[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette that was scheduled in the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on October 14, 2017. It ended up not being given because of a last minute change of schedule.]
It is common for people to think that the Feast of Tabernacles they have just enjoyed was the best feast ever. I won’t ask for a show of hands as to who thinks this past feast as the best feast ever, but I am going to guess that at least a fair number of you think of this past feast as the best feast ever for one reason or another. Perhaps you enjoyed the messages, the spiritual food you ate during the course of the Feast. Perhaps you enjoyed the places you traveled to, or the physical food, or the time spent with friends and family and loved ones. As someone who tends to review my own feasts critically , like I review everything critically, I must admit that I do not often say that a particular feast is the best feast ever, unless it was 1998 or 2008, which for their own reasons I viewed as the best feasts ever in my own life so far. Since those of us who are here have just returned from the Feast of Tabernacles likely are still thinking about it, today I would like to talk about what may have been the best feast of tabernacles ever discussed in the Bible, and what lessons we can learn about what makes a feast great.
Let us pick up the story in Nehemiah 8. The story of perhaps the best feast ever begins on the Day of Trumpets, when many of the returned exiles were gathered together in Jerusalem. Let us pick up this beginning in Nehemiah 8:1-6. Nehemiah 8:1-6 reads: “Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. So Ezra the scribe stood on a platform of wood which they had made for the purpose; and beside him, at his right hand, stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Urijah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah; and at his left hand Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbadana, Zechariah, and Meshullam. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”
When we read this passage, there are a few factors that jump out to us as to what makes this particular feast so great. Aside from the fact that the passage contains a lot of names difficult to spell and pronounce, we see that the services during that Holy Day involved Ezra reading out from the law to a crowd that was listening attentively to what he was saying. Sometimes when we speak before an audience, especially about religious matters, we may wonder how closely other people are paying attention to what we have to say. Sometime the room may be stuffy and we may have sleepy or distracted people, and we don’t always know if our audience is paying attention to what we have to say. There were no such doubts with this audience, as Ezra and his associates knew that the people of Jerusalem were listening attentively to what he was reading and clearly had hearts that had turned to God in worship. This passages gives as its first key to having a great feast as the attentiveness of audience to God and to those speaking about God’s ways.
Let us continue reading this passage and look at what verses seven through twelve have to say about what made this particular feast so special. Nehemiah 8:7-12 tells us: “Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law; and the people stood in their place. So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly, because they understood the words that were declared to them.”
The second key that made this Feast such a great one is a more complicated one than the first. There are two elements of this second key that are related to each other, and they also relate to the leadership over Judah at this time. Again, we see more names that are fairly complicated to pronounce, describing the Levites who helped the people to understand what the law meant. Since Ezra was likely reading in Hebrew, these additional people were helping to explain what was probably a difficult lesson in a language many of the people did not do through what later became targums in Aramaic, translations and paraphrases that helped the listeners get a sense of what the law meant in a language they could more easily understand. It is not only speakers today that use words hard to understand for their audience. Another part of this key is to note that when the audience understood God’s law, their first response was to weep. Throughout the Bible, the first response we see of the godly to being made aware of the gulf that exists between our own state of righteousness and the ethical demands of the Bible has been great sorrow in the expectation of judgment for our disobedience and unbelief. Yet the Levites as well as Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor encouraged the people of Jerusalem not to weep but rather to rejoice as God commands us to do during the feasts. Speaking for myself, there have been some years where I have found it difficult for one reason or another to rejoice during the feast, and no doubt many of you have similarly had difficult times where the trials and difficulties in life overwhelmed us. Fortunately, this group of believers had leaders who pointed their attention to the joy that the feasts should bring us and did not let them continue to remain full of sorrow and grief over their imperfections in the face of God’s high ethical and moral demands.
Now we get to the description in Nehemiah 8 over what is perhaps the best feast ever. We read this description in Nehemiah 8:16-18: “ Then the people went out and brought them and made themselves booths, each one on the roof of his house, or in their courtyards or the courts of the house of God, and in the open square of the Water Gate and in the open square of the Gate of Ephraim. So the whole assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and sat under the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day until the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a sacred assembly, according to the prescribed manner.”
What we see here is that this Feast of Tabernacles that was kept in Jerusalem during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah was the most notable feast of its kind for hundreds of years. Many of us have celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles for two, three, four, five, or even six decades or more. This is a pretty extensive historical memory, to be sure, but the times of Joshua the son of Nun were nearly a thousand years before the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, making this a remarkable feast in the history of Israel and Judah as a whole. Part of what made this feast so remarkable is that they kept the Feast in its prescribed manner, which appears not to have been very common in Israel’s history. Keeping the feast in its prescribed manner and keeping it with great gladness made this feast of Tabernacles perhaps the best feast ever.
Let us recap and review to see what lessons we can draw from the story of the Feast of Tabernacles celebrated over 2400 years ago after the return from exile during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. First, let us note that even before the Feast began, the believers at the time were attentive to the words of God being told to them by Ezra and translated and interpreted by the Levites. We see, therefore, that we begin a great feast with leaders who are equipped to teach God’s ways and believers who are attentive to hear and to obey those ways. Next, we note that as the natural response of a sensitive and reflective heart and spirit is grief and sorrow at the distance between our state of righteousness and what God expects and requires of us, that godly leaders have the responsibility of turning those reflective hearts and spirits towards the joy that God commands of us during His festivals by reminding us of how we should enjoy and celebrate the Feast. Finally, we see that in keeping the Feast with great gladness and according to the prescriptions of what God commanded, the people of Judah enjoyed a feast that was among the greatest in history. Let us hope that this past feast, and the future feasts that we are able to enjoy, are able to meet this standard of being perhaps the best feast ever.
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