Friday, September 20, 2013

The Feast of Tabernacles

A sukkah in Israel.  Click to learn more about this photo.

We are in the midst of 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.

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 homes or fat retirement accounts 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 makeshift 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.

(This is a repost of last year's Feast of Tabernacles blog; look for a new post about the last day of the Feast next week)

*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

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Breaking the Fast

As the sun set last night, Jews around the world ended their fast.  The holiest day on the Jewish, Old Testament calendar drew to a close.  
"...on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins."  Leviticus 16:30 NIV
This was the day on which the High Priest was commanded to step inside the Holy of Holies, behind the veil, to offer perfect lamb's blood on God's earthly Throne, the Mercy Seat.  In doing so, the High Priest secured atonement for God's repentant people.*
"This shall be a statute forever for shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all..."  Leviticus 16:29 NKJV
While the High Priest sprinkled lamb's blood on the Mercy Seat, offering atonement for the nation, there was absolutely nothing for the people to do but fast and pray. Fervently. Their eternal standing before the Almighty depended on it.

And then, do you know what the people did when the ritual ended?  What they did after the High Priest emerged in one piece, their atonement accepted by the Almighty?

The people went home and drove the first nail into their sukkah.**

Their what?  What's a sukkah, you ask?

It's a booth. A flimsy hut. A tabernacle

You see, five days after the most sobering day of the year, a day spent doing nothing but fasting and repenting, Jews celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. 

God commanded that His people spend seven days each year living in temporary huts. This was to remind them of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert. To remind His people that, through the journey of life, He is their true Shelter.  That He continues to dwell among His people to sustain them and protect them. 

So why is it significant that people drive the ceremonial first nail into their tabernacle as the sun sets on the Day of Atonement?

I think it's because, once a person has been made right with God, they experience true joy.  That's actually what Jews call The Feast of Tabernacles: Zeman Simchateinu, the Season of Our Joy. 

Once the debt of sin has been paid, once a relationship with God has been restored, He can come dwell among us!  Joy above joys!

And isn't that the Gospel?

Nailed to the Cross, the Lamb of God paid for our sin, restoring our relationship with the Father. And because of that ultimate Day of Atonement, we can now abide in Him and He in us!

The Season of Our Joy, indeed! 

God commands that people rejoice during the Feast of Tabernacles, and how can we not? The God of all creation - our true Protector and Sustainer - has atoned for our sin Himself and now dwells within us.
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"  Philippians 4:4 NIV

*To learn more about the Day of Atonement, read my previous blog entry.
**Pronounced "su-kah;" Sukkot (soo-coat) is the plural of sukkah, and is the name by which the Feast is most commonly called. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013


The High Priest in the Holy of Holies

"But you have Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling..." Hebrews 12:22a,24 NIV

Has it ever struck you as odd, as you read New Testament letters, that believers are "sprinkled" with the blood of Christ?

This wording is no mere poetry. The Jewish men writing these letters understood that Jesus was our sin offering.  And they knew that the blood of sin offerings was not brushed or poured, but sprinkled on the altar. 

"He shall dip his finger into the blood and sprinkle it before the Lord..." Leviticus 4:17 NIV

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish, Old Testament, Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year, because it is the day on which God instructed that atonement be made for His people.

Back when the Temple still stood, this was the one day each year that the High Priest stepped inside the veil, into the Holy of Holies. In doing so, he entered into the very Shekinah Presence of the Most High God.  

Doing this on any other day would have brought instant death. But on this day, The Lord demanded it. And He demanded that the High Priest bring with him the blood of a perfect lamb.  He was to sprinkle it on the Lord's earthly Throne, the Mercy Seat. 

"He is to take some of the...blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover...  on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. Leviticus 16:14,30 NIV

Seven times, the High Priest sprinkled the lamb's blood on the seat of God's mercy. 

Seven is the number of perfection, of completion.  And so, with that seventh sprinkling, the lamb's blood completely purified the penitent children of Israel, paying the price their sin required. 

Truth be told, that was not the punishment that their sin really deserved. It should have been their blood.  Our blood.  But our just God is also a merciful God.  He accepts a substitute: a lamb's blood for man's blood. 

The image of those perfect drops of blood sprinkling on the Mercy Seat brings to mind other drops of perfect Lamb's blood, those that dripped from the broken body of the Messiah as He shed His blood for us on the Cross. 

