5 Jun 2012

Enter His Presence: Assemblies, Divine Presence & the Sacred Rhythm of Life – 2

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Kingdom, Worship

This post continues my thoughts from the Enter His Presence part 1. You can read that HERE.

Israel was directed to reconvene the day of assembly through “holy convocations” throughout her history. These other assembly days integrated a divine presence into the rhythm of life.  The Torah provided a way for Israel to establish a cadence and quality to life that celebrated the Lord’s love for his good creation and his gracious redemption while molding and shaping their identity and vocation as a kingdom of priests. 
Divine Presence and the Rhythm of Life 
The major texts establishing the rhythm of Israel’s liturgical calendar are found in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28-29, and Deuteronomy 16.  Leviticus 23 reveals a number of key themes for the significance of these festivals — sacred space was to encompass the life of Israel.  First, four times the text emphasizes that these occasions are “the Lord’s meetings” or “Lord’s appointed seasons” (23: 2, 4, 37, 41).  God expects his people to carve out times dedicated to meet him in their schedules.
Second, these gatherings are to be “sacred assemblies” (NIV) or “holy convocations” (NRSV). This phrase occurs nine times (Lev 23: 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 21, 24, 27, 35, 36, 37).  The Hebrew term miqra can mean “call,” “summons,” or even “reading.”[1] It is a summons to gather as an assembled people in his presence. These “holy convocations” were times of gathering to celebrate the greatness of God and to hear his word (as the word came to mean).  Moses connected coming in sacred assembly with hearing the word in Deuteronomy 31:10-12
Then Moses commanded them … during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing.  Assemble the people – men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns – so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law.
Third, these holy convocations are characterized by the phrase “do not do any regular work” (Lev 23: 7, 8, 21, 25, 28, 30-31, 36). No workaholics were allowed in ancient Israel.  Life easily gets out of balance but the religious calendar of Israel was designed to bring the principle of shalomto out of kilter lives.  The “disruption” of life as usual by holy convocations of gathered worship brought balance and a holy rhythm  to life. God never intended his human creation to live as slaves to Pharaoh or to any other task master except the supremely benevolent One, himself.  The festivals were, according to the Torah, celebrated (Deut 16: 10, 13, 15) and characterized as times of great joy and rejoicing (Deut 16: 11, 14, 15).  Through regular appointed meetings with the Lord in holy convocation, Yahweh instilled the grace of joy back into life that is so often lost in this fallen world. 
The Torah called Israel to six principle festivals—Sabbath, Passover and Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Tabernacles.[2]  The Sabbath heads the list of holy gatherings in Leviticus and under girds all the other sacred assemblies.  The Sabbath firmly grounds the rhythm of life in Israel in the celebration of two great facts.  First, it celebrated the creation of the world.[3] By so doing Israel affirms that she herself is a creation of God. She, and the world, exist by an act of divine grace. As such Sabbath celebrates family, friends and food as good giftsfrom the hand of the Lord as they met weekly for Sabbath meals. Second, Israel is to celebrate her salvation from slavery. This broke the daily grind of labor by affirming that Yahweh has set us free.  This life-liberating posture confessed faith in a Creator who even cares for the birds and a Redeemer who hears the cries of even the slave, the widow and the orphan.  These twin themes of creation and redemption supercharge Israel to become a living Sabbath for the world.  Indeed through the Sabbath assembly two worlds collide—the world that is and the world to come. “For the Sabbath is joy, holiness, and rest; joy is part of this world; holiness and rest are something of the coming world.”[4]Clearly the sacred assembly of Sabbath is intended by God to waft as incense that filled the life of Israel.
The rhythm of the Sabbath principle courses through the biblical narrative as is surfaces in the Sabbath year and the Year of Jubilee.  Ultimately the Sabbath finds expression in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who identifies his ministry by it in Luke 4:18-19 (cf. Isa 61:1-2a)
            The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
                 because he has anointed me to bring
                 good news to the poor.
            He has sent me to proclaim release
                 to the captives and recovery of sight
                        to the blind,
                 to let the oppressed go free,
            to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus was no enemy of the Sabbath. Rather Jesus became what Israel was intended to be—a living Sabbath.  The creational and redemptive grace of the Lord is seen in Jesus’ healing miracles as he reverses the curse under which creation suffers by restoring hands, legs, eyes and even life to the goodness of Genesis 1 and 2. 
