Sunday, July 20, 2008

"He turns our mourning into dancing"

Today, 20 July 2008, in the Jewish Calendar starts a three week period of mourning. Today marks the anniversaries of three significant, but sad days in Jewish History.

On this day, Tammuz 17, according to Jewish tradition,

* Moses smashed the tablets of Stone that had the Ten Commandments written on them when He saw the people of Israel worshiping the golden calf idol. (1491 BC)
* Service in the first temple was disrupted on Tammuz 17, and this preceeded the destruction of the first temple that took place on Av 9. (423 BC)
* The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans on Tammuz 17, and three weeks later on Av 9 the the second temple was razed to the ground when it was set ablaze. (AD 70)

All of these events were devastating for those Jewish people who experienced them and even successive generations felt the impact of these events. So this period is indeed a time of mourning.

However, we read that this state of mourning is not and never was intended to be permanent.

In Psalm 30 we read about the the transformation that takes place:

I will exalt you, O LORD, for you lifted me out of the depths
and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
O LORD my God, I called to you for help and You healed me.
O LORD you brought me up from the grave; and you spared me from going down into the pit.

Sing to the LORD, you saints of His; praise His holy name.
For His anger lasts only a moment but His favour lasts a lifetime;
Weeping may remain for a night but rejoicing comes in the morning.

When I felt secure, I said, "I will not be shaken."
O LORD, when you favoured me you made my mountain stand firm;
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.

To you, O LORD, I called; to the LORD I cried for mercy:
"What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down into the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it proclaim Your faithfulness?
Hear O LORD, and be merciful to me; O LORD, be my help."

You turned my wailing into dancing; You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD My God, I will give you thanks forever.

If God has turned (past tense) our mourning - or as it is in this version - wailing - into dancing, then how did he do this?

Let's look in brief at the three events that Jews commemorate today, and see how each one was turned around to represent something wonderful:

1. Moses breaks the tablets of stone.
Moses had ascended Mount Sinai and spent 40 days in the presence of the Lord. He received from God the Law that he was to teach the people. This is summarised in what we call today "The Ten Commandments" - God did warn Moses that things were not good amongst the people but still, his rage resulted in him throwing the tablets of stone down on the ground and their being broken into pieces. What made him so cross? The first commandment says "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." Before they got past first base - they had broken that one already for they were bowing down like a bunch of ignorant pagans, to a gold statue of a calf. No wonder Moses lost it! God had, at that point every right to destroy the entire nation and start over. However, the story works out differently - we read on to see that Moses returned to the mountain and got two new tablets of stone, and again the Law was carefully written down. We see from this that our God is merciful - the God of second, third, fourth, etc. chances.

Jesus said: "Blessed are they that mourn; for they will be comforted" (Matt 5:4)
Jesus was not speaking about mourning the loss of a friend - but He was talking of those who mourn about how they have sinned. When we are truly penitant, God comes along side and says, "Cheer up - that sin is dealt with - no longer to be counted against you. That debt, that is beyond your ability to pay, has been paid in full, by my Son, Jesus, when He died on the Cross."

In the Psalm we read that His anger lasts only for a moment - yes - God was very angry that day - so angry that all those who were directly responsible for the worshipping of of the calf were annihilated that day. However, His favour lasts a lifetime. God didn't wipe out the entire Israeli race. His favour was with them through their wilderness wanderings. He provided them with food and drink and their clothes and shoes did not wear out.

2. The destruction of the First Temple and the exile into Babylon.
Because the nation of Israel had forsaken the way of the Lord and was worshipping the gods of the nations around about, God used Babylon (and later Assyria) to punish it by taking its people into captivity and exile from their land. In the process their centre of worship - the Temple, where sacrifices to God were offered, was destroyed and left in ruins - and for a period of 70 years the Jewish people were again enslaved and forced to serve foreign masters. The exile was as a result of the chastisement of the Lord, but out of it, we got Daniel; Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego; Mordechai and Esther; Jeremiah; Ezra and Nehemiah, to name a few shining examples of faith.

