February 11, 2018 “Tabernacles” – Leviticus 23:33-43
February 11, 2018 – Transfiguration
I like sleeping outside. Not that I would want to do it all the time, but a few nights a year in a tent or even under the stars still feels like fun and adventure to me. I still vividly recall my first nights like that as a little boy, once in our back yard under a tent made of blankets. Later I slept in the open on the back porch of our cabin in Arizona. It was great fun until it started to rain. And I loved being a Boy Scout and camping out at least once a month in southern California. I still have a little award showing that in 1970 I camped out 44 nights of that year.
As we think about the Feast of Tabernacles, what our reading from Beginnings terms the “Festival of Shelters,” let’s get a bit of that same feeling of adventure, celebration and fun which some of us get from camping. As Moses gave these instructions to Israel in the wilderness, they were probably quite ready to give up their tents forever and get some solid walls around them and roofs over their heads. But when they are finally settled down in Canaan, this divinely-ordered campout transformed into a feast of joy.
Many of you probably know that Jewish people still celebrate this festival. As you read in Beginnings on p. 190, Leviticus chapter 23, it comes in the fall, fifteen days after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. The gloomy sad work of self-denial, of fasting and repentance, are done, and now it is time to party. Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, is a time to enjoy the fruits of the land, praise God for His provision, and invite friends and family to come and enjoy a meal with you in the temporary comfort of the little shelter you constructed in your backyard.
People often say that Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets, is “Jewish New Year.” But the Jewish liturgical calendar starts on a different day, like our Christian liturgical calendar starts with Advent four weeks before Christmas instead of on New Year’s Day. So the original cycle of Hebrew feasts starts back in the spring, with the month of Nissan in which Passover falls. Exodus 12:2 says, “this month [Nissan] shall be for you the beginning of months.” Passover is the beginning.
As you read here in chapter 23 of Leviticus, there were originally three great feast times: Passover, then Pentecost, which is fifty days after Passover, and finally Tabernacles. That paragraph in parentheses on page 190, verses 37 and 38, sums it up, “These are the Lord’s appointed festivals. Celebrate them each year…” So according to Leviticus and the Jewish religious year, Tabernacles was the last festival of the year. Hanukkah wasn’t going to be added until a thousand years later. Tabernacles was what wrapped it all up. It was where everything was headed, a great celebration of God’s blessings both past and present.
That may be one reason why a faithful Jewish man like Peter, up there on that mountain in the presence of two great men of Jewish history along with Jesus, thought tabernacles might be a good idea. Seeing his rabbi shining like the sun in all His divine glory and talking with Moses and Elijah, he must have thought they had arrived in the last times. He wanted to celebrate, just like during the last great feast. “Let’s put up tabernacles, little shelters,” he thought, “and invite in our friends and family, and keep the party going as long as we can.”
Tabernacles was a week long, spanning eight days, beginning and ending with a day of complete rest, as verse 39 says, near the bottom of page 190. That bit in parentheses tells us that these days of rest were in addition to regular Sabbath days and that any sacrifices or offerings were in addition to what they normally offered.
Back to our Gospel reading from Mark 9, some scholars think we see the Feast of Tabernacles reflected in verse 2, which says that “after six days,” Jesus led Peter, James and John up the mountain. We’re not told what the six days is after, and scholars have guessed this might be a reference to the week of Tabernacles. So Jesus and His disciples climbed the Mount of Transfiguration at the end of that festival. Luke 9:28 makes it eight days, which corresponds exactly to the eight days of the Feast of Tabernacles here in Leviticus.
Last Sunday, as I talked about the building of the great Tabernacle in Exodus, I pointed out that John 1:14 says that “The Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelt among us,” using a word that literally means “lived in a tent,” lived in a “tabernacle” among us. Peter uses that same root word for the little shelters he wants to build there on the mountain. He wants to put up tents for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.
