Light from the Sidra

Sukkot ('Booths'). 10 October 2014. 15 Tishri 5775

Torah: Leviticus 22:26-23:44; Numbers 29:12-16; Zechariah 14:1-21

The final harvest

I think it was Rabbi Lionel Blue who first said that Jews are the same as everybody else; only more so. That’s certainly true in terms of religious celebrations. Churches at this time of the year have their single annual harvest festival but Judaism has no less than three harvest thanksgiving events – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – in the year:

After the melancholic introspection of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, the only festival at which Jewish people are commanded to rejoice seven days. I always wondered how God could command his people to be joyful. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I’m English but I haven’t the foggiest notion about how to make myself happy. Then, about six years ago, when I was in Israel at the time of Sukkot, I discovered that the Messianic Jews I was with had no difficulty rejoicing. They had parties that were great fun. And, of course, there were parties going on all over Israel. Apart from Messianic Jews and the Hasidim most of the celebrations appeared to have little to do with thankfulness to God, but in the Torah the Sukkot festivities centred on the goodness of God who had granted his people an abundant harvest.

The ancient rabbis recognised that the festivals of HASHEM were symbols of greater spiritual realities. The feasts were like road signs pointing the way to a final destination; the Messianic era when not only Israel but the whole world would worship and serve the God of Israel.

God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans in order to make him and his ‘seed’ after him a blessing to all nations. In Psalm 67 the Hebrew poet prays, in the words of the High Priestly benediction of Numbers 6:24-26, ‘May God favour us and bless us, may He illuminate His countenance with us… To make known your way on earth, among all nations your salvation.’ The Psalmist wants Israel to be blessed to the full measure that God intended when he promised to bless Abraham and his ‘seed,’ in order that the nations might know God’s ‘Yeshua,’ his salvation.

According to Jeremiah 2:3, ‘Israel is holy to HASHEM, the first of his crop.’ After God cursed the serpent in the Garden of Eden he promised to send a ‘seed’ of a woman who would restore mankind to his original state of blessing. Through the rest of the Bible a word play occurs around the concept of ‘seed.’ Israel is the first of God’s crop from the nations. Indeed, Israel was destined to play a primary role in restoring the nations to God. In Exodus 4:24, when Moses commands Pharaoh to let Israel go, he does so stating that Israel is HASHEM’s ‘firstborn,’ a term that implies God expects to have more children. As the firstborn in God’s family, Israel has a duty to the other nations, to instruct and teach them. Abraham was called to be a blessing to the nations and his physical descendants exist to bless the rest of the nations.

The book of Zechariah, written after Judah’s return from exile, begins with a declaration that HASHEM has been angry with Israel’s forefathers and calls on the people to repent and return to their God. In 8:13 HASHEM encourages his people by assuring them that he has sown a ‘seed’ of peace and foretells that ‘just as you, O House of Judah and House of Israel, had been a curse for the nations, so I will save you and you will be a blessing.’

Israel had not simply failed to bless the nations; the nation that had been called to be a blessing had actually become a curse. But, as the New Testament declares in Romans 11:29, the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable, and HASHEM will never nullify Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the nations. So, in the final verses of Zechariah, God declares that ‘all who are left over from all the nations who had invaded Jerusalem will come up every year to worship the King HASHEM, Master of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Succos’ (Zechariah 14:16).

At Sukkot, 70 sacrifices were offered on behalf of the 70 nations in anticipation of the day when the Gentiles would enjoy the blessing of salvation for which the author of Psalm 67 prayed. Zechariah 14 foresees a time when the nations will celebrate Israel’s most joyful festival Sukkot in Jerusalem. But how could that happen? The biblical festival was centred on the temple and there is no longer a temple in Jerusalem.

The final book of the New Testament, the Book of the Revelation, supplies a remarkable answer to that question. In our English versions of the New Testament, the writers are given very English names, so I’m going to use their Hebrew names – including that of Jesus –with the more familiar nomenclature in brackets. Yochanan (John), the writer of Revelation, sees a series of visions that echo the visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah and the other Hebrew prophets. In chapter 7 Yochanan sees 144,000 Jewish people from all the tribes of Israel sealed for protection from the coming tribulation. In chapter 14 of Revelation, the 144,000 are identified as ‘firstfruits to God and the Lamb,’ a title referring to Yeshua (Jesus) who offered himself as a sacrificial lamb to redeem Israel and the world.

In what was probably the first New Testament book to be written, at a time when there were hardly any Gentile believers in the Messiah, Yaakov (James) the brother of Yeshua writes to Messianic Jews in the diaspora, referring to them as ‘a kind of firstfruits of God’s creation.’ Yaakov was writing a letter to the 144,000!

After Yochanan sees the 144,000 ‘firstfruits of God’s creation,’ he beholds another great sight: God’s full harvest, which he describes as a ‘great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”’

These followers of the Lamb, the Jewish Messiah, are observing the great final day of the Feast of Tabernacles. Like Jewish men on the final great ceremony of Sukkot, these Gentiles from every nation are holding lulavim, they are clothed in white robes and they are singing the Hoshanah Rabbah in the temple of God in heaven. Well, not quite. While Jewish men today call on God to send salvation, these goyim are praising God for salvation!

I identify with that. I praise the God of Israel because I have found salvation in the Lamb of God, Israel’s Messiah, who died as the final atonement for sin. But though I praise HASHEM for his salvation, my heart aches for the many Jewish people who, though religious, are far from salvation.

Think back just one week. After spending ten days seeking to tip the balances of heaven in your favour, what did you achieve? After an entire day of fasting, prayer and repentance, could you say at the end of Yom Kippur that your name was inscribed in the Book of Life? Seven days later, can you say with absolute confidence right now that, God forbid, if you were to die today, you would go to heaven?

If not, why don’t you simply cast yourself on the mercy of your God, repent of your feeble and inadequate attempts to save yourself and place your trust in your Messiah who receives all who call on him; even sinful Gentiles like me!

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