Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Last & Greatest Day

(from "Carta's Illustrated Encyclopedia
of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem," 2005)
Today is the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles.  Sound familiar?
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice..." John 7:37a
What Jesus proceeded to say caused great division among the people - some hailed Him as the Messiah, while others called for His arrest.  Why?  What was so shocking about His teaching that day?

If we retrace our steps back to the first day of the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles (see my previous blog entry), it will become clear why the Galilean's words were so revolutionary.  Why His pronouncement was either completely divine or absolutely heretical.

You see, by Temple times, a water ritual had been added to the Feast as a way of asking God for abundant rain in the year ahead.  

Here's what the ritual looked like.  As the week-long feast began, a chosen priest would walk down the Temple steps and make his way to the sacred Pool of Siloam (yes, that healing Pool of Siloam spoken of in John 9).  The priest would fill a golden flask with water, make his way back to the Temple, and hand the vessel to the high priest.

All the while, throngs of pilgrims trailed behind the priest on his journey to the Pool and back, shouting praises in a joyful procession.

Taking the golden vessel, the high priest would then pour the water out on the altar.  He did so first as a supplication to The Lord for rain.  But he also poured out the water as a supplication for eternal, divine water, looking forward to Zechariah's prophecy:
Behold, a day is coming for The Lord...On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem...And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.  Zechariah 14:1a, 8-9 ESV
On the last day of the Feast, the water ritual reached a fevered pitch.  This time, all the priests would join with the crowd, following the water-fetching priest on his march to the Pool of Siloam and back, blowing golden trumpets and singing sacred songs all the way.

The worship was so exuberant that rabbis proclaimed a person had never experienced true joy if they hadn't taken part in the final water ceremony.

On this last and greatest day, the high priest offered up an extended prayer for rain, which ended with three final pleas: "for a blessing and not a curse, for life and not for death, and for plenty and not for famine."

So, then, what did rabbi Jesus teach to the crowd sitting under His teaching that day?
On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." John 7:37-38
Everything the people had been begging God to give them, Jesus announced that He could provide. 

Jesus was letting everyone know - the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that were bursting Jerusalem at its seams - that the He Himself was the answer to their prayers for life and for blessing and for abundance.

That He is the source of living water, which - as recorded in Jeremiah 2:13 - is what God calls Himself.

On that last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus was announcing that He is God.

No wonder His words evoked such an emotional response. There was no mistaking His claim, and people had to come down on one side or the other - divine Lord or heretical egomaniac.

It is no different today, on this last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles.

All of us must do something with Jesus.

We can choose to believe and receive Him as our Living Water and our Sustainer and our source of life itself. Or we can reject Him. There is nothing in between.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Feast of Tabernacles

Tonight begins Sukkot,* the Feast of Tabernacles. 

To be honest, I wish people didn't call it that. 

You see, this feast has nothing to do with the tabernacle of worship.  The word God used to describe the feast is completely different from the one referring to the sanctuary.  The Hebrew words aren't even close.  Tabernacle, the house of God, is mishkan,* while this is the Feast of Sukkot.

So Jewish bibles translate the word as “booths,” instead of "tabernacles," to make sure the difference isn’t lost – it’s the Feast of Booths.

This difference between the mishkan and a sukkah* is actually the key point God is trying to make. 

Let me explain.  Have you ever seen a sukkah – perhaps behind a synagogue or in a neighbor's backyard?  Does it look permanent and weatherproof?  Nope.

A sukkah is a temporary, flimsy hut - not a solid, ornate building.  The walls are to be made of branches or unfinished lumber.  There must be enough branches across the top to provide shade during the heat of the day, but not so many that you can’t see the stars at night.

For the entire seven-day feast, people are supposed to live and eat their meals in their booth.  You don’t see that too often in the United States except among the most religious these days, but that is the command. 

Spending time during the Feast in the sukkah can be very refreshing and spirit-lifting, especially on sunny, breezy, autumn days with children playfully hanging apples and pomegranates from the walls.  On the other hand, a sukkah can be absolutely miserable on a cold and rainy autumn day. 

But what's the point?  Why did God command His people to live in these makeshift booths for a week every single year?  And why should it matter to us today?

Actually, the point He was making for the ancient Israelites is incredibly relevant for us in the twenty-first century.

The Lord told His people to live in these huts to remind them of the their nomadic life in the wilderness after the Exodus from Egypt.  To remind them that through their ups and downs in the desert, He sustained them and protected them every step of the way.

You see, God knew that when His people got to the Promised Land and began to thrive, they might forget their reliance on Him.  No longer wanderers, they might get used to their fortified cities with stone walls.  They might start thinking that they had control over their environment – their safety, their security. 

The Feast of Booths was an annual opportunity to be physically reminded that the Israelites' true shelter and true safety was in the Lord.

