Friday, October 10, 2014

Sukkot Reflections, 2014

The Feast of Tabernacles at first blush seems an archaic event--best relegated to quaint elementary school plays or scholarly examination. Peasants gathering to feast, as an expression of gratitude and relief that the harvest has been completed and there is food aplenty for the winter. Today, most of us are several steps away from growing our own food--or even seeing it grown. And we already celebrate Thanksgiving, so what could this ancient harvest festival have to do with us in the twenty-first century? But Sukkot is so much more than that.

God is wise. He knew we'd find life on earth a challenge. Knew we'd wear down and wear out and forget who and whose we really are. He lovingly set up the annual cycle of feasts like a spiritual maintenance schedule for our souls. These are appointments (the Hebrew moed means appointed time) arranged by God to meet and party with His people. The feasts are breaks from our normal routine scheduled throughout the year--times to gather with friends and refresh by remembering who God is and what He has done. The feasts are designed to remind us to look to our Great King and remember and trust that He has a plan He is working.

And He thoughtfully provided us with the bullet point version of that plan, built right in the cycle. The Spring feasts prophetically pictured Jesus' first appearing and were accurately fulfilled when He walked the earth. The Fall feasts are an annual rehearsal of what remains to be fulfilled--Jesus' return and a wedding party of unimaginable proportions. It's like He left us His Daytimer, so we could not only follow along as he unfolded history, but could actively anticipate what will happen in the future.

When God set up Sukkot, one of the commands was "to rejoice with great rejoicing." I like that. No moping around, complaining about the work it took to get ready or having to have Uncle Moshe to dinner, whom nobody likes. Life is short--get ready, get busy and get happy. When one reads about how the celebrations ran during the Temple period, the mind boggles. Sukkot ran for seven days with two days tacked if once the gratitude train got started it was hard to shut it down.

All adult men (boys twelve and over were included) were required to journey to Jerusalem for this feast, and those who could afford to do so brought the family. There was activity day and night in the Temple compound, which functioned as both church and community center during this Feast. Sacrifices were offered all day, along with prayer and the singing of Psalms, thanking God for what He had done for them, and expressing expectation and longing for the coming of Messiah and His kingdom.

An elaborate water ceremony took place each morning, in which 'living water' was drawn from the spring of Siloam, carried to the Temple and poured out on the altar, accompanied by prayers for rain. Jesus used that ceremony to speak to the people in the Temple about who He was in John 7:37.

Four 75 foot tall candelabras were erected in the Court of the Women and lit each night. Accounts of those who saw them say the entire city was illuminated by the glow of those lamps, leading people to call Jerusalem the light of the world during Tabernacles. Jesus' claim that he was the light of the world in John 8:12 would have resonated deeply with people who had seen the blazing Temple lights chase away the night during the Feast.

And at night, the people would return home to eat and sleep in the distinctive feature of this Feast--a booth. Sukkah means tent, or temporary dwelling. They were to construct a little shack and live in it seven days to commemorate the time after the Exodus, when God led them in the desert, protecting them, feeding them and guiding them with His presence manifested in pillars of cloud and fire.
By the time of Jesus, it was an extravagant, joy-filled week, filled with feasting, singing, praying, and dancing. There were priests in full regalia parading back and forth from the spring near the Temple, priests worshipping with instruments, priests waving tree branches like banners; priests chanting the Psalms of ascent (Ps 120-134)--even priests juggling flaming torches. How exciting must it have been to see those dignified and serious men, exuberantly worshipping the Lord? 

Only five days removed from the solemnity of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the people would be filled with gratitude that God had covered their sins; that He had sent the rain and filled their barns; that He protected them from their enemies; and for the promise of the coming Messiah. The Scriptures recited during that week rehearsed the testimony that their God was different than the gods of the nations. He was active; He was present; He spoke; He intervened in their lives to make and keep them as His beloved people.

So yes, Sukkot has something to offer even in the twenty-first century. I need encouragement and strengthening every bit as much as my ancient brethren. I too need to be reminded that I belong to a mighty One who loves me and saved me and is fully capable of meeting my needs and keeping me till the end. Though I will encounter many storms, my great Messiah will bring me safely into the harbor of His kingdom. So this morning I'm sitting in my sukkah with my coffee, reflecting on the joy of friends laughing, sharing and enjoying one another just a few nights ago. I am glad that long ago God considered me, and set this time aside to celebrate and remember.

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