Sunday, May 26, 2013

Why didn't I learn this in church? An Addendum.

In the last couple of weeks I have done a rudimentary survey of the Jewish holy days, Shavuot, and their connections to Christianity. After I completed the fourth (and I thought final) post, a new thought came to mind. Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish faith (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot). Passover is the only one of the three that gets any substantial attention from the Christian Church, as it is closely tied with Good Friday and Easter, the only holidays that all denominations celebrate worldwide. However, after having studied Shavuot, I have to ask:

Why didn't I learn this in church?

Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, Feast of First Fruits, and Pentecost, played a tremendously important role in the establishment of the post-resurrection, post-ascension Church. Luke writes in both his and his history of the early church that Jesus remained on the earth forty days after His resurrection. His goal at that point was to teach the disciples and apostles His mission for the Church. He gave them the tools they would need from the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. He opened their minds to learn at a supernatural pace, a forty day Seminary education for proclaiming the Good News.  Then He said,

This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)

Of course, the apostles thought that the promise meant the restoration of Israel, but Jesus assured them that it  did not, and that only the Father knows the time and date He has set by His authority. He told them to expect something new--the Holy Spirit's power dwelling within them. That certainly gave them something to think about while they stayed in Jerusalem.

This story is one I did learn in church and Sunday School. What I didn't learn was the connection to am important Jewish feast. Remember, the first Christians were Jews, so the festivals and feasts were part of the culture,and they would have immediately understood the message of how Jesus affected them. Those of us in the 21st century Western world need to be taught.

The connection begins with the first verse of Acts 2: When the day of Pentecost came they were all in one place(Acts 2:1). The day of Pentecost IS Shavuot, the pilgrimage feast of First Fruits. Jews gathered to the Temple with their wave offerings of the early harvest: wheat and barley, the sustenance of the land. The first harvest signifies the promise of God to feed His people--from the wilderness to the prosperous. All things come from God, from beginning to end. King David (who is also remembered during Shavuot) wrote, I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread (Psalm 37:25).

The disciples were in Jerusalem at the command of Jesus, but He sent them there BECAUSE of the holiday. Jews from all over the known world would be gathered, celebrating the harvest, remembering the great King David, and offering thanksgiving for the Law that set the Chosen people apart from the rest of humanity. It makes sense that Jesus would send the people from Bethany to Jerusalem (only a couple of miles away) to await the anointing power of the Father. The next part of the story is also familiar:
Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:2-4)

Now THAT was new. God had revealed Himself in fire many times before (Moses' burning bush, the Fire by day in the wilderness, and Ezekiel's vision are just a couple of instances.) This, however, was unusual because it was not a vision in one place or for one person. This was fire over every believer in Jesus gathered during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem form the Feast of First Fruits.  Then they spoke in languages they didn't know, proclaiming a gospel that they were just beginning to understand. The shocked pilgrims looked for a natural explanation (drunk before lunch? on a feast day? not likely), but no natural occurrence could begin to make sense of the events that day.

Peter, being Peter (albeit a new and improved version of himself), spoke up in defense of the apostles, the fire, the languages, and the message. Peter referenced King David, Joel's prophecy, and God's plan for His Chosen ones. He presented both the prophecy of the Messiah and the fulfillment in Jesus, calling the people to repent of their sins, trust the salvation of Jesus Christ, and be baptized. About three THOUSAND people joined the apostles that day.

So why does it matter? Those three thousand (or so) are the First Fruits of the Church. They heard the message, responded to the call, and began immediately to live in the Power of Jesus, bringing more and more people into belief every day. The First Fruits of the Church represented a bountiful harvest ahead. Acts chronicles the beginning days, first through Peter's ministry to the Jews, and later Paul's work in the Gentile world.