Jesus didn’t need a tabernacle, a tent on the mountain, because, as John tells us, He was already “tenting,” camping out here in human flesh among us, as one of us. It was not time for Peter and his fellow disciples to imagine the final Feast of Tabernacles had arrived. God’s ultimate kingdom of abundance and joy was not here yet. Jesus was going to have to camp out a while longer in this world and then depart from it in a way both awful and glorious, dying on the Cross and then rising from the dead. Luke tells us that’s what He was talking about with Moses and Elijah.
So the Transfiguration was not the time for tabernacles. But we can still learn something important from that feast and Jesus’ relation to it. God ordered Israel to observe that feast every year, as “a permanent law for you.” It was the final one of the three great feasts. It had rich, deep lessons to teach them.
You and I may focus on the historical value of Tabernacles, the reminder given to the Israelites at the top of page 191, verse 43 of Leviticus 23. “This will remind each new generation of Israelites that I made their ancestors live in shelters when I rescued them from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” It’s a glorious festival of remembering their roots, where they came from. Think Scandinavian Festival in Junction City. Think Ukrainian dance at the Nativity church in Springfield. Even more, think Black History Month right now in February. It recalls a past filled with sadness and suffering, but also with celebration of what African-Americans accomplished despite discrimination and disadvantage. Sitting in those little tabernacles even now, Jewish people remember that they too were once slaves set free, but with a long way to go before they could be at home in the world. African-Americans and Jews often still feel that way, especially during this past year in America.
With humility and deference to those histories and stories, harder perhaps than anything our own ancestors experienced, you and I can still learn some tabernacle lessons of our own. We can remember that though we live in apartments and houses, those places are still temporary dwellings in the long run. As Shirlie discovered this week when water from above ruined her apartment’s walls, our homes may be more like short-lived tabernacles in the wilderness than we thought.
That impermanent quality of life is one of the things we remember especially as Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. When you come forward to receive ashes on your forehead in the sign of the Cross, you hear these words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” As Christians we remember what Tabernacles taught Israel. We are mortal. Our lives are not forever. No matter who we are, we come from humble beginnings and will not live in this world forever. Our only hope, our only permanent life comes from God in Jesus Christ.
The directions for the Feast of Tabernacles end with, “… I rescued them from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” That’s the fundamental fact about our lives too. We think of our mortality, of the fragile and temporary nature of our lives so that we can remember that we are only here because the Lord is our God. Our Lord Jesus came and tabernacled with us to save us and redeem our lives. All our hope is in Him.
That need for Jesus is why no one even answers Peter’s proposal to build shelters on the mountain. What those disciples needed to hear at that moment was what God tells them in Mark 9 verse 7, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!” That’s ultimately what you and I need in all the impermanence of our lives. The solid, permanent, everlasting voice of Jesus offers us hope and peace and joy.
So part of why Peter, James and John needed to come down from the mountain, instead of building tabernacles and staying up there, was to learn that their place in this world was not yet established, that their only sure thing was Jesus. Israel needed tabernacles to keep remembering that their only real home was in God. Those disciples needed to walk away from the tabernacles in order to realize that their only real home was in Jesus, the Man who is God.
There is another reason Jesus and the disciples needed to come down from the mountain. Read on from the Transfiguration in Mark and Matthew and Luke and you discover that when they came back down, there was work to be done. There was a boy who needed healing from an evil spirit. The disciples who were left behind couldn’t do it. If for nothing else, Jesus needed to come off the mountain to help that boy. And that connects to another aspect of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.
It’s a later, more recent tradition, but Jews today believe that guests are a crucial part of the Feast of Tabernacles. The Hebrew word is ushpizin. Spiritually they see themselves as welcoming seven great ushpizin, guests from Jewish history, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David, the seven shepherds of Israel. Each night of Tabernacles, Sukkot, a different one of those guests enters a family’s or individual’s sukkah followed by the other six. But the belief is that those guests will not come unless you have brought other guests, other ushpizin, preferably the poor and needy, to join you. The tabernacle for the feast is not really a tabernacle unless you have guests.
