For Jews This is the Most Dangerous Time of the Year

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This is a sermon preached last shabbat which was Shabbat Shuvah, the sabbath of repentance, which comes each year just before Yom Kippur, and even on Yom Kippur. As you approach that holy day, may these thoughts assist you. The text is Hosea, chapter 14. 

 Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God

This is the most dangerous time of the year for us.

One danger is that by fasting, and sitting through long services, we will imagine that we have paid our dues. We have not. We owe God far more than we can imagine. Far more than we can ever pay. And it is deadly serious. We cannot pay our dues, and we have not done so. We are, more likely than not, spiritually bankrupt, anyway.

Another danger is to imagine that by making a slight course correction, or by returning to some level of practice we have been neglecting, that we will have done what needs to be done. But the passage does not say “Pay your dues,” “inconvenience yourself,” “return to previous disciplines,”

It says, Return O Israel to the LORD your God.

But there are so many of us, too many of us, who have barely touched the hem of his garment We cannot return to where we have never been.

For many of us it is not a question of returning to the LORD our God, but rather of turning toward him even for the first time.

But most of us have turned toward the LORD our God, “kinda.” But the God of Israel is not a “kinda kind of God.” He intercepts us, grabs us by the shoulder, looks us in the eye, and says—“I’m talking to you—do you hear me? Where are you at Adam?  Where is your brother, Cain? What are you doing with your life, Stuart?”

So I ask you – to the best of your knowledge, have you ever turned to God? Or do you just like to hang out in religious services and with religious people for one reason or another?

The Living God is like a very bright light in the darkness of our personal world. We don’t want to turn toward him because it hurts our eyes, or more likely, it hurts our egos to do so. And even though NONE of us can see God full on, too many of us have been satisfied to have him in our dark places, illumining the room so we can see where things are and make our way, while resisting turning toward him any more than is really necessary for us to get by.

The best some of us do is give a nod to God. The danger is that we have become religious minimalists. But God wants more from us. No, he demands more from us.

He confronts us to tell us he will settle for nothing less from us than being maximalists when it comes to him: “You shall love the LORD your God with ALL your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” If we take this seriously, people we know, love, and care about will tell us we are getting “too religious,” that we are “going overboard,” and they will tell others they are “concerned about us.”

If that isn’t happening with us then it is likely we have not really turned toward God. Instead we are minimalists. We’ve learned how to nod . . . but not how to bow. If giving God our all seems extreme, then we just don’t understand the rules of His game and we are playing a game of our own.

Have you ever turned toward God? Have I?

And if so, turned toward God from what?  Because turning implies changing direction from the direction we have been heading, or at least turning to point, to head in another direction. What are we turning FROM this Yom Kippur season. We cannot turn toward God unless we have some sense of what direction, what fascinations, what habits of body and mind we are turning from.

For you have fallen because of your sin.

 Some of us are like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son. We have always been obedient, disciplined, attentive to God. There are people like that. We should admire them.

But others of us, many of us, and all of us at one time or another are like the Prodigal. We wake up and find that we are in squalor, in trouble in some way, estranged from what we never should have left.

And if we are lucky, we realize that we have fallen because of our sin, our iniquity.

 How then shall we turn our lives around at such a time?

How shall we return to the LORD God of Israel, how shall we turn toward the LORD God of Israel, perhaps for the first time, because many of us have avoided a real turn in the past. What should have been a turn toward the LORD God of Israel has been nothing much more than a pro forma nod.

It’s time to turn. Because if we don’t, there’s more stumbling ahead, more falling, darkness, estrangement, and not much worth talking about.

So how do we return, or turn to the LORD at this time?

 3 Take words with you
And return to the Lord.
Say to Him:
“Forgive all guilt

Ask for forgiveness. We must be very specific in naming the ways in which we have failed to be the person we should have been and have been succeeding in being the person we should not have let ourselves become.

Let me clarify that for a moment.

Has this been a year for you of becoming more like Yeshua the Messiah?  Or do you perhaps consider yours to have been a good year for other reasons? From God’s point of view there are no other reasons.