So, the Passover feast and pilgrimage, significant to Jews for salvation from physical slavery and the exodus from Egypt mirrors Good Friday and Easter, significant to Christians as salvation from spiritual slavery and and exodus from the natural world to the eternal one. The church at large makes that connection pretty clearly. The Shavuot offering and pilgrimage, significant to Jews for the giving of the Law, the kindnesses of Boaz and Ruth, the leadership of the great King David, and thanksgiving mirrors Pentecost, significant to Christians as the fulfillment of the Law, the kinsman-redeemer of Jesus, and the beginning of the Church in the First Fruits of the Gospel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Kindness and Kinsman: Shavuot Study Part Four

I have spent the last few days studying the Festival of Weeks, aka Shavuot. It is such a rich holiday, full of tradition and connection that I decided I needed to divide my thoughts into multiple posts. This is the final post about how the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (this year on May 14-16) connects to the modern Christian church. There are many lessons for Christians today.

Another element of Shavuot is the reading of the book of Ruth. Traditionally it is read on the second day of the celebration. It is an ancient custom, written about in a talmudic tractate in the eighth century. Since Shavuot is a holiday with multiple angles, I was curious, why Ruth? (I also love the idea that two of the major Jewish holidays feature women of the Bible. God's sense of humor in a primarily patriarchal world.)

The story of Ruth is a multi-dimensional love story. Naomi and her husband, Emilelek,  left Bethlehem and moved to Moab to escape a famine in Judah. While there, Emilelek died and the couple's two sons married Moabite women, strictly forbidden by Jewish law, but practicality requires heirs to maintain the family lineage.  Not long after the marriages, both sons also died, leaving no heirs, and rendering Naomi alone with two daughters-in-law in a foreign land. Naomi then learned that the famine had ended, so she made plans to return to her home and family in Bethlehem.

Act of love number one: Naomi knew that her daughters-in-law were too young to live as widows, so she released them from their vows. She was not required to do so. As matriarch of the family, she could have insisted that the young women care for her in her old age. But she refused. She said, "Go back, each of you, to your mother's home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband" (Ruth 1:8-9). Caring more for the happiness of others is one sign of genuine love. Naomi saw a bitter road for herself, but rather than submit her daughter's in law to loneliness, she sent them back to their people, where they could find hope and peace and a future.

Act of love number two: One of the young women did return, accepting Naomi's loving gift with sorrow. The other, however, refused to turn back. Ruth spoke the words that now find their ways into wedding vows. Sweet, but out of context. Ruth promised Naomi, "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God..." (Ruth 1:16). Ruth, in her love for her mother in law, stayed loyal to her. That's genuine love. Nothing compelled her to leave everything she knew to become a foreigner, but she chose Naomi's well-being over her own.

Ruth fits into the Shavuot celebration by timing. Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest, which would be the time when the pilgrimage for the Feast of Weeks would occur. The harvest was plentiful, and Naomi knew that for this season, they would not starve.

Elimelek, Naomi's deceased husband, had a relative named Boaz, who grew barley, but also had high standing among the Jewish elders. It was common in those days for the poor to follow along the harvesters and glean the leftover grain for their own food. That provision came from Leviticus, and was acceptable. Because Ruth and Naomi had no way to earn a wage, Ruth went to glean in the fields. She happened to begin in the fields of Boaz.

Ruth, as a newcomer and a Moabitess, stood out from the other gleaners. Boaz took note of her and made a point to welcome her.

Act of love number three: Boaz had no reason to protect Ruth, but out of respect for his kinsman, he ensured her safety and made sure that the harvesters "left" plenty of grain behind her her. He explained to her that her actions to Naomi had not gone unnoticed, and that the Lord would bless her for her kindness.

After the harvest, Naomi determined that Ruth needed to marry again so that she would be provided for. Boaz, as a distant relative, was a candidate because the traditions of that culture ensure that a man's widow could be married by his brother in order to preserve the family name. The relative who did so was the kinsman-redeemer, for he redeemed the property and the legacy of his relative.