Jesus coming down from the mountain and that tradition of ushpizin in Jewish tabernacles remind us of a vital part of our Christian faith. Jesus did not come just to forgive our sins and take us to heaven. He came to call us to the same kind of work and ministry which He did, caring for the poor and those in need. Whatever tabernacles we may inhabit on earth, they are not going to be truly blessed, they are not going to enjoy the real presence of our Lord unless guests are welcome there. That’s why we are hosting ushpizin, homeless, needy guests in our sanctuary here again tomorrow night.
Reading about the Feast of Tabernacles reminds us that an ancient people became refugees long ago, living in tents until they reached the Promised Land. It helps us remember how many people in our world still live in tents, with no permanent home. There are over twenty million refugees who fled their own countries living in temporary structures like tents and shacks in camps all around the world. There are another twenty million “internally displaced” people likewise in camps in their own countries because they have been pushed from their homes. How we respond to those refugees and displaced persons depends on how well we’ve heard what God has to say about tabernacles.
The final thing to learn from the Feast of Tabernacles comes from observing that it is, as I said at the beginning, first and foremost a celebration. It’s a celebration of God’s immediate blessings in the form of a bountiful harvest from field and orchard. Verse 40 talks about fruit from great trees, palm branches, boughs from leafy trees and willow branches. In Israel today, they celebrate with citron, big citrus fruits like lemons plus stalks and branches from the other trees named. God’s creation is abundant. And Tabernacles is a celebration of what God did in the past, leading His people out of Egypt, watching over them in tents in the wilderness, then giving them a land where those plants and trees grow. A festival of joy for what God has done takes place in those tabernacles.
Let’s go back to today’s refugees living in tents. God still brings joy to people in tabernacles. More than half the refugees in the world come from just three countries, Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Yet there are refugees still in those countries. In South Sudan there are two million refugees, many from Central African Republic. There are also two million internally displaced South Sudanese, all of them living in huge camps in that poor country.
South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. It’s been fighting for independence from Sudan for fifty years. It finally became its own nation in 2011. But the constant fighting caused those who could to flee. So over twenty years ago, in 1994, a group of South Sudanese refugees found themselves in, of all places, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. They needed help, so they went to churches asking for assistance. They went to two other churches before they finally came to our Covenant church in Sioux Falls where members rose to the occasion. They helped those Sudanese refugees learn English and how to drive. They helped them find places to live and jobs. And they told them about Jesus.
Two years later the South Sudanese Covenant Church of Sioux Falls was born. It was another few years and there were nine Sudanese Covenant churches here in the U.S. Then word started to get back home to South Sudan. Through refugees here, Covenant people reached out to people there. Two weeks ago at our pastors’ conference, Beth and I heard the president of the Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan and Ethiopia tell us that there are now 401 Covenant congregations there in South Sudan, nearly 40,000 Covenant believers in those churches. We all applauded that news furiously.
The thing is, their president, Matthew Jock Moses, is himself a refugee who lives in a camp. Over half those churches are in camps. Jesus is building His church there in those tents, in those tabernacles. And they are praising God, celebrating what He has done for them. President Moses told us about one young woman who received medical care and was healed of horrible disease, showing us a picture of her wasting away and then a picture of her in the peak of health. There is joy in those tabernacles. That’s how God means it to be.
I am sure that God wants all His people to have that kind of joy, joy that comes even to people forced to flee their own countries, forced to dwell in tents. He wants you to have that sort of joy no matter what your living situation is, no matter how temporary or unsettled or insecure your life is. Faith in Jesus Christ is what brings joy, whether we are in tabernacles or not.
The route to that joy begins where it did for Peter, James and John, where it did for President Moses and the thousands of people he serves in South Sudan. It begins by listening to Jesus, by trusting in Him, by following His way of life.
I’m pretty sure that tabernacle joy only increases when, like Jewish people and those Covenant folks in Sioux Falls, we remember the ushpizin, the guests we need to welcome into our own tabernacles, into whatever shelter God has given us in this world. When we remember them, all the other blessings God has for us will follow. Jesus Himself will come and be with us. Let’s join our Lord and all the guests He sends us in whatever tabernacles God gives us to inhabit.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2018 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj