Today we continue to look at our Family Photo Album of faith as we browse through the faces and the events of the Old Testament. And in the same way that looking through a Family Photo Album can give us sense of history and identity which helps us to step forward into the future, so it is with our Family Photo Album of faith. For there is a richness in our Old Testament heritage, and that richness was only magnified and multiplied when God wrapped himself in human flesh and stepped into this world to live life as one of us. “Sing to the Lord a new song,” the Psalmist writes, “for he has done marvellous things!” (Psalm 98:1a) And as those marvellous acts of God become imprinted on our hearts and minds they will propel us into a new trajectory into the future, a new path, a new life which is far, far better than we could ever dream of on our own.
Today we are looking at the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the last of the series of three fall festivals of God’s Old Testament people. The first was Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year, when the sound of the trumpets would announce the call to judgement. Ten days later came Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the one day of the year when the High Priest would go into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred room in the Jerusalem Temple, and there he would offer a sacrifice to God for all the sins of the people. On that day, all things would be made right between God and his people.
And then, five days after the Day of Atonement came Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, also known as the Feast of Booths, because during this eight day festival, the Jewish people would build rudimentary structures called Booths or Tabernacles and live in them to remember what it was like to live in tents in the desert during the Exodus journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Leviticus chapter 23, God gives his instructions for this festival of the Lord:
33 The LORD said to Moses, 34 “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the fifteenth day of the seventh month the LORD’s Festival of Tabernacles begins, and it lasts for seven days. …
39 ” ‘So beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the LORD for seven days; the first day is a day of sabbath rest, and the eighth day also is a day of sabbath rest. 40 On the first day you are to take branches from luxuriant trees—from palms, willows and other leafy trees—and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. 41 Celebrate this as a festival to the LORD for seven days each year. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come; celebrate it in the seventh month. 42 Live in temporary shelters for seven days: All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters 43 so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.’ ”
44 So Moses announced to the Israelites the appointed festivals of the LORD. (Leviticus 23:33-34,39-44)
The Feast of Tabernacles was a festival of joy. This is the only festival where God commands his people to “rejoice before the LORD” (v. 40). Even today, this event is celebrated with joy. Here is a video clip of a Feast of Tabernacles worship service in 2008.
The ancient Feast of Tabernacles was one of three festivals for which every Jewish male was required to journey to Jerusalem and celebrate there. Thousands of people would fill the streets. Booths, or Sukkah, as they are called in Hebrew, were everywhere. And so each day, people would gather in the Temple with tree branches in one hand and a citrus fruit in the other and they would praise God by singing the Hallel, or Praise Psalms, Psalm 113 to 118. They would wave the branches in six directions: to the right and the left, to the front, up and down, and to the rear. They would shout out “Hosanna! God save us! Hosanna! God help us!” and they would beat the branches on the ground until all the leaves fell off. After hours of praising God, they would return to their booths to eat, rest and get ready for the next day’s celebration. And at night, at they lay down in their booth built of olive, palm and myrtle branches, they could look up and see the stars and think of what it was like for their ancestors to journey through the desert.
And they were joyful because of the awareness that God was with them. Just as, long ago, God journeyed with his people through the desert in the form of a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night, down through the ages his people have been celebrating the reality that God journeys with them in their lives too. And just as he saved his people centuries before by bringing them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, so also God saved his people each year by forgiving their sins and by providing a harvest and sending the rains each spring and fall for the crops and the livestock. The God whom the people praised during the Feast of Tabernacles is a faithful God. He is the God-who-saves. And he is a God who journeys with his people. And that results in joy, because
GOD’S PRESENCE AMONG HIS PEOPLE BRINGS JOY!
Joy from God is a good and desirable thing! “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10) the Bible tells us. And we human beings need to have some joy in our lives. One way to think about depression is that it’s an illness that strips all joy out of our lives. And the joy that we need most of all is joy from God. That’s the ultimate joy, the joy that is not dependent on our circumstances, the joy that enables to look to God in thankfulness even during a time of great difficulty.
Unfortunately, when we lack joy from God, we tend to seek joy in lesser things. Things like food, sex, experiences, family and other human relationships. And while all these things are good things given to us by God, they were meant to point us towards the joy that God gives. They give us a foretaste of the feast that we find in God, but on their own they can never satisfy our hunger for the life-giving joy that only God can give. And so we become entangled in harmful behaviours because we do not have the joy of the Lord.