The first annual festival was the Passover and Unleavened Bread.  Israel gathered in holy convocation on the seventh day of the feast (Lev 23:7, 8; Num 28:18, 25).  Passover and Unleavened Bread is a truly communal event dramatizing the years of bitter servitude in Egypt and Yahweh’s victory over the Pharaoh.  This liturgical meal shaped the identity of Israel as God’s kingdom of priests.  T. D. Alexander points out the world-shaping qualities of this sacred assembly for Israel,
The sacrifice of the animal atones for the sin of the people, the blood smeared on the door-posts purifies those within, and the eating of the sacrificial meat consecrates those who consume it.  By participating in the Passover ritual the people sanctify themselves as a holy nation of God.[5]
The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread set the rhythmic path of the Hebrew year.  So embedded is the Passover in Israel’s worship that when the first Passover is narrated in Exodus 12-13, it is not simply a recounting of the historical events of the Exodus event. Rather it is mingled with liturgical directions on how Israel will celebrate the communal meal.  History and liturgy thus mix to shape and form Israel’s self-understanding as a redeemed by grace people of God.[6]
The second appointed season to the Lord was the Feast of Weeks, First Fruits or Pentecost. It is celebrated seven weeks or fifty days after the harvest of the first sheaf on the first day of the week as a time for great rejoicing before the Lord.  Israel acknowledges the Creator’s sovereign ownership of the provisions of life.  In holy convocation (Lev 23: 21; Num 28:26) Israel praised God’s gracious provision but also remembered her own missional responsibility to share God’s bounty with the poor of the world (Lev 23:22).  It was during the Feast of Weeks that God the Father poured out the Holy Spirit on the first fruits of the new creation (Acts 2). Symbolizing a reversal of Babel in which God confused the languages of arrogant humanity, the Holy Spirit enabled people who were present from all over the known world to hear the gospel.  The birthday of the church saw the first fruits of the nations coming to God’s holy hill to be taught of God and his Anointed (cf. Isa 2.2-4).  The new community of the Spirit, in the tradition of the festival, gathered to hear the word, commune at God’s table and shared the bounty of God’s provisions with the poor (Acts 2:42-46).
Rosh Hashanah or Feast of Trumpets marks the New Year and the creation of the world.[7]  It was a day of rest and sacred assembly (Lev 23:24; Num 29:1).  The blowing of the shofar is frequently associated with the presence of the Lord in the Old Testament (Ex 19:19; Ps 47:5; Zech 9:14).  Some suggest that the blaring of the trumpets was an attempt to replicate the thunder that Israel heard as Yahweh descended on Mount Sinai.[8] As such Israel is once again reminded of the God who carried her on eagles’ wings to himself.  
Nehemiah, convening an assembly for the Feast of Trumpets, provides us with an example of what such convocations involved.  Ezra used this feast to gather the people of God as one in order to renew their covenant with the Lord.  During this celebration the people listened to the Torah from “daybreak until noon” (Neh 8:3).  Ezra ascended the pulpit built just for the occasion and the scribe “praised God” while the people shouted “Amen” and bowed in worship before the Lord (Neh 8:8).  So moved were the people that many began weeping (Neh 8:9).  But it was not a time for weeping so Nehemiah instructed the people “go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks … do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh 8:10). Sensing the people’s mood, the Levites moved through the assembly calming the worshipers with the words “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve” (Neh 8:11).  When the gathered people of God understood the words from God they “celebrate[d] with great joy” (Neh 8:12).  This was a shared joy as the people gave portions of their fellowship offerings to “those who have nothing” (Neh 8:10).[9]  Gloom and holiness do not make good companions in the biblical narrative.[10] This narrative demonstrates the festive joy associated with Israel’s “holy convocations” as they mediated the divine presence in Israel. Not quite the dour legalism some caricature the Old Testament as. 
Coming between Trumpets and Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement is a richly textured holy convocation (Lev 23:27; Num 29:7).  As the only required fast by the Torah this day powerfully presented Israel with two profound truths — the reality of sin and God’s gracious provision of atonement. The day is dominated by dramatic symbolism (Lev 16).  Two animals are chosen—one for Yahweh and the other as the scapegoat. The High Priest enters into the Holy of Holies making atonement for himself, his family and all of Israel (Lev 16:17).  Upon leaving the Holy of Holies the High Priest takes the scapegoat, lays both hands upon its head and makes the “Great Confession.”  The animal is then led into the wilderness as it symbolically carries the sin of the community away.  Yom Kippur graphically reminds us that we live in a fallen world.  During this assembly our spiritual ancestors recognized sin had irreparably vandalized themselves, their families and their communities.  Sin is recognized as far greater than any one single human. This sacred assembly, however, proclaims good news.  The Lord mercifully provides forgiveness so that life can thrive as was always intended.  On this day Israel can rest in shalom because atonement is “made for you, to cleanse you.  Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins” (Lev 16:30).  Thus the Day of Atonement infused into the rhythm of life both the agonizing need for redemption and the glorious experience of forgiveness.
