Today was the last regular day of Sukkot (Tabernacles or Booths). We took down our tent and our Sukkah (booth) and came home. Now, I have tons to do before sundown when Shemini Atzeret starts, the 8th day, which is also a Sabbath (Yom Tov).
So, not wanting to leave you with nothing to read here on Messianic Jewish Musings, I’m doing what I sometimes do when I am pressed for time: I’m posting a sermon. I delivered this sermon Saturday morning at Stone Mountain Park where many of us camp together for the Feast. We had live music, dancing, a campfire, food, and rejoicing.
The message is tailored, of course, to my congregational audience, but I think other readers will get some thoughts worth thinking from it.
The Torah at the Water Gate
It is fitting to be gathered outside, standing on God’s green earth, to listen together to the word of God on this Sukkot Shabbat.
There was a comparable gathering 2,451 years ago. It was a gathering in the seventh month. And Nehemiah was the governor. And Ezra the Scribe was the Torah-teacher of Israel. And the celebration of Sukkot was re-instituted in Israel at that time.
And the great thing for us, is that the story of that gathering is a powerful story with reminders that we need to hear.
It is a story about the power of reading God’s word as a community. It is a story about the joy of the Lord. By “joy of the Lord” I mean to say our rejoicing together as a community in God. It is a story about feasting as a form of worship. And it is a story about how we as a community relate to God, our Father.
Neh. 8:1 all the people gathered with one accord in the open space in front of the Water Gate and asked ‘Ezra the Torah-teacher to bring the scroll of the Torah of Moshe, which ADONAI had commanded Isra’el.
Notice that they gathered “with one accord.” They gathered k’ish ekhad, as one man. We hear that phrase later in the book of Acts about the first Yeshua followers.
There is something hear we must never forget. God’s people are a community. The Bible doesn’t know anything about solitary faith. The idea that we can be with God simply by ourselves is false and harmful. God emphasizes again and again the need for communal worship and communal learning and growth. God’s people are a community. We are “as one person.”
2 ‘Ezra the cohen brought the Torah before the assembly, which consisted of men, women and all children old enough to understand. It was the first day of the seventh month. 3 Facing the open space in front of the Water Gate, he read from it to the men, the women and the children who could understand from early morning until noon; and all the people listened attentively to the scroll of the Torah. 4 ‘Ezra the Torah-teacher stood on a wood platform which they had made for the purpose; beside him on his right stood Mattityah, Shema, ‘Anayah, Uriyah, Hilkiyah and Ma‘aseiyah; while on his left were P’dayah, Misha’el, Malkiyah, Hashum, Hashbadanah, Z’kharyah and Meshulam. 5 ‘Ezra opened the scroll where all the people could see him, because he was higher than all the people; when he opened it, all the people rose to their feet. 6 ‘Ezra blessed ADONAI, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen! Amen!” as they lifted up their hands, bowed their heads and fell prostrate before ADONAI with their faces to the ground. 7 The L’vi’im Yeshua, Bani, Sherevyah, Yamin, ‘Akuv, Shabtai, Hodiyah, Ma‘aseiyah, K’lita, ‘Azaryah, Yozavad, Hanan and P’layah explained the Torah to the people, while the people remained in their places.
When I first learned the Bible, as a college student, I thought of it differently than I do now.
To me the Bible was the book of private devotion. I read it alone and it was not particularly important to me that there should be any CEREMONY or PUBLIC reading.
When I first encountered Jewish worship, though I liked some parts of it, I was not high on the CEREMONY. I mocked the idea of reverencing a scroll or a copy of God’s word. It was the words and ideas that were sacred, not the physical printing.
And the very idea of having an ARK and a TORAH SCROLL was foreign and excessive to me.
But I have come to love the CEREMONY. I have come to love PUBLIC READING. And we see here a fine example of Judaism’s basis for the Torah Service:
Ezra stood on a BEMA.
Ezra was accompanied on the platform by other leaders.
Ezra read and the people listened together.
Ezra recited blessings as he read the Torah.
And the people called back responsively.
They raised their hands.
We find all of these traditions in the traditional Torah Service of Judaism. It is CEREMONY with a purpose and it is beautiful.
8 They read clearly from the scroll, in the Torah of God, translated it, and enabled them to understand the sense of what was being read.
Why did they translate it for a Jewish audience when it is written in Hebrew? These are the returnees from exile in Babylon and they now speak the language of Babylon: Aramaic. This is the beginning of the Aramaic Targums, loose translations with commentary.
Also, the need for Torah teachers is something we should not forget. Most people don’t have time to study the Torah in depth. Every Jew and every follower of Yeshua should study Torah. But the community needs teachers who study more and help the community learn and grow in Torah.
The Bible does not teach that the Bible is easy to understand. The Bible teaches study, memorization, reciting, and meditating on God’s words.