And how much joy do we have in our public and private worship? Worship is a continuum of reverence on the one end and exuberance on the other. And there is a place for solemn worship, but many of us, and maybe it is because we come from a Northern European backgrounds, have been conditioned to think that worship is supposed to be solemn all the time even though Paul wrote “…I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing.” (1 Timothy 2:8). Or maybe we direct a disapproving glance towards those who clap their hands during a song of praise, even though the Psalmist writes, “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy.” (Psalm 47:1)
Or maybe we fail to worship God with joy because we are afraid of what other people might think of us. Maybe we need to ask ourselves the question Paul asked in his letter to the Church in Galatia, “10 Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) If any of these things are true of you, and I know that I struggle with these things, then perhaps it is time for us to repent of some of our non-biblical ideas about worship.
But I think that there might be another reason why many of us do not experience the joy of the Lord. It’s because it seems like heaven, and the joy that it brings, is too far away from us. For many of us, heaven is just a place we go to when we die. And heaven is that, but the Good News of Jesus is much, much more than that. The story of human history is that there was a beginning and there will be an end. And in this story there are all kinds of good things like the beauty of God’s creation, the refreshment of a cold glass of water and the embrace of a child’s arms around your neck. But in this same story, there are some bad things too, like illness and injustice and sexual assaults on teenage girls.
But something happened nearly 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross and rose again. Jesus started a whole new creation that now runs parallel to the old creation. In this new creation, people have a new identity: they holy, pure and precious; they are beloved children of God; they love God and they only want to do what he wants. People are transformed in this new creation—they grow to be more like Jesus. They begin to see the world like God sees it, and they begin to love the world like God loves it and they work hard at trying to make it a better place. And these new creation people will never die. Oh, one day our bodies will shut down and we will die a physical death. But that is not all bad news. Because physical death will bring the end of all our old creation qualities and our new creation selves will live on with Jesus.
And one day the trumpets will sound announcing the return of our King. Jesus will return in a visible way to this earth. He will raise us from the dead and make all things right in this world. Injustice and crime and disease will be no more. Praise and glory and joy will be everywhere. His atonement will mean our at-one-ment with him. We will see him face-to-face and we will worship him in the new heaven and earth forever. And the Feast of Tabernacles foreshadows the joy and celebration of life in the new heaven and earth.
So how far is heaven away from you? It is closer to you than your skin. Heaven is in your heart. Six months before his crucifixion, during the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, “37 On the last and greatest day of the Festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37-38) In the parched desert of ancient Judea, living water was the fresh, clean, moving water of a spring or river and that kind of water meant nourishment and life. Trust in Jesus and the living water of the Spirit, the joy of the Lord and the reality of heaven lives in your heart.
And heaven is here with us today, right here on this altar. Jesus promises us that he is present in this bread and wine with his body and blood. In this Holy Meal, Jesus forgives us, saves us and nourishes us for everlasting life. He assures us that he is with us and
GOD’S PRESENCE AMONG HIS PEOPLE BRINGS JOY!
I would like to invite the band to come back onto the stage at this time and I also have an invitation for all of you: Let’s worship God with joy today! On this day when we reflect on the Feast of Tabernacles, let us celebrate God’s presence among us with exuberant worship! Let us give one another the freedom to worship God in whatever way the Spirit moves us.
First of all, let’s stand and hold our arms straight out with our palms up and let’s pray: Dear God, we stand before you today, and we thank and praise you for your loving presence among us. (Now turn your palms down.) Lord, we repent of our unbiblical ideas about worship. We empty all of those things out of our hands before you. (Now turn your palms up.) We stand before you Lord with open hands ready to receive whatever you give us. Fill us with your joy. Help us to worship you with exuberance! Fill us with your Spirit once again! Amen.
Now I invite you to turn to the person next to you and say these words: You are free to worship God in whatever way his Spirit is leading you.
We don’t have branches for everyone today, but we have arms, and most of us are able to lift them in the air. So let’s hold our arms up in the air and let’s sing praises to our God. Amen.
(presented at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 26 Sep 2010.)
(I am indebted to the article “The Joy of Living Water: Jesus and the Feast of Sukkot” from the Follow the Rabbi website. To go there click here. JP)
- Sukkot 2010: Feast of Tabernacles, or Building a Fort (nowpublic.com)