Month 11:01, Rosh Chodesh, Year:Day 5940:296 AM|
2Exodus 3/40, Yovel - Year 50/50
Gregorian Calendar: Saturday 28 January 2017
Rosh Chodesh XI
The Island & Your Life Story
Chag sameach Rosh Chodesh kol beit Yisrae'el and Mishpachah Lev-Tsiyon - grace and peace in Yah'shua our Messiah (Jesus Christ) and may He give me a portion of His Ruach (Spirit) this morning so that I may accurately convey His message to you on this first day of the eleventh month.
The Smallest Book of Religion
One of the most remarkable things about the Bible is, in my view, that it is so small. Compared to the Hindu Upanishads, the Moslem Koran and Haddith and the Jewish Talmud we have a remarkably thin volume to base our emunah (faith) and way of life on. Perhaps of all the Bible books, Genesis is remarkable precisely because it covers such a vast period of time in such a short space. But not content with this carefully preserved record, people have gone in search of 'amplifications' like the Pharisee-invented pseudepgrapha like the Books of Enoch, the Book of Jasher and many others and in the process have introduced a lot of man-made thinking and false doctrine into the Body. And whilst, I admit, I find the history of early mankind fascinating, being as I am something of a history buff and have researched a lot of literature pertaining to the earliest times, I can see Yahweh's wisdom in keeping his Salvation Record as simple and short as it is.
Judaism and Trivialities
Orthodox Jews, and many Messianic Jews too who insist we follow their traditions, trumpet the Talmud as indispensable for Torah-living. They tell us that without their man-made rules, we wouldn't know how to tie tzitzit (tassels) properly or how to observe any number of Yahweh's mitzvot (commaments) with precision. Yet for centuries Yahwists did without all their rules and Yahweh chose to exclude all the details which the rabbis claimed were so important. Details like the angle, size and direction of the sukkah weren't important to Yahweh and are not supplied by Torah because they aren't important. Neither are we told that there's a particular way to knot our tzitzit and there are different ways this is done depending what part of Judaism you come from. Yahweh isn't interested in trivialities and doesn't want us to be either because they tend to detract from what's actually important.
Tzitzit and Headcovering
Yesterday we were reminded by Paul that what matters the most is the kind of life we lead and the doctrine we teach and practice. What matters at the end of the day is character, and character is forged principally by applied ethics. The way you knot your tzitzit isn't going to make you a better or worse believer. Provided the men enter covenants of Torah-obedience and wear Tzitzit with the mandatory, distinctive blue thread, it doesn't matter how you make them. And exactly what design of headcovering the women wear doesn't matter either provided they actually 'cover' properly and, like godly believers' clothing in general, don't seek to draw unnecessary attention to themselves, displaying modesty. What matters even more than these is that we are true and faithful men and women of covenant obedience and ahavah (love) in our respective spheres.
Learning to Prioretise
Yahweh wants us to prioretise the main issues and understand the divine tavnith (pattern) in His Davar (Word) to that we can understand the spiritual principles and processes in very general terms first and foremost. And if we've understood them right, and applied them right, they will work for us and for the messianic community as a whole. Focussing on details which don't appear in the text of Scripture, like insisting that tzitzit may only be fastened to men's belts or prayer-shawls, so often means misses the Author's heart. Thus, for example, when Yahweh commands us to sit in a Sukkah during Sukkot, He doesn't care what shape or size it is or how it's decorated because such details are unimportant to Him.
Avoiding the Outward Puritanical Spirit
I have had people lose their emunah (faith) because the Ark of the Covenant resembled similar religious boxes from pagan Egypt, or because Solomon's temple had a resemblance to pagan Phoenician temples. But they're missing the point entirely. What's important is not the art, architecture or craftsmanship of any particular age (which is always changing), but that Yahweh sat on the Mercy Seat of the Ark and inhabited the First Temple and in a way never seen in any pagan temple before or since. A lot of messianics get their knickers in a twist because Western Christian churches often have spires which remind them of pagan phallic symbols. The history of symbols is a complicated affair and it's possible to get so puritanical as to miss the spiritual core. Some people think I'm too much of a purist and I have upset more than a few messianics for using the Crux Immissa symbol and refuse to use a lot of messianic terminology which in my mind confuses the English language and handicaps witnessing. We have to be both sensible and show grace. Yahweh is far more interested in the state of our soul than He is in the decoration in our places of assembly. Nevertheless, we should keep it simple, following the tavnith (pattern) shown in Scripture.
