When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.
A few months ago, one of those videos of military personnel being reunited with their families crossed my social media screen. There’s no shortage of them; usually it’s Dad coming home unexpectedly at Christmas or on someone’s birthday and the inevitable tears, hugs and general celebration that follows. I feel rather awkward as a detached voyeur who has no connection with any of the protagonists, even though I want to rejoice and cheer with them as they reconnect, so I tend to scroll over them these days.
However, this one seemed a little different. It featured a mum who had returned from service and came into her son’s school hall during the lunch period dressed in a tiger mascot outfit, complete with ‘head’; no one could see who was inside the suit. Catering assistants smiled, the kids giggled as she high-fived and sashayed her way to a bench opposite her son, who was probably about ten years old. He was messing about with his friend, enjoying the chance to hang out with his buddies, completely unaware of the true identity of this unexpected guest. There was horsing around and banter going on; he laughingly offered the tiger visitor his friend’s lunch until the point where Mum felt it was time to remove her disguise. For a moment nothing happened at all; you could almost see the mental wheels of recognition turning. Then with a strangled shout, this wonderful son threw down his food and ran, as though his life depended on it, around the table and threw himself into his mother’s arms. His unbridled joy and unrestrained love for her may not have taken her by surprise, but it did me.
The presence of so many onlookers mattered not one bit to him; there was no embarrassment, no awkward self-conscious greeting; just a wholehearted giddy delight. I was quite unprepared for what happened next. Something in my own spirit responded, and with a lurching sob I found myself completely undone, reeling away from the screen and dissolving into a wailing heap, bawling my eyes out like a baby.
How embarrassing; thank goodness I was alone. What was that all about? Gradually, I realised that the action on the screen had somehow connected and resonated with my own spirit, powerfully illustrating what it will be like for the children of God when they finally meet Jesus face to face.
So much of life can be ho-hum routine even for His followers. In fact, He’s sitting with us the whole time, but we don’t always recognise Him (remember the disciples on the road to Emmaus?), or engage with Him much beyond the superficial, let alone at a level of genuine, joy-filled intimacy. Sure, we know He’s with us because the Bible, preachers and our mind tell us that’s academically true; but it doesn’t always feel true. Yet there are moments when Jesus, like that mum, kindly reveals Himself to us more clearly. One minute we are sitting comfortably at the tasks of our life then, suddenly, He breaks in and reminds us of His tangible presence, His power, might, grace and love. Our spirit leaps; a spiritual veil is briefly lifted and we experience a few moments of revitalising clarity. It’s truly marvellous; but it can also be overwhelming.
The son in the video responded beautifully, honestly and enthusiastically. I felt a tremor in my own heart – an echo of the child’s yearning – a deep longing to throw myself into Jesus’ arms of acceptance, safety and strength. From there, my perspective on the world, my immediate context of geography, relationships and work all look tangibly different.
I don’t want to merely visit that place for an emotional boost or spiritual top-up; no, with all my heart I want to live there.
The mum at the school lunch table turned what was an ordinary occasion for her son into a celebratory feast, just by her presence. His sandwiches didn’t become any more exotic or the lunch a gourmet meal; it was her company which made the seismic difference. Jesus does that for us, all day, every day, when we accept His invitation to ‘feast’ at the table set before us. Yes, it’s about embracing the ‘menu’ we are served each day, but primarily, it’s about enjoying His company in fresh, exhilarating ways while we tackle that ‘menu’. Whatever my changing circumstances, or yours – those myriad events which unfold in every rhythmical twenty-four-hour cycle – God always gives us a choice in how we react to them. I don’t always choose well. Often I have no natural inclination to ‘feast’ and consequently miss out on ‘eating’ and fellowshipping with Him in that place. How about you?
A crucial time
In this book, I want to invite you to come with me to take a fresh look at the last part of Psalm 23. The passage is familiar, but this message about feasting with Him is one you may never have heard before. It’s important and timely.
