Feast of Pentecost
June 4th/5th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a culture’s holidays. As Americans, we celebrate Memorial Day because we want to remind ourselves to honor the sacrifice of those who died protecting our freedom. We celebrate Independence Day because we want to remember that the roots of our nation lie in limiting the power the government has over the lives of individual citizens. We celebrate Thanksgiving because we want to remind ourselves to be grateful for the prosperity we enjoy in this land. The holidays we celebrate help us remember what it means to be American. And since we celebrate these holidays from our youth, from long before we can understand their significance, these holidays also play a large role in shaping us into Americans. Our holidays both make us who we are and remind us who we are.
When God established Israel as a chosen people in the Old Testament, he established holidays. Seven, to be exact. Seven feast days that helped give the people of Israel the identity our Lord intended for them. Each feast highlighted a specific characteristic of what God wanted from and for his people. The feast of Passover reminded the people of Israel of their deliverance from Egypt. They were a people who were at one time slaves, but now were free. The feast of Unleavened Bread reminded them that the Promised Land was theirs as a gift from God. Since the land belonged to God, this feast reminded the Israelites that they were expected to live in the land as God described. The feast of Firstfruits was celebrated as the crops were just beginning to produce a harvest, a reminder that just as the land belonged rightfully to God, so also all the fruit of the land belonged to God as was given to Israel as a gift. They were a people who depended on God to provide for their needs. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated the great harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. They were a people who had received both bodily and spiritual blessings from their Heavenly Father, the physical food of the harvest as well as the spiritual food of God’s Word. Rosh Hashanah was the feast that asked God’s blessing over the new year. They were a people who were created and redeemed by God, and so they were reminded by this feast to live each day by the grace of God. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, was like a spring cleaning for the Temple. The feast reminded them that they were a sinful people whose holy God lived in their midst by covering their sins with his own holiness.
The Feast of Tabernacles, often called the Feast of Booths, is the seventh celebration. It was a feast of rejoicing and anticipation, a celebration that had one eye on the past and the other on the future. This was a holiday that recalled Israel’s days living in tents in the wilderness, days when the Israelites survived on the gracious manna and quail provided by the mercy of God. For seven days during the Feast of Booths, faithful Israelites would live in temporary shelters they had built from branches collected after the harvest. For seven days, the people ate, lived, and slept in these temporary booths. They did not work, but spent this time remembering how their ancestors ate bread without working for it. The feast was a week-long celebration of how God provided for the people in the wilderness, which culminated in God’s delivering them into the Promised Land. The feast taught the people to rejoice in the ways God continue to provide for his people in their own day and also to look for the great deliverance that he had promised but had not yet fulfilled.
While some of Israel’s holy days allowed the people to celebrate in whatever village they called home, observing this feast, along with Passover and Pentecost, required a pilgrimage to the Temple. So during the Feast of Booths, the streets of Jerusalem would be especially crowded not only with travelers, but also with the make-shift shelters that the travelers built. But unlike Passover or the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths was not a primarily about repentance. It was not an especially solemn observance; it was a time of great celebration. Think along the lines of Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve. The seven days of the Feast of Booths was like the week between Christmas and New Year when nothing much gets done, culminating by counting down the seconds until the ball drops to ring in the New Year. It was a huge campout filled with exuberant and joyful people living in home-made shelters for a week.
Like the time between Christmas and New Year, each day of the Feast of Booths was a celebration. Each day would see the pilgrim throng march in procession to the Temple and around the altar, singing and rejoicing the whole way. Each day would see a procession of priests march to the Pool of Siloam and fill a pitcher with water to be processed back to the altar and poured out as a drink offering. During this procession, the people would sing Psalms of deliverance. Eventually the Israelites adopted the custom of singing the words of Isaiah chapter 12, words which we still sing today: “With joy will you draw water from the well of salvation, and you will say in that day, “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people. Proclaim that his name is exalted. Shout and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
During this celebratory parade, the ceremonial water called to mind God’s great promise of deliverance waiting to be revealed with the arrival of the Messiah. The feast reminded the Israelites how their ancestors had lived in anticipation of God delivering them into the Promised Land, and it taught them to live in anticipation of God’s promised Messiah, the one who would deliver a new generation of Israelites. The final day of the feast was especially energetic, the culmination of a week of celebration, reaching its climax as the priest, for the final time, poured out the water from the Pool of Siloam and all the people shouted, “Hosanna! Lord, Save us! Deliver us! Give us water from the well of salvation. Send us the promised Messiah!”
