Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Sabbath Queen

A long time ago, my grandma said that we welcome the sabbath as a queen. I used to think this was just her special way of viewing the day of rest. But as it turns out, Judaism has been welcoming Queen Shabbat at least since Jesus walked our earth. Probably longer.

This royal title for the sabbath captured my attention recently. I was writing an article about Judaism's "farewell-to-shabbat" ritual (link below), and - to be honest - I hadn't thought about this majestic moniker in ages. But when I ran across it - in my grandma's cookbook, no less - it stirred my curiosity, and I leaned in to learn more. Now I'm in absolute awe of the whole thing, as both a Jew and a Jesus-follower.

The way it all started is fascinating. So I'll start at the beginning. The very beginning. The seventh day. 

That very first day of divine rest was so significant, that God commanded us to observe it, too. Observe it like Him, and with Him. Each and every week, this day of rest marks the separation of the ordinary and the holy, the secular and the sacred. And in Judaism, we welcome this day of rest with joy and thanksgiving and a celebratory meal - in the same way that the ancients welcomed monarchs into their midst. And so "Queen Shabbat" became a personification of this sacred majesty among us each sabbath.

But that's just the beginning. 

You see, Jewish tradition explains that, after the sin in the garden, God withdrew His physical presence as the world became fractured and broken. But in His grace, on every sabbath, God's Shekinah - His Spirit - tangibly descends into our homes while we abide in His holy rest. Queen Shabbat became known as the one who accompanied the Spirit down from heaven. During Shabbat, she is crowned by the people's prayers (which she later carries back up to heaven) and in return, she adorns us with restoration as we rest in God's Spirit.

No wonder we welcome Queen Shabbat like royalty! She heralds the arrival of God's Shekinah into our very own homes. Bringing the Spirit to sojourn with us as we rest and worship. It sounds mystical, I know. But my shoulders relax and I exhale in wonder just picturing and pondering it. And isn't that what we are supposed to do as we enter holy rest? To rest and to  wonder and to marvel at the King of Heaven.

Now, mind you, we don't only welcome Queen Shabbat with great fanfare, we also make a fuss over ushering her back toward heaven as the sabbath slips away. It's called Melevah Malchah, literally "escorting the queen," and it is a parade of the senses, filled with music and food and light and beauty. 

In fact, we say goodbye to Queen Sabbath with an even greater flourish than when she arrived. Not because we're happy to see her go, but because we want the queen to know how much we treasured the Spirit dwelling with us. And how desperately we want her to return with the Spirit to rest with us once again. And we want the heavens to hear that we have celebrated sabbath rest. Not because we were commanded to, but because we delighted to.

Yet Queen Shabbat won't always leave. Because the teaching is that, when the Messiah arrives, Shabbat will descend and the Spirit will be be reunited permanently with God's people. And everything will be shabbat. Perfect and eternal rest and peace. Shalom.

Breathtaking. Literally. I literally caught my breath when I read about this teaching.

Because I know that the Messiah did arrive. He descended not just for a day, and not in a mystical, symbolic way. Jesus became the tangible personification of the sabbath among us. Shalom with flesh on. Born into humanity to show all of us the way to eternal rest. 

And then, when the resurrected Messiah ascended back into heaven, unlike Queen Shabbat whisking the Spirit back up with her, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit down to dwell with us. Not only for one day each week, but for every single day. And not simply to dwell among us, but to dwell within us. Forever. To rest, yes. But also to personally guide and teach and correct and encourage as we wander through this world. And to secure our deposit for that one day when the Messiah returns and all will be Sabbath. Eternal shalom. 

Until that glorious day, we are still called to enter into God's rest each week. To experience His Presence untethered from the stressors of our everyday lives. Breathing in the Father's grace. Celebrating the One who restores. Experiencing a foretaste of when everything will be sabbath. Yearning for that day when the Messiah will arrive once and for all, when God's tangible presence will dwell in our midst forever. Shabbat shalom for eternity...


