© Marcelo A. Tolopilo
Recently I was asked by my home church to preach a two week series on Isaiah 52:13–15, 53:1–12 (Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song). In doing so, I spent quite a bit of time reading about Jewish history surrounding Isaiah’s composition, rabbinical thought regarding the Fourth Servant Song, as well some fascinating commentary on Yom Kippur (the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement, which fell on the week I was to preach the Isaiah passage).
All this Jewish literature got me thinking about my own Jewish heritage and the journey of identity it has taken me through over the last 16 years or so. Allow me to share with you the words I spoke to my home congregation about my Jewish journey and the settled identity God has brought me to in His Son Jesus Christ.
I am a Jew!—That’s the part of my heritage with which I identify most. There are other mixes in my generational bloodlines, e.g., my mother and her family were all Spaniards, my paternal side hails from eastern Europe. Specifically, my father was a Polish Jew, and over the years I have come to identify deeply with the Jewish people.
Not Jewish enough?—That said, there are actually varying opinions as to who I am, my Jewish identity. For example, I’m potentially Jewish enough for Reformed Judaism (they recognize maternal and paternal lineage). I may even be Jewish enough for some in Conservative Judaism, but I’m definitely not sufficiently Jewish for the Orthodox because they only recognize maternal lineage. Frankly, I don’t know where that puts Manasseh and Ephraim the sons of Joseph because their mother was Egyptian, the daughter of a pagan priest, and we have no record of her conversion (Genesis 46:20). Maybe Manasseh and Ephraim’s Jewishness has something to do with the fact that Jewish descent was established through the father for many centuries, but hey, that’s the lawyer coming out in me and a discussion best left for another time.
Complicating matters—What complicates matters is that I am also an unabashed Christian, a so called “Messianic” by the Jewish community. That means I believe Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and the Savior of the world. And because of my faith in Jesus, I’m not Jewish enough for any of the three branches of modern Judaism. Push come to shove, they would all equally reject me. Ouch! Oh, the sting of unrequited love!!
“Sure, you’re Jewish enough for the State of Israel, No! Wait, you need a note from your rabbi.” —Even though I am racially acceptable as a Jew for the State of Israel (as are my children), ultimately I would be disallowed “Aliyah” (“ascent”, i.e., immigration to Israel) because I would need a letter from my rabbi stating that I am a Jew. A piece of paper trumps blood! Apparently, a letter from my pastor would not pass muster.
Altogether too Jewish!—Yet the opinions as to my identity don’t stop there because you see, I am entirely too Jewish for all the racists, anti-Semites and neo-Nazis of this world. Literally, there are people who would sooner kill me than talk to me because they consider me altogether way, way, way… way too Jewish for their racial palette. I think I need a therapist.
The most important question—So, who am I? Well, through the years I have found that “who am I?” is not the most important question; it’s a good and important query but a secondary one nonetheless. In regards to my Jewishness, the most salient question is not “Who am I?” but “Who do I know?” In my case, that’s what really sets my identity.
Dropping names!—Allow me to let you in on the answer to that primary question because it settles my identity issue definitively. Do you know who I know? Are you ready for this? Because this is truly quite impressive. I’m not usually one to drop names but in this case, I’m willing to make an exception, so here we go… My friends, I personally, intimately, relationally—you ready?—I know the Messiah of Israel! Me!! Personally!!! Did I say that already?
Praying in the Oval Office—I have a good friend whose name is Rick Johnson. A few years back Rick had the privilege of meeting George W. Bush while he was sill president, and he got to pray with him and a handful of other people (3 or 4 others) in the Oval Office. Amazing right? Not surprisingly, there was a White House photographer lurking nearby who took a snapshot of that meeting—always lurking those guys, ubiquitous! It shows the group of them huddled together holding hands, heads bowed, eyes closed, praying in the Oval Office. My friend Rick received a copy of that picture and has the photograph proudly displayed on his office wall. What a privilege for Rick to pray with a sitting president of the United States in the famed Oval Office no less!
I’ve got one better!—Impressive as that may be, I think I have Rick beat on this meeting-important-people thing. As I said, I know the King of Israel who also happens to be the King of the universe. As stated repeatedly in popular Jewish liturgy, “Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha olam”, “Blessed be the Lord our God King of the universe…” I mean, POTUS (President of the United States) is pretty good, but “King of the Universe,” wow! What’s more, I know Him as a close intimate friend. We talk every day!! For the record, my friend Rick knows Him too so he’s still one up on me, but you get my point…
Our identity is in King Jesus!—In the case of believers in Jesus, it’s who you know that makes you who you are, and we who know the Christ are heirs with Him of all His kingdom blessings and riches. We are His people. What’s more we who are of faith are sons of Abraham too, right? (Galatians 3:7, 29)
So, I guess in Jesus I am doubly a Jew!—I’m a Jew by race, and I’m a Jew by grace. I’m a Jew times two baby!! (I need to get t-shirts made of those two phrases, 2XL) How about that? Do you love the Lord Jesus? Is He your sin bearing substitute, your Savior? If He is, then you too know the Messiah, the King of Israel, Creator of heaven and earth, King of the universe, and you have Him as your personal friend and Shepherd. That settles our identity no matter what men may think or decree!