Following on the heels of Yom Kippur Israel celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles as the last major holy convocation (Lev 23:35-36; Num 29:12) prescribed by the Torah. Tabernacles is associated with the finished work of the final harvest.  This festival takes on a different character as it provides relief from the intensity of the scapegoat festival enacted only five days prior.  This sacred assembly is a time of great rejoicing. Indeed Moses says it should be a “happy time of rejoicing with your family, with your servants, and with the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows” (Deut 16:14, NLT).  Israel’s sacred assemblies were never designed to separate individuals from the community. Rather they functioned as a powerful reminder that regardless of gender or social status the joy of the Lord is best experienced together.
Tabernacles was given redemptive-historical meaning by reminding Israel that Yahweh had redeemed her (Lev 23:42-43).  Functioning as sort of an ancient version of “virtual reality” Israel took what might be seen as a family vacation to relive the grand adventure in the wilderness when Israel literally depended upon the Lord for her daily bread.
By the time of Jesus two more festivals added rhythm to the life of the faithful Jew—neither of which appear in the Torah.  The Feast of Purim celebrated God’s gracious preservation of Israel from Haman’s planned genocide.  In the most unlikely of ways God worked through the lives of Esther and Mordecai to bring about a quiet miracle.  The festival calls for “feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 10:22).  The link between worshiping as a Gathered People and worshiping God through serving others, particularly the poor, is apparent here. 
The last feast added to Israel’s calendar is Dedication or Lights. This festival comes from the Intertestamental Period and celebrates the liberation of the temple in 164 B.C.E. from the abominations performed there by Antiochus IV (1 Macc 4.36-58; 2 Macc 10.1-9).  Also known as Hanukkah, this celebration is marked by the lighting of candles for eight consecutive days symbolizing the miracle oil that God provided.  Though not mentioned in the canonical Old Testament John tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem, and in the temple, for the festival (John 10:22). The festival testified to Israel’s belief in the miracle of deliverance God performed during the Maccabean period but the people refused to believe the miracles of Jesus they have witnessed with their own eyes.
Concluding Thoughts
The festivals of Israel infused, through regular assemblies, life with a divine rhythm, the rhythm of grace. The gatherings were appointed meetings with the Lord and gathered in his name. Through the festivals Israel learned to worship God not simply with her head but with body and heart as well. As a Gathered People before Yahweh, Israel discerned not only her responsibility to each other and the poor but also learned to identify with them.  Through her assemblies Israel renewed her missional vocation in the world.  Through her assemblies she encountered the Living God as a gift of grace.  There is no greater connection between everyday life worship and corporate worship than in Israel’s festivals.  The festivals were, in a very real sense, the essence of life as they were the renewed experience of Eden’s communal shalom and joy in the Presence of the Lord.

You can read more thoughts on these lines in A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly as Divine Encounter.

[1] “miqra,” New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 3: 971-974.
[2] For an accessible introduction to Israel’s religious calendar see Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts With Praise: Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 97-108; 121-125.  For more detailed information see Tremper Longmann III, Immanuel In Our Place, pp. 161-213.
[3] Monford Harris, Exodus and Exile: The Structure of the Jewish Holidays (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 9.  Harris notes “Only the Jews regularly celebrate the creation of the world by observing the Sabbath.”
[4] Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1952), 19.
[5] T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land (Carlisle, England: Paternoster Press, 1997), 78.
[6] Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 133-136.
[7] Monford Harris, Exodus and Exile, 49.
[8] Tempter Longman III, Immanuel In Our Place, 202.
[9] The fellowship offering is not explicitly mentioned in Nehemiah 8.  The word “portion,” however, implies it (8:12). A parallel account of the day of assembly in 1 Esdras 9:37-55 uses a Greek term that means “tribute” or “gift” make it certain that a sacrifice was offered, cf. Jacob M. Myers, I and II Esdras: The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974, 1980), 94.
[10] Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1979), 107.

Leave a Reply