I recently visited with long-term friends and thought to visit the church where they attended. I sat in the front row with the wife half of this couple. The church was a famous one, perhaps the best known in their city, and very well run. The music was great. The announcements up on the Power Point screen were read aloud by someone off stage who obviously had public speaking training, She was worthy of a TV voice-over. Everything was smooth and professional.
It was a day of baptisms, and one of the senior staff people gave the sermon. In the process, he gave a perfect illustration of why I don't often visit conservative churches or listen to Christian radio.
Here is part of what he said as he discussed the baptism of Yeshua, as recorded in Matthew, chapter three. See if you don't catch why I was appalled:
The religious context was this that that whole area had been dominated by Judaism for centuries, centuries, centuries. Jewish observance of the letter of the law and the imposition of man’s traditions had developed really into a dead religion and Isaiah the prophet said that very clearly in Isaiah 28. He said the Lord says this, “This people near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.”
That was the Lord’s assessment of what had become really religious legalism to the nth degree. But a new day was dawning. That’s why this baptism was taking place. A new day was dawning historically and theologically. John the Baptist had been preaching a call to repentance in Israel. The spirit of the Lord upon him had penetrated the hearts of the listeners, and many of the common folks obviously had been disillusioned by the rules and by religious tradition. After centuries of blind observance of rituals and laws impossible to keep, John had burst onto the religious plane with the anointing of the Holy Spirit calling out sin in the hearts of the people, calling them to a place of repentance, and it was registering, it was stirring the pot big time. People identified with his message. They knew their own hearts, you see. They knew the darkness in their own souls.
They heeded this call to repent, and they were coming and saying, “Yes, I want my past covered, I want it behind me, I want to follow God.”
So John was baptizing them, it was called a baptism of repentance. And it really pointed to a shift in the religious landscape, the traditional control, of the requirements imposed by the law, was being minimized by John’s message. And what they didn’t know at that point was that that was God’s plan from the beginning.
The religious elite were there, and they voiced strong opposition to John’s baptism. Tension was acute between John and the religious leaders, and so with Jesus. Jesus had become, this was very early in his ministry, he had become known, and I am sure it was a very surreal moment when he went to John, and stepped into the public scene and asked John to baptize him. John was shocked, “You’re asking me to baptize you? “ He’s the one of whom John said, “He is coming after me and I am not worthy to unloose his sandal strings.” But Jesus says, “Do it John.”
I told my friend, "This is disgusting!" I hope all of you reading this can guess why. This is an old trope, an ancient meme, extolling the gospel and the Messiah by contrasting him to an allegedly bankrupt, oppressive, self-righteous and worthless, burdensome Judaism. This habit of contrasting an allegedly superior Christianity to an allegedly bankrupt Judaism is so engrained in Christendom's cultural and theological DNA that most hardly notice. Surely, none of the 1200 or more people in that sanctuary that morning registered a protest. They thought nothing of this. They were hearing a very familiar "gospel," the dark gospel of anti-Judaism. Such a rhetorical stance goes all the way back to the Second Century and Justin Martyr, who was the first to commend the gospel by trashing Judaism.
I wish I could say this is a rare occurrence. But just about every time I twiddle the radio dial and come across some Christian preacher who talks about religious Judaism, I encounter the same kind of diatribe. It makes me sick. It makes me angry. And as a Jewish believer in Yeshua, it makes me very much ashamed.
On the way to lunch afterwards, I commented on the sermon to the husband half of my friend-couple, and he characterized it as "replacement theology." No, that's not what it is. Replacement theology is the name we give to theological systems which posit the theological disinheritance of the Jewish people, to be replaced by the new Israel, the Church. No, this was not that. This was worse. This was anti-Judaism--the assumption that Christianity is right because Judaism and just everything about it is wrong.
So I ask this question. Is Jesus such a flimsy Savior, and is his resurrection so mediocre, that we must give him a boost by positioning him upon the rubble of a rhetorically demolished Judaism? Can he not stand on his own merits? And can't we lift Yeshua up without putting Judaism down?
Apparently we can't, at least not according to some people.
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Thanks for more good words.
And this is why I still find myself without a faith community.
Sadly it's not only churches, many so-called messianic congregations engage in this trope in spite of their "Judaic-lite" practices.
I did find myself wondering how one could respond to the onslaught of anti-Jewish propaganda represented above, presuming one could find the presence of mind to do so and could find someone who might listen.
My, oh, my -- one might begin -- "that whole area" you say? How much territory was that? The entirety of the ancient Land of Israel? So are we talking about a space about the size of the American State of New Jersey, give or take a little? Dominated by Judaism for centuries, you say? It seems to me that of the 14 centuries since the conquest of Canaan, during the first four centuries large portions of the area were still under Philistine control, though after King Solomon virtually all of it was under Jewish control for about 3 centuries until the Northern Kingdom was decimated by the Assyrians, and the Southern Kingdom was exiled to Babylon about a century later, though the area returned to Jewish control in the following century for perhaps 3 more centuries until the Seleucid Greeks conquered the area. The Maccabean revolt regained some measure of control for another century, but then the Roman Empire swept in to become the dominating force in the era under consideration. Overall, that does not sound to me much like "domination" by Judaism, even in the land that G-d sovereignly assigned to the Jewish people as a perpetual possession.
As for "dead religion", the observations of Isaiah were of conditions at least six centuries prior to Rav Yeshua's era. Applying those observations to conditions so much later after so much political and cultural upheaval makes no sense at all, and ignores entirely the evidences of religious renewal and re-dedication in the post-exilic Persian community of Esther about four-and-a-half centuries beforehand and the Maccabean era in Israel proper only a century-and-a-half beforehand. Consequently, I would think, we must seek another explanation for the popularity of Yohanan-the-Immerser and his movement encouraging immersion to demonstrate repentance.
Funny thing about the notion of "God's plan from the beginning". Are we assuming that His rescue of the people of Israel from Egypt, and His instructions to them that they must live according to the Torah covenant regulations lest they die, were not a critical part of that plan? Was this supposed to be just something to keep the Jews busy for fourteen centuries or so until He could think of something better? Or could it be that Rav Shaul was correct when he wrote to the Roman assembly that "the Law (i.e., the Torah) is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (Rom.7:12) -- or that the "gifts and the calling of God (i.e., to the Jewish people) are irrevocable" (Rom.11:29)? In fact, could it be that someone was neglecting Rav Yeshua's explicit teaching in Mt.5:17-20 that he came to obey Torah and not to denigrate it, that those who do it and teach it would become great in the kingdom of heaven, that those who denigrate it and inhibit others from doing it would become least in that kingdom, and that they needed to become more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees even to enter it -- or his explicit teaching in Mt.23 that the scribes and Pharisees had the authority of Moses and were to be obeyed by his own disciples despite mistaken priorities that needed to be adjusted? Or was the prophet
Zechariah mistaken when he quoted HaShem: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘In those days ten men from all the nations will grasp the garment of a Jew [lit. the fringe on the corner of such a garment], saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”’” (Zech.8:23). Since the conditions described by Zechariah seem to fit the present day better than any previous period, it would seem that it is critical to the fulfillment of prophecy that Jews have continued throughout the past two millennia to produce and to wear the garment prescribed by Torah and our traditions that teach us how to make it.
"Thus," -- one might conclude -- "it seems that whoever formulated the sermon presented that day was not reflecting the views of God as revealed in the scriptures, but was rather blindly reflecting the poison of anti-Semitic church fathers." I wonder what "the 1200 or more people in that sancturary that morning" would think about *that*.