Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Keeping The Feasts

Leviticus 23

For most, the experience of reading through Leviticus elicits such adjectives as tedious, onerous and even oppressive. All those rules about fabric and food and mildew and skin—no wonder the ancient Israelites found obeying God so difficult. But then you come to chapter 23 and you’re struck by an inescapable irony. Leviticus may be the heaviest rule book in the Bible, but amongst those heavy rules is the rule to celebrate heavily. Eight times over the Lord commands that his people party, that they cease their work, strap on the festival feedbag and enjoy the grace and goodness of God.

Now whether our Levites-for-the-month actually experienced this fun side of Leviticus is hard to say. As you know, 21 people from this congregation spent the month of January living by the book of Leviticus as part of a reality sermon series. You’ve been hearing a lot about it and hopefully reading about it too here and on the Facebook site (accessible to your right). I know that for me, trying to heed all the intricacies of Levitical law left little time for rejoicing. The Psalmist sings that “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul…. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart,” but mostly it gave me a headache. Obviously I was missing something. What good is following the law if all it does is make you not want to follow it? Maybe this is why God inserted chapter 23. The Lord fills up the social calendar to make the true joy of obedience unavoidable.

Verse 2: “These are the appointed Feasts of the Lord…” At first it seems strange to have a calendar that marks only time off work. Our work is what gives us identity and security, working holidays gets you complimented as ambitious and industrious and dedicated. Climbing the corporate ladder takes such precedence over enjoying the fruits of labor, that taking time off can make you feel guilty. Leviticus turns all that around. Rather than treating holy days as intrusions on our time, Leviticus views holidays as sacred time, previews of time as it shall one day be spent. “Do no work,” Leviticus commands, “it is a Sabbath to the LORD. “There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God,” the book of Hebrews declares, “those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.” “I heard a voice from heaven,” Revelation concurs, “‘Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors.’ Jesus Christ as the Lord of the Sabbath, declares himself the source of that Sabbath rest: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Since the Lord “Sabbathed” or “rested” after creating the world, he commanded his people to take the seventh day and “remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy.” However, the LORD rested not because He was tired and needed a nap or because work was a bad thing. God’s rest reflected his satisfaction with the goodness of his work; His enjoyment over a job well done. Sabbath celebrates completion, fulfillment, satisfaction and triumph—for work that is done and work that will be done.

Sabbath is part of all the holy days in Leviticus 23. The concept, while generally applied to the seventh day, is not solely confined to it. The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day, is also called a Sabbath. Pentecost and Tabernacles, both holy weeklong festivals, emphasize the 8th day as a Sabbath. The precise day was not at issue as much as precise behavior; namely, no work. Unfortunately, Jewish rabbis worked so hard to define “not working” that their interpretation of Sabbath stiffened into strictures so strict that you would be happier spending the day at the office. By the time we get to the New Testament, even Jesus’ works of mercy get cited as a Sabbath violation, a problem that carried over into much of contemporary Christian Sabbath practice.

You might remember Cathy Maxfield’s story of growing up in a Dutch Reformed church where keeping Sabbath meant no running or playing. Sunday was a day of rest. Take a nap. Fortunately, Cathy’s parents weren’t that strict; but they sure didn’t want their Dutch Reformed neighbors to know that. Cathy’s family had a backyard swimming pool and on hot summer Sundays, Cathy’s parents mercifully allowed her to swim, but only as long as A] she stayed off the diving board (since otherwise she might appear in the air over the fence for neighbors to see) and B] she didn’t go under the water (since wet hair in evening church would be a dead giveaway of Sabbath flouting). So Cathy begrudgingly bobbed.

“The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath,” Jesus said. Jesus’ own practice and precepts have led some to speculate as to whether Sabbath applies to Christians anyway. If Jesus’ coming inaugurates the ultimate rest toward which Sabbath points, we’re already there. In Christ our yoke is easy and our burden is light. But even with this as the case, the earliest Christians still set aside a day to assemble and worship, to cease from work and break the bread of communion in anticipation of that communion they would one day share everyday with Christ and each other. Call it Sabbath or the Lord’s Day, weekly sacred time calls a time out to the aggravation and disappointment of earthly toil. Freed from the worries of this world, weekly worship expands your horizons to encompass the horizons of heaven. At the core of our creeds is the conviction that in Christ, what is coming far exceeds what now exists, even in its most glorious renderings. By reminding us that this life is not all that there is, Sabbath whets our appetite for eternity.

During January, a number of our Levites-for-the-month tried with varying degrees of success to experience genuine Sabbath-ness. As it turned out, anticipating eternity is tougher than you’d think. Kristen wrote about doing all the work that doing no work on the Sabbath required: “I suppose I could have been really on the ball and gotten all my ‘general life’ stuff done during the week but I’m not that on top of things. [Therefore according to Leviticus], I’m in trouble. I’m to rest on the Sabbath day, not some day that works best for me. If your life doesn’t fit with the Law, change your life or get stoned.” Rest is serious business.