Our 30th Anniversary
This year is the 30th Anniversary of our ministry and I had toyed with the idea of telling our story today but felt this would be better done at another time. We have changed enormously in 30 years but in several respects we have remained unchanged - we have maintained simplicity, both before and after becoming Torah-compliant. Some of the most strict so-called Torah-compliant messianics I have met have often be the most stingy and spiritually arid. By the same token, many enamoured by the deyails and glitter of this tradition or that tend to get distracted by, and lost in, all the detail.
Looking Into the Heart of the Matter
The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and older denominations of Protestantism are very taken by ritual, some of it pagan and even idolatrous. Yet in my 30 or so years of service to the Kingdom I have noticed how time and time again Yahweh seems to 'look past' all of this mumbojumbo and to the heart of the soul. True seekers are indeed to be both found and recognised in the most diverse of places.
Last night I was watching the captivating and very moving Russian biographical movie called Ostrov (Остров), which translates as The Island. It tells the fictional story of a 20th century Eastern Orthodox monk. During the Second World War, Anatoly was a coal stoker of the boilers on a Russian freighter. When the Germans captured and boarded the boat they confronted Anatoly with a choice: 'shoot your captain, Tikhon, and have a chance to live or die now'. Anatoly reluctantly shoots Captain Tikhon, his captain’s body falls overboard, the Germans leave and he thinks he’s safe but the Germans had set charges on the boat. He later finds himself washed ashore near a Russian Orthodox monastery where the monks find him and nurse him back to health.
Life in a Russian Orthodox Monastry
The movie then moves forward three decades to find brother Anatholy continuing to live at the monastery, leading a life more ascetic than that found at the most severe Carthusian Charterhouses. He lives in the monastery’s boiler room, wheeling coal to and fro throughout the day and sleeping on heaps of the mineral by night. Throughout the day he walks the island reciting the orthodox 'Jesus Prayer' ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner") and asking for Tikhon to prayer for his soul. At other times he would row himself out to a small island and do the same. Every morning Anatoly wakes from his coal pile bed, he then moves to a side room, and, before an icon of Christ, enters into praise and prayers for the man he murdered Tikhon 30 years before.
A Fool for God
Very quickly, we get the impression that Anatoly is a fool, a 'fool for God,' much in the same vein or Francis of Assisi, Philip Neri, and many other believers born before or contemporaneous with the Reformation, men who were helplessly in love with Yahweh. Anatoly’s reputation for holiness abounds in mainland Russia and everyday many come to seek his counsel, although Anatoly often deflects attention from himself by pretending that 'Father Anatoly' is unavailable and that he, a menial coal stoker, might provide a word or two.
A Pregnant Woman
Our first sighting of Anatoly after the War comes in 1975, when a pregnant Russian girl comes to ask Anatoly what she should do about her delicate condition. She prepares for her visit by bringing a wad of cash in hopes that the monk will give an apodictic blessing for an abortion. Father Anatoly was 'unavailable' to talk with her, but the stoker, who has stuffed a pillow under his shirt to give a pregnant appearance, scolds her and accuses her of attempting to bribe a monk into condoning murder. She rebukes Anatoly by asking what he would know about her state. He replies that he knows what it is like to kill another person and tells her to 'get off [his] island' and go and have her child, having finally persuaded her that this is the most loving and righteous thing to do even if she may never find someone to marry her.
