice a day. Morning and night, the Israelites were to acknowledge the one God, who they were to love with heart, soul, and strength, and whose commandments they were to keep. Twice a day, they were reminded to impress God’s word on the next generation and, twice a day, they repeated God’s warning that things would not go well if they abandoned Him or turned to other gods. So, what went wrong? Did the Israelites put so much emphasis on performing rituals—repeating these words twice a day, putting on their tefillin, measuring the length of their tzitzit, and placing their mezuzot—that they forgot the rituals’ meanings? Did they let rituals replace loving God with their heart, soul, and strength? Were they so intent on doing the right thing that they forgot to be the right people? Did they start trusting in themselves rather than God?

God gave the Israelites a simple command—love the Lord alone, with heart, soul, and strength—and He gave them an equally simple choice—a blessing or a curse. He makes the same offer to us. The blessing, however, isn’t a reward; it’s a result. When we revere God, love Him fully, and put His word into practice, life will go well for us because God’s way is the right way and the right way is blessed. Like the blessing, the curse is the result of our choice and is found in the life we choose. A life lived without God is a cursed one. Even with tefillin on their arms and heads, mezuzot on their doorposts, tassels on their hems, and the continued repetition of the Shema’s words, the Israelites forgot the Lord and went their own way; let us not make the same mistake.

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life. [Deuteronomy 30:19-20 (NLT)]

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THE SANHEDRIN (Who’s Who – 4)

The chief priests, and all the Sanhedrin, looked for evidence for a capital charge against Jesus, but they didn’t find any. Several people invented fictitious charges against him, but their evidence didn’t agree. Then some stood up with this fabricated charge: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple, which human hands have made, and in three days I’ll build another, made without human hands.’” But even so their evidence didn’t agree. [Mark 14:55-59 (NTE)]

The Great Sanhedrin was the Supreme council (high court) of the Jews. Formed around 200 BC and modeled after the 70 elders who helped Moses in governing the Israelites, its 71 members consisted of scribes, priests, and elders with the high priest acting as its presiding officer. Along with religious and ritualistic Temple matters, the Sanhedrin addressed secular criminal matters, proceedings in connection with the discovery of a corpse, trials of adulterous wives, tithes, the preparation of Torah Scrolls, and drew up the calendar. As long as the Sanhedrin maintained public order and the Jews kept paying their taxes to Rome, the Romans were content to leave most of the nation’s judicial matters to them. While the Sanhedrin were supposed to administer justice, in the case of Jesus, they were anything but just; in fact, they sought perjured testimony.

The Sanhedrin’s members had to be of pure Israelite descent. The leading Jews of Jerusalem, they probably were appointed to the position. In the New Testament, the Sanhedrin is also referred to as the “council,” the “chief priests and elders,” the “chief priests, elders, and scribes,” or simply as the “chief priests.” When Judas went to the “chief priests” and offered to betray Jesus, he went to the Sanhedrin. During Jesus’ first trial, the Sanhedrin charged Him with blasphemy but changed the charge to treason when they brought Him to Pilate. It was the Sanhedrin who encouraged the crowd to call for Barabbas to be freed rather than Jesus and they were the ones who bribed the soldiers to say that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb.

While the majority of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, its scribes were Pharisees and usually the most educated men in the community. Scribes wrote up legal documents, recorded deeds, acted as ancient notary publics and court recorders, and carefully made copies of the Torah. Men of influence, they were well respected and, as professional scholars, were expert teachers and interpreters of Mosaic law.

“Elders” was a general term describing the older leaders of the community. Aristocrats with Sadducee learnings, they probably were priests or lay readers. The priests of the Sanhedrin were high-ranking, wealthy, influential Sadducees. Descending from the tribe of Levi, they served in the Temple and ensured that Temple service was carried out correctly. Originally, the Sanhedrin had the right to appoint or confirm the high priest (who was supposed to be a descendant of Aaron) and the office was a life-long position. By the time of the Herods, however, civil authorities appointed the high priests based on their political and religious sentiments and the position was not permanent. Herod the Great, for example appointed six different high priests during his reign. Because this position should have been life-long, even though Annas was ousted by the Romans in 15 AD, many Jews still considered him the high priest, which is why Jesus was first taken to Annas following His arrest. After this pre-trial hearing, Jesus was then taken to Caiaphas (Annas’ son-in-law), a Sadducee who was the high priest.

