Friday, June 30, 2023

The Covenant...of Salt?

A batch of my za'atar challah, with
its giant flecks of salt!
Pretty much every Friday morning, I spend a few hours alone in my kitchen, baking golden braids of challah.* 

It all started three years ago, when I was missing my grandparents. I decided to do something tangible that would connect me to them and the foundation of faith they'd instilled in me. This Friday ritual quickly became an anchor in my psyche: a sanctuary to simply take time and to receive it. Shelter from life's noise and haste. A time and place where there is nothing for my mind to do but wonder and wander and pray.

I no longer use a written recipe; it's pretty much muscle memory now. But when I first got started, I used my grandma's instructions as a foundation and then started tweaking it each week. Tweaks based on others' suggestions and my personal preferences. 

Chief among my personal preferences is sweetness. Honey, to be exact. An entire half-cup of it. My grandma's recipe has just three tablespoons of sugar and absolutely zero honey. 

But I love honey. And I love what it does to the Sabbath bread as we celebrate the sweetness of holy rest. On occasion, we even drench the bread in honey for good measure. As I like to say (despite the eyerolls of those around me, like my kiddos): instead of a double-fudge brownie, it's double-honey challah!

Yet, for all the love of sweetness and honey, there's also an age-old tradition to dip challah in something that is decidedly not sweet. You may see people dip the bread in salt on Shabbat. "Tradition" isn't the right word, though, because this practice isn't built on tradition. It's built on covenant

A covenant, you say? A covenant of salt? Yes, exactly.

Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel
to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?  2 Chronicles 13:5 NIV (emphasis mine)

What in the world is a covenant of salt? Well, the first time we hear this phrase is in Leviticus, everyone's favorite book of the whole entire Bible. 

You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant
with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Leviticus 2:13 ESV (emphasis mine)

And then...

Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present
to the LORD I give to you and your sons and daughters
as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt
before the LORD for both you and your offspring.” Numbers 18:19 NIV (emphasis mine)

What is it about salt that ties together King David's throne, Levitical sacrifices, and the priesthood's sustenance? In a way that is covenantal? 

It is, quite simply, that salt preserves

A covenant invoking salt is about permanence. The permanence of David's throne. The permanence of God's mercy through the altar. The permanence of the priesthood. Each of them bridging the gap between God and people in different ways. Because no matter who claimed power in Israel - whether Jerusalem or Babylon or Rome - God remained our true King. No matter how grievous the sin, the altar's blood maintained mercy from generation to generation. And no matter which descendant of Aaron held the high priestly office, he bore the names of all God's people on his shoulders and over his heart as he ministered in the sanctuary. A covenant of salt endures.

Indeed, what could possibly be more enduring than a covenant with the Eternal?

This lovely piece from
Yair Emanuel is one
example of challah boards
that feature a salt well.

And so, when we dip our sabbath bread in a little dish of salt on Friday evenings, we are remembering and celebrating the permanence of God's promises - and the permanence of God's presence - even as the sun quietly slips below the horizon.

And yet. A covenant that depends on fallible people keeping up their end of the bargain is prone to fracture. Prone to decay. Prone to impermanence. We know it about the Israelites and we certainly know it about ourselves.

Of course, God knew this, too. And so the covenant of salt continued to preserve His promises and His presence among us by giving way to a new age. A newer covenant. Where someone else holds up our end of the deal on our behalf, delivering us from our own impermanence, our own decay. That someone that God gave us was Himself, through the incarnation of the Messiah. The Anointed. Yeshua. Jesus.

The once-and-for-all sacrifice, made with eternal blood, covers us always.

The Priest in the order of Melchizedek intercedes without ceasing.

And the Lion of Judah reigns, on the everlasting heavenly throne.

God has kept his covenant of salt with us in ways we could not have imagined. Through such a profoundly magnificent - yet personal - rescue. 

And so the ancient covenant of salt endures without threat of fracture or decay. Upheld by the One greater than death, the One outside of time, the One entirely and perfectly - and eternally - good.

*Challah is pronounced either with a throaty "ch" or just the "h" (hallah); not a "ch" like in 'church' or a hard "k" as in 'choir.' Here's a great explanation/tutorial

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Pentecost: Firstfruits & Cheesecake...

