Thursday, May 21, 2015

Countdown to Pentecost

When my kids were little, they loved to count down the days to a greatly anticipated event. At Christmas time I used to make a paper chain and let them break off one link per day, so they had a tangible reminder of the approaching holiday. Each day, the chain grew shorter; each day, their excitement grew greater. That sense of anticipation is at the heart of the current season of "Counting the Omer.” Counting the omer begins the first Sabbath after Passover and continues for seven weeks, ending with the feast of Shavuot (weeks), also known as Pentecost (Greek for fiftieth). Most of us know Pentecost as a Christian holy day—part of the liturgical calendar. And it is, but it was a Jewish holy day for thousands of years before it was a special day for Christians. So that means that the Jewish people were actually the first Pentecostals!

Sefirat HaOmer (the counting of sheaves) is the bridge between the two spring First Fruits celebrations: the early barley harvest and the latter wheat harvest. These harvest celebrations made sense in an agricultural setting, but can they be relevant to a modern industrialized society? When God is the party planner, of course! Shavuot is for expressing gratitude to God for His provision, but also beautifully demonstrates His desire to be in relationship with us.

At the feast of Passover, we remember God’s great deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt; seven weeks later God made covenant with them. The feast of Shavuot celebrates the initiation of that relationship and the giving of Torah—God’s instruction on how to live in covenant relationship with Him. Now spool forward about fifteen hundred years; God delivered us through the death and resurrection of the Passover lamb, Jesus. Seven weeks later God sent the Holy Spirit, a living Torah written on the hearts of His disciples. So the period between Passover and Pentecost is for reflecting on our freedom from bondage and anticipating deeper intimacy with Him.

Israel was in the midst of counting the omer when Jesus instructed His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they received power. Because He was an observant Jew, Jesus knew that in a few weeks, Jerusalem would fill with pilgrims from many countries to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Because He also knew God's plan, He had the disciples wait in the one place they would have a ready-made audience for their very first evangelistic meeting. On a day celebrating the first fruits of the spring wheat harvest, God harvested souls in the city of Jerusalem, growing the infant church from a local curiosity to a regional phenomenon, empowering and thrusting it out into the world at large.

Two loaves of wheat bread were the traditional offering presented at the Temple in Jesus’ day. Messianic rabbis teach that these two loaves now represent the people of God—Jew and Gentile, brought together in Messiah—the one new man of Ephesians 2:15. The book of Ruth, which takes place during a spring harvest, is often read at Shavuot. The story of the Gentile widow who left her own people and religion to serve her mother-in-law Naomi in Israel, is a great example for us. Like Ruth, we come from nothing, gaining everything from our adoption into God’s family. Ruth's devotion to her adopted people and their God placed her smack dab in the middle of the lineage of Jesus. We too have been grafted in, nourished by the Jewish root which God planted and has continued to preserve. We too are part of the salvation story God's been telling since Eden. 

Sefirat haOmer is the perfect time to reflect on God’s abundant provision, as well as the wisdom of His Biblical calendar. And I wonder whether God is also ‘counting the omer,’ counting the days until He sends His son again…this time to collect the people He has watched over and waited for since He first placed them in the Garden. It makes me smile to think of Jesus, growing more excited as each day passes, moving us one day closer to the day we can be with Him forever.

With the conclusion of Pentecost, we enter a break in the cycle of feasts. Summer is the season when the fields are worked, leading to the final Fall harvest, which is celebrated with the Feast of Booths. And we are working, as long as it is day. Night is coming, when no one can work. (John 9:4). This is day 47 of the Counting of the Omer. Shavuot begins at sundown this Saturday, May 23rd.

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