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Saturday, June 4, 2022

Pentecost: The Countdown

"Pentecost" by Pierre Raymond

One reason I love being in a liturgical church is that we celebrate Easter for an entire season. Not just a day, not just a weekend, not even just a full Passion week. But an entire season - fifty days. From Resurrection Day all the way to the anniversary of receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

As a new believer, when I discovered that the church had tied Easter and Pentecost together in this purposeful way, my Jewish brain was astounded. And excited. And affirmed. Because it showed me that the early Christian church – at its core – had established itself firmly in its Jewish roots. Even though most people today don’t realize it.

You see, Pentecost – or Shavuot, as it’s called in Hebrew – is inextricably tied to Passover. It doesn’t actually have its own specific date. It’s simply “fiftieth” (pentecost) or “weeks” (shavuot): i.e., the fiftieth day – or seven weeks – after Passover. So every year, on the day after the Passover sabbath, everyone starts counting down. Ticking off every single day after a prayer at sundown. Looking toward that fiftieth day, when God had instructed people to offer their harvest tithe in Jerusalem. All the while, still eyeing Passover in the rearview mirror: thirty-nine days since Passover, forty days since Passover, forty-one days since Passover… Tethered together, Passover and Shavuot create an entire season.

But why the fiftieth day? What’s so special about that number?

Sure, the end of the grain harvest falls around then, which definitely fits the feast's harvest tithe purpose. But why fifty days? Why not forty-five or fifty-two? Why not six weeks? Why even tie the harvest tithe to Passover at all? None of the other feasts are scheduled this way. Why not give Shavuot a specific date on the calendar? 

Why? Because the fiftieth day wasn’t just about the grain harvest. And it wasn’t arbitrary. At all. The fiftieth day – as is often taught – completes Passover.

You see, way back in the desert wilderness, on the fiftieth day after the Exodus rescue, God gave His people the Law at Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and covenant making. On the very first Passover, the people were freed from something, and then on the fiftieth day they were freed to something – to some One.

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God…” Exodus 6:6-7 NIV

The fiftieth day completed God’s Passover promise. He didn’t just to release the Israelites from bondage into the wilderness only to strike it out on their own. He adopted them as His own treasured people. Not only ransomed and freed, but also loved and covenanted.

It seems to me that Passover was the dramatic engagement, and then the fiftieth day was the wedding. By establishing Shavuot on that very same fiftieth day, the Groom reminds us that He gives us Himself, and everything that He is and that He does: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And we, the Bride, bring the fruits of those gifts. 

It seems like a beautiful picture of marriage – our own personal covenant with God and also our marriages on earth: it’s the melding together of giving and receiving and bearing fruit as we abide in one another.

“Remain in me, as I also remain in you.” John 15:4a NIV

Shavuot completes Passover. Gives it purpose and joy and fruitfulness. And never was this more so than during that fateful year in first-century Jerusalem. In fact, when I first realized that the Pentecost feast of Acts 2 was the same annual Shavuot feast of my Judaism, I was absolutely overwhelmed. Let me set the stage for you, so you’ll understand why. 

The very first tick of the Shavuot/Pentecost countdown happens the morning after the Passover sabbath. According to God’s instructions, everyone presented the first sheaf of their harvest to a priest, who then waved it toward heaven on their behalf. Then the people offered a lamb without blemish. So, what this means – in the aftermath of the Cross – is that when everyone was raising their firstfruits to heaven and offering their lambs without blemish, The Lamb without blemish was being raised as the firstfruits of the grave!

And yet, none of them had any idea of the revolution taking place in the garden tomb. Even as they obeyed the barley sheaf command, Jesus’ followers were bewildered and grieving. And every single pilgrim in Jerusalem - regardless of their thoughts about Jesus – was probably preoccupied with the violent spectacle of the rabbi’s crucifixion, right in their midst. And so, lost in their thoughts and emotions and ritual offerings, everyone was oblivious to the glorious spectacle unfolding quietly in the garden. The contrast is absolutely breathtaking.