My grandma's mini-cheesecake recipe,
with a crust made from Dewey's Brownie
Crisp Cookies and raspberry preserves. Mmmm
When the sun sets this Thursday evening, many of my Jewish brothers and sisters around the globe will not get ready for bed. Instead, they'll hunker down and spend the whole night reading and studying Torah. Probably sustained by eating all things dairy, like gouda and blintzes.

The reason? It's Shavuot, literally “weeks” - as in the biblical Feast of Weeks. 

Shavuot is one of the three ancient pilgrimage feasts for God’s people. He also called it the Harvest Festival and the Day of Firstfruits. You may know it better as Pentecost. That’s Greek for “fiftieth.”

“From the day after the Sabbath [during Passover]...count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD." Leviticus 23:15-17 NIV (emphasis mine)

Weeks, days, new grain… What, pray tell, does the offering of firstfruits have to do with people studying Scripture all night and eating lactose-laden treats? Well, it has everything to do with the date of the feast. Though, to be precise, there’s actually no given date on the calendar for Pentecost. God simply said to start counting after the Passover Sabbath, and to be back in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day with their firstfruits offering. Hence the “Feast of Weeks” and the “fiftieth day.”

This countdown to fifty from Passover is not arbitrary, nor is it simply a nice round number. The fiftieth day after the original Passover rescue was extraordinary. That was the day when God gave His people the Law at Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and covenant making. 

God may have made personal covenants with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob hundreds of years earlier, but on that day He entered into a covenant with their descendants en masse. The promises He'd made to each of the patriarchs individually now became a covenant with an entire people. A nation in the making.

And along with His covenant promises that day, God began to give them the Ten Commandments and all the laws that flowed from them. Voluminous guidelines that would help them become a real nation. From spiritual to relational, and from legal to medical. Father Abraham’s children were invited to grow into a healthy society, with the Almighty Creator-Redeemer as king.

And that is why Judaism has a longstanding Shavuot/Pentecost tradition of feasting all night on those precious words given to us on that covenantal day. And -  since we love to teach bible lessons with food, and since Scripture is often referred to as spiritual milk - also feasting on delectable dairy dishes. So. Much. Dairy. Cheese blintzes, cheese pancakes and cheesecake. Caprese salad, lasagna and ice cream. Frittatas and pizza and noodle kugel. My sincerest apologies to the lactose-intolerant.

In other words, by studying scripture and eating foods that represent it, we celebrate the covenant God made with us and the Scriptures He gave to us, on that first fiftieth day. 

And, in exchange for God’s words and His word that day, the people gave Him theirs. 

Then all the people responded together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”  Exodus 19:8 NASB

Of course, we know how that turned out. No matter how magnificent the covenant with the Creator was, the people couldn’t keep it.

Of course, neither can we. We make all sorts of promises to stay on the right track. To get back on the right track. To never make a mistake like that again – whatever “that” may be for us. Not a single one of us can “do all that the Lord has spoken.” And that is why we needed a new covenant. Because “the fault [was] not with the covenant, but with the people who did not remain faithful to it.”*

The Israelites in the wilderness knew this was true. They'd fallen into worshipping the golden calf before the stone tablets even made it down the mountain. And God's people in Jesus' day knew it, too. They knew it from the smoke of their endless sacrifices rising from the altar, reminding them that they could never get it right. At least not for very long. They knew this about themselves, just like we know it about ourselves.

But God's chosen people also knew that someday, He was going to establish a new covenant. He’d promised it. A covenant they could keep, because God was going to keep it for them.

“Indeed, a time is coming," says the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant … I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people... For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 NET

Instead of scrapping the whole human experiment and washing His hands of the whole thing – which He had every right to do - God leaned in. Toward us. And it was during that monumental Shavuot/Pentecost of Acts 2 when it all came together. 

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast, just like they’d been doing every year for almost 1500 years. Celebrating that “first” fiftieth day when God had descended with thunder and fire and smoke on the mountain. 

All the while, two things were rattling around in their heads: (1) the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in their midst just fifty days earlier, and (2) God’s 600-year-old promise to establish a new covenant. Could it really be that the new covenant was happening then, after all that time? Yes. Yes, it was.