Many see the twenty-first century stretching bleakly before us in a time of spiritual famine and confusion, of unprecedented challenge and change in the world. It’s true that, more than ever in our lifetimes, nations are fragmenting, interpersonal and international hostility is increasing; the gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider and the anger of younger generations at the economic and climatic world they are inheriting is increasing. At times, you can almost smell the despair. The temptation for the people of God to retreat and withdraw into spiritual ghettos is strong; it feels as though defeat may be at our door.
However, that is not the whole picture; God has very different plans and purposes, and those who follow Him and name Him as Lord are privileged to be part of those. We are commissioned as the hope-carriers, the life-bringers, the good-news people in the midst of these turbulent times.
We cannot be salt and light if we are hidden away. Somehow, we must engage with real people with their real challenges in the real world. In order to do that effectively we need a new maturity and an authentic, robust, living faith of a calibre far greater and deeper than we have probably known before. We need to respond to every season of life by staying in step with our heavenly Father, clothed in Jesus’ robes of salvation and drenched in the Holy Spirit. Thus equipped, we will be prepared not only to tuck into whatever is ‘served’ to us today – appetising or not – but also to enjoy the exquisite privilege of dining with the One our hearts truly yearn for.
Our faith must have its source in a genuine, vibrant, growing, intimate relationship with Jesus and be radically empowered by the Holy Spirit. Fair-weather believers will fall by the wayside. We need to do much more than simply survive; there is much at stake.
In recent days, the people of God have enjoyed revelations about the nature of God as Father in new and refreshing ways. Discovering that God is approachable, accessible, tender, loving, kind, gentle and forgiving has been a defining moment for many whose own fathers were the opposite, or worse. Men and women, in church and out, carry the wounds of absent, disengaged and/or cruel and abusive fathers. Acknowledging and addressing these realities has lifted the lid on a huge spectrum of hurt, pain and disappointment. Where such emotional injuries have been gently and patiently unpacked, and a healing process walked through with understanding, compassion and wisdom, there has been a new lease of physical, emotional and spiritual life for individuals eager to take hold of the truths of God’s fatherhood, unfettered by their own pasts. It’s a delight to see the fruit of such change in many lives around the world.
Amid all this burgeoning life, however, there is a nagging possibility that we could inadvertently become irrelevant, disempowered infants whose world doesn’t extend far beyond our own perceived needs if we settle in this place. Spiritual babies, much like physical ones, are sources of enormous joy; but of course, we expect them to grow. Babies who don’t reach their developmental milestones are a source of concern. Maturity is part of life spiritually just as much as it is physically.
I don’t believe that we can flourish in these increasingly demanding times unless we do mature and learn to ‘feast’ on the things God has entrusted us with in the present. There is no Jesus-follower who isn’t consistently challenged to focus on Him, His character, His goodness and His promises. These deep, immoveable foundations are able to anchor us through every twist and turn of the roads we all travel or, using a paraphrase of David’s metaphor, will allow us to feast at the table set for us.
His ‘Shepherd Psalm’ is, perhaps, the most well-known portion of Scripture. The familiar words of comfort and encouragement have lifted the head of many a weary traveller through life and at journey’s end. Usually, the focus is on the first part of David’s sheep-related words, but in this book we’re going to focus on the closing verses: the challenging dinner-related part.
Let’s remind ourselves at the outset of what Psalm 23 says, emphasising our focus:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Using this book
However familiar you are with this passage, let me invite you to approach it again with open ears, fresh eyes and a willing heart as the divine Host of the feast draws you in to His banqueting house.
This is not designed as a book to be read at one sitting. I recommend that you ‘chew over’ each chapter well so that you can really digest it and receive maximum spiritual nutrition from it. Each one closes with a few reflective questions to contemplate, either alone or with others. During the writing process I have been privileged to glean from the wisdom, experience and stories of other ‘diners’ who have written over a span of more than 1,500 years. It’s reassuring to find so many similarities in the ‘menus’ we have been served across the centuries and discover that ‘feasting’ has always been a worthwhile challenge. Knowing that our Host is just as relevant, real and welcoming to me in the twenty-first century as He has been for them gives my heart and will the strength to keep pushing through distractions to secure my assigned place at His ‘table’.