Act of love number four: Ruth didn't argue with Naomi; she simply obeyed. She went to Boaz's threshing floor, and when he fell asleep, she lay at his feet. Of course, he was rather startled when he awoke, but quickly reassured Ruth that Naomi's wisdom was good and proper. He would take on the role of her husband because Ruth's character won him over. There was another relative who was closer in the family tree than Boaz, but Boaz quickly made sure that he was not interested in taking on the responsibility of Ruth, and by extension, Naomi.

Act of love number five: Boaz married Ruth and the two had a son to carry on the family legacy. Naomi was delighted, and the family was restored. 

In addition to the illustration of loving-kindness in action, the story of Ruth is important to Shavuot in the connection with King David. Tradition holds that King David was born during Shavuot and also died during the holiday. Boaz and Ruth's son was Obed, whose son was Jesse, whose youngest son was a shepherd boy who would be king. 

The book of Ruth is rich with meaning for both Jews and Christians. For Jews, the idea kindness reaps reward is part of the Torah way of life. Kindness demonstrates a connection with the Creator, whose loving-kindness drives the faith. That Ruth, a foreigner, was accepted into the Jewish culture is another important reason to remember her story. That she is the grandmother to the greatest king of Israel (and a man after God's own heart) is another.

For Christians, the story takes on an even deeper meaning. The concept of a kinsman-redeemer ties into the reason Messiah came to earth. He was born in Bethlehem (home of Boaz), was a direct descendant of David, and therefore in a position to redeem the people who, although chosen, were lost in a foreign land made up of rules and traditions that separated them from God in many ways. Ruth, being a foreigner, demonstrates that Jesus was able (and willing) to spread His love, grace, and mercy beyond the Chosen and to the Gentiles. All of humanity is eligible for the Kinsman-Redeemer to cover its debts and become part of the family.

Kindness itself plays a role in Christian faith. It is part of the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 2:22-23), it is evidence of a changed heart (Ephesians 4:32), and it is a key element of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). What better reason then, to remember Ruth's story as a real world demonstration of how the Father wants His children to treat each other and how He, in His sovereignty, rewards that loving-kindness?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Law and the Land: Shavuot Study Part Three

I have spent the last few days studying the Festival of Weeks, aka Shavuot. It is such a rich holiday, full of tradition and connection that I decided I needed to divide my thoughts into multiple posts. This is the third of four posts about how the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (this year on May 14-16) connects to the modern Christian church. There are many lessons for Christians today.

In my years growing up in a Protestant church, I had learned about many Jewish holidays. I knew of Purim (Esther), Passover, Yom Kippur, and Hanukkah. Shavuot, however, was new to me. I was stunned to research the holiday and learn that, not only is it incredibly significant to both Jews and Christians, but that both faiths have largely neglected it.

The primary focus of Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai.  That alone should set it apart because it defined the Hebrew nation as a true Theocracy and a community of people bound, not only by ethnicity, but by faith. It is what makes Judaism unique.

Part of the neglect may be in the vast scope of the holiday. In Leviticus, the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) was a time of gratitude for the beginnings of the summer harvest. The “first fruits” were brought as part of the offering. Agriculture still plays a role in the holiday, as many observers decorate with flowers and greenery. In Israel, many kibbutzim do bring in the first grains with dancing and singing, but other than that, the connection to the earth is largely ignored.

The giving of the Law, too, is a major undertaking. The Torah sealed the Hebrews to God, gave them a unique position in all of history, and instituted the laws that illustrate their separation from the rest of world culture. It is a historical and largely cerebral concept that defies set ritual or activity. It is too solemn for raucous celebration, too early in the year for a feast, and not connected to any particular villain, battle, or hero. It defies simple explanation and symbology. Some Jewish communities stay up all night to study the Scripture. Others focus on the marriage between the Creator and His Chosen People. Some focus on the seven attributes of God (loving-kindness, discipline, compassion, perseverance, beauty, foundation, and dreams).  It is one of the pilgrimage holidays, along with Passover (Pesach) in the early spring and the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in the fall.  Shavuot has no central theme or image to make it famous. No wonder it isn’t terribly popular, especially outside Israel.