Incredibly, more than 3,000 years ago, God proactively addressed something that we continue to struggle with today: material versus divine security.

Do we trust and rely on God, or do we trust and rely on the work of our hands?  

Or do we say that we fully rely on God, but live each day as if it all depends on us?

“Where does my help come from?” asks the psalmist (121:1)  It doesn’t come from brick townhomes or six figure incomes or five-star crash rated cars, or even from our mishkan – our church.  

Our true, unwavering, unfailing help – no matter what we may think to the contrary – our only Sustainer, Provider and Protector is the Lord Almighty.

All of those other things are what He sometimes uses to bring about that security and provision.  But they can all be stripped away in an instant.  And living in rickety huts is a tangible reminder that, ultimately, God's protective Hand is our only real shelter.

So go out this week and hang out in a sukkah.  Pitch a tent.  Or just spend time sitting outside - whether the sky is crisp and blue, or gray and stormy.  The elements are all His, after all.  

And grasp hold of the fact if you choose to abide in Him, He will remain your strong shelter for all eternity, no matter the storms - or the calm - around you today.

*sukkot is pronounced soo-kote, and is the plural form
*mishkan is pronounced meesh-kahn
*sukkah is pronounced soo-kah, and is the singular form

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Day of Atonement is Today

Yom Kippur.

For a Jew, simply hearing the words ushers in a solemnity, a seriousness unlike any other.  Non-Jews may know that Yom Kippur is a Jewish holy day, even that it is observed by fasting from food and all activities except worship.

But what exactly is it?

Literally, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement.  In a nutshell, it is the annual ritual through which spiritual atonement is purchased for the nation of Israel. Its provision is found in Leviticus 16.

The God-ordained purpose of Yom Kippur was to purchase atonement and reconciliation for God's people so that He might continue to dwell with them.

At the heart of the ritual, according to God's command, was the offering of a perfect lamb's blood in His own Presence, inside the veil, within the very Holy of Holies.

This is the day the writer of Hebrews was talking about when he said, "But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people committed in ignorance." (Hebrews 9:7 NIV)

In ignorance. What's that about?

It's about the fact that even the most outwardly pious person is still sinful.  Even the high priest. 

It's about the fact that, even though the Lord said, "Be holy, because I am holy," over and over again, He knew we just couldn't do it.  Unholiness is such a part of us, our thoughts, our priorities, that we don't even realize it.

So He gave instructions for Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement.

"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls." Leviticus 17:11a NAS

God promised that if the Israelites offered up perfect blood inside the Holy of Holies, His earthly dwelling place, they would - if repentant - be cleansed of all the sin they had accumulated since the previous Day of Atonement.

And so, once a year, for 1500 years, the high priest bowed his head and crept into the Holy of Holies, protected from the overwhelming Shekinah glory by a cloud of incense.

And each year, as he sprinkled the blood of a perfect lamb upon the Mercy Seat, he was also painting a vivid picture. A picture of the Great High Priest to come, who would offer up Himself, the spotless Lamb of God, in the greatest act of mercy and atonement ever known.

But there's more.  This future offering would do what no other offering could. This Offering defeated death. This Lamb rose after paying the price of atonement.

What does that mean?

It means that no more sacrifices are needed or required.  The Messiah's sacrifice on the Cross was the end-all, be-all of sacrifices, because it never ends.

The sacrifice is eternal because the Sacrifice is alive. The Cross is continual - every sin committed before the Messiah's death, every sin we commit this very day, and every sin committed by our descendants centuries from now, drives the nails into Jesus' wrists.

Jesus' death is alive.

And that means that the triumph of His death also lives.  God's forgiveness is a perpetual gift. He cleanses us continually as we present ourselves to Him, purifying us from the sins we swore yesterday we wouldn't commit yet again today.

The Day of Atonement is a beautiful gift.  It is rich with significance.  Rich with prophecy.  Rich with salvation.  And it met its perfect fulfillment through the Blood of the Christ, on the ultimate Day of Atonement.
"I did not come to abolish the Law of Moses or the writings of the Prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose." Matthew 5:17 NLT 
What Jesus did on the Cross didn't abolish the Jewish faith at all. Instead, He confirmed it and fulfilled it and glorified it as no other than Adonai's Anointed Son could.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Days of Awe

The Days of Awe.  That's what the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called.  And right now, we're smack-dab in the middle of it.

What's so awesome about these ten days, you ask?  Well, each one brings you closer to Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. And that is an awe-filled day like no other.

It is the one day each year that the Lord allowed anyone to enter the ancient Holy of Holies. There, in the innermost chamber of the sanctuary, is where God's tangible Presence resided (Leviticus 16:2).

But "allowed" isn't really the right word. God didn't just permit the High Priest to enter His Presence on that day - He demanded it. What would happen on that day was so sacred, so foundational, that it must be done in the very Presence of Almighty God.

