This past summer I tried to make my life simpler by cleaning up some of my spaces in our house and getting rid some of the memorabilia, or junk, that I had stored in them. And among the many things that I sorted through were several cards that were given to me over the years. One of the cards was a card given to me by my mother-in-law when I graduated from seminary seven years ago. And inside the card, in her own hand, she wrote something like this: “Dear James, Congratulations on graduating from seminary. You have worked so hard to arrive at this day. Here is a gift for you. Feel free to spend it in on something you like.” And the cheque was still in the card. It was seven years old. Now stale-dated, it was no longer any good. I have the sentiment. I love my mother-in-law dearly and I know that she loves me. But I don’t have the benefit of the gift that she gave me. I had it in my possession all the time, and I missed it, even though it was there.
And sometimes that is how it is for us in this world. Maybe you are here this morning and you are not a believer in God. Maybe the founding story of your life is something different and so you would not say that you follow Jesus or that you believe what is in the Bible. And yet, I think that you would recognize, even for yourself, even in your life, that there are times that you miss things.
And our hope and our prayer here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church is that we don’t want anyone to miss anything of what God has for them. You might be a person who identifies as a Christian and you come to worship services most Sundays, and you pray over meals some of the time. But that’s as far as it goes. And I don’t want you to miss all that God has for you either. Because God has a much better life for you than the one that you are living right now.
And so what we are going to do over the next several months is to go into a different kind of a sermon series that we call the Family Photo Album. And during this time we are going to look back into the Old Testament and look at the characters and the events and the festivals that happened in those times. For a person who looks at a family photo album can gain a greater sense of who they are by looking at and learning about old photographs of themselves or of their ancestors or of past significant events. Maybe some of those pictures connect with old memories or a story that was told to them by their mother or grandmother. That visual and oral history becomes part of their identity, it helps to define who they are. It gives them a life story which they, in turn, then live out into the future. And so I would like to invite each and every one of you into the story that God has for you.
And we are beginning our look at that story this week by studying the ancient Jewish festival of Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hoshanah means “the head of the year.” And the first thing that is important to understand is that, the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. So it is not like ours where you can just flip a page on the calendar and you know when each month starts and ends. They would go by the moon. And the date that the new moon appears is the start of the new month.
The month just before Rosh Hoshanah is called Elul and it, like the other lunar months, is about 29 to 30 days long. And the start of the month of Elul begins a 40 day period called the Season of Repentance. It lasts throughout the whole month of Elul and goes 10 days into the following month of Tishri. And during the first part of the Season of Repentance, during the month of Elul, people would examine their own lives and reflect on where they have wandered away from God. They would look at the Scriptures and study them for information about the Messiah, who the Messiah was, his characteristics and qualities and what he would do for the people of the world. And so these 30 days are a time of introspection, a time of reflection, a time of repentance.
And then at the end of the thirty days is the little festival of Rosh Hoshanah. Rosh Hoshanah is the start of the month of Tishri. And what would happen in ancient times is the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council, would gather in a courtyard in Jerusalem. And they would have two reliable witnesses come. I imaging that these witnesses are people who would know something about the moon and when to recognize the new moon. They would come into the courtyard and watch for the new moon. But it is very difficult to see. It is only a very thin, faint crescent that can only be seen at sunset and it appears near the sun. And if there are any clouds in the sky at that time of the day, you would miss it. And so, what the rabbis did was to make New Year’s Day into two days. They would consider it one long day. (That might not be a bad idea for us to try! January 1 and 2 could both be New Year’s Day.) And the reason that they did it is, if they missed the new moon on the first day, they would catch it on the second. But people living in Jerusalem would never know when Rosh Hoshanah was going to happen for sure. They only way that they would know was when they heard the shofar, or the ram’s horn. It was the sound of the trumpets that would announce the New Year.
And the ten days from Rosh Hoshanah to Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe. And the Jews believed that during this time, this ten day period, God had a set of books that he was writing in. And based on your behaviour, he was going to determine your future from Yom Kippur onward for the rest of the year. It was thought that during the Days of Awe, God actually determined who was going to live and who was going to die during the coming year. He would determine who would have a good year and who was going to have a bad year. And so the people would be encouraged to repent before Rosh Hoshanah, before New Year’s Day, or you could end up in the Days of Awe.