But there was more. And it’s one of the things I love most about the tethering together of Passover and Shavuot, of Easter and Pentecost. Because, as the people began numbering their days that morning, they were not only oblivious to the trampling of death taking place down the road. They were also absolutely unaware of the fullness they would experience on the day their countdown reached its completion. Instead, on that first countdown day in Jerusalem – and for the next forty-nine – God’s people simply thought they were numbering their days until the pilgrimage back to the Temple, their grain tithes in hand. Just like they did every single year.

But God knew they weren’t just counting down to what they people would give to Him. He knew they were counting down to the extravagance they would receive from Him. The Holy Spirit. Within them. And I have to imagine that all of heaven was bursting with excitement as they listened to families counting down every night, each sunset drawing them one day closer to Joel’s prophecy becoming reality.

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days... Joel 2:28-29 NIV

On the actual anniversary of the day God shared the Law on tablets of stone, the Holy Spirit came and placed the Law on people’s hearts. On the day God's people commemorated His thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, He enveloped them with wind and fire on Mount Zion.

Faithful Jews had been planning and anticipating that very day for seven weeks. Every night they’d checked off the date and prayed. Every day they’d tended to their fields and their tithe. Yet they were counting down to something so much greater than the annual tithe. God had something in store that was beyond anything they knew to even imagine or ask. And the reality is that what He ultimately has in store for us is beyond anything we can even imagine or ask.

And so, as I think about that incredibly unexpected Pentecost countdown, I’m in awe of a God who is more intentional than I can possibly imagine. A God whose plans are for my eternal flourishing – even when my tunnel vision seeks momentary flourishing within my own perspectives. A God who refuses to abandon me to that place, because He has an abundance in mind that I can't conceive. And I’m also convicted to hold my own personal countdowns loosely, with an attitude of humility and wonder and worship.

This year, that fiftieth day – Shavuot – begins this evening, June 4. And so, in the spirit of Jewish Pentecost tradition, I leave you with the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May He make His face shine on you and be gracious to you;

May He turn His face toward you and give you peace.

Amen & amen.

{for a Pentecost recipe from my grandma, check out the newsletter at getrevue.co}

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Passover: The First Cup

Celebrating redemption is just around the corner!

Passover and Easter. Israel’s redemption from bondage to Pharaoh, and humanity’ redemption from bondage to death. The Old and the New. They finally intersected in the flesh at a first-century table, during Jesus’ last Passover meal in that upper room.

Celebrating Passover was always my favorite ritual growing up. And after I met Jesus, every bit of it came alive in ways I’d never imagined. And in ways I’m still discovering today. And, just like with most of our familiar holidays and rituals, different aspects of Passover speak more powerfully to me than others during different seasons. 

This year, it’s the first cup.

The Passover meal is structured around four cups of wine. In fact, seder - the name of the Passover meal - literally means “order.” And an incredible thing is that the Seder meal today is identical in structure to the way it was in Jesus’ day. Some songs and stories have been added along the way, and there’s no sacrificial lamb because there’s no longer a Temple where people can make sacrifices.

But the structure and prayers are exactly the same, and it’s still built around four cups of wine and the breaking of bread. I love to teach on this sacred meal, walking through each cup in light of the Last Supper. But this year, I keep coming back to the first cup.

You see, each cup represents one of God’s four “I will” promises to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7:

“Therefore say to the Israelites, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people.’”

The first cup of the Passover meal recalls that first “I will:” God’s promise to bring the Israelites out from under the burden and bondage of Egypt. In that moment, His words had to be music to their ears and to their aching bodies and broken hearts. Remember, Joseph’s family had been laboring under more and more harsh conditions since they’d first been welcomed by the Pharaoh back in Genesis. And now they were experiencing the genocide of their baby boys.

Freedom from that yoke of Egypt was almost more than they knew to ask or imagine. And recalling this promise to deliver them from that state of physical and emotional brokenness is how Jews have always begun the Passover meal.

But. The Passover celebration is never supposed to be just a lesson in history. Every Passover worship guide, or Haggadah, includes the statement that we are to celebrate as if we ourselves had been personally rescued from Egypt and its yoke of slavery. 