I’ve had the privilege of sitting at this table since I was a little girl of ten. Together with my husband, I’ve spent more than thirty years working in church leadership as well as coaching, mentoring and training leaders in both business and church contexts, across nations and denominations. We’ve seen a multifaceted spectrum of how God’s kingdom is growing and multiplying across the earth. There have been days of hard graft, tears and frustration outweighed by more days of wonder, worship, laughter and delight. We’ve also raised three strong daughters and an outstanding son, who are now making their own decisions to enjoy their assigned places and ‘feast’ on the various ‘menus’ they are being served. Whether we’ve been in Somerset or South Africa, Andover or Arizona, we have chosen to press in to know our Host more intimately as the years have unfolded, through thick and thin.
So, if you too recognise that in surrendering your life to Jesus and submitting to His will and purposes, you were never offered a trouble-free life, but you are hungry for a little more reality and a lot more intimacy with Him, then come with me; pick up your metaphorical/spiritual knife and fork, and let’s feast together with expectation and thanks.
Jenny Sanders, 2019
Cape Town, South Africa
1 – Feasts
To be much for God, we must be much with God.1
My favourite feast
There’s a world of difference between laying a table for a regular family dinner and serving the kind of meal which marks a significant or special occasion. I’ve eaten countless good meals in my lifetime, but it’s the ones which celebrated particular moments which stand out: a birthday party, a graduation treat, an anniversary extravagance. Of all of these, Christmas is the one which never disappoints. Christmas dinner in our family has always happened on Christmas Eve, a cunning invention introduced by my grandmother in the 1940s. This clever ruse ensured that over-excited small children actively celebrated the birth of Jesus, but also had a massive meal and went to bed completely flaked out, thus reducing potential shenanigans and staying-up-to-see-Father-Christmas nonsense; it also pretty much ensured that no one was up and bouncing around with undesirable exuberance at stupid o’clock on the morning of the 25th. What a wise woman. It also meant that Christmas Day was a generally calmer, more enjoyable affair…
Twenty years later and the tradition had moved to my childhood home, where aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents joined us for the requisite turkey feast, much squealing, a general bending of the usual house rules and, for the children, energetic, ill-concealed festive anticipation usually culminating in a riotous game of hide-and-seek. The bonus was that I could be upstairs in my pyjamas, teeth cleaned and hanging up my Christmas stocking almost before the extended family had driven to the bottom of the road.
Another twenty years and four children later, those magical Christmas Eve memories became the measuring post for celebrating Jesus’ birth in December for a new generation. Marking the season with our wider family around food had imprinted the wonder of the festival on my young mind – the sight of the fairy lights, the feel of the old tinsel tree, the smells of a roast meal and flavours specific to the moment, all undergirded with the merry sound of infectious laughter: Christmas in glorious 3D and technicolour. It may sound like a corny greetings card, but in my family I had the good fortune of enjoying all of that in wonderful reality. I can barely think of the events that unfolded in a Bethlehem stable more than 2,000 years ago without such vivid memories also flooding my thoughts. The two are forever, inevitably and inextricably linked.
God’s seven feasts
Long before David wrote his Shepherd Psalm, before Ruth met Boaz, before Samson started lifting weights, before Gideon pummelled the Midianites or Joshua had completed seven days of circuits around Jericho, God had His own plan for a cycle of feasts. We’re familiar with the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20, which God gave Moses after he’d had led the Israelite people out of Egypt, but probably less so with the instructions and pattern of annual feasts He gave in Leviticus 23. Each one is rich in meaning and symbolism, much of which not only points towards the coming of the Messiah, but has also been fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The feasts were ordained as ongoing commemorative events to be celebrated by families across the nation as an opportunity to consolidate their sense of community and remember God’s faithfulness, as well as to celebrate His goodness and provision as Deliverer. They speak loudly and clearly of more significant things than the various dishes simply laid on the table and thus, like my Christmas Eve feast, would be forever linked in the thoughts and memories of those who kept them.
