In the Hebrew calendar, today is the 22nd of Elul, 5774 years since the creation of the world. Elul is a special month of preparation and repentance before the "Ten Days of Awe” starting with Rosh HaShanah - the Feast of Trumpets (which will start on 24th September this year), and continuing until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement ten days later. It’s time to turn our backs on sin and turn towards God again. It’s time to turn away from the world, and look to the face of the One who loves and leads us. If we want to say “repent” in Hebrew we say, “Lachzor be Tshuva” - to return to the answer. Actually the two words both imply a return - one is to return as one might go away from home and return later, and the other is from the root word to respond, or reply, to come back with an answer.
Perhaps you heard about the Syrians who were treated in Israeli hospitals this year, or the field hospital Israel set up at the Gaza border for Palestinians? Israel has excellent medical care and is generous in sharing that expertise with the world, and even with those who are hostile to the Jewish state.
One organisation dedicated to helping to bless Israel by serving her neighbours in this way is called “Shevet Achim”; a ministry based in Jerusalem that coordinates travel, visas and medical appointments for children with life-threatening heart problems from the nations surrounding Israel.
The name “Shevet Achim” comes from a verse in Psalm 133 which talks about brothers dwelling together in unity. As they bring Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Gazan children into Israel to be treated, these servants of God help to make links of love and peace instead of fear and enmity.
“We decided to be the Good Samaritan”, explained an Arab pastor to a crowd of Jewish and Arab believers who had gathered for an evening of fellowship and worship on the Mount of Olives last Thursday. They had decided as a church to love the ones they were not supposed to love, according to the world. They had first agreed to look out for online arguments full of hatred, and started to sow seeds of peace wherever they found them. As they posted loving words into the furious facebook fights, they noticed the conversations often started to turn from being vindictive into becoming more kind. “So then”, he explained to the gathering who enjoyed a barbeque as the sun set over Jerusalem, “We decided to take it up a level”...
The word “dew” appears 34 times in the Bible, and is primarily seen as a blessing. It is used poetically and symbolically in many places, and is quite different to the blessing of rain. We are heading towards Succot in October, when prayers for rain begin in earnest, but since the time of Passover, Jewish people across the land have been praying the “Tfilat Tal”: a prayer or blessing for dew, which asks God to bring a light out of the darkness to draw Israel to himself as a root finds water from dew.
Rain will always catch our attention, as anyone caught out in the rain will know. It can be heard in the pitter patter of raindrops, or the pummelling of a heavy shower. Dew, on the other hand, is silent. It does not draw attention to itself at all. It can be seen as a more humble, unassuming version of rain; never causing damage, gentle, nourishing and dependable.
"For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers. “Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.”" (Jeremiah 16:15-16)
The miracles of God’s promises to Israel continue to unfold; the good, the bad and the ugly. In very many places, the Scriptures prepare us for the fact that God was planning to bring His people back to His land by hook or by crook. With anti-Semitism spiraling out of all control around the world, many Jewish people are now deciding that they would be safer in war-torn Israel under the protection of the IDF than they are in Europe, and are packing their bags to escape while they still can. They are being hunted and hounded back to the land given to their fathers, just as the Bible said.
The ancient tradition of the Jewish “Day of Love” is on “Tu B’Av” or, the 15th of the Jewish month of Av, which will start at sunset tonight, and continue until sunset on Monday. The tradition is that unmarried women should go to dance in the vineyards, wearing white dresses (so that no one had the advantage of fancy clothes) and that men would go and pick one to be their bride. The Talmud speaks about this tradition immediately after describing how to mark the sad day of Tisha B’Av, which was the week before. In tractate Taanit, the young men are called upon to choose wisely, using Proverbs 31 as their guide. The theme of love and marriage is so important in Judaism, and indeed the Bible, not only to be fruitful and multiply, but because it manifests the plans, heart and nature of God, right before our eyes. The very definition of true love.
"Tisha B’Av", the 9th day of the Jewish month of Av, falls this year from the evening of Tuesday 4th August until the evening of the 5th. Tisha B'Av is a national day of mourning that happens every year in Israel. The shops, restaurants and entertainment venues are shut by law, and it is considered inappropriate to laugh, joke or even to greet one another warmly on this day. It is on this day in history that not only was Solomon’s temple destroyed in 586 BC, but also the second temple was destroyed in 70 AD on exactly the same date. Tisha B’Av marks not only these two events but also many other tragedies that have happened to the Jewish people, and the land is drenched with sorrow this year as well. It is said that the temples fell for "lack of brotherly love", and as you can see below, many of the other events that fell upon this same date also result from a lack of love that has led to great suffering.
