Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Pentecost: Firstfruits & Cheesecake...

My grandma's mini-cheesecake recipe,
with a crust made from Dewey's Brownie
Crisp Cookies and raspberry preserves. Mmmm
When the sun sets this Thursday evening, many of my Jewish brothers and sisters around the globe will not get ready for bed. Instead, they'll hunker down and spend the whole night reading and studying Torah. Probably sustained by eating all things dairy, like gouda and blintzes.

The reason? It's Shavuot, literally “weeks” - as in the biblical Feast of Weeks. 

Shavuot is one of the three ancient pilgrimage feasts for God’s people. He also called it the Harvest Festival and the Day of Firstfruits. You may know it better as Pentecost. That’s Greek for “fiftieth.”

“From the day after the Sabbath [during Passover]...count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD." Leviticus 23:15-17 NIV (emphasis mine)

Weeks, days, new grain… What, pray tell, does the offering of firstfruits have to do with people studying Scripture all night and eating lactose-laden treats? Well, it has everything to do with the date of the feast. Though, to be precise, there’s actually no given date on the calendar for Pentecost. God simply said to start counting after the Passover Sabbath, and to be back in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day with their firstfruits offering. Hence the “Feast of Weeks” and the “fiftieth day.”

This countdown to fifty from Passover is not arbitrary, nor is it simply a nice round number. The fiftieth day after the original Passover rescue was extraordinary. That was the day when God gave His people the Law at Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and covenant making. 

God may have made personal covenants with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob hundreds of years earlier, but on that day He entered into a covenant with their descendants en masse. The promises He'd made to each of the patriarchs individually now became a covenant with an entire people. A nation in the making.

And along with His covenant promises that day, God began to give them the Ten Commandments and all the laws that flowed from them. Voluminous guidelines that would help them become a real nation. From spiritual to relational, and from legal to medical. Father Abraham’s children were invited to grow into a healthy society, with the Almighty Creator-Redeemer as king.

And that is why Judaism has a longstanding Shavuot/Pentecost tradition of feasting all night on those precious words given to us on that covenantal day. And -  since we love to teach bible lessons with food, and since Scripture is often referred to as spiritual milk - also feasting on delectable dairy dishes. So. Much. Dairy. Cheese blintzes, cheese pancakes and cheesecake. Caprese salad, lasagna and ice cream. Frittatas and pizza and noodle kugel. My sincerest apologies to the lactose-intolerant.

In other words, by studying scripture and eating foods that represent it, we celebrate the covenant God made with us and the Scriptures He gave to us, on that first fiftieth day. 

And, in exchange for God’s words and His word that day, the people gave Him theirs. 

Then all the people responded together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”  Exodus 19:8 NASB

Of course, we know how that turned out. No matter how magnificent the covenant with the Creator was, the people couldn’t keep it.

Of course, neither can we. We make all sorts of promises to stay on the right track. To get back on the right track. To never make a mistake like that again – whatever “that” may be for us. Not a single one of us can “do all that the Lord has spoken.” And that is why we needed a new covenant. Because “the fault [was] not with the covenant, but with the people who did not remain faithful to it.”*

The Israelites in the wilderness knew this was true. They'd fallen into worshipping the golden calf before the stone tablets even made it down the mountain. And God's people in Jesus' day knew it, too. They knew it from the smoke of their endless sacrifices rising from the altar, reminding them that they could never get it right. At least not for very long. They knew this about themselves, just like we know it about ourselves.

But God's chosen people also knew that someday, He was going to establish a new covenant. He’d promised it. A covenant they could keep, because God was going to keep it for them.

“Indeed, a time is coming," says the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant … I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people... For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 NET

Instead of scrapping the whole human experiment and washing His hands of the whole thing – which He had every right to do - God leaned in. Toward us. And it was during that monumental Shavuot/Pentecost of Acts 2 when it all came together. 

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast, just like they’d been doing every year for almost 1500 years. Celebrating that “first” fiftieth day when God had descended with thunder and fire and smoke on the mountain. 

All the while, two things were rattling around in their heads: (1) the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in their midst just fifty days earlier, and (2) God’s 600-year-old promise to establish a new covenant. Could it really be that the new covenant was happening then, after all that time? Yes. Yes, it was.

In the midst of their harvest offerings and worship, God descended like flames and a whirlwind from heaven once again. The promised new covenant had arrived. On the anniversary of the original covenant. The Holy Spirit indwelling humans for the very first time, right before their very eyes. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

Our God is absolutely unfathomable. And more intentional than we could ever begin to imagine. His intention was and is and will always be to bring redemption and restoration in every possible way. The fiftieth day - in Sinai and at Pentecost - is a glorious reminder of His audacious and eternal promises. And of His power and desire to keep every single one of them.

I will most certainly raise a glass of milk to that.

*Stern, D. H. (1995). Jewish new testament commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc.