19 December 2007

Christmas and the Jewish People

Originally uploaded by bobmendo
The Jews and Jesus… Christmas concerns

Jews and Jesus seem to live in two different worlds. They appear to be representing two different religions. Melbourne’s Darren Levin, writing in last week’s Australian Jewish News, thinks this. “Jews don't believe in Jesus. How do I know this? I am one - and I can't recall any glow-in-the-dark crucifixes or fibre-optic Mother Marys in my parents' Caulfield South home...Being a Jew who doesn't believe in Jesus - I find it difficult to believe in Christmas.”

Separation of religions makes sense to Levin and to most people. Levin wants Jews who believe in Jesus to be ‘over there’ and Jews who don’t believe to be ‘over here.’ Some aver that it’s better to separate all religion from us. Keep religion over there and secular information over here. But with Christmas strewn all over our diaries and across our shopping malls, it’s increasingly difficult. The news media highlight this with cases in point this month.

First the shocking tale of the British primary school teacher in Sudan who was forced into exile for allowing her year-two students the privilege to name their stuffed teddy bear after the wrong person. Fair enough, it’s their country and they can do what they want, but fanaticism gone mad almost cost Gillian Gibbons more than a few days in jail. The word got out about her negligence and offending behaviour, and immediately the television broadcast hundreds of protestors on the streets in Khartoum screaming for her head. That must have given her pause. Why? She offended the religionists in Sudan who thought she was mocking their founder. Obviously this was an innocent mistake, and we saw a story of political correctness gone mad.

But it’s not only mad in Sudan; look at Bondi Junction in Sydney’s east. Outside Borders Books is the generous holiday display with Santa and sleigh and everyone’s digital Kodak opportunity (for $50 a shot). The glittery balls and silver decorations remind shoppers of Northern Hemispheric holidays of Dickens and Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” The massive decorations rise from 4th to 6th floors. Along the side on the 6th floor, tucked away between a restaurant and a travel Mountain Design store (was that planned to represent the family’s travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem?) is the manger panorama including the three wise men. It might reach 5 foot high. Religion gets a hearing, barely visibly--it’s there, but it’s being pushed to the apparent side is a slur at best.

Over in the USA, Sears, a large retailer similar to our Myer, has changed the names of their Christmas trees. They say, “The reason for our use of holiday tree is due to [our being a] very diverse company, we do not want to offend any of our associates, but also our valued customers. We decided to call them holiday trees because even if Christians are the only religion that uses a Christmas tree we still do not want complaints from other customers of different religions complaining about our use of Christmas.”

Something appears to be happening in the religio-pc world today. If I understand it correctly, here in Australia, Christmas is a national holiday. Everywhere else in the globe, the green trees people decorate in December are called Christmas trees. What is the fear of the use of the proper name of the holiday?

I’m not sure why anyone would be offended because a store has a display that highlights a holiday of someone in particular. Do unattached people protest Valentine displays sold from the local Target outlet? In Indian neighbourhoods, do people who are not from India protest the display of Diwali activities? Of course not!

People who do not celebrate Christmas are not offended by its celebration by others, are they? Back in 2005, Sears did the same thing. They pulled the word Christmas from their stores, and told employees to wish customers “Happy Holidays.” Sears received so much pressure from the people that year, that it reprinted its ads to include Christmas and rushed “Merry Christmas” signs to all of its retail outlets.

Ben Stein, the American Jewish actor/comedian, wrote in his commentary, “I am a Jew, and it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit-up, be-jeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.”

“It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a crèche, it's just as fine with me.”

There are still many Jewish people who want to avoid any mention of the holiday. Some like Levin want to keep things separate. They prefer not knowing that the little boy was in fact a Jewish baby born in the Bethlehem village stable. Maybe they don't want to know that Y’shua (that’s the Jewish way to say Jesus) was born in fulfilment of biblical prophecy from previous generations. Maybe they don’t want to know that Y’shua lived his entire life in Israel and gave himself for Jewish people throughout his days. Yet he did. He even died in Jerusalem, and rose from the dead there on the third day. But that’s another season, isn’t it?

So what do we make of the pushing of the manger scene to the side of an escalator on the 6th floor in Westfields? What of political correctness? Will I be allowed to wish people Happy Anzac Day in due course, even though some fought against our troops at Gallipoli? Can’t we let others have their religion and let this truly be a multi-cultural country, not a monolith of sameness?

Here, or in your neighbourhood, or in your life, maybe the word of the Christmas carol writer should ring again: “Joy to the world! The Lord has come, let earth receive her king, let every heart prepare him room.”

On the panorama in Westfield are the words of the carol “The First Noel”-- “And by the light of that same star three wise men came from country far.” Perhaps, more important is the song’s chorus which lifts us with the repeated “Noel, noel… born is the king of Israel.” He is our King, oh Jewish people. He is our Messiah. He is our Saviour, and we would do well to give him place this year and throughout our years.