Hated by the world for being Israeli, and hated by Israel for believing in Jesus, Israeli believers are in a tough spot right now. Around the world, even some who support Israel are losing confidence in the ethics of this war with the numbers of dead civilians and devastation in Gaza increasing daily. The nations, as Zechariah predicted, are turning against Israel. The death count makes the other important facts about this conflict hard to see. Within Israel itself, the people are unifying in solidarity in the face of global opposition and the constant threat of terror, and yet Jewish people who believe that Yeshua is the Messiah are not considered part of the people of Israel either.
"Hamas was perfectly well aware of what would happen if they started raining rockets in Israel. They fired a thousand of them. And they have a strategy designed to force Israel to kill their own civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them", said Bill Clinton in an interview last week .
The situation in Gaza for ordinary people is reaching a very serious crisis. Soon, they will run out of food and water. And Hamas will not agree to stop firing. Israel faces impossible choices: Stop the military operations in Gaza and allow Israeli civilians to live under a barrage of rockets, constantly running for cover to the sound of sirens… or face global fury of epic proportions for the fate of Gazan Palestinians.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that this time of the Jewish calendar is actually known as the time of “dire straits” or “desperate straits”. Whatever Israel chooses to do at the moment is going to bring trouble and distress. How can we pray?
As the Gazan death toll increases, the world’s disapproval of the Jewish states also mounts. With zero deaths on one side, and well over 100 on the other, people are turning against Israel. The only Israeli to die in any connection with this war so far has been an old woman in Haifa who had a heart attack as she was running for the bomb shelter when a siren sounded in the middle of the night. People in Israel are profoundly grateful for the army and its unrivalled “Iron Dome” defence system (which has become “more popular in Israel than hummus and falafel” according to Business week  ). But more than that, in addition to admitting there has been “a bit of luck” regarding the total failure of any Hamas rockets to achieve their goals, there is talk of prayer and of God’s protection.
Even as we who believe the Bible may know that of course the God of Israel has not been sleeping or slumbering on the job, it is important to remember to also take a Biblical view of those who are seeking to harm Israel at this time.
“I just want to hug my Arab sisters and brothers!” Said a new Jewish believer from an Orthodox background. “But I don’t know any!” In the midst of talk of bloodshed and hatred, Israel is not without hope. There have been riots on the streets of Jerusalem with violence escalating after the kidnappings and murders, but in one of Israel’s largest cities, hundreds of youth from Israel and the Palestinian territories have joined together as One New Man to worship Yeshua at the Elav conference. They are finding that their love for Yeshua spills over into love for one another, and join to declare the kingdom of God in Israel - in unity.
This new believer who longed to meet Arabs shared her amazing testimony of how Yeshua changed her life. She said that she used to hate Arabs, but since she has been transformed by Yeshua, a great love has grown in her to make connections with her Arab brothers and sisters, and to express her love for them. At this conference she found them. Arab believers from Israel itself, and also from Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Jordan. On Saturday night, she washed the feet of an Arab sister in the Lord.
In Israel there are lots of volunteers. Volunteers who come to work on a kibbutz, young German volunteers who come to serve Holocaust survivors in retirement homes, and Israelis also have a very positive attitude towards community service and volunteering. At school they even have to do some compulsory volunteering! If that isn’t a contradiction in terms, I don’t know what is.
The Hebrew word for volunteering, hitnadvoot (התנדבות) also has connotations of generosity, willingness, and nobility. The word for generosity, nedivoot (נדיבות), is similar to the word for prince or noble: nediv (נדיב). All of these words come from the same three letter root - נדב. This root word appears many times in the Bible, and grasping a fuller understanding of its meaning can help us better appreciate the dynamics of a healthy relationship with God.
The Presbyterian Church has now sadly decided to boycott Israel. The Bible says that God placed the people of Israel there on purpose, but when looking at the sufferings of the Palestinians, this denomination has decided that it cannot possibly be true. They have also embraced gay marriage, struggling to believe that God knows best when he warns his children to steer clear of that path. Like many in the West, this segment of the Church holds Biblical wisdom in one hand and their own ideas of justice in the other, but have chosen to trust the latter. They subject the Scriptures to their ideas of right and wrong, and twist its meaning until it agrees with theirs.
As the media blares out increasingly alarming news about Iraq, it can be all too tempting to bury our heads in the sand and ignore these uncontrollable matters that seem so far away. But God’s people are calling out to us from Baghdad, pleading with us not to ignore their plight, or to forget the plans of God for the area.
The situation is very serious. As if Al Qaeda was not extreme enough, another even more radical organisation fighting for “the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” (Al-Sham includes the areas of Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) or ISIS for short, is on the rampage. ISIS is a threat not only to Israel, but also to the more moderate Muslim states in the Levant, and is causing utter chaos and devastation.