On the surface, it may sound hard to do, especially in twenty-first century America. But a really quick Hebrew lesson will show you that it isn’t really hard at all, and it will also show you why I keep coming back to the “first cup.”

So, the word we translate as Egypt in the Old Testament isn’t really “Egypt.” It’s Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim comes from two different roots; one (metzir) meaning to be bordered or limited, and the other (tzar) meaning to be bound and tied up. Combined together as Miztrayim, then, this name for Egypt means hardship and distress and oppression and being hemmed in.

It really isn’t hard, then, to imagine ourselves being stuck in Egypt, because we have all been under the yoke of Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim is the hardship and distress and isolation that comes from being separated from God. And it’s sin; our own sin and living in the wake of other people’s sin. And it’s also the fallout of living in a broken world. Things like death, layoffs, broken relationships, depression/anxiety, abuse, shootings, a global pandemic and the ongoing brutal attack on a sovereign people.

And so, during the Last Supper Passover meal, when Jesus raised that first cup and recounted His Father’s promise to bring His people out from under the yoke of Mitzrayim, He wasn’t just talking about Egypt.  

The Messiah knew that He was just hours away from rescuing all of humanity - including you and me - from the distress and isolation that comes from being a broken person in a broken world.

In fact, when Jesus lifted that first cup, the disciples probably remembered something Jesus had already said to them about a yoke. A different kind of yoke, for people like them and like you and like me, who suffer in this broken world.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30 NIV

In contrast to the yoke of Mitzrayim - Jesus’ yoke brings rest to our souls.

Yes, we will still experience the pain and isolation that comes from living in this world. But if we choose to be yoked to the Messiah, He promises to gently lead us through it. Giving rest for our souls, even when our bodies and our hearts are weary.

And weary is what many of us are today. Weary from so much, and from the accumulation of so much. And so this year, I keep closing my eyes, imagining Jesus lifting that first cup. Recounting that ancient promise to those who were weary and heavy laden, knowing that He was about to fulfill it in ways no one could comprehend.

Even on this side of Calvary, it’s hard to comprehend. But even so, I will rest in it.


Thursday, March 10, 2022

Is 'Repenting of Repentance' Biblical?

"Even our repentance needs to be repented of. Our heart motivations are never pure." 

Woodcut illustration of Zadok
the High Priest, by Michel
Wolgemuth (1434 - 1519)

For some reason, the Twitterverse is all aflutter over this old tweet from Tim Keller. People don't like the thought that even our repentance is like "filthy rags" in the sight of God. 

I'll let church historians argue the point of whether this is traditional Protestant theology.

But what I'd like to add to the discussion - as a Jewish follower of Jesus - is that this concept of "repenting of our repentance" is actually firmly rooted in the desert wilderness of the Exodus. From the mouth of God Himself. And that it's not a condemnation or a belittling of our faith, but rather a beautifully freeing extension of His grace.

Let me explain.

In Exodus 28, God steps in as master clothing designer, telling Moses - in great detail - what the High Priest's garments were supposed to be. From the turban on his head to the bells and pomegranates jingling at his feet, each and every thread was symbolic.*

It was the four "golden vestments" that set him apart from the other priests. Golden chains fastened onyx shoulder pieces to his ephod (vest), bearing the engraved names of the twelve tribes as he ministered. More golden chains suspended the breastpiece, with its twelve gemstones, over the High Priest's heart. And of course, there were those golden bells adorning the hem of his robe, announcing his presence before the King of Heaven. Or really, reminding him of the Holy One he was standing before.

But it's the last one of the golden vestments - the turban - that I want to talk about. 

“Make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it as on a seal: HOLY TO THE LORD.  Fasten a blue cord to it to attach it to the turban; it is to be on the front of the turban. It will be on Aaron’s forehead, and he will bear the guilt involved in the sacred gifts the Israelites consecrate, whatever their gifts may be. It will be on Aaron’s forehead continually so that they will be acceptable to the LORD. Exodus 28:36-38 NIV

The golden plate is what set the High Priest's turban apart. Holy to the Lord. But this wasn't a statement about the High Priest. It was a statement about us. Even our sacred gifts are tainted with sin. Whether it's wrong motivation or unconfessed - or unwitting - sin, our gifts to God are never perfectly pure.