We learn that "the Lord disciplines those he loves" (Prov. 3;12, Heb 12:6) "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those trained by it." (Heb 12:11) Ask any little boy or girl who has been spanked by their parent, and I'm confident that at the time when the discipline was administered there was "much wailing and gnashing of teeth"! It is not likely that at that time, the child would have the maturity and presence of mind to be thankful for the loving discipline being applied. All that child knows is that "It's sore" and tears flow. However, if the discipline has been applied appropriately and justly, the young person will learn that the behaviour that induced the discipline was inappropriate and thus, the discipline, as the scripture says, will produce a "harvest of righteousness and peace." We know that the season of harvest follows a season of sowing - and so - if we are to we are to enjoy the harvest that is promised, we have to endure the sowing (which also involves ploughing and breaking up of fallow ground.) So as Jewish people remember the exile, they can have a "godly sorrow" for the behaviour, the idolatry, that resulted in the exile, while at the same time, they can look up to their Heavenly Father, and say, "Thank you for caring enough to discipline us."

After the exile, the people returned to Israel, and under Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of the city, and rebuilt the temple, and under Ezra, re-established the worship of the Lord.

3. The fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second temple by Rome, in AD 70.
The core of Jewish life and worship was the Temple. Almost two thirds of a Jew's religious duties were contingent on the existence of the Temple. The whole sacrificial system fell into abeyance when the temple was destroyed. It is believed by Jews that the Messiah will come and rebuild that temple. The destruction, in the words of one Jewish website, is regarded as "the greatest tragedy of our history." The ground on which that temple stood is a flash point in modern times in the middle east, with the "Dome of the Rock" a mosque built on that very place held most sacred by Jews. Right next to it, is the "Western Wall" - (or the "Wailing Wall" This term is not used by Jews themselves) is the place where Jewish men come to pray. It is what remains of the Second Temple, a retaining wall, built by Herod the Great, in about 19 BC.

On the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av) Jews mourn the destruction of the second temple and look forward to the day when the Messiah will come. Now, as I said before, what seems like disaster to a person when going through trouble, is often "for the greater good" - though people going through it at the time may have a hard time seeing it. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, puts it this way: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose." (Rom 8:28)

For the Christian, the sacrificial system that was disrupted by the fall of Jerusalem in AD. 70 had already been made redundant by the one death of Jesus Christ, when He was crucified some 40 years previously. What is more, just as, from AD 70, Jerusalem ceased to be the centre of Jewish spiritual life - prior to that, it was the duty of every Jewish person, if at all possible, to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the major feasts and for Yom Kippur.

The centre of religious life for the early Church also started in Jerusalem, but in accordance with Jesus' words to the disciples before he ascended, that "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth," (Acts 1:8) the Church spread out beyond Jerusalem, to Antioch, and then into Asia Minor (Turkey) and into Europe and other parts of the world. The destruction of Jerusalem aided in the dispersal of the Gospel.

Finally, as to the destruction of the Temple: The physical edifice that was in Jerusalem, was a copy of the actual Temple that is in heaven. Also, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:16 "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's Temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?" - We are not constrained and confined to a single geographic place to meet with and worship our God, but wherever we are, we can worship Him, and give Him a sacrifice of praise. Also, the good news is that this Temple is open 24/7/365 so that whatever the hour we can give him thanks and praise for all His goodness to us.

Personal mourning
Finally, I titled this message "He turned my mourning into dancing." I have focused on the Jewish three weeks of mourning over the destruction of the Temple, but I feel it is appropriate to share some personal mourning that I have done recently. A very close friend of mine, Joann, went to be with Jesus, after a bout with cancer. It is hard for me to put briefly how close and special she was to me. I have many precious memories of my times with her - when the news reached me that she had died I was deeply saddened for myself. It so happened that she passed into glory the day before she was to turn 60. I wished I could have been in Zimbabwe to hold her hand and to say goodbye - that was not to be. Well, I was sad to hear the news, especially since I had not known she was ill, and in the past couple of weeks I did mourn, but God has even turned this mourning into to dancing, when I heard an account of her last few moments on earth. She was lying in bed, and suddenly she looked up with wide open eyes and exclaimed "Oh that's great, that's wonderful!" and with that word, "wonderful" on her lips - she died, as peaceful as ever, with the smile that so often characterised my friend. So while I surely will miss my dear friend, I know that we will meet again someday, when I go to be with Jesus.

The death of a friend or a family member is a hard thing for us who are left behind to endure - especially when that person is very young or their death occurs in an unnatural way - e.g. as a result of crime, but we can know that God is still sovereign and He still has everything in His control, so even these terrible things will be worked for good for those who love Him. Hard as that may be to understand, it remains the truth. So I rejoice and yes, dance to celebrate that my friend is with Jesus!

So brother or sister - are you mourning? God will turn that mourning into dancing - in due course. He will help you make sense of everything that has happened.

For much of my information about the Jewish observance of these days I referred to this Chabad webpage.

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