Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Passover: The First Cup

Celebrating redemption is just around the corner!

Passover and Easter. Israel’s redemption from bondage to Pharaoh, and humanity’ redemption from bondage to death. The Old and the New. They finally intersected in the flesh at a first-century table, during Jesus’ last Passover meal in that upper room.

Celebrating Passover was always my favorite ritual growing up. And after I met Jesus, every bit of it came alive in ways I’d never imagined. And in ways I’m still discovering today. And, just like with most of our familiar holidays and rituals, different aspects of Passover speak more powerfully to me than others during different seasons. 

This year, it’s the first cup.

The Passover meal is structured around four cups of wine. In fact, seder - the name of the Passover meal - literally means “order.” And an incredible thing is that the Seder meal today is identical in structure to the way it was in Jesus’ day. Some songs and stories have been added along the way, and there’s no sacrificial lamb because there’s no longer a Temple where people can make sacrifices.

But the structure and prayers are exactly the same, and it’s still built around four cups of wine and the breaking of bread. I love to teach on this sacred meal, walking through each cup in light of the Last Supper. But this year, I keep coming back to the first cup.

You see, each cup represents one of God’s four “I will” promises to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7:

“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.’”

The first cup of the Passover meal recalls that first “I will:” God’s promise to bring the Israelites out from under the burden and bondage of Egypt. In that moment, His words had to be music to their ears and to their aching bodies and broken hearts. Remember, Joseph’s family had been laboring under more and more harsh conditions since they’d first been welcomed by the Pharaoh back in Genesis. And now they were experiencing the genocide of their baby boys.

Freedom from that yoke of Egypt was almost more than they knew to ask or imagine. And recalling this promise to deliver them from that state of physical and emotional brokenness is how Jews have always begun the Passover meal.

But. The Passover celebration is never supposed to be just a lesson in history. Every Passover worship guide, or Haggadah, includes the statement that we are to celebrate as if we ourselves had been personally rescued from Egypt and its yoke of slavery. 

On the surface, it may sound hard to do, especially in twenty-first century America. But a really quick Hebrew lesson will show you that it isn’t really hard at all, and it will also show you why I keep coming back to the “first cup.”

So, the word we translate as Egypt in the Old Testament isn’t really “Egypt.” It’s Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim comes from two different roots; one (metzir) meaning to be bordered or limited, and the other (tzar) meaning to be bound and tied up. Combined together as Miztrayim, then, this name for Egypt means hardship and distress and oppression and being hemmed in.

It really isn’t hard, then, to imagine ourselves being stuck in Egypt, because we have all been under the yoke of Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim is the hardship and distress and isolation that comes from being separated from God. And it’s sin; our own sin and living in the wake of other people’s sin. And it’s also the fallout of living in a broken world. Things like death, layoffs, broken relationships, depression/anxiety, abuse, shootings, a global pandemic and the ongoing brutal attack on a sovereign people.

And so, during the Last Supper Passover meal, when Jesus raised that first cup and recounted His Father’s promise to bring His people out from under the yoke of Mitzrayim, He wasn’t just talking about Egypt.  

The Messiah knew that He was just hours away from rescuing all of humanity - including you and me - from the distress and isolation that comes from being a broken person in a broken world.

In fact, when Jesus lifted that first cup, the disciples probably remembered something Jesus had already said to them about a yoke. A different kind of yoke, for people like them and like you and like me, who suffer in this broken world.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NIV

In contrast to the yoke of Mitzrayim - Jesus’ yoke brings rest to our souls.

Yes, we will still experience the pain and isolation that comes from living in this world. But if we choose to be yoked to the Messiah, He promises to gently lead us through it. Giving rest for our souls, even when our bodies and our hearts are weary.

And weary is what many of us are today. Weary from so much, and from the accumulation of so much. And so this year, I keep closing my eyes, imagining Jesus lifting that first cup. Recounting that ancient promise to those who were weary and heavy laden, knowing that He was about to fulfill it in ways no one could comprehend.

Even on this side of Calvary, it’s hard to comprehend. But even so, I will rest in it.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Is 'Repenting of Repentance' Biblical?

"Even our repentance needs to be repented of. Our heart motivations are never pure." 

Woodcut illustration of Zadok
the High Priest, by Michel
Wolgemuth (1434 - 1519)

For some reason, the Twitterverse is all aflutter over this old tweet from Tim Keller. People don't like the thought that even our repentance is like "filthy rags" in the sight of God. 

I'll let church historians argue the point of whether this is traditional Protestant theology.

But what I'd like to add to the discussion - as a Jewish follower of Jesus - is that this concept of "repenting of our repentance" is actually firmly rooted in the desert wilderness of the Exodus. From the mouth of God Himself. And that it's not a condemnation or a belittling of our faith, but rather a beautifully freeing extension of His grace.