The most important thing for you and for me to live for, the most important criterion by which to measure ourselves is this:  Am I becoming more like the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, the one who washed the feet of fishermen, the one who touched and healed the sick, the downtrodden, the outcasts, the one who confronted hypocrisy and religious smokescreens wherever he found them, the one whose food was to do the will of his Father.

Has this been a year in which we have intentionally been doing the will of God? Abraham Joshua Heschel puts the question this way:

Living is not just a private affair of the individual. Living is what we do with God’s time, what we do with God’s world.

What have we been doing with God’s time?  With God’s world? Against such criteria we must assess ourselves in God’s sight. Naming our failures. Once again, in the words of the Prophet we must

 3 Take words with you
And return to the Lord.
Say to Him:
“Forgive all guilt.”

And then he adds this:

Accept what is good.

 Along with the arduous task of confronting our sins, we should ask God to accept what is good. We are not altogether bad, and we should not pretend that we are. We may and should ask God to remember the ways in which we have tried, we have aspired, we have stretched ourselves. Tell him these things too.

This is a time of year to assess what is salvageable. Paul reminds us, “Let no one think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sound judgment.”  This is expressed perfectly for us by Hosea – “Forgive all inquity, and accept what is good.” We are both bad and good.

Instead of bulls we will pay

[The offering of] our lips.

 Get serious about change by saying something that costs you something. Sacrifices were expensive. Certainly a bull was a very expensive sacrifice. We need to speak expensive words to God. Words that mean something. Words that will cost us something.  Word that embody sacrificial commitment. Holy decisions.

4 Assyria shall not save us, No more will we ride on steeds; Nor ever again will we call our handiwork our god,

Turn from past dependencies. Name the things you have depended upon instead of God. Sex. Money. Escapism of various kinds. Drugs. Booze. Marathon TV or food binging. Feeling sorry for yourself. Blaming everyone but yourself for everything wrong in your life.

It is time to name those things that have taken the place of your underdeveloped relationship with God.

And where shall we find the courage to take such a fearless moral inventory? From remembering what the Prophet says next.

Since in You alone orphans find pity!”

Even when we are powerless, without leverage, just as we are without one plea, our hope is in the mercy of God toward those who will truly turn toward him. Whenever we truly turn toward God we will find help and mercy.  But we must turn. We must recognize the games we play and stop playing them, and instead, choose to live by the rules of his game.

.Here is what he will do for such people

 5 I will heal their affliction,
Generously will I take them back in love;
For My anger has turned away from them.
6 I will be to Israel like dew;
He shall blossom like the lily,
He shall strike root like a Lebanon tree.
7 His boughs shall spread out far,
His beauty shall be like the olive tree’s,
His fragrance like that of Lebanon.
8 They who sit in his shade shall be revived:
They shall bring to life new grain,
They shall blossom like the vine;
His scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
9 Ephraim [shall say]:
“What more have I to do with idols?
When I respond and look to Him,
I become like a verdant cypress.”
Your fruit is provided by Me.

10 He who is wise will consider these words,
He who is prudent will take note of them.
For the paths of the Lord are smooth;
The righteous can walk on them,
While sinners stumble on them.

I said at the start of this drash that that this is the most dangerous time of the year for us. Actually, that is only half of the story. The other half is that this time of danger is also a time of astounding opportunity.

What is it that will turn this time of danger into a time of opportunity?  Hosea told us.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God.

May you do it this week. May I do it this week. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year ahead. May we have an easy fast—but let’s not make an easy time of this time of year.

I close with a quote from two prophets. The first is Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks:

Teshuva insists that we can liberate ourselves from our past, defy predictions of our future, by a single act of turning . . . as long as we do it now”

It is time to turn our time of danger into a time of opportunity. But we must do it now. Scripture reminds us, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart as in the day of provocation in the wilderness.”  We must repent, as long as it is called today.

 How?  Our second prophet tells us how. His name is Hosea.

Shuvah Yisrrael ad Adonai Eloheichem, ki kashaltem b’avanoteichem. Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the LORD.

Turn.

 

 

 

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