In a society where literacy and accessibility to the written word was reserved for scholars and preserved on scrolls kept under lock and key by the priests, this seasonal rotation was an effective reinforcement of precious history. Jewish culture relied on oral tradition; a strong family cohesiveness was universally established in which tales of the faithfulness of God revealed in His dealings with the people could be told and retold around meals and firesides, on journeys and on street corners, all reinforcing and reminding young and old of His centrality in their corporate story. A regular pattern of remembrance, embodied and played out in visual symbols, enactments and traditions by ordinary people kept that story alive as one generation taught the next, long after the original participants were dead and gone. Children grew up saturated with the stories of their ancestral past; part of the warp and weft of daily culture. Commemorative feasts and historic events would become firmly, inseparably linked, so that even for generations to come who would have had no experience of the arduous Exodus journey and its accompanying miracles, the history and stories of the liberation of the Israelites would be kept alive and valued.
Why seven feasts?
The Bible repeatedly records times when God works in units of seven – seven days in the full week; seven years that Jacob worked for each of his brides, Leah and Rachel; seven circuits around Jericho, etc; seven feasts. It’s the biblical number of completeness.
With such a full timetable of specific feasts to enjoy, you can be sure that this practice was far more familiar to God’s people in Moses’ day than it is for us in the present. Communities which still follow the Church calendar of festivals and saints’ days may appreciate the rhythm of seasons more fully. They certainly have built-in opportunities to focus on specific values or emphasise particular biblical stories. The metaphorical Psalm 23 feast to which God invites us is one to enjoy all 365 days of the year, every year. You can easily research each of them for a detailed, in-depth study of their symbolism should you wish; I’m just going to outline them here.
Feast 1: Passover (Pesach)
Passover marks the crucial departure of God’s people from slavery in Egypt; a hinge of epoch-making change in the chronicles of Israel. Since Joseph had first ended up serving Pharaoh there, and after a convoluted series of events that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern soap opera, his entire extended family had also come to live there. Conditions must have agreed with them, because they flourished and multiplied with such success that some years later a new Pharaoh who, somewhat strangely, knew nothing of the history of their dynasty, was so alarmed by their escalating numbers that he imposed forced labour on the entire people group to keep them under his control. Approximately another 400 years later, God raised up a reluctant and stammering Moses to lead the Hebrew slaves out of this unbearable servitude, and across the wilderness to the Promised Land – an area promised to the patriarch Abraham, father and founder of the Jewish nation, three generations before Joseph. Abraham’s multiple descendants had cherished this covenant promise in their hearts throughout their years of suffering, drawing comfort from the prospect of a land of their own and the freedom to enjoy it.
The Exodus took place after Pharaoh’s obstinate resistance to Moses’ demands to allow the people to leave, and his refusal to acknowledge the God of the Hebrews. This stubborn rebuttal of Moses’ request initiated a series of ten spectacular plagues from heaven: a sequence of terrifying events culminating in the death of every firstborn in the country, including Pharaoh’s own son, at which point the ruler capitulated.
On the night of the final plague, the Israelites were instructed to choose one unblemished lamb per family and smear its blood around the doorway of their house, marking the home as purified and protected, sparing them from the coming tragedy. The people were required to roast their lamb and eat it with bitter herbs along with unleavened bread, while dressed and ready to leave at a moment’s notice, in preparation for the hurried departure and the long journey on which they were about to embark.
This is the commemorative feast/meal that Jesus shared with His disciples on the night before He died. On that significant occasion, the bread and wine they consumed together became symbols of His soon-to-be broken body, and His blood that would be shed at His imminent crucifixion. Jesus Himself was, and is, the pure and perfect unblemished Lamb of God. The symbolism is powerful.
