Good morning, Friends!
During the last week, some people who are relatives of ours were celebrating one of the biggest festivals of the whole year. And I bet nobody here even knew about it!
We are all Jews. You knew that, right? Jesus was a Jew. So was Peter. So was Paul. So were all the disciples.
We are descended from them. That’s why we read the Old Testament. It’s their book, but it’s also our book, too. We claim descent from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We claim the story of Moses and all the other great stories of the people of Israel. It’s our heritage.
So, what was the big Jewish festival that ended this week? How many of us went out and celebrated it?
You’re probably scratching your head right now and thinking your pastor has gone crazy. But this is important.
It’s important, because this is our history. And it’s important, because there’s a part of it which still has meaning for us.
The festival I’m talking about is called the Jewish Festival of Booths. In Hebrew it’s called Succoth, which means – “booths”. It always happens in September or October. It’s a fall festival. And it’s almost as big a deal for Jews as Passover.
One thing the Jewish people are really good at is remembering how much they depend on God. Christians pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” But Jews give thanks to God many times a day, for everything. You name it, they’ve got a thank-you God prayer for it.
Anyway, the Festival of Booths happens every fall. And what people do, is every family goes out and builds a temporary shelter outdoors.
Some people do it in their back yard. Some people set it up on their porch. People build their booth or their temporary shelter out in a park, or on the grounds of their college or temple or synagogue.
If they don’t have any other space, they borrow or rent space for it. It’s a temporary shelter, and back in Bible times it would have been like the shelters that farmers put up out in their fields and vineyards.
Taking in the harvest was a huge job, and everyone in the family was expected to work, from before dawn till after dark. So, you didn’t want to waste any time commuting back and forth, when you were needed out in the field.
During the harvest, you slept on the ground. You worked hard all day. You helped your neighbor, if your neighbor needed a hand.
And at the end of the harvest, came the Festival of Booths. This was commanded, all the way back in the days of Moses. Everybody celebrated. It was a total blow-out.
You see, a good harvest, or any harvest at all, wasn’t a given. People knew that maybe the rain wouldn’t come on time. There might be crop disease, or locusts. There might be war or famine. They knew how precarious life was.
So, when the harvest was over, they gave thanks to God. And they did it big time.
What Moses said, was to take a full week off after the harvest was all in. You’ve heard of the sabbath – taking a full day of rest on the seventh day of the week. Well, the Festival of Booths was a whole week of sabbath.
And it wasn’t just kicking back and relaxing, although that was encouraged, too. It was a whole week of giving thanks to God, for all the blessings of the year.
All the family leaders gathered around Ezra, the teacher. So did the priests and Levites. All of them paid attention to the words of the Law. It was the second day of the month. The Lord had given the Law through Moses. He wanted the Israelites to obey it.
It is written there that they were supposed to live in booths during the Feast of Booths. That feast was celebrated in the seventh month. They were also supposed to spread the message all through their towns and in Jerusalem. They were supposed to announce, “Go out into the hill country. Bring back some branches from olive and wild olive trees. Also bring some from myrtle, palm and shade trees. Use the branches to make booths.”
So the people went out and brought back branches. They built themselves booths on their own roofs. They made them in their courtyards. They put them up in the courtyards of the house of God. They built them in the open area in front of the Water Gate. And they built them in the open area in front of the Gate of Ephraim.
All the people who had returned from the land of Babylon made booths. They lived in them during the Feast of Booths. They hadn’t celebrated the feast with so much joy for a long time. In fact, they had never celebrated it like that from the days of Joshua, the son of Nun, until that day. So their joy was very great.
Day after day, Ezra read parts of the Book of the Law of God to them. He read it out loud from the first day to the last. They celebrated the Feast of Booths for seven days. On the eighth day they gathered together. They followed the required rules for celebrating the feast.Nehemiah 8:13-18
When people celebrate Succoth, as I said, they build a booth or a temporary shelter. And it’s not just a tent. It had to have walls and a roof. Most people build the walls out of whatever they can find – reeds or brush or woven mats. Today a lot of people use lattice.
But the roof can’t be solid. The roof has to have big gaps in it, so that if you’re out there at night, you can look up through the roof, and see the stars.
When you’re out there, you look up, and remember the words of Psalm 19:
The heavens tell about the glory of God.
The skies show that his hands created them.
Day after day they speak about it.
Night after night they make it known.
But they don’t speak or use words.
No sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into the whole earth.
Their words go out from one end of the world to the other.
If you’ve ever looked up at the sky at night, you know what I’m talking about. It’s awe. It’s wonder. It’s giving thanks.
The universe is so big. And we are so small. Being outdoors, and looking up at the night sky, really shows us our true size.
God is great. And we are privileged to see it, and to be thankful for our place in it. And ever day, for seven days, people rest, and refresh themselves, and celebrate, and give thanks.
Jewish people have rituals for everything in life. And there’s a ritual for the festival of booths.
It says in the Bible to “Go out into the hill country. And bring back some branches from olive and wild olive trees. Also bring some from myrtle, palm and shade trees.”
So, that’s what people still do. To do the ritual right, you get palm leaves, and willow branches, and myrtle branches, and citron, which is kind of like a big, knobby lemon. They get tied together into a sort of a staff or a long bundle, called a lulav.