Neh. 8:9 Nechemyah the Tirshata, ‘Ezra the cohen and Torah-teacher and the L’vi’im who taught the people said to all the people, “Today is consecrated to ADONAI your God; don’t be mournful, don’t weep.” For all the people had been weeping when they heard the words of the Torah. 10 Then he said to them, “Go, eat rich food, drink sweet drinks, and send portions to those who can’t provide for themselves; for today is consecrated to our Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy of ADONAI is your strength.” 11 In this way the L’vi’im quieted the people, as they said, “Be quiet, for today is holy; don’t be sad.” 12 Then the people went off to eat, drink, send portions and celebrate; because they had understood the words that had been proclaimed to them.
What a great God we have though so many people don’t know it. People associate God with solemn dreariness. Public worship should be boring. Pleasures and delights are all bad and should be avoided.
People tend not to know about God’s commands to rejoice and his encouragement to use strong drink and feasting and dancing. I love this passage: “don’t weep; go and eat rich food and drink sweet drinks.”
I love Deuteronomy 14:26, where God tells the people coming to the Feasts to bring “money for whatever you desire, oxen, or sheep, or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves.”
God made all this and our job in the World to Come will be to enjoy it day in and day out. God is not a dreary Puritan calling for abstinence and asceticism. God made us for rejoicing.
Neh. 8:13 On the second day, the heads of fathers’ clans of all the people assembled with the cohanim and L’vi’im before ‘Ezra the Torah-teacher to study the words of the Torah. 14 They found written in the Torah that ADONAI had ordered through Moshe that the people of Isra’el were to live in sukkot during the feast of the seventh month; 15 and that they were to announce and pass the word in all their cities and in Yerushalayim, “Go out to the mountains, and collect branches of olives, wild olives, myrtles, palms, and other leafy trees to make sukkot, as prescribed.” 16 So the people went out, brought them and made sukkot for themselves, each one on the roof of his house, also in their courtyards, in the courtyards of the house of God, in the open space by the Water Gate and in the open space by the Efrayim Gate. 17 The entire community of those who had returned from the exile made sukkot and lived in the sukkot, for the people of Isra’el had not done this since the days of Yeshua the son of Nun. So there was very great joy. 18 Also they read every day, from the first day until the last day, in the scroll of the Torah of God. They kept the feast for seven days; then on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the rule.
Did you hear that? The entire community had not dwelt in Sukkahs since the days of Joshua. This does not mean that Sukkot wasn’t celebrated at all in Israel’s history. It means they had not all come together as one community to dwell in booths since the days of Joshua.
And what can we say about the sad lack of Sukkot excitement in much of Judaism and Messianic Judaism today?
I know we are not yet in Jerusalem. I know we do not yet have the Temple and Messiah to camp around. But why are so many unwilling to get out with God for seven days and keep the Feast?
We ought to rejoice as God has commanded and enjoy. This is living in light of the World to Come instead of accepting defeat and being pessimistic about the future.
Those who long for the Days of Messiah and the dancing to come at the Temple are those who rejoice now. I assure you, keeping Sukkot to the fullest is a Mitzvah. It pays off in your family life. There is no better way to teach your children than to keep God’s feasts.
If anything, we need more excitement and celebrating, not less.
Neh. 9:1 On the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Isra’el, wearing sackcloth and with dirt on them, assembled for a fast. 2 Those descended from Isra’el separated themselves from all foreigners; then they stood up and confessed their own sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. 3 Standing where they were, they read in the scroll of the Torah of ADONAI their God for one-quarter of the day. For another quarter they confessed and prostrated themselves before ADONAI their God. 4 On the platform of the L’vi’im stood Yeshua, Bani, Kadmi’el, Sh’vanyah, Buni, Sherevyah, Bani and K’nani; they cried out loudly to ADONAI their God. 5 Then the L’vi’im Yeshua, Kadmi’el, Bani, Hashavn’yah, Sherevyah, Hodiyah, Sh’vanyah and P’tachyah said, “Stand up, and bless ADONAI your God from everlasting to everlasting; let them say:
“‘Blessed be your glorious name,
exalted above all blessing and praise!
The people remained together until the 24th day of Tishri. That is the day after Simkhat Torah.
And they had a renewal of the covenant with Adonai. There was a great deal of public reading of scripture. There was a great deal of repenting.
This was not part of the Feast of Sukkot. Sukkot is a time of rejoicing. It is not a time for mourning and formal repentance.
But after a week of rejoicing before the Lord, and having been away from the covenant for so long, it was time for Israel to return to God.
The Feasts of Adonai do something in our hearts. They call us back to God. It is as if we need a physical reminder of the spiritual truth of our need for him.
The story of Sukkot with Ezra and Nehemiah reminds us of several important things:
1. We should listen attentively to the word of God and to teaching about it.
2. We should worship God fervently and with physical acts of devotion and rejoicing such as waving branches and saying hallelujah and amen.
3. We should rejoice and enjoy God and what he has made in the Feasts he has instituted for Israel.
4. We should do all this as much as possible as a community, as one person, standing together before God.
And the people ended their time together with a piece of liturgy and rejoicing that reminds me of the Kaddish:
“ Blessed be your glorious name, exalted above all blessing and praise!”
Let’s live our lives to do just that: to bless the Lord and exalt him in all things.