God never promised us that life would be trouble-free, in fact Yeshua specifically promised us that “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). The question is not whether we will experience difficulties, but what how we respond when we find ourselves in a pickle.
Habakkuk was a man in a tight spot. His book is one of angst and woe, desperately seeking God’s help in times of trouble. But after outlining all the desperate straits that he and his countrymen are in, he ends on an extremely interesting and unusual note. The last verse says this:
“God, the Lord, is my strength, and He maketh my feet like hinds' feet,
and He maketh me to walk upon my high places.
For the choirmaster. With my string-music.”
Nowhere else in the Bible is this phrase found except at the beginning of Psalms. It seems to be in the wrong place. Why does he say that, right at the end? The clue might be in the Hebrew meaning of the word we translate as "choirmaster"...
What do a harvest festival, 49 days, and a passionate love story have in common?
Shavuot means 'weeks'. God said, "Count off seven weeks from the time you begin to put the sickle to the standing grain. Then celebrate the Festival of Weeks to the LORD your God by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the LORD your God has given you." (Deuteronomy 16:9-10) Offerings of barley and wheat are made, and the 'seven species': pomegranate, grapes, olives, wheat, barley, figs and date honey are celebrated. It's a thankgiving time for the goodness of the land. It's a time of 'bikurim' or firstfruits. It's the time that the Torah was given to Israel and they agreed to follow it, making them a covenant community, and it's also the time that the church or body of Messiah was born at Pentecost. New birth... First fruits.
The word Pentecost comes from the 50 days that are counted from Passover to Shavuot - seven weeks is 49 days, and 50 days if you count the feast itself. The parallel events of the Torah being given at Sinai and the Holy Spirit being given in Jerusalem are no coincidence. Both signified a birth of the two religions, if we may call them that, and both were from the hand of God. One happened seven weeks after the Passover and liberation from Egypt, and the other seven weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection of our Passover lamb, Yeshua the Messiah. Both catapulted faith communities into action.
And traditionally, the book of Ruth is read during the feast, because the story is set at the time of the barley harvest, and Shavuot occurs between the barley and wheat harvests. Also, it is in the instructions for how to celebrate Shavuot that God includes this commandment: “when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23:22) This was the set up for the love story. Well - part of the love story...
Tomorrow is Jerusalem Day in Israel. The Pope has been carefully picking his way through the political minefield of Jerusalem's holy sites and places of importance on the last day of his trip to Israel. There is no city like it on earth - none with so much atmosphere and none with so much conflict and controversy. It's a central point for the three main monotheistic faiths, but is there a better connection to God if you worship in Jerusalem? No, of course, not. However, the Bible does portray Jerusalem as the most important city in the world, and in Scripture it is called the 'City of God'. It becomes clear that man didn’t chose Jerusalem, God did! So how important is this city to God, and why?
Sometimes we use the word “leper” to describe a persona non-grata… someone rejected by the majority, and left out in the cold. It’s an experience most of us have at one time or another, and it’s one that Yeshua understood and cared about. The Talmud even describes a “Leper Messiah”, and includes a story about how the Messiah would be found caring for lepers:
“His name is 'the leper scholar,' as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b) "'When will the Messiah come?' — 'Go and ask him himself,' was his reply. 'Where is he sitting?' — 'At the entrance.' And by what sign may I recognise him?' — 'He is sitting among the poor lepers...'" says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a). The passage goes on to describe the Messiah carefully bandaging the wounds of lepers, instead of shunning them.
While many of the Laws in Leviticus draw distinctions between those deemed acceptable and those considered unclean and untouchable, exluding lepers, those who are blind or with physical defects, and women who are bleeding, we see the powerful ministry of Jesus overcoming each of these ailments, one by one, and welcoming them back into the camp.
Monday and Tuesday are two very significant days for Israel - a day of mourning followed by a day of rejoicing. Monday is the annual Memorial Day for all those who have died in Israel's struggle to exist, either in the armed forces or as a result of terrorism. It is a day of solemn recognition that there have been many casualties in the birth and continued existence of the State of Israel.
As often seems to be the way in the Jewish way of life, the bitter and the sweet are juxtaposed - almost without time to catch a breath. Tuesday is Israel's Independence Day, when the nation breaks out into a huge party to celebrate its reestablishment after a 2000 year exile.
“The achievements and witness of Jewish believers during the Holocaust and especially in the Warsaw Ghetto are essentially unknown to most present day Jewish believers. We stand on the shoulders of these heroes of the Holocaust – the Jewish believers of the Warsaw Ghetto – and their story, as much or as little as we know, must be told.” Dr. Mitch Glaser 
Did you know that there were about a quarter of a million Jewish believers at the time of the Holocaust? And that several thousand of them were trapped to starve and die in the Warsaw Ghetto along with their brethren?