But the beauty in this - going back to the beginning - is that He knows. God knows that we can't outrun our nature. That it's impossible for us to give a gift that is completely free from the radioactive nature of our sin. But He beckons us anyway. He accepts our gifts anyway. He delights in what we lay before Him, when we give it because of our delight in Him.

And how much more so can we see this, on this side of the Cross!

"...what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: He himself took our weaknesses and carried our diseases." Matthew 8:17 CSB

Unlike the earthly High Priest, Jesus really was "Holy to the Lord." Our Great High Priest is without blemish or spot, holy and perfect through and through. And bore us on His shoulders and over His heart as He offered the ultimate gift: Himself. The only gift ever given to God that didn't contain one iota of sin.

So now it's not just our gifts that are excused of sin, it's we ourselves - inside and out - freed from condemnation. In all things, we are able to give freely back to God in spite of ourselves. And the fact that He made it so - back in the wilderness and then on the Cross - is a gift of grace, not a declaration of condemnation.

Repenting of our repentance reminds us of where we stand: ever and always in need of forgiveness, and ever and always receiving it.


ⓒ 2022, Tammy L. Priest

*for more extensive discussion of the High Priest's symbolism (as well as that of the Tabernacle), you may be interested in my study, Rending the Curtain.

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Ukraine, Zelensky & Shabbat Shekalim

 "I need ammunition, not a ride."

I can't tell you the depth of emotion that Volodymyr Zelenskyy's words stirred in me this morning. Although I probably don't need to tell you, because you were probably feeling many of the same things. Admiration and wonder. Trepidation and solidarity. Sorrow and rage. 

Zelensky is the kind of leader everyone wishes they had. A leader who so fiercely loves his people that he stays. The fact that this Jewish man refused to abandon his people today, on Shabbat Shekalim, is not lost on me.

Let me explain. 

This Sabbath is called Shabbat Shekalim, because it's the Sabbath when God's census command from Exodus 30 is read. But for this census, people weren't counted. Instead, their shekels were:

"This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight - twenty gerahs to the shekel - a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less..." Exodus 30:13-15 JPS89

This collection became an annual thing, and on Shabbat Shekalim, that passage is read as a reminder that the collection is coming up in one month. There's so much I could say about the details of this census command, but that's for another day. 

But today, what matters is the amount God told them to give: a half-shekel. And the question is: why did God even say “half a shekel?” Why didn't he just tell them to give twenty gerahs?

Well, the answer that rabbis have taught over the ages, is that by God saying we are counted by half of something, it’s a reminder that none of us is whole on our own. That it’s only when we join ourselves to God that we are spiritually whole. And that it’s only when we join ourselves to each other that we’re relationally whole.

We are counted whole, only when we are counted together. When we stand with one another and for one another.

That's the kind of leader that the Ukraine has today, and the kind of leader that the rest of the world can learn from. And the kind of human being that all of us can be inspired by.

Zelensky's defiant statement reflected the essence of Shabbat Shekalim: A refusal to be considered as a differentiated individual at a time of national accounting. A willingness to give up self for the survival of all. We Americans would do well to learn from this.

For those of us who are followers of Jesus as Messiah, the Cross is the ultimate embodiment of Shabbat Shekalim. But I pray that all of us - no matter who we are - as we watch and pray and do what we can to stop this invasion of the Ukraine, we’d think about God’s half-shekel command and President Zelensky’s words on this very Shabbath Shekalim. That we would consider what it means to refuse to be separated from one another. Even from people we don’t always agree with, or even always understand.

God has called us to be counted as a half-shekel. Incomplete without one another. Whole as we stand together. It’s a powerful and beautiful thing.

May there be shalom on this Shabbat.