The Mischievous Monk
Like many other 'fools for Christ' Anatoly is something of a blissfully ignorant rebel. During the 'Divine Liturgy' and the 'Divine Office' of the Russian Orthodox Church he often prays facing some direction other than the altar, on one occasion towards the house of the prior of the monastery, which Anatoly has secretly set aflame in hopes of teaching the worldly prior spiritual detachment.
Cleaning the Prior
Anatoly sees the spiritual reality of things where others might only hope for glimpses. The prior, without a house now, moves into the boiler room with Anatoly, boasting that he might live as a hermit! ... although clinging to his a luxurious blanket and leather boots lined with wool given to him from the Patriarch. Anatoly 'exorcises' the prior’s demons by burning his boots and coat in the furnace, and filling the room with so much smoke that they both come within a breath of death. The prior later thanks him, realising that he has not led a penitential life focused on Yahweh, but one of earthly attachments. It is very moving.
Back From the Dead
The climax of the film comes when a prominent Russian admiral comes to the island monastery with his sick daughter. Anatoly learns that the admiral is Admiral Tikhon Petrovich, his old captain, the one he thought he had murdered. Anatoly, withholding his own identity, tells the admiral that the angels are rejoicing in the admiral’s visit. Anatoly tells the admiral his daughter is not sick, but demonically possessed by a devil familiar to him. He takes the admiral’s daughter to an island where he implores Yahweh to exorcise the girl, which He eventually does. Upon returning to the island Anatoly reveals to Tikhon his identity and implores forgiveness, which Tikhon concedes he granted many years ago, presuming Anatoly dead. The film goes on and Anatoly eventually dies.
The Importance of Stories
What I love about movies such as this is that they tell a spiritul story not at all unlike those we read in Scripture. The external practices of the Russian Orthodox Church, along with its Mariolotry, aren't at all in focus. When we see and what we experience first and foremost is the life of a man seeking teshuvah or repentance. Coupled with this is a genuine love of Yahweh, humility and real humanity. His whole life is absorbed in his love for, and service to, Yahweh, and whilst we almost certainly are unlikely to be called to live out our days in a monastery on a small island in the freezing Arctic Sea hauling coal about we can in principle work out our salvation, and serve Yahweh and His Kingdom, anywhere where there are people to love and serve, even if it's just a handful of souls. We're here first and foremost to work out our own salvation and right-relationship withy Elohim (God) and in consequence of, or in parallel with - or both - help others work out theirs.
Learning From the Orthodox Church
The important thing is the story. This movie was a work of fiction but a very good one nonetheless, made all the more intertesting by the fact that it was true to the tradition and spirit of the Russian Orthodox Church which I have had occasion to study in the past, as well as its sister churches in Bulgaria (which I visited in Sofia, Rila and Plovdiv), Greece, Romania and elsewhere in the Balkans. There is a lot about their spirituality that I like even if I obviously disagree with a great deal too. Like it or not, Yahweh caused souls to be born into, and live their lives in, this tradition, where they learned, in many cases, the essentials of the Besorah (Gospel).
But my point is that the important thing is the story of which our life is an example. We are living stories. What do our stories tell? And will we leave this world leaving a story that will edify and encourage others in their emunah (faith)? As in that great compilation of stories, the Bible, there are accounts of men and women, warts and all - their successes and failures, their overcomings and their being overcome. Where there is chayim (life), there is a story. That's why we love stories. That's why children love them. Deep down we want our stories to matter to someone and for Elohim (God) to be pleased with ours.
The Purposeful Challenges of Life
The Island definitely sparked something off in me and led me to my message today. I don't want anyone here to get the diea that I am saying that doctrine and detail don't matter, especially when we know the emet (truth), because they absolutely do - but what I do want to get across is the understanding that some things are more important than others - just as their are lesser and greater sins, with different Torah punishments ordained by Yahweh to make the point, so there are priorities in our lives too. Though fictional, Father Anatoly, given his situation, definitely made the right choices on the whole, even if at times he was exceedingly naughty. And yet the point was made that Anatoly's 'naughtiness' was purposefully weaved into the lives of the others the monk shared the island with to sufficiently agitate them to bring them to awareness of their own defects and to repentance. Sometimes Yahweh deliberately puts us together with people who grate our nerves but whose purpose is to teach us to overcome and love no matter what. Many are the challenges in this life and all, however gruesome some of them are, do serve a purpose.
