Our holy visitors

Dear coworkers,

Imagine my surprise when I logged into Zoom yesterday for Shabbat morning prayers at our local messianic synagogue–and there in the middle of the screen were our Iraqi father and Gazan mother! They’ve grown so accustomed to joining morning prayer and scripture reading at our Jerusalem guesthouse that it may have just seemed natural to also sit in on the Shabbat prayers:

What really gave me joy though was the response of the largely-Jewish congregation. They were so warm and welcoming and excited to see our Muslim neighbors join them in praising God and reading his word. Especially since this was the Shabbat of the week-long Feast of Tabernacles, about which Zechariah prophesied:

Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.

One participant even referred to the families as our “holy visitors,” in reference to the Jewish tradition of welcoming ushpizin (Aramaic for “visitors”) to one’s succah. (For those who don’t yet know it, the Israeli film “Ushpizin” is really a must-see for this time of year, offering a very humanizing view of our orthodox neighbors).

This gets right to the heart of the Shevet Achim community, because each time a Gazan, Iraqi or Syrian child comes to Israel for a heart surgery they too are welcomed by Israelis with open arms. It’s mind-blowing for our Muslim neighbors, who are routinely dishonored and devalued in their home cultures, and who have always heard that the Jewish people are their worst enemies. There’s so much of the good news in it when they instead encounter this unconditional love.

And it’s also life-giving for our Israeli neighbors to walk into their calling to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This is exactly what it means to be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each generation as the covenant was renewed these simple words were at the heart of it:

The LORD said to Abram…”in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12)

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham [at the binding of Isaac]…”in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 22)

And the LORD appeared to [Isaac] and said…”in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 26)

The LORD stood above [Jacob’s ladder at Bethel] and said…”in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 28)

It’s becoming more and more clear to me that we are called to proclaim this simple word of God to our Jewish neighbors. From it will flow many good things. I believe this means that not only should we increase involvement with local congregations, but that we are to engage all the people of Israel. We’ll be called to communicate in Hebrew and Arabic as much and as well as we do in English. We’re to give them the opportunity to share in the funding of the surgeries as well.

This will mean integrating Jewish and Arabic believers into our community. And–impossibly–continuing to work on a volunteer basis rather than as paid ministry. With God nothing is impossible; we must ask him to raise up young people who want to be discipled and to serve more than they want to build a home and career.

It may help that the world is deteriorating around us at a faster and faster pace. Some may finally understand that the houses we build in this world are built on sand. The one thing that matters, David tells us, is to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of our lives, and to gaze upon his beauty.

So it helps that our community begins each day with a couple hours of seeking God’s face, and searching how his word will change our hearts and our actions in that day. And then to live, work, eat, pray and rest together day after day. It’s a powerful way to reveal our hearts and smooth off our rough edges, lest God forbid we follow in the steps of yet another minister exposed this week “whose public persona did not match his private conduct.”

…we have a historic faith full of men and women who are grand sinners in the hands of a grander Savior. Even our best men are plagued with the curse that all men bear, and the stain of their sins is absolved only through the shed blood of their Master, Jesus Christ. At the same time, the most frightening passage in Scripture speaks of the Day of Judgment to come where many will say to Christ, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?”

Our Lord’s response will not be one of recognizing these great feats. He will not give praise for the metrics of men. Instead, He will say to many on that day, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” Again, we have to ask the unanswered question: what defines lawlessness in the mind of our Lord? It is obviously one who is characterized by willful, flagrant disobedience—but again, where is the tipping point? It is easy to look at the charlatans in the prosperity gospel and say of them, they define lawlessness with clarity—and they do. Yet many others are the grumblers, fault-finders, gossips, slanderers, and the like, who follow after their own lusts—who speak arrogantly and flatter others for the sake of gaining an advantage, who likewise will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Rom. 1:29-32; Jude 1:16).

These are uncomfortable truths in the mind of many simply because we have made room for what Jerry Bridges calls “respectable sins.” We are so quick to give pat answers and explain these things away—yet if we were to let them marinate in our hearts and minds a bit, we might be the better for it. The rather obvious bit of advice to any who are flirting with where that line might be drawn is to flee as fast as possible in the opposite direction. The old illustration of the one who seeks to get as close to the edge of the cliff before falling headlong to their untimely death serves quite well in that regard. Take a step back from the cliffside and make your way back to the straight and narrow path. It is the long-haul trajectory of faithfulness in the same direction then which serves to demonstrate the validity of our faith. For some matters, repentance is like turning a speedboat around; for others, it may be more like an aircraft carrier—yet in either case, the ship must turn. Rest assured though: that which is hidden shall be brought to light (Mark 4:22).

It is in this fact of what can only be construed as a revelation of the true character of a man that we find our final point of consideration. It is the outcome of one’s life we must weigh to see if theirs is a life worthy of imitation (Heb. 13:7). Here the author of Hebrews undoubtedly has both a doctrinal and moral component in mind; their life must not only reflect one of upright moral conduct befitting a minister of the gospel—their doctrine must also stand the test of fire. It is no wonder the apostle Paul instructed young Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16). Undoubtedly, no man is perfect. All are sinners who daily fall short of the standard of God. This is particularly why the good news of the gospel is so good to sinners.

None of this though, removes the strict qualifications in place for those who wish to be ministers of the gospel. This episode, though one of many scandals in the history of the church, serves as our example—yet it is not a positive one. Rather, it is much like the harlotry of Israel, which was written for our instruction, so that the one who thinks he is standing firm should be careful not to fall (1 Cor. 10:11-12). That means you and I. This serves as our warning—as our instruction, lest we too succumb to great moral failure and make a mockery of the shed blood of Christ.

Jonathan for Shevet Achim

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133).

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