For the Sanhedrin, Lazarus’ resurrection was the last straw—a miracle that could not be denied. Thinking that Jesus’ many miraculous deeds would cause everyone to believe He was the Messiah and lead to their wanting to make Him king, they were fearful that an insurrection would follow. They reasoned that, if Jesus were allowed to continue His preaching, the Romans would destroy the Temple, nation, and their secure positions and aristocratic lifestyle (which they eventually did in the Great Revolt of 66-70 AD). In spite of their religious differences, the members of the Sanhedrin agreed that Jesus had to be stopped.

It was the high priest Caiaphas who suggested that, by eliminating Jesus, they would save the nation from Rome’s reprisal. Little did the priest know that his words were prophetic and he was playing right into God’s hand. Yes, one man, Jesus, had to die for the people but he was mistaken in thinking Jesus had to die to save the Jews from the Romans. That one man, Jesus,  had to die to save all mankind from sin and death.

“You haven’t worked it out! This is what’s best for you: let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out.” He [Caiaphas] didn’t say this of his own accord. Since he was high priest that year, it was a prophecy. It meant that Jesus would die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but to gather into one the scattered children of God. [John 11:5-52 (NTE)]

It was Caiaphas who had given advice to the Judaeans that the best thing would be for one man to die for the people. [John 18:14 (NTE)]

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THE UNDERCOVER BOSS

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges, he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. [Philippians 2:5-8 (NLT)]

swamp lilyEvery employee wants to have a good boss. Unfortunately, the CEOs of some large firms can be out-of-touch with many of their employees; the executive suite is a world away from the mail room or warehouse. While they may understand the bottom line, many CEOs have no idea how their businesses function on a day-to-day basis. In its 10th season, Undercover Boss is a television show in which high-ranking executives disguise themselves, assume an alias and cover story, and then work undercover in their own companies. Taking such jobs as cashier, line cook, delivery person, or maintenance man, the bosses learn what it is like for the rank and file in their large corporations. Later, they reveal their identities to the workers with whom they interacted during the week. Their experience usually results in better training and improved working conditions for the employees and a change of attitude for the executives. Reality TV, however, is a carefully planned and edited version of events and I wonder if that one week really makes a lasting impact on the bosses.

As the first undercover boss, Jesus didn’t give up the executive suite for the stock room; He gave up His heavenly home to live as a man on earth. He didn’t relinquish the privileges of divinity for just a week but for thirty-three years. He willingly lived with all of humanity’s limitations and the aches, pains, indignities and death that come with flesh and blood. Fully experiencing human emotions, He loved and toiled, taught and learned, laughed and cried, rejoiced and grieved. He was tempted, challenged, demeaned, dishonored, doubted, denied, accused, betrayed, tortured, and executed.

Glassdoor, a site that allows employees to anonymously rank companies, also rates top CEOs based on their employees’ evaluations. The qualities in a CEO most valued by employees appear to be accessibility, dedication, a well-defined and clearly communicated vision for the business, and guidance as to how employees can achieve those goals. Because of the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, employees responding to 2020’s survey added the importance of having bosses who prioritize their employees’ welfare and listen to their needs.

Although Mark Aslett of Mercury Systems (an aerospace and defense company) won top CEO honors with a 95% approval rating in 2020, I think we all agree that God gets a 100% every year! Readily accessible, we can call on Him anytime and His door is open to even the lowliest of sinners. Scripture testifies to His dedication—for thousands of years, He’s been working toward filling the earth with the glory of the Lord. He never gave up on the Israelites and He hasn’t given up on us. He clearly stated what He expects of us—to glorify Him by living our lives in relationship with and faithful service to Him. Moreover, the Bible is better than any employee handbook in telling us how to achieve His goal. Evidence that God puts our welfare above His own in found in Jesus willingly going to the cross to save us! Moreover, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, He didn’t leave us floundering around on our own—instead of better training or nicer working conditions, He gave us the Holy Spirit who teaches, guides, empowers, strengthens, comforts, corrects and even intercedes for us!

I doubt that we’ll ever see JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon take on the role of bank teller or Jeff Bezos packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, but that was God Himself who became a poor working man from a little Galilean village just for us! He was, indeed, the first (and best) undercover boss!