It was the one day each year that all of Israel fasted while the High Priest stepped inside the veil. It was the one day they collectively held their breath, praying that the blood sprinkled on God's earthly throne would be accepted, their sins forgiven.

It was - and still is - a day of spiritual desperation. When a person sees plainly the gulf separating selfish mortals from a righteous, all-powerful God.  Recognizing that, on that day, one's eternity hangs in the balance.

And so, with awe and trembling, Jews watch as Yom Kippur approaches, and do the only thing a human being can possibly do when such a desperate day looms.

T'shuvah.  It means to turn back.  As in turning back to God.

From the sounding of the ram's horn on the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah), to the sprinkling inside the veil on the Day of Atonement, the hearts of the children turn back to the Father.

T'shuvah. It means to return.  To repent. To restore and be restored.

As repentant hearts look toward the Day of Atonement, a vision appears:  deserved judgment replaced by complete forgiveness.  It simply overwhelms.

And when a person spends ten days anticipating such divine restoration, the ache to be reconciled with God spills over into the rest of your relationships.

It's the Jewish root of Jesus' command:  "...first make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift."  Matthew 5:24 CEB

The Talmud actually teaches that, since Yom Kippur deals solely with man's sins against God, the days leading up to it are for making amends with other people.

That's right. For Jews, the Days of Awe are filled with the awkward yet beautiful, painful but sweet task of asking forgiveness from anyone and everyone you may have hurt or offended in the past year.  In person.

It is humbling.  It is scary.  And it is the most freeing experience you can imagine.

You may not be Jewish, but if you know Jesus, then you do know atonement. 

You know about THE Day of Awe, when all the punishment you deserved was paid for with Someone else's blood.  When separation was replaced with reconciliation.  When hostility was replaced with restoration.

So perhaps you, too, could observe these Days of Awe like Jesus' friends may have done. As Jews today still do.

Be ye reconciled. To the people in your life, and to the God who gives you life.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Blow the horn - it's Rosh Hashanah!

There is something otherworldly about sitting in the sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah.  You know it's coming, and when it does, it doesn't disappoint.

The ram's horn.  The shofar.  It is a sound from ancient days, and it fills your ears and your mind and the depths of your soul.  It carries you to another time and place.

Rosh Hashanah literally means "Head of the Year."  But that's not what God called it.  He called it Yom Teru'ah - Day of Blowing the Horn.  The Feast of Trumpets.

So what's it for?  The Sabbath honors God's day of rest.  Passover commemorates the Exodus.  Pentecost celebrates the harvest.  And the Feast of Trumpets?  Just blow the horn, people!

This is one of the most sacred days on the Jewish calendar, but there is absolutely no purpose given for it except to blow the shofar.

And yet, blowing that ram's horn says absolutely everything.

You see, a shofar was blown to sound the alarm.  And looming ten days past the Feast of Trumpets is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  A reminder that everyone - even the High Priest - is repulsively unclean in the eyes of God.

Sound the alarm, indeed.  "Repent!" is what the shofar cries.  "Repent, for judgment is coming!"  

On that Day of Atonement, Judaism teaches, the Books of Life and Death are sealed for the year.  In which Book do you want your name to be written?  The shofar pleads in favor of life.  "Repent!" it rings out.

And yet blowing the biblical ram's horn is also a call to rejoice.  So how do you rejoice when you're being warned to repent at the very same time?

How?  By looking square at that Day of Atonement and seeing that the Lord knew from the very beginning we can't possibly be holy.  And seeing that, instead of kicking us to the curb, He provides a way to cover up our sinfulness.  All we have to do is accept the cover He provides.

And what is that Day of Atonement cover?  Why, blowing the shofar tells us that, too!

You see, the ram's horn is supposed to turn our eyes back to Abraham's test.  To remind us of that gut-wrenching moment when he obediently offered up his only son to God.  And to remind us of the ram caught in the thicket, which God accepted in Isaac's place.  

The shofar calls us to remember and rejoice that the Most Holy Lord accepts a substitute in our place as well.  On the Day of Atonement, that God-ordained substitute is perfect sacrificial blood, brought into His very Presence, within the Most Holy Place.

And so, when the Lord "simply" commanded the Israelites to observe a sacred day of blowing the ram's horn, He was saying so much more.
Through the ram's horn, He was calling His children to REPENT, for we are sinners in His Holy Presence.
Through the ram's horn, He was calling His children to REJOICE, because He loves us so much that He would rather accept a substitute for the punishment we deserve.
But that's not all.  

Through the ram's horn, God was calling His children to look to the coming Messiah, Yeshua: the only Son, the perfect Lamb of God, who would become the sacrificial substitute in our place.

Today is the Feast of Trumpets.  Listen for the shofar's call: repent and rejoice!

(c) Tammy L. Priest