In the midst of their harvest offerings and worship, God descended like flames and a whirlwind from heaven once again. The promised new covenant had arrived. On the anniversary of the original covenant. The Holy Spirit indwelling humans for the very first time, right before their very eyes. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

Our God is absolutely unfathomable. And more intentional than we could ever begin to imagine. His intention was and is and will always be to bring redemption and restoration in every possible way. The fiftieth day - in Sinai and at Pentecost - is a glorious reminder of His audacious and eternal promises. And of His power and desire to keep every single one of them.

I will most certainly raise a glass of milk to that.

*Stern, D. H. (1995). Jewish new testament commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Then They Will Know...

My seder plate
I love it when Passover and Easter overlap like they do this year. It's a great reminder of the tethering together of the Old and New Covenants. Of foreshadowing and fulfillment. Of the rescuing lambs and the rescuing Lamb.

"When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt...'"  Exodus 12:25-27 NIV


The entire purpose of the Passover worship - in God's own words there in Exodus 12 - has been to teach the next generation about God's redemption. And so I love teaching about the Last Supper in the context of the Passover Seder. To see eyes light up as connections are made between the rescue from Egypt and the redemption on Jerusalem's hill. 

I love leading through the four cups and the breaking of bread. I love walking through God's four-fold promise made to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7, and the way the whole Passover worship is built around it. 

"Therefore say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people...'"

But what I especially love about Passover, is that God left no doubt about what his ultimate purpose was. No doubt about why He rescued Abraham's children with His mighty outstretched arm.

You may remember that, back when Moses stood before the burning bush, one of his big questions for God was: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3:13 NIV)

It's so easy for us to forget that by the time God appeared to eighty-year-old Moses, Joseph and all his brothers had been buried for about 300 years. Not only that, but the Israelites had no written Scriptures. Only stories passed down for three centuries about their powerful ancestor Joseph, and his father (Jacob), his grandfather (Isaac) and his great-grandfather (Abraham). They didn't know God the way the patriarchs and their families did.

And so Moses anticipated a very valid question from his fellow Israelites: Who are You? God's immediate response was the famous revealing of His eternal name. But even more important - to me - is when He shared the why of all of it. Right after that four-fold promise of rescue in Exodus 6:

"Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians." Exodus 6:7b

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with His mighty outstretched arm, He didn't do it so they'd go do something. He certainly didn't do it to make their lives easy, because we know how hard the next forty years in the wilderness would be.

No. God saved Jacob's descendants so that they would know Him. Yadah. The Hebrew word means "to know, to discover, to become acquainted." And it means both the beginning of knowing and the completion of knowing.

"This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Yeshua the Messiah." John 17:3 HNV (emphasis mine)

During His last Passover, the Messiah ushered in the New Covenant, bringing all of Adam's descendants - not only Israel - out of the oppression of sin with two outstretched arms. Wanting us to know Him in all His perfect power and His loving faithfulness. To discover everything about Him. To recognize Him as the beginning of who we are, and to allow Him to complete us.

And so, just as the Israelites rejoiced and sang on the other side of the Red Sea, and just as the disciples left the Upper Room singing psalms of praise, let us now offer our own songs of praise as we look to the redemption of Easter.

Understanding that the God of the Universe knows us, and has done the unimaginable, so that we might know Him.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

I love that on the cusp of December - as all our eyes become fixed on Christmas - our pastors concluded their "mini-series" through Revelation 1-5. Fixing our eyes on John's magnificent vision of the Lamb on His throne. That radiant, overwhelming sight punctuated by the proclamation of “Holy! Holy! Holy!” echoing throughout the heavens.

I loved the timing of that final sermon, because we should never lose sight of the fact that John's vision is the very essence of Christmas. The One who arrived on earth - in the anonymity of a Bethlehem manger - is the very same One whose holiness overwhelms the heavens.

And what astounds me when I read John's testimony is that one day, you and I won't simply have a temporary vision like John's, but the everlasting sight of the risen Messiah on His throne. Beholding Him with our very own resurrected eyes. And we'll not just hear the proclamations of His holiness, but we'll be joining in with the eternal chorus:

Holy, Holy, Holy!