John the Baptist and Our Unique Missions
I have tried the 'monastic' life on occasion, or thought I had, and failed dismally usually within a day or two of starting. John the Baptist was certainly called to it and lived an austere life for years for the sole purposes of preparing the way of the Messiah over little more than a six month period! He spent years denying the flesh in order to spend just half a year opening the way of Yah'shua (Jesus) before being imprisoned and executed. Jeremiah, whom we spoke of yesterday, though possibly not executed, was thrust into his work right from an early age. Everyone's mission is different. Our challenges are tailor-made and the lessons we learn, though shared by all overcomers, are very much flavoured with our own personal type of essence. And we don't stop learning until we're taken home. The work is never fully done until that time.
Every man and woman's life is unique and extraordinary, becoming glorious as we live for Yah'shua (Jesus) as the fictional character Father Anatoly did in The Island. Though life may appear complex, the spiritual lessons gleaned from it are always simple enough.
The Story of William Sykes
William Sykes, my Anglican chaplain at University College, Oxford, when I was a Biochemistry student in the 1970's, reached a crossroads in his life when he was 24. He had to make a choice of career as his time at Oxford, as a student himself, drew to a close. He had taken a degree in law. He thought long and hard about going into the family firm of lawyers. The material rewards were promising. The firm was well-established and relatively secure, and in those days being a 'solicitor', as we call them in England, was still regarded as 'respectable' and carried a certain amount of status in the community. He would be in a position to get married and have a family, and so on. Everything looked promising.
Considering a Future
As he was musing over all of this (he recalls in one of his books) he discerned a certain selfishness of outlook. He was thinking primarily of himself and his own comfort and security. The cost of this would be considerable - 40 years working in an office, 5˝ days a week for 50 weeks a year. This did not seem to him a sufficient justification for life.
Making a Commitment
It was around this time that Bill made a spiritual commitment - to live the Christian life at all costs! He had just come to see the spiritual dimension as the most important thing in life. Before that the inner voice of conscience had challenged his integrity: 'Come on, Bill, if living this Christian spiritual life is so important to you, shouldn't you be actively engaged in spreading it?'
The Two Bills: Sykes vs. Clinton
Thus challenged, he put money, comfort and status aside and made a bid for life itself, and that's how he eventually landed up as Chaptain and Fellow of my college in Oxford. Another man also went to my college in Oxford but we all know what he chose. He was another 'William' whom we know as Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States, and an absolute villain and philanderer, like his crooked wife who tried to beat Donald Trump to the White House a few weeks ago. What a contrast in personalities, what radically different stories, one told out in disgrace in the corridors of power and another in honour in the corridors of an academic institution helping out young men and women in need. The irony is I never met William Sykes when I was in College and it was only two or three years ago that I bought his five books which have since become an invaluanble resourse in my own ministry.
Bill Sykes died two years ago and has gone home to be with his Maker, his work completed, like the ficticious character Anatoly in the movie I have shared with you. The younger amongst you have fresh stories to live and choices to make, and the older ones are still living and telling theirs and still making choices. And I suggest the direction of all our stories is soon to radically change, bringing both new challenges and new opportunities to make our lives count for the King and His Kingdom. I hope that you will look around you with fresh eyes and see how Yahweh is working - keep your life simple and true, and stay faithful to the doctrine of the apostles. May you all, with renewed determination, thrive and prosper in Yah'shua our Messiah (Jesus Christ), is my prayer in His Name. Amen.
 Archecotech, Russian Movie – The Island - Ostrov
 William Sykes, Visions of Grace: An Anthology of Reflections (The Bible Reading Fellowship, Oxford: 1997)