Let me explain.

In Exodus 28, God steps in as master clothing designer, telling Moses - in great detail - what the High Priest's garments were supposed to be. From the turban on his head to the bells and pomegranates jingling at his feet, each and every thread was symbolic.*

It was the four "golden vestments" that set him apart from the other priests. Golden chains fastened onyx shoulder pieces to his ephod (vest), bearing the engraved names of the twelve tribes as he ministered. More golden chains suspended the breastpiece, with its twelve gemstones, over the High Priest's heart. And of course, there were those golden bells adorning the hem of his robe, announcing his presence before the King of Heaven. Or really, reminding him of the Holy One he was standing before.

But it's the last one of the golden vestments - the turban - that I want to talk about. 

“Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD.  Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD. Exodus 28:36-38 NIV

The golden plate is what set the High Priest's turban apart. Holy to the Lord. But this wasn't a statement about the High Priest. It was a statement about us. Even our sacred gifts are tainted with sin. Whether it's wrong motivation or unconfessed - or unwitting - sin, our gifts to God are never perfectly pure.

But the beauty in this - going back to the beginning - is that He knows. God knows that we can't outrun our nature. That it's impossible for us to give a gift that is completely free from the radioactive nature of our sin. But He beckons us anyway. He accepts our gifts anyway. He delights in what we lay before Him, when we give it because of our delight in Him.

And how much more so can we see this, on this side of the Cross!

"...what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases." Matthew 8:17 CSB

Unlike the earthly High Priest, Jesus really was "Holy to the Lord." Our Great High Priest is without blemish or spot, holy and perfect through and through. And bore us on His shoulders and over His heart as He offered the ultimate gift: Himself. The only gift ever given to God that didn't contain one iota of sin.

So now it's not just our gifts that are excused of sin, it's we ourselves - inside and out - freed from condemnation. In all things, we are able to give freely back to God in spite of ourselves. And the fact that He made it so - back in the wilderness and then on the Cross - is a gift of grace, not a declaration of condemnation.

Repenting of our repentance reminds us of where we stand: ever and always in need of forgiveness, and ever and always receiving it.

ⓒ 2022, Tammy L. Priest

*for more extensive discussion of the High Priest's symbolism (as well as that of the Tabernacle), you may be interested in my study, Rending the Curtain.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Ukraine, Zelensky & Shabbat Shekalim

 "I need ammunition, not a ride."

I can't tell you the depth of emotion that Volodymyr Zelenskyy's words stirred in me this morning. Although I probably don't need to tell you, because you were probably feeling many of the same things. Admiration and wonder. Trepidation and solidarity. Sorrow and rage. 

Zelensky is the kind of leader everyone wishes they had. A leader who so fiercely loves his people that he stays. The fact that this Jewish man refused to abandon his people today, on Shabbat Shekalim, is not lost on me.

Let me explain. 

This Sabbath is called Shabbat Shekalim, because it's the Sabbath when God's census command from Exodus 30 is read. But for this census, people weren't counted. Instead, their shekels were:

"This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight - twenty gerahs to the shekel - a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less..." Exodus 30:13-15 JPS89

This collection became an annual thing, and on Shabbat Shekalim, that passage is read as a reminder that the collection is coming up in one month. There's so much I could say about the details of this census command, but that's for another day. 

But today, what matters is the amount God told them to give: a half-shekel. And the question is: why did God even say “half a shekel?” Why didn't he just tell them to give twenty gerahs?

Well, the answer that rabbis have taught over the ages, is that by God saying we are counted by half of something, it’s a reminder that none of us is whole on our own. That it’s only when we join ourselves to God that we are spiritually whole. And that it’s only when we join ourselves to each other that we’re relationally whole.

We are counted whole, only when we are counted together. When we stand with one another and for one another.

That's the kind of leader that the Ukraine has today, and the kind of leader that the rest of the world can learn from. And the kind of human being that all of us can be inspired by.

Zelensky's defiant statement reflected the essence of Shabbat Shekalim: A refusal to be considered as a differentiated individual at a time of national accounting. A willingness to give up self for the survival of all. We Americans would do well to learn from this.

For those of us who are followers of Jesus as Messiah, the Cross is the ultimate embodiment of Shabbat Shekalim. But I pray that all of us - no matter who we are - as we watch and pray and do what we can to stop this invasion of the Ukraine, we’d think about God’s half-shekel command and President Zelensky’s words on this very Shabbath Shekalim. That we would consider what it means to refuse to be separated from one another. Even from people we don’t always agree with, or even always understand.

God has called us to be counted as a half-shekel. Incomplete without one another. Whole as we stand together. It’s a powerful and beautiful thing.

May there be shalom on this Shabbat.