The early Church used the sharing, or breaking, of bread and drinking of wine together as a time of reflection to remember the sacrifice of Jesus which had purchased their spiritual deliverance and forgiveness, and to focus on His impact on their lives. The New Testament Passover became both a reminder of liberation from Egypt, but also of salvation from the tyranny of sin and its consequences: death, hell, and permanent separation from God.
Feast 2: Unleavened Bread (Chag HaMotzi)
I like the idea of a celebration which uses bread as a focus; there’s nothing like a warm, fresh loaf to tuck into. However, this week-long event uses a very specific type of bread, more like pitta than a farmhouse bloomer, because it has to be made without any yeast. It’s a feast of holiness which overlaps with Passover.
At the time of the Exodus, the time-strapped Israelites made unleavened bread for Passover night. With no time to allow the bread to rise, they simply took it with them, before the raising agent was added, to eat on the way. People commemorated this in later years by removing yeast from their households altogether during Passover. Yeast, or leaven, was regarded as a symbol of sin, so to remove it and sweep the house clean was illustrative of ridding the house of impurity.
Yeast may be small but its impact is relatively huge as a raising agent. Unleavened bread – bread without yeast – is therefore, biblically, a picture of something without sin and a reminder that even the smallest sin has a big effect. We delude ourselves when we start to categorise sins into large and small; there is no such thing. Sin is sin; a falling short of God’s standard of perfection, and in every case, the consequences are disconnection and separation from God. Thank God for redemption!
Feast 3: Firstfruits (Yom habikkurim)
For Israel, this third feast in the cycle celebrated the first harvest reaping rather than the last. European harvest festivals usually happen at the end of the season when all the crops are gathered prior to the autumn plantings and the harsh winter conditions set in.
The Jewish celebration of firstfruits included waving a still-green sheaf of barley to the four points of the compass, in front of the altar, thus dedicating the coming harvest to God. It was both an expression of trust in God for His provision, and of faith for a bountiful harvest to come. It’s a feast which focuses on fertility and life which are, of course, other traditions still celebrated around Easter time when believers celebrate Christ’s resurrection.
Feast 4: Feast of Weeks/Pentecost (Shavuot)
This was originally the feast of summer harvest, to take place fifty (Pente) days after the Feast of Firstfruits; it would fall around our months of May or June. The grain harvest was now completed and the first fruits of olives and grapes were beginning to be gathered. Contemporary celebrants traditionally decorate their houses with greenery and flowers, and in many Jewish homes the book of Ruth is read, whose narrative takes place around the themes of harvest and community. Jewish tradition claims that King David – from Ruth’s ancestral line – was born at this time. It also believes that God gave the Law, or Torah, to Moses during this period, and so part of the holiday is often spent studying and reading the Torah as well as praying.2
In the New Testament we find that this was the exact day when the lives of Jesus’ followers turned upside down with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days on from Jesus’ resurrection they were still together in Jerusalem when a supernatural wind and ‘tongues of fire’ (Acts 2:3) rushed through the room as the Holy Spirit arrived in power enabling them to speak in other languages.
The disciples were so empowered by the Holy Spirit that they were emboldened to leave their Upper Room hiding place and go out onto the streets of the bustling city where Peter boldly preached his first sermon. Some of the Passover pilgrimage crowds thought he was drunk, but others had a revelation of truth which radically changed their lives. The coming of the Holy Spirit meant that God could dwell powerfully with, and in, every one of His disciples in a way Jesus the Son could not do, bound as He was by the geographical and physical constraints inherent in His incarnation.
God’s desire to take up residence in people, rather than simply in a building or on a mountain, was fulfilled that first post-ascension Pentecost; the feast became a celebration of a different type of harvest – a gathering in of about 3,000 people who were added into the family of believers. Today we celebrate this event at Whitsun, but we can enjoy the reality of its fulfilment every day.