Give him proper place or pull the plug entirely. He’s not a sideshow; He’s the host!

But that’s the problem with religion and separation, isn’t it? Some want religion to be ‘over there’ and leave us alone ‘over here.’ God wants us all to know him personally and let over there come over here. Let your heart prepare him room.

Bob Mendelsohn is the national director of Jews for Jesus Australia. He and his family moved from the US in 1998 to found the organization in Sydney. He can be reached on bob@jewsforjesus.org.au or 1.800.988.077 in Australia.

17 December 2007

Announcing...Peace in Jerusalem

Neville Chamberlain is known to many as the Western prime minister who accommodated the Nazi regime, who was willing to bend over backwards with signing the Munich Agreement in 1938. His bending in Britain’s Parliament led to back-breaking bombing and war mongering by the Germans in World War II. His famous, “Peace in our times” comments on the tarmac in Britain, and then his speech delivered to Parliament rings in the ears of many, especially Jewish people, as empty words, wishful thinking and sad misunderstanding of the situation and the devilish opponent which was Germany in 1938.

But peace is not a bad thing, is it?

In his famous speech to Parliament Chamberlain said, “It is my hope and my belief, that under the new system of guarantees, the new Czechoslovakia will find a greater security than she has ever enjoyed in the past.“

Sadly this did not happen. When the Sudetenland was annexed to the Reich without a shot, no one won, and to this day Czechoslovakia and the later-divided land of the Czech Republic and Slovakia has never recovered from this annexation.
Chamberlain’s evaluation of the situation was impoverished by his refusal to listen to Winston Churchill, a member of his own government. Churchill was noted for his warnings about the German efforts to dominate Europe and Hitler’s secret plans viz the Jews.

But that was then, and now is now, right?

Here in Australia we are readying to celebrate Christmas. And this season has a certain sentiment. Christmas is about peace on earth and good will to men. You see it in the shops, you hear it in jingles and jingoism on talkback radio and greeting cards. So what’s the difference? Did Chamberlain merely lead the way in this sentimentalism that cripples real conversation? Why is he charged with such serious indictment?

Peace, after all, is part of the fruit of the Spirit. Peace is the ministry of the Prince of Peace whose birth we celebrate at this time. Paul the Apostle says, peace is part of the Kingdom of God, along with righteousness and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14.17) Shalom, the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ can be widened to translate into ‘wholeness’ and Isaiah says God will keep him in “perfect peace whose mind is stayed on” God. (Isaiah 26.3)

So who would say anything against peace? Even though his prediction of global calm was wrong, who would dare to knock Chamberlain when true peace is such a characteristic of the man of God and of the Son of God?

Add to that the weight of the Psalmist, King David, who wrote in Psalm 122, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper who love thee.”

It sounds like God is in favour of peace, and real peace should be the desire of all true believers. After all, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5.1)

In light of the current Middle East situation in the Land of Israel, where is peace? Over 330 times in the Bible the word ‘peace’ is used; it must matter to the Almighty.
But it all seems for naught. Turn on the news daily with this peace wish, and you will weep. The situation aggravates and escalates whenever one side takes on the other. Walls are built, homicide bombers actively pursue war, cameras flash in Jenin, stories are told and untold and retold… it’s a mess. Where is peace?

Jim Wallis is a Christian peace worker from the US. He has written and founded Sojourners Magazine back in the 1970s and is a constant voice for the underprivileged, the poor and the oppressed.

In his book God’s Politics, (2005) in his consideration of the Middle Eastern peace process, Wallis lends his support to the people in the territories, and underscores the oppression of the Palestinians. His evaluation is based on personal visits and conversations, and not necessarily on all the facts of the matter.

Wallis said, “Jesus did not say, ‘Blessed are the peace lovers.’ He rather said ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, [for they shall be called sons of the living God.’] (Matthew 5.9) which is always a much more difficult task. (page 160)

The Jewish prayer entitled the Kaddish, said at least several times daily by Orthodox Jews worldwide, contains the phrase, “He who makes peace in his high heaven, may he make peace on us and on all Israel, and let us say ‘amen.’” Again the notion of ‘making peace’ rather than simply agreeing with it, or loving it…that’s in view.

Peace for Wallis and for many means the end of conflict. He cites the previous pope who “vigorously opposed the US war in Iraq…and called upon the world ‘to unite’ in overcoming terrorism and to resist its ‘logic of death.’ Reject war, but unite to defeat terrorism. That is a message for our time.” (p. 171)

So at the same time, Wallis argues against the US-led war and against the terrorists. It’s a tough fence.

Consider the plight of the settlers, who long daily for both God’s plans in allowing their return and also peace between peoples. Why must they be mutually exclusive?