Lisa offered us a glimpse of the work that’s required to rest. Here she is getting ready for the Lord’s Day on what the gospels rightly called “Preparation Day.”


Now given the tone of Lisa’s preparation, you may wonder whether all the extra work was worth it. But turns out it was. Here’s photographic proof.

Brandy, who shared Sabbath with Lisa and Kristi for the month wrote, “I know that it often feels like the Law is about making life difficult and complicated, but I actually don’t think that was God’s point. The point wasn’t even to separate the Israelites from other people—at least, not in the sense of causing them to live in a non-interactive bubble. The setting apart wasn’t so much to set you apart from others as to set you apart for God.”

Sacred time is God time for people. We need it. And while as Christians we no longer keep these particular Levitical feasts, vestiges of them show up all over the Christian feasts we do keep. The Lord’s Day has superseded Sabbath, but aspects of Sabbath still apply. We stop work in order to enjoy its fruits. We worship. We enjoy each other. We eat. Likewise with Passover in verse 5. For Jews, Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (they’ve been joined together) are their sacred remembrance of deliverance from slavery to the Egyptians (unleavened bread because you had to hurry to get out of Egypt). Jesus makes Passover his Last Supper and then the Last Supper the Lord’s Supper. He takes the bread and wine of Passover and announces that these are now his body and blood shed for our deliverance from slavery to sin. Paul joyfully proclaimed to the Corinthians, “Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast….” Regrettably, however, we mostly keep the funeral, treating communion more as a time to bewail our sinfulness than to be glad for our redemption. Not that bewailing our sin is a bad thing, but if it’s the only thing we do then we miss communion’s main point.

Perhaps the Israelites missed the point too. Thus God made sure they got it back by ordering the Feast of Firstfruits. The seven-day Festival of Firstfruits, verses 9-14, celebrated the barley harvest, the first crop to rise from the ground. Paul described resurrection as a harvest rising from the ground and the risen Jesus as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Firstfruits thus corresponds to Easter, always a joyful celebration. Promised to rise from the dead, we rejoice and give thanks to God by giving him the firstfruits of our earthly harvests. We tithe as a way of showing that we mean it when we say God comes first in our lives.

Fifty days after Firstfruits (seven Sabbaths plus one day—the eighth day always a marker of heaven) came the wheat harvest and time to party again. The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, verses 15-22, meant a feast of leavened bread, since nobody was in a hurry to get out of Egypt anymore. Jesus compared the kingdom of God to yeast—a little bit permeates an entire batch of dough and raises it up. In the book of Acts, the Feast of Weeks was the occasion of the Holy Spirit’s leavening that small band of believers into an ironic, cross-shaped power that through defeat and persecution overwhelmed the Roman Empire and took the gospel to the whole world. Pentecost remains the birthday of the church.

During the Pentecost harvest, Leviticus reminds everybody to leave some of the crops for the poor to gather. This practice, called gleaning, allowed the unemployed to enjoy the dignity of work, but it also allowed the unemployed to join the party. Throughout Leviticus God provides discounts to the poor when it comes to sacrifice. For those who couldn’t afford an animal, grain offerings could substitute. Gleaning supplied the grain.

Next came the Feast of Trumpets in verses 23-25. Time to blow a horn. Trumpets sounded the start of the seventh month, a Sabbath month, the end of harvest and the biggest festival month on the Levitical calendar. The apostle Paul and Revelation both blow trumpets to signal the end of harvest, a metaphor of Judgment Day, the day Jesus described as the day that wheat and chaff get separated. Therefore the trumpet is first a call to repentance. 10 days after the horns, verses 26-32, is the Day of Atonement, a day we’ll examine more closely on Palm Sunday. Here Leviticus calls for self-denial or fasting as a way of reorienting your hunger toward God. Day of Atonement finds its Christian expression in this season of Lent and particularly in the liturgy and practice of Good Friday.

The Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles, verses 33 and following, is the only feast that doesn’t have a clear Christian parallel, though it was the Feast at which Jesus decalred himself to be the light of the world and the water of life. The Feast of Tabernacles features the pitching of temporary tents or “booths” that call to mind Israel’s wilderness sojourn on their way to the Promised Land and how God himself traveled alongside in a mobile home of his own.

Mary Frances constructed a tabernacle. She wrote, “In an effort to make all of this levitical-ness more tangible, I thought it would be cool to have my own little sanctuary and reminder of God’s dwelling in my apartment. I love to build things and love architecture, so this was right up my alley. However, building an actual structure when you only have 400 sq feet of living space to start off with was challenging.”

However the main point of Tabernacles—at least from a New Testament perspective—was not to remember Israel’s time in the desert (especially since they didn’t spend 40 years wandering around as a reward for good conduct). The main point of Tabernacles was to remind how as sojourners we, like the Israelites, are still on our way to the real Promised Land. In time God will usher his people into a new heaven and a new earth where He will abide with us in permanence forever. We keep the feast to remember that this world is not our home, that we are resident aliens of earth and citizens of heaven. All this should make you happy, and if it doesn’t, Leviticus says you are to be “cut off from your people.” The Lord does not like a party pooper.

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