Having said that, isn't it important to study the scripture regularly? Isn't it the duty and joy of every believer to know the Father better by study and application of His Word? 2 Timothy 3 tells us that the Word is God-breathed and useful for teaching and training and rebuking and correcting, so it follows that every believer should want to study and show himself approved, who correctly handles the Truth.  It is only through understanding the whole of God's Word that believers can grow in faith, and it is only by diligent study that we can begin to reach and teach those who are lost. The blind cannot lead the blind.

The final element in Shavuot is the reading of the book of Ruth. The lessons of Ruth apply to all people, but the timing of the recognition seems disconnected to the giving of the Law. The only real connection is through the agricultural element. Ruth, of course, made herself known as a gleaner in the fields of a righteous Jew, who would have brought the first fruits offering to the Synagogue. Tradition holds that her grandson, the great King David, died during Shavuot.  Ruth’s connection to the holiday is also one of the key elements in how Shavuot should be a celebration for Christians as well as Jews.

Perhaps Shavuot should be known as the holiday of the Law, the Land, and the Love. Known, celebrated, and remembered.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Let Them Eat Cheesecake: Shavuot Study Part Two

I have spent the last few days studying the Festival of Weeks, aka Shavuot. It is such a rich holiday, full of tradition and connection that I decided I needed to divide my thoughts into multiple posts. This is the second of four posts about how the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (this year on May 14-16) connects to the modern Christian church. There are many lessons for Christians today.

The Festival of Weeks (Number 28) brings the first fruits of the harvest before the Lord as it recalls Moses returning from Sinai carrying the tablets of  God’s Law. God’s blessing is tied to the keeping of the Law, so it makes sense that these are connected. According to some scholars, the initials of the four Hebrew words the describe the Shavuot (the Hebrew name for this holiday) meal spell out mei halay (from milk), which may explain why this is traditionally a dairy holiday.

The idea of Shauvot as a dairy holiday is two-fold. The first idea is that, when Moses brought the Law down from Sinai, the food already prepared was not according to the new Kosher (Kashrut) standards. That meant the meat could not be consumed, leaving dairy as the only readily available protein source until new sources could be prepared.

That is interesting, but not truly significant. The real significance of Shavuot being a dairy holiday is the idea that the Israelites who had just escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt, were like newborns in faith, not able to fully digest the fullness of the Word, and needing to be nurtured with more easily digested “milk.”  The idea that the Chosen People needed something simple and straightforward is continued into the young Church of the New Covenant after the first Christian Pentecost.

Paul, knowing well the Jewish traditions makes reference to this concept in his first letter to the Corinthians, saying, And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.  I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it” (1 Corinthians 3:1). He understood, probably better than most, the importance of the Shavuot ideal: those new in faith need a very defined path to follow until they are ready to dig deeper into the things of the Father.

The author of Hebrews (probably Paul) showed his frustration at the lack of growth in the Church:
 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil (Hebrews 5:12-14).

Babies are supposed to grow and eat solid food. Even though the Law given to Moses was specific, it was intended, not to be only a pattern of behavior, but also a maturing of the heart. As people grow in faith and understanding of the Creator, they must also begin to see beyond the words of the covenant to the spirit of it. It is by learning the heart of God that man can truly walk in fellowship with Him. It may be that Moses’ frustration over this fact is what led him to lash out and ultimately lose the privilege of entering the Promised Land.

The idea that Shavuot is a dairy holiday connects clearly to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. He came to fulfill the Law (the Old Covenant) and allow His followers (the Jew first, and then the rest of us) to grow beyond milk into enjoying solid food. On the level of a purely human appetite, milk is fine for babies, but there is also pulled pork and paella and steak and potatoes and chocolate to enjoy! What if Christians all over the world stopped being satisfied with milk, as pure and nutritious as it is, and began a journey through the rich flavors and textures the Father has for us to taste at His banqueting table?