Now, you may be wondering why I would take so much time to describe the Feast of Booths when today is Pentecost. But the Feast of Booths is the setting of today’s Gospel reading. John tells us that on the last day of the feast, the great day, the culmination of a week’s worth of celebrating and praising God for all his gifts while also looking for the fulfillment of his promise to send the Messiah, as the people were either anticipating to the final pouring of water or right after they had seen it, as all the energy and emotion of the crowd was directed toward calling out to God to send his promised Messiah, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone wants this water of life, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus’ message couldn’t be clearer. This feast of celebration that anticipates God’s great deliverance finds its fulfillment in Jesus. He is the living water. He is the great deliverance.
He is the great deliverance for you, too. For like the Israelites of Old, we live in a time of wilderness wandering. Life in the fallen world is often like walking through the barren wilderness. The cares and concerns of this life sap our energy and leave us emotionally and spiritually dehydrated. The threat of disease, the challenges of relationships, the guilt over sins committed, the shame of other people knowing our shortcomings all combine to drain our hope dry. Like Israel in the wilderness, we are often tempted to curse God for our lot in life. And like Israel in the wilderness, all too often we give in to that temptation. Like Israel in the wilderness, we are often tempted to turn our back on God and embrace the sinful philosophies of a dying world. And like Israel in the wilderness, all too often we give in to that temptation. We treat each other according to the standards of the world, speaking out of bitterness and anger instead of out of charity and mercy. We turn our back on the needs of our neighbor, preferring to send a check to some charity so that we can clean our conscience without dirtying our hands. When the opinions and ideas of our world come into conflict with God’s Word, we often tell our Lord to keep silent.
And yet for all our sin and failure, God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we live in sin and ingratitude, our Lord continues to cause the rain to fall and food to grow. He continues to provide for all our needs of body and soul. And he continues to call us to look to the great gift of promised deliverance. As the Israelites in the wilderness were called to look to the promised land with hope, so also we are called to look in hope toward our promised rest. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in your place make that rest a reality. The gift of baptism, the forgiveness of your sins, the body and blood of Jesus given to you at this very altar make that promise yours. Apart from Christ, the wilderness of this world would leave us parched beyond hope, dead from dehydration, a valley of dry bones. But Christ has come. Jesus lives for you. Whoever believes that promise will drink the living water of salvation.
And with but a single drink, you have so much living water that rivers pour forth from you. In our Lord’s Word, we have more than we could ever need, more than we could ever deserve, more than we could ever hope for, more than we could ever contain. The gift of Christ is so abundant that when you have but a single drop of his living water, it is as if you have rivers upon rivers of it. You don’t get just part of Jesus through his Word. You don’t get just part of the Spirit. You get all of it. You get life in abundance. You get faith in abundance. You get immeasurably more than all you could ask or think.
In a way, our life as the people of God today is like our own celebration of the Feast of Booths. The dwellings and circumstances of this life are temporary shelters made from branches that will one day wither and fade. Through his word, our Lord calls us to rejoice in the gifts he freely gives while we live in this temporary situation. And he calls us to look with anticipation to the deliverance waiting to be revealed when he comes again in glory. Rejoice and anticipate, that’s what this feast is about. That’s what your life is about too.
So even though it may be Pentecost, celebrate the Feast of Booths today. Come to the altar of your Lord and celebrate the waters drawn from the well of salvation. Drink the living water that is Christ himself. In this Sacrament Jesus gives himself to you. He fills you to the point of overflowing with faith, hope, and love to sustain you in the wilderness of this life. Here at this rail, Jesus gives you the gift of the Spirit to sustain your soul, to guard and protect you in the true faith unto life everlasting. And when the time comes, our Lord will fulfill the deliverance promised to you just as he fulfilled the promise of deliverance for the Israelites in the wilderness by leading them into the Promised Land, and just as he fulfilled his promise of deliverance by sending Jesus as the Messiah.
Remember and anticipate: that is the Feast of Booths, and that is our life in Christ. May our gracious Father in heaven grant us living water all our days of this pilgrimage and deliver us safely into the life to come.