"[You] have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance."  1 Peter 1:2 NIV

As the High Priest counted off each sprinkle of perfect blood, he prayed that the lamb's blood would be enough, that it would satisfy the debt for another year. 

As Jesus' blood spilled from the Cross, the Lamb knew His blood was enough. God's perfect promise had been kept. The penalty of sin had been paid. 

Perfect atonement was made complete.  Not with man's blood.  Not with lamb's blood.  But with Divine blood that fell, yet rose again from the dust.

And because the Offering is risen, because the Atonement is Eternal, the forgiveness He offers is without end, for anyone who claims it both now and forever.

It is finished, completely and perfectly finished.   

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sound the Alarm!

Tonight begins Yom Teru'ah, the Feast of Trumpets, one of the two holiest days on the Jewish, Old Testament calendar.  
"Tell the People of Israel, On the first day of the seventh month, 
set aside a day of rest, a sacred assembly - mark it with loud blasts 
on the ram's horn."  Leviticus 23:23-24 The Message
What could be so sacred about resting and listening to a priest blow a horn?  And what does it matter for the Christian believer?

The answers lie in the meaning of the Hebrew word teru'ah, or trumpet blast. 

In biblical times, blowing the ram's horn was a war cry.  The sound mobilized the army and warned civilians of impending attack.  
"When the shofar is blown in the city, don't the people tremble?"  Amos 3:6a The Complete Jewish Bible
Blowing the ram's horn created an atmosphere of panic - that feeling in a person's gut when calamity and terror becomes real, imminent.

Why on earth would God tell His people to create such a feeling of panic on a sacred feast day?

Why?  Because in ten days' time, it would be the Day of Atonement: The one day each year when the Almighty demanded payment for the sin of the nation and the sin of every human heart. 

If that doesn't strike panic in a person's heart, nothing will.

After all, the Creator of the universe commanded us to be holy.  To be as holy as He is.  But who are we kidding?  I'm a mess.  You're a mess.  Humanity is a collective mess of selfish, hurting and hurtful hearts. 
"We all went wandering like sheep; going every one of us after his desire..." Isaiah 53:6a BBE
On the Feast of Trumpets, the shofar was the ultimate war cry, a warning that divine judgment was on its way.  Panic, indeed.  At the deepest level.  

And in the midst of such panic, the people are supposed

How can a person possibly rest when judgment is coming?  The only way I could rest in the midst of such panic is if I knew the calamity could be averted.

But what could possibly avert the punishment that we selfish, wandering sheep deserve?  The blood of a lamb. 

On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a perfect lamb on the Mercy Seat.  God promised that this would atone for "all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins." (emphasis mine; see Leviticus 16)
"For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you.  You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins."  Leviticus 16:30 NIV
Calamity averted.

In a beautiful contradiction, teru'ah can mean something besides a cry of war and distress.  It sometimes means a shout of triumph. 

Teru'ah!  Repentance plus blood equals peace.  Triumph, indeed!

But there's something about the shofar that makes its shout of victory even more triumphant.  It's the shofar itself.

For thousands of years, every time a priest raised a ram's horn to his lips, he displayed a vivid picture of how God would ultimately rescue Israel - and all of mankind - once and for all. 

You see, the very first time in Scripture that a ram's horn is mentioned is in Genesis 22.  Do you remember?

In desperate obedience, Abraham raised his sharpened knife on Mount Moriah.  But God intervened through the shout of an angel and the gift of a ram. A ram caught in a thicket.  By its horns.

Isaac, the son, lived, because God provided and accepted another's life in his place.  Since that day, Jews have considered the ram's horn to be a symbol of God's willingness to accept a substitute in our place.  
"For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life."  Leviticus 17:11 NIV
The blast of the shofar recalls that monumental day, and it proclaims the promise that God will accept a substitute in our stead.

But a substitute wasn't just accepted by God.  It was provided by Him, too.  

And the ram in the thicket pointed to the ultimate substitution that God would both provide and accept: His Son.  The perfect Lamb who took our place.  
We all went wandering like sheep; going every one of us after his desire; and the Lord put on him the punishment of us all.  Isaiah 53:6 BBE
Yom Teru'ah, the Day of Trumpet Sounding. 

The cry of the shofar is the cry of humanity:  all of our fear and our guilt and our pain and our sin.

And the cry of the shofar is also God's response:  the provision and acceptance of the Perfect Lamb whose blood covers up our mess and brings restoration to our soul. 

All we need to do is raise our eyes to the thicket of the Cross and accept the sacrifice offered in our stead.