Shavuot-an Introduction

I have spent the last few days studying the Festival of Weeks, aka Shavuot. It is such a rich holiday, full of tradition and connection that I decided I needed to divide my thoughts into multiple posts. This is the first of three-and maybe four--posts about how the Jewish celebration of Shavuot (this year on May 14-16) connects to the modern Christian church. There are many lessons for Christians today.

Throughout the millennia, the Jewish people have celebrated traditional holidays that, although they alter over time and by culture, remind the faithful of the significant events of their history. Because God is sovereign over all of time and history, Christians can learn much by studying and even celebrating these traditional feasts.

Passover, of course, is the most well known in the Christian community because it is so closely tied to the Passion of Christ. There is a holiday only weeks later, however, that is far less known. The Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot, is a multi-day ancient Jewish celebration that found its New Testament fulfillment in Pentecost.  In more conservative congregations, Pentecost rarely elicits mention, although there are denominations that mark the 50th day after Passover. In the Jewish calendar, however, this time is an important holiday.

The name, Pentecost, comes from a Greek translation for the Feast of Weeks, a  Jewish commemoration of  the giving of the Law at Sinai about 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt. In the Christian Church, it was at the Pentecost celebration that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and led to the beginning of the Church (Acts 2). Eastern churches typically make more observance of Pentecost as to most Western churches, although even in the West, there are many liturgical congregations that regularly remember Pentecost. Of all denominations, however, it seems the Evangelical movement is least likely to observe Pentecost.

The Jewish observance is multi-faceted, and I think the modern Christian church misses out on much by letting it pass by without notice. The memorializing of the Law at Sinai, the gratitude for God’s provision of food, and the connection of Ruth all merit study, as they all have direct applications in the New Covenant.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Judge Not

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Matthew 7:1-2

Yes, that's me with some purple streaks in my hair. It's approaching summer, my school year is over, and I shall wear purple (even though I am not old).

It's been interesting to see the reactions. Most people like it. Some think I'm crazy. Those who know me aren't surprised. I've heard a lot of, "Only you could pull that off."  I like that. I live out loud. I'm not afraid to experiment with my looks. It adds to my "artsy-ness" without offending anyone.

Well, almost anyone. 

One of the lessons our pastor has focused on in the last week is telling our story to the world. One of his points was that, in order to tell a story, there must be an audience. I have found in the last year that my foot tattoo (a simple "run with perseverance" in cursive) opened multiple opportunities to talk about running, perseverance, and God. My story found an audience--and that opens doors. I suspect my fun hair will do the same. And that is the mandate of the Church: go, make disciples, teach....

I wasn't really surprised, but I was disappointed in a couple of reactions from people who publicly say their first priorities are ministry with excellence.  Rather than smile and stay silent if they didn't have anything nice to say, they made a point to be critical. It's not the first time I've been judged for not conforming to some standard, but in the middle of this sermon series, it really bothers me.

It bothers me because, in large part, the traditional church is failing at the very commands Jesus emphasized: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. If people in the church can't treat each other with genuine respect, especially about things that are merely superficial (like hair color), then how can they be trusted to reach and teach the lost? 

In the grand scheme of eternity, what does it matter how many earrings one wears or the color of hair or style of clothing make? Isn't it far more important to connect with people on every level? Isn't it more important to treat each other with respect--even if we disagree with their personal choices about inconsequential things? 

Jesus spent his time with the people, the sinners, the lost, and the spiritually needy. He vigorously chastised the "established" church of Pharisees, and instead pointed to the Father as the standard for behavior. Modern Pharisees, even though they may look like other church members, are just as damaging to the cause of Christ as the first century religious rulers. Jesus insisted that love precedes judgement, not the other way around. That practice needs to begin within the church before it can really be effective in the world.