But here’s the thing: There was still hope, even in the Days of Awe. Because you could, during the Days of Awe, do things that could have an influence on God and on what he wrote in his book beside your name. And what you could do is this: you could pray, you could repent, and you could do good deeds. But after the Days of Awe were completed, your future was set in the eyes of God.
So this whole forty day period, from the beginning of Elul to Yom Kippur, is a time of repentance, it is a time of reconciliation (because it was also very important during this time to strive to mend broken relationships with other people), it was a time of turning back to God, and it was a time of peace.
These days were called Days of Awe, not in the sense of “Awesome, dude!” These are Days of Awe in the sense of coming into the presence of God and seeing him face-to-face and witnessing his unmatched glory. First of all, we would be overwhelmed by God. And second, if we had any thought for ourselves, it would be of our own inadequacy, our own brokenness and our own sinfulness. And Rosh Hoshanah starts off the Days of Awe.
There was something else that I found interesting about Rosh Hoshanah as I researched it. It’s believed that the very first Rosh Hoshanah is the day that God created Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation. It is sometimes celebrated as the birthday of the world. And so there are these new beginnings connected with Rosh Hoshanah. The world was brand new. This human-God enterprise had just started. And so we can say that Rosh Hoshanah is a day of beginnings as well as a day of endings.
And no matter where you are in your walk of faith, or maybe it is a walk of non-faith, all of us have beginnings and endings. And what we invariably do after an ending is we look back and we weigh out what happened in that in-between time: what was good, what could have been done better, what is it that we never want to do again? And so those times, after the end-times, are times of judgment, that is, we are judging what happened in that in-between. And so also for us, at the end of our lives there will be a time of judgment, a time of looking back: what went well, what could have been done better, what do we wish that we had never, ever done? Rosh Hoshanah is like that.
And so when the ram’s horn blows, it is a call to judgment, a call to wake up and examine ourselves. It is a call to see how far we have wandered from God, to reflect on our relationships and think about how we have hurt others by what we have done or maybe by what we have failed to do. And then it is also a time to turn back to God and to rededicate our lives to him, to make amends to those you have hurt and to strive to heal broken relationships.
For the Feast of Trumpets is not just a holiday of the past. It is a Festival, a time appointed by God for his people, that also foreshadows the future. Because one day in the future the trumpets will blow. For there once was a special person who lived on this earth, and he was the Messiah. He was easy for people to miss, even those who were looking for a Messiah because he was just an ordinary human being, just like you and me. But those who had eyes to see recognized him for who he was. They saw how he healed people. They saw how he loved people. They saw the way that he drove out evil. They saw the way that he reached out to people that others usually ignored. And some of the people of that time said, “This is the Messiah! I will follow him. I will give my life to him and he will be my king!”
But it wasn’t all the people who said that, just some. Those who were in power at time took him and they crowned him with a crown of thorns. And then they enthroned him on a wooden cross and left him there to suffer and die. Things did not end well for the Messiah from a human perspective.
But out of the evil intentions of the people on that day, God brought something good and wonderful. Something that is good and wonderful for all people everywhere throughout all time. For through his suffering and death on the cross, Messiah Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world—all the times that we have turned away from God, all the times when we have hurt other people—Jesus paid for them in full. And then on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, to assure us that not even death will separate us from him. The Great Ending that it once was, it no longer is because of him. Jesus ascended into heaven but he promised us that he is coming back one day. And no one knows the hour or the day. But everyone will know when it happens.
The Bible describes it in this way,
13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
There will be a time when we will hear the trumpet horn again and Jesus will come. In the meantime, in the in-between time, we wait, but we do so in a state of watchfulness. We could say that we are in the month of Elul. We are waiting for Rosh Hoshanah. We are continually examining ourselves and turning back to God. We want to be ready for when Jesus comes again. And while we wait, we strive for reconciliation and peace and healing. We want ourselves and our relationships and the world to be as right as it can be when Jesus comes. And we look forward to the day when Jesus will come and fully heal the brokenness of this world. We look forward to the day when Jesus will come and heal our own brokenness. And we do not worry about the call to judgment. Because the Holy Spirit has given us faith in Jesus and we trust our whole lives to him, he is our king, he will carry us through death. And we know that when the Father opens up his books and looks beside our name, all of our sins will have been crossed out by Jesus and “Forgiven” will be written beside our name. Amen.
(This message was presented at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on 12 Sep 2010.)