Feast 5: Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teru’ah)
One of three autumn feasts, this one takes place in modern September and is the only feast for which God gives no specific reason, apart from resting and making a sacrifice. However, it heralds a ten-day period of consecration and prayer in preparation for the Feast of Atonement. So, no regular work was to be done on this day, but the people were to gather together, summoned by the blasting of trumpets, and the priests had to prepare various offerings including a sin offering on behalf of the community. The sounding of a trumpet effectively called the workers in from the fields, indicating the time had come to stop harvesting at the end of the year and begin their grateful worship.
When God gave Moses details for the meeting place, or tabernacle, to be set up in the wilderness, He also commissioned two different types of trumpet to be made. Silver trumpets were to be used only by Aaron’s priestly sons. Different blasts from them would indicate whether the entire multitude, or just the leaders should gather. They also had to be blown over the sacrifices which were made in the sanctuary as part of worship, when going into battle against enemies in their own land, and also in times of rejoicing. The silver trumpets became a visual representation of prayer illustrating a loud, clear, confident call from earth to heaven.
The other type of trumpet, the shofar, was made of ram’s horn, reminding God’s people of the original God-given ram which substituted for Isaac as Abraham’s sacrifice on Mount Moriah.3 There are multitudinous references to the use of this type of horn or trumpet throughout Scripture. It is used to sound a warning or alarm,4 as an appeal for aid, in battle, in worship,5 as well as in dedication or rededication events, for example: the completion of Nehemiah’s wall and David bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem.
This feast isn’t a time for lazing around though. The trumpets are seen as a spiritual wake-up call, summoning people to take seriously the prospect of meeting with God. The feast provides a period of spiritual self-reflection and an opportunity to ensure that personal holiness hasn’t been relegated to the back burner of life. We could all regularly benefit from this kind of timely trumpet blast…
Feast 6: The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)
Technically, this is a national fast, not a feast, and is still considered to be the holiest festival of the entire Jewish year. Even Jews who are less strict in their observance of Judaic customs usually mark this particular day by subduing their physical appetite in a sign of humbling themselves before God. It is a day of confession and repentance of sins, the forgiveness of which requires, according to Old Testament Law, the spilling of a blood sacrifice.
This was the only day on which the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, and where it was believed that the actual Presence of God dwelt. Separated off from the other parts of the temple by a huge, beautifully embroidered thick curtain or veil, this was a clear separation of a Holy God from sinful people. It would be absolutely impossible for anyone to wander in here accidentally. The high priest was required to wash scrupulously before and after the ceremony, wear special clothes and carry fragranced incense in order to blur his view; he could not be allowed to look on God directly.6 Most importantly, he was required to carry the animal blood which would be offered as atonement for the sins the people had inadvertently committed, as well as for himself and his household.
People were to treat Yom Kippur as a Sabbath, regardless of the actual day of the week upon which it fell. Regarded as a sombre day in some respects, it was, and is, also a day of rejoicing because of the cathartic element of cleansing – an opportunity to have a clean sheet before God.
The fulfilment of this day is clear in Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice, ‘he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood’ (Hebrews 9:12). No longer do we require an annual or animal sacrifice to pay for our sins; Jesus has paid the price once and for all, and taken the just punishment that we deserved, in order to make us clean. Symbolic lambs are obsolete. ‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death’ (Hebrews 9:14). The barrier and separation between God and humanity has been permanently destroyed. This was dramatically emphasised when, at the point of Jesus’ death, the thick curtain in the temple barring access to God’s presence was torn in half, from top to bottom, opening access to all (Mark 15:38). It’s significant that the curtain didn’t rip from bottom to top. No human hands could have performed such a feat; this was truly an act of God. Imagine being in the temple when that actually happened – the noise; the fear; the furore; the questions; the awe; the dust!
There could be no clearer announcement that God had completely changed the way His relationship with us would function from now on. Two thousand or so years later, we may not grasp what a monumental spiritual shift this was. No more regular temple trips were required; no more animal sacrifices were necessary; no more intermediary priesthood was needed. An absolute spiritual revolution had just taken place in Jerusalem.