The first time I read this Revelation passage as a follower of Jesus, I was actually taken aback. I knew this passage. Well, not this verse exactly. But I'd been proclaiming God's holiness in triplicate my whole life. It's the pinnacle of the synagogue worship on the Sabbath and most festivals. And for as long as I could remember, I'd been chanting it in Hebrew as I stood with the rest of the congregation, all of us rising up on our toes with each repetition:*

Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!

The rabbis say that we rise up on our toes with each kadosh as a way of straining upward toward our holy, heavenly God.

To be honest, I didn't even know what kadosh meant when I was little, but I could feel the reverence and awe permeating the room. And so when I eventually picked up on the fact that I was saying "Holy! Holy! Holy!" with my words, it made perfect sense, because it matched what was happening in our posture and in my heart.

Of course, we weren't reciting Revelation in synagogue. We were echoing the heavenly chorus from that moment when Isaiah experienced his vision of God's throne, surrounded by the same same six-winged creatures that John saw:

Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Adonai Tz'vaot M'lo Khol Ha'aretz K'vodo! 

Holy! Holy! Holy! The Lord of Hosts, the entire world is filled with His Glory!

After last week's Revelation sermon, I decided to look at these two passages next to one another - these "holy triplets" - one found in the Old and one in the New. And what struck me is something that will stay with me.

The visions were so much alike. Isaiah and John both beheld six-winged creatures who were gathered around God's throne, leading the exact same chorus that reverberated throughout the heavens.

Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh! Holy! Holy! Holy!

Holiness tripled. Both Jewish and Christian commentators say that repeating a word three times speaks to intensity, to fullness, to completeness. God's holiness is overwhelmingly, abundantly, whole. Filling every crevice of the earth and the heavens.

"His glory fills the whole earth!" Isaiah 6:3

Fullness is really a theme of the whole Isaiah vision. Just the hem of God's robe filled the Temple. Smoke filled the Temple. His glory fills all the earth. And in Revelation, too, all of heaven was filled with the praise of God's holiness.

Some rabbis say that the triple Kadosh! also proclaims God's holiness throughout all of time: all the past, all the present and all the future. Which is exactly what John heard, isn't it?

"Who was, and is, and is to come!" Revelation 4:8

Not only were the visions and choruses of Isaiah and John almost identical, but their missions were the same as well. They were each given this taste of heavenly worship as part of their commissioning to share messages with God's people.

Yet what occurred to me as I looked at these two passages side-by-side, was that while the visions were virtually identical, the content of the messages were not.

Isaiah's "Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!" prepared him to announce the coming Babylonian captivity and exile, while John's "Holy! Holy! Holy!" prepared him to share about the final heavenly victory and freedom.

And it struck me that, whether preparing for freedom or exile, the song of praise was the same. Still is the same. Because God's holiness is constant. It is full.

And so we can declare it at all times. Even now. Especially now. No matter what "now" looks like - good or bad or in-between. Proclaiming "Holy! Holy! Holy" is preaching the gospel to ourselves. It is praising the One who is working all things for good. Because a wholly-holy God is one who can be trusted.

So whether we find ourselves on the Isaiah/exile side of the vision, or on the John/redemption side of it, I pray that we’d be able to proclaim the fullness of God’s perfect, redemptive holiness. That you and I would learn to proclaim kadosh, kadosh, kadosh every single day.

And that as we're all fixing our eyes on Christmas, that we'd fix our eyes on the holy One who dwelled among us, who conquered the grave, and who reigns in eternity.

*I misspoke in my podcast earlier this month. I said we bowed with each "kadosh," but I was remembering the prayer leading into Kadosh. Oops! Sorry!

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Apples & Honey & Trumpets, Oh My!

I'm a traditionalist - my favorite
Rosh Hashanah snack is apples and
honey! Especially when the honey comes
from dear friends in Nazareth!
Some of my sweetest childhood memories are of gathering downstairs in the synagogue, feasting on apples drenched in honey.  

We were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, just as countless Jews will begin to do this Sunday evening as the sun sets around the globe. This apples & honey tradition, which follows the worship service, is meant to usher in a sweet year to come.

But honey is so much more than a metaphor for a sweet year. It is a recalling and reclaiming of God's promises. Fulfilled promises. From bondage to freedom. From hunger to manna. From wilderness scarcity to the flowing abundance of the Promised Land.  God not only rescues, not only sustains, but lavishes. And the ultimate lavishness is the abundance of His Presence in our lives.

