Light from the Sidra

Nitzavim/Vayelech ('You are standing'/And he went...') 20 September 2014. 25 Elul 5774.

Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30.Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9

If only I could say, 'if only’...

Hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing. We look back on our mistakes and say if only we had known then what we know now, we would never have bought the beautiful-looking house that is now falling round our ears; we would never have sent our bank details to the widow who wanted to store billions of dollars in our bank account; we would never have voted for the government that broke every promise it made to make the country a paradise on earth. If only we had had known. Sigh...

Deuteronomy 31:14-29 is an accurate foretelling of Israel’s future. The passage is straightforward. There are no convoluted and nebulous four-line quatrains similar to those of Nostradamus. Israel will rebel against their God and Moses is to write a song for Israel to memorise as a warning. Yet, in spite of the forewarning, the Jewish people will nevertheless rebel and break God’s covenant. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in spite of Israel’s deliberate refusal to keep covenant, Deuteronomy 29 and 30 contain some wonderful words of comfort. Even though the Jewish people will suffer for their disobedience, they are assured that if they turn back to their God he will have mercy and restore them to their land.

But here’s where things get really crazy. HASHEM declares that in spite of and the dire warnings – when the threats have actually come to pass and the Jewish people have been scattered to the four winds – Israel will still refuse to hear and receive God’s promised kindness.

Yet all is not lost. HASHEM appears to be more willing to forgive than Israel is to sin. Isaiah 61:10 - 63:9 promises a new and greater redemption to Israel in exile in an even greater way and from an even greater enemy.

Two weeks ago we saw that although Isaiah 52 and 54 are read in the synagogue, chapter 53 is omitted. This week we notice ten missing verses. Why did Israel’s sages omit those crucial first nine verses of Isaiah 61? Those verses used to be read in synagogues in the Second Temple era because the first recorded sermon that Jesus of Nazareth preached was on the first verses of Isaiah 61. He would not be able to preach on that passage today because Isaiah 61:1-9 is no longer included in the Haftarot. In fact, not one passage from the Prophets quoted in the New Testament is included in any of the Haftarah readings today. Why should that be?

When Jesus preached his sermon in Nazareth he was almost lynched – literally – because he declared that he was the fulfilment of the passage: ‘The Spirit of my Lord, HASHEM/ELOHIM, is upon me, because HASHEM has anointed [Hebrew: Mashiach] me to bring tidings to the humbled; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for captives, and [to proclaim] to the imprisoned release from bondage, to proclaim a year of favour unto HASHEM...’

The first few verses of chapter 61 introduce the Servant of HASHEM; the Messiah who makes the blessings announced to Israel from verse 10 onwards a reality. God’s greatest and ultimate redemption of Israel comes through the Messiah of Israel.

Imagine this. It’s the era of the Second Temple. You’re in that shul in Nazareth and that 30-year old carpenter you’ve known since he was a kid steps up to the bema to read the Haftarah. It’s Isaiah 61 and he declares that the passage is a prophecy about him. How do you respond? Neutrality is not an option. The man is either speaking the truth or he’s blaspheming. Do you bless God and rejoice that the Redeemer of Israel has finally arrived or do you join the mob and drag the preacher to the top of the cliff on which Nazareth is built and try to throw him off?

But you are not there. You are here, reading these words. But you still have to make a choice about the claim of Jesus to be the fulfilment of Isaiah 61, and there are only four options open to you. You have to decide whether, on that Sabbath in Nazareth 2,000 years ago, when Jesus claimed to be the Messiah he was joking, he was attempting to deceive Israel, he was nuts, or he was literally speaking the gospel truth.

Whatever you do, don’t repeat the error the ancient Israelites made by ignoring the forewarnings of God and living to regret their disobedience. Don’t follow the crowd. Don’t put tradition before truth. Don’t put this to the back of your mind. If you come to the wrong conclusion about Jesus you’ll quite literally regret it forever.

The good news is that if you come to the right conclusion about Jesus today, you’ll never have to say, ‘If only I’d known...’

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