There’s one for every member of the family. And every day, at meal times and in the evening, you take your lulav outside, and you shake it in all four directions – to the north, east, south and west. And you say a special thank you prayer, blessing God for his goodness. You do this several times a day, for seven days.
That’s what our Jewish cousins have been doing last week. Giving thanks, every day, for God’s blessings. It kind of puts the rest of us to shame!
But, as they say, there’s more!
Did any of you have invisible friends when you were growing up? I did. I had invisible friends when I was very little.
We would play games together, and we would drink invisible tea, and have invisible cake, and we would have a good time together. Do any of you admit to that?
Well, in Jewish tradition, during the Festival of Booths, every evening, you sit down in your temporary shelter. And your family may come by, or your friends, from their shelters.
But there’s also invisible visitors, and you always keep an empty chair for them, so they have a place to sit and visit when they come.
In Jewish tradition, these invisible visitors are called ushpizin. Can you say that? Ushpizin. And they’re the great people in the Bible.
Abraham comes to visit you. And Sarah. Isaac and Jacob. Moses comes to visit, and his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam. Ruth and Esther, Joseph and David. They all come to visit you, one or two at a time, every night of the week.
And they sit down with you, in your shelter, and you talk with them, and you read Scripture together, and you think about them, all week.
What would it be like, if we did something like that, every year? What if we took time to visit with our invisible friends, the great ones who came before us?
I sit down with my mom and dad every now and then. I visit with my grandparents. I remember people who raised me, and the faith that they had.
Where would I be, without them? How would I have survived? What about all the times they guided me, forgave me, gave me gifts, and picked me up?
What about all the saints – the people of faith we hardly know about, because our memories are short, and our interest is on material things? What about the people of glowing faith, whose life and love gave us our church? Without them, we literally wouldn’t be here.
Who are your invisible friends? Who are your ushpizin? Who are the people from the Bible, from your history, from your family, who visit you and talk to you?
Do you listen to them? Do you pay attention to their stories? Do they inspire you? Do you feel like a better person, because you remember them? We could all stand to do more of that.
Over the years, most of the Jewish people gave up farming, and took up other ways of making a living. But every year, they still hold this festival, to give thanks to God.
And if you have Jewish friends, they will welcome you to their succah, to their temporary shelter. It’s not a closed celebration. Giving thanks is something everybody can do.
Over the years, the Jewish people have built up a year-long schedule of Scripture readings, so that they read all the way through the five books of Moses, every year.
The end of the readings comes during the Festival of Booths. So right after the festival, comes another special day, Simchas Torah, which celebrates God giving the Bible to Moses.
In traditional Jewish communities, Simchas Torah is a huge deal. It’s like God just gave them the Bible again, for the very first time. They take the scrolls out of the place where they’re stored every day, and they dance with them.
Can you imagine young people, old people, men, women and children, all dancing with the Bible? I’m talking solo dances, circle dances, conga line dances that go out into the street and all the way around the block?
I’m not making this up. They do this, every year. In fact, they’re doing it this weekend.
We think that we respect the Bible. We say we know the Bible, even though if you come here on Wednesday night to Bible study, every person in that class, including me, freely admits that we have so much to learn about it.
People do all kinds of strange things with the Bible. Some people swear on it. Some people cuss at it. Some people let it gather dust on a shelf in their house. A few people actually read it and study it.
But only a few of our relatives go out and dance with the Bible. They sing, and they put their arms around each others’ shoulders, and they sing at the top of their voices and dance for hours. And some people think they’re crazy, because they love the Word of God, so much.
I’m not saying you should do all this. I don’t want anyone to feel guilty, or pressured, or unnatural.
But you know, it’s possible to learn from other people. It’s possible to respect the way they live. Our Jewish cousins have been doing this for thousands of years.
The shelters are temporary, even a little flimsy, because they know that almost everything in life is temporary. We come, we go, we move on. We live, we have families. They move on, too.
Where we are – no matter how solid and permanent it seems, is only temporary. We’re like our ancestors, who wandered in the desert, who depended on God to feed them, every day. We move on, and ask God to bless us in a new place. Our shelter changes, every day.
We need to be deeply thankful. We forget that so easily. We need to be thankful for the goodness of the land, for the hard work of the farmer, for all the hands that bring food to our table. I hope we all say grace, or a prayer of thanks, at every meal.
And behind, or beneath, or around or above it all, is God. The Lord is the one who makes it all happen, and who sustains it all. This isn’t our doing. It’s the Lord’s doing, and it’s marvelous in our sight.
We ought to go camping more often. We ought to lift up our eyes to the hills, and see the glory of them. We ought to say prayers to the north, east, south and west, and carry green branches as a reminder of the life God gives.
We ought to welcome our invisible friends, our saints, our Bible heroes, our ancestors, our ushpizin, into our temporary homes. We ought to listen to them, and learn from them, and remember them, and give thanks for their lives, because they’re also our lives.
We really ought to be thankful, a lot more often. It wouldn’t hurt us to celebrate, and dance! Can you imagine the whole church, out dancing in the street, with our Bibles?
It almost makes me embarrassed, even to think about it. But there’s also something really attractive, something really intriguing, about people who love the Word of God, that much.
And giving thanks for a whole week? We could make it a lifetime!
Let’s think about that for a while.