And so, as the congregation partakes of this sweet snack on Rosh Hashanah, we gratefully celebrate God's deliverance and sustenance and abundance in our own lives - whatever forms that may take. And we look forward collectively to a new year that we hope will be marked by spiritual sweetness, praying together:

"May it be Thy will, O Lord our God and God of our Fathers, that you renew us for a good and sweet year."  

Just under the surface of this festive rejoicing, however, runs a current of building lament. Because, as the sun sets on Rosh Hashanah, all eyes and hearts begin looking toward Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - in just ten days. Which, in actuality, is the entire purpose of Rosh Hashanah.

You see, "Rosh Hashanah" isn't the original name for this feast. The original, biblical name is Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpet Blasts, a/k/a The Feast of Trumpets.
"On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.  It is a day for you to sound the trumpets."  Numbers 29:1 NIV
Over the course of Yom Teruah's sacred assembly - even today - the ram's horn is blown 100 timesThese trumpet blasts serve as a call to repentance as Yom Kippur draws near.  A plea to prepare for that most holy and sacred day of the year. That day when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies, under cover of thick incense, to offer atonement for the sins of the nation with the blood of a perfect lamb. That one day when everyone was - is - to fast and mourn and repent. To beat our chest as we confess a litany of sins out loud. We have betrayed...We have stolen...We have slandered...We have caused others to sin...We have mocked... 

The list goes on and on - and could go on forevermore if we each turned out the pockets of our swollen, skimpy hearts. We line them with so many layers of muck that we don't even notice anymore. And so, during the Feast of Trumpets, the shofar is blown. Over and over and over again. One hundred times. Get, thee, ready. Or, as is often my case - Wake, up fool.

As the ram's horn pierces the air that day, it proclaims three specific things, again and again, throughout the worship. These three proclamations are the three different words God used to describe the shofar blasts: Tekia, Shevarim and Teru'ah.
Tekia. It's a single, long blast.  The kind of trumpet sound made to announce the arrival of a king.  Which is exactly what the Feast of Trumpets' tekia does; the long blast announces the coming of the Heavenly King to pronounce judgment.
Shevarim. These three short blasts are an ancient, auditory depiction of crying. But not simply crying, but wailing. It calls us to recognize and mourn deeply our sin before Him. 
Teru'ah. This series of nine quick blasts served as an alarm. With tekia and shevarim in mind, this staccato alarm wakes and shakes us to make things right with God - and with the people around us.
From the holy hill of Jerusalem and throughout all the land - like the beacons igniting one after another along the mountaintops of Gondor - those ancient trumpet blasts called every person to look up, to recognize the personal and collective need for atonement, and to prepare their hearts to petition God's blood-bought forgiveness on Yom Kippur.  

It's such a powerful practice. And I love that God Himself established the Feast of Trumpets, because it's a demonstration that He desires to forgive. God doesn't just spring judgment upon us unsuspectingly. He created a feast with the entire purpose of helping His people get ready for the Day of Atonement. The day our sins would be dealt with. And not "getting ready" as in fixing ourselves up. But "getting ready" by recognizing our need - my need - and then turning to God to fill it.

Those blasts of the ram's horn on Rosh Hashanah/Yom Teruah jar us to attention. Not simply to our own failings, but to His mercy. Not only to our brokenness, but to His healing. Not merely to our guilt, but to His grace. 

Now- on this side of the Cross - in those three ancient proclamations of the shofar, I also recognize the prophetic proclamation of the coming fullness of His grace, the fullness of His healing, the fullness of all that He is. That fullness witnessed in the life, death and resurrection of God's promised Messiah:
Tekia!  All hail!  The Heavenly King, the Father, is coming!
Shevarim!  Mourn!  The Messiah, the Son, will take our place in death.
Teru'ah!  Wake up from your mourning!  The Holy Spirit has raised Christ from the grave!  And He remains even now to indwell us, to teach and to guide us until the day He raises us from our grave as well!
There's no sweeter news I can possibly think of than this redeeming proclamation of the ram's horn!  So grab some apples and honey (or make my grandma's honey cake recipe at the end of the newsletter!) and celebrate our King, our Savior and our ever-present Holy Spirit.

Taste and see that the Lord is good!