God knows what each one of us is dealing with. He knows our pressures. He knows our conflicts. And He has made a provision for each and every one of them. That provision is Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us and empowering us to respond rightly. [Kay Arthur]

But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. [John 14:26 (NLT)]

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HE HAS HIS PURPOSE

“Why doesn’t the Almighty bring the wicked to judgment? Why must the godly wait for him in vain? … Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? … You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” [Job 24:1,38:1-2,40:2b (NLT)]

Like Job, Richard Wurmbrand suffered unspeakably horrific circumstances and certainly had reason to ponder God’s purpose in his troubles. An evangelical minister in Romania, he endured more than eight years of Communist imprisonment and torture before being released. He immediately returned to his underground church ministry, was re-arrested, and sentenced to another 25 years in prison. After six more years of imprisonment, Wurmbrand was freed under an amnesty program and again returned to his ministry. When the Communist regime accepted a $10,000 ransom for him, Wurmbrand left his homeland and became a voice for persecuted Christians. When testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in 1966, he stripped to the waist to show the 18 deep scars that covered his torso—undeniable evidence of the brutal torture he and others endured at the hands of their Communist captors.

In his 100 Prison Meditations, Wurmbrand, who knew suffering first-hand, tells a story about Moses, who was meditating near a well. When a traveler stopped to drink from the well, the man failed to notice his purse fall onto the ground. After his departure, a second man came along. Spotting the purse, he picked it up, and went on his way. Later, a third wayfarer arrived who, after drinking from the well, took a nap in the shade.

When the first man discovered his purse was missing, he returned to get it at the well. Upon seeing the sleeping man, he woke him and demanded his money. When the third man pled his innocence, the first man became furious and killed him.

Speaking to God, Moses explained that it was times like that, when evil and injustice seemed to reign, that caused men not to believe in the Almighty. “Why,” he asked, “should the first man, who merely lost his purse, become a murderer?  Why should the second man get a purse full of gold without having worked for it? And why should the third completely innocent man be slain?”

God responded that once, and only once, He would give an explanation for all that happened. God explained that the first man was the son of a thief and the purse he lost was filled with gold stolen from the father of the second man. By taking the purse, the second man only took what was rightfully his. The third man, while innocent of stealing the purse, was a murderer who’d gotten away with his crime and had finally received the punishment he deserved. God finished His explanation by saying, “In the future, believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.”

For those of us who’ve never endured the misfortunes of Job or Wurmbrand, it’s easy to say that all things work for good until, of course, the things that happen are terrible! Nevertheless, Wurmbrand’s story came from a man who suffered in a horrific way because of his faith and knew first-hand how unfair and painful life can be. He also knew that all things are not good—there is nothing good about torture, oppression, slave labor camps or persecution. Nevertheless, Wurmbrand also knew that God, in His own time and own way, can take bad things and mix them together in such a way that they bring about something better—a better that is not dependent upon man’s understanding.

Rather than ask why, as did Job, let us believe in a God who loves us, who is at large and in charge, who has His reasons for all that happens, and who will achieve His purpose. “And what is that purpose?” we ask. Pastor Adrian Rogers answers, “To make us like Jesus. To be conformed to the image of His Son. There is no higher good than to be like the Lord Jesus Christ.”

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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KEYSTONES – EARTH DAY (April 22)

God spoke: “Earth, generate life! Every sort and kind: cattle and reptiles and wild animals—all kinds.” And there it was: wild animals of every kind, cattle of all kinds, every sort of reptile and bug. God saw that it was good. [Genesis 1:24-25 (MSG)]

When the grands visit, we usually take them to a nearby preserve where we walk the boardwalk and hope to catch sight of one of the more than 150 gopher tortoises living there. We watch them lumber through the sand, munch on prickly pear cactus, or sun on the apron of their burrows.

The gopher tortoise is what’s called a “keystone species,” meaning it plays a unique and crucial role in holding together a habitat. A keystone species can be a plant, animal, fungi, or even bacteria. It isn’t necessarily the largest or most plentiful species in an ecosystem but, if it were to disappear, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether.

Gopher tortoises are considered keystones because they are ecosystem engineers capable of digging tunnels forty feet long and ten feet deep. Their burrows provide refuge for some 350 to 400 other species, including snakes, rodents, armadillos, rabbits, lizards, worms, spiders and bugs. Some animals use the burrows as homes and others hide there from predators. In the case of fire, animals can escape the blaze in the deep tunnels.

Although these prehistoric looking creatures have lived on the earth millions of years, their survival is now endangered by predators, herbicides, and habitat destruction (better known as “progress”). Their population has declined by 80% in the last century and the gopher tortoise’s extinction is a real possibility. Sadly, its disappearance would lead to the disappearance of those other species that share its habitat. The gopher tortoise carries more than a carapace on his back—he carries the future of his ecosystem!

Other keystone species include sea otters, mangroves, prairie dogs, wolves, salmon, saguaro cactus, and bees. Not all are ecosystem engineers like the gopher tortoise but each is essential to its specific habitat and fulfills a critical ecological role that no other species can accomplish. It’s amazing how intricate God’s creation is and how interdependent various species are. Every living thing seems to uniquely mesh with others, much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When a piece goes missing, however, the puzzle ceases to come together as it should.

Although mankind clearly has a huge impact on the environment, we’re not a keystone species. In fact, some scientists argue that, if we were to disappear, the environment would improve! With the cessation of so many human activities because of COVID lockdowns, greenhouse gas emissions reduced, water quality improved, noise pollution lessened, air quality improved, and nature began healing. The break, however, was short-lived and now that many restrictions have been lifted, pollution has returned to pre-pandemic levels in most areas.

After God created the world and everything in it, He found it all to be good. He then gave mankind the responsibility for His beautiful creation. I wonder if He is as pleased with the state of our world today as he was when He turned its care over to us. Let us remember that each one of God’s creatures (whether bee, gopher tortoise, or mangrove) is His handiwork and precious to Him. Today (and everyday), let us consider what we can do to keep His creation functioning as He meant it to do!

Father of all, Creator and ruler of the universe, You entrusted your world to us as a gift. Help us to care for it and all people, that we may live in right relationship—with You, with ourselves, with one another, and with creation. [From the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops]

God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth.” God created human beings; he created them godlike, Reflecting God’s nature. He created them male and female. God blessed them: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth.” [Genesis 1:26-28 (MSG)]

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COMPLICATING IT (Part 2)

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes—the Jew first and also the Gentile. This Good News tells us how God makes us right in his sight. This is accomplished from start to finish by faith. As the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” [Romans 1:16-17 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronAmong the 613 mitzvot were laws about not adding to or detracting from the commandments. Unfortunately, man’s need for rules and regulations must be ingrained. Finding the original 613 laws an insufficient guide to Jewish life, the religious leaders stayed busy for the next several centuries clarifying the law by creating even more laws about how to keep the initial ones and then determining the proper way to atone for every infraction.

For example, finding the simple prohibition of work on the Sabbath too general, thirty-nine categories of work were created which led to sub-categories and then more laws about handling any of the implements used in such work. Among the work subcategories were sewing two stitches and hammering which meant handling needles or hammers on the Sabbath also was prohibited. There were, however, exceptions to the rules. If necessary, you could move a needle to open your prayer book and, if you had nothing else, a hammer could be used to crack nuts!

The laws in Leviticus said a priest with a physical defect could not serve in the sanctuary but, since a “defect” was not explicitly defined, 140 disqualifying physical blemishes were categorized that covered everything from head to toe (and even body odor). Even the size of a disqualifying mole was specified (but, if a mole had any hair, it was prohibited regardless of  size).

True to form, when an expert in religious law spoke with Jesus about the law of loving his neighbor, he wanted to define who his neighbor might be. While a fellow Jew surely would be a neighbor, what about a convert, an Edomite or an Egyptian? Would Moabites and Ammonites (who were barred from citizenship) be considered neighbors? And what about those hated Samaritans?

Interpreting those 615 laws became as difficult as understanding today’s complicated tax code. Eventually, it became more about doing a deed than following a creed—more about works than worship—rules than relationship—laws than love—penalties rather than penitence—and thinking it possible to save oneself rather than be saved.  Jesus brought a covenant that fulfilled the true intent and purpose of the law—one in which our salvation rests solely with God by grace through faith. There’s a lot we can do for ourselves but one thing we can’t do is to save ourselves by following rules. Salvation is God’s business; ours is getting saved, not by laws but by faith.

For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. [Romans 10:4 (NLT)]

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