And the number one concern of them all is peace. Hands down, the public opinion polls show “peace” as the desire of Israelis, from all walks of life. It is incumbent on us as Australian Christians to consider how this will happen.

Gerald Derstine, a long-time friend of Israel and Christian pastor from the US, wrote in his book Fire over Israel, “It is important for the church to understand this message because we are being affected by the ignorance and indifference that prevents the church from carrying out its responsibility. That land contains the city from which God’s Kingdom on earth will be ruled... if we really believe that Jesus Christ is coming back again, then we should take an interest in what is happening in Jerusalem. We should be involved in getting the land ready for her king.” (page 127). Derstine was appointed by Israel’s Likud party to serve as “Peace Mediator” to dialogue with Arab Muslims and Jews from a Christian perspective.

Consider the story of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9). The land belonged to Abraham and the Jews, his covenant descendants. (Genesis 12.7) God told the Jewish people, former slaves now liberated under Moses, to enter the Promised Land. And as they were entering, they were told to conquer the land, and to remove the Girgashites and the Hittites and the Canaanites, etc. Included in that list would have been the locals named the Gibeonites. Therefore, God’s plan and God’s will was clear. Destruction of the Gibeonites was what He asked. Yet

“The sons of Israel did not ask for the counsel of the LORD. And Joshua made peace with them and made a covenant with them, to let them live; and the leaders of the congregation swore an oath to them. (Josh 9.14-15)

These were the tribe that came up with a clever scheme to save themselves. They pretended to have come from a long way and ended up securing a work contract with the neo-Israelites. God’s will clear-- their eradication; Joshua’s covenant of peace, however, overrode God’s will and replaced it. In itself, this is a fascinating set of thoughts.

But apply the circumstances of this Older Testament passage with the current Middle East crisis and Chamberlain’s thoughts. Peace between peoples, peace between God and man; when will it come?

Making a covenant of peace with a people who are not interested in peace is folly. The old adage is so quotable it’s almost trite. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

I believe that there is a day coming when Jesus will descend to the City of Peace and put his foot down. So says Zechariah 14, “The LORD will go forth and fight against those nations, as when He fights on a day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which is in front of Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives will be split in its middle from east to west by a very large valley” (14.3-4)

When the Messiah returns to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, like a parent who has had enough of children’s disobedience, he will put his foot down! And his rule will be established. To note: Jerusalem means “City of Peace” and the ministry title we most recognize at Christmas is “Prince of Peace.” How we long for that day of his return when he establishes peace in the City of Peace, but until that day there will not be full/ true peace.

I always prefer it when people are at peace with one another, whether in my neighbourhood or in the land of Israel. And putting down guns will help, and putting down bombs or never creating them will be of great advantage to world peace. AND YET, I don’t want to placate madmen like Ahmadinejad and others of his ilk. The Irani president says the holocaust is ‘a myth’ and calls for Israel to be moved to the US or to Europe. Let us not be guilty of doing the Chamberlain ‘peace in our time’ speech.

The adage a year ago was “If Fatah/Hamas put down their guns, there would be no more war. If Israel put down their guns, there would be no more Israel.”

Beyond sloganneering, it’s time for real peace, the kind that only comes from re-union with the Lord. There needs to be a revival in the Land towards peace and towards eternal life. Only in Jesus will real peace come, so let’s pray to that end. Let’s dream to that end. Let’s support ministries that bring about redemption in Jesus Christ. Let’s put down our ‘my side’ vs ‘your side’ thinking. What really matters in the Land of God’s Promises is the saving grace of Jesus, and anything short of that is short of that.

My conclusions:
1) Peace in Jerusalem based on governmental military action and treaties is at best ephemeral and wishful thinking.
2) Living in terror and in the culture of terror-driven policies will only aggravate the situation in the generations to come. Terrorism and those who support it must be stopped.
3) Peace in the Land is a need, for all humans, for humanity, for justice to ‘roll down like waters.’ (Amos 5)
4) All Christians should pray for God’s ministries in Israel to prosper. These include ministries to the poor, to the religionists, to the Muslims, to the Arabs, to the Jews, to everyone.
5) Giving up land to ensure peace has neither historical precedent nor realistic hope of success.
6) Peace in the Middle East is a lovely sentiment, but given the nature of man, it seems to be impossible at this time. The only real peace which will exist before the return of Jesus is individual and related to a person’s faith in Christ.

The estimates claim there were about 410,000 Arab Muslims and Christians in what was wrongly labelled Palestine in 1893 while another 25,000 Jewish people lived there. Today there are 7,150,000 inhabitants – compared to 806,000 residents who lived in Israel in 1948, according Central Bureau of Statistics data. 5,415,000 are Jews (76 percent) while 1,425,000 million (20 percent) are Arabs. 310,000 (4 percent) people were classified as “others,” mostly non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union or those whose Jewish status is still undetermined by the Interior Ministry.