Not many years later, the beautiful temple was destroyed by the Roman army, in ad70; the culmination of a siege of the city which brought death to thousands. Animal sacrifice was permanently abandoned from this point in history. The temple remains in ruins, apart from part of the Western or Wailing Wall, where Jews still gather every Sabbath to pour out their hearts before God, and to ‘post’ prayers in the mortar gaps between the ancient stones. Messianic Jews and Jesus-following Gentiles know that such a temple is no longer necessary. Jesus is our living Atonement and we are the living temple in which He dwells.
Feast 7: The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot)
This feast falls just after Yom Kippur, and is otherwise known as the Feast of Booths. It’s an eight-day festival giving the opportunity to remember the forty long years of pilgrimage and journeying the Hebrew people undertook as Moses led them through the rugged Sinai wilderness region during the Exodus, en route from Egypt and into the Promised Land. Without a permanent home, this multitude lived in temporary structures throughout that time and God provided supernatural food for them in the form of manna and quail. The Feast of Booths was, and is, the perfect opportunity to both remember and give thanks for God’s provision, providence and protection throughout that important time in Israel’s history. It is also a powerful reminder that all of us are temporary residents here on earth. Our permanent home is heaven; we are just passing through this world. This feast provides time for the Jewish people to specifically recall God’s faithfulness in the past, the present and, by faith, into the future.
The week of celebration includes singing, dancing and rejoicing both at home and in the streets. We would recognise this as more similar to our own harvest festival celebrations in the early autumn when rural communities breathe a collective sigh of relief that everything has been safely harvested and stored in barns to keep them well fed in the leaner days ahead. Some still celebrate with a triumphant supper and a service of thanksgiving in the local church, among displays of fresh produce.
Other symbols of this Jewish feast are water and light; it’s no coincidence that Jesus offered the ‘living water’ (John 7:38) of the Holy Spirit to the Sukkot crowds and referred to Himself as, ‘the light of the world’ (John 8:12) during, and just after, His own visit to Jerusalem for this week. He was, and is, the fulfilment of every emblematic characteristic of God used in the feasts.
You will have your own stories about what Jesus has done in your life and how the images of light and water may have sustained you. Some of you will have proved His faithfulness over many years of walking with Him, through dry deserts and along dark roads. What a treasure house of stories you must enjoy.
Day by day, He still longs to fill and refill us with His Spirit; to shed His light along our individual and collective paths and satisfy our thirsty souls with His living water.
David’s feasting psalm
This annual rota of seven feasts and holidays, unfolding in perpetual cycles, ensured that the Israelites were consistently reminded about their history and their God. Like my Christmas dinner associations, the food and accompanying traditions became inextricably entwined, cementing values and important events in the memories of the participants. Each one was designed so that God’s chosen people would maintain eye contact, as it were, with their Creator, Deliverer and Lord.
The feast which David imagines in Psalm 23 probably has its source in one or any of the feasts which he would have enjoyed since his childhood. When you are the youngest in the family, assigned the unheralded, unglamorous task of looking after the sheep, there are probably days when even your packed lunch feels like a feast in the bleak and rugged Judean desert. While searching for pasture and water for his charges, watching for predators and alert to dangerous places, David had no idea that this was the preparation and training God had chosen for shaping him into the man he would need to be when he became king of the Jewish nation, living in a grand palace, presiding over a completely different scale of feast.
What he did discover was that solitude does not have to equal aloneness. Communing with God in uninterrupted thought, prayer and song while reflecting on memorised scriptures through those long working days, nurtured his relationship with the One he trusted so absolutely throughout his life. Whether he wrote the outline of this psalm song as a youngster in the company of the family flock, or much later as a seasoned warrior and beloved monarch, David knew that a banquet prepared by God would be a feast to gladden the heart and refresh the soul.
- The Hebrew people were a consolidated community with shared experience, memories and values. Who is your community and what is the metaphorical glue that holds you together? How can you contribute to improving the quality of that community?
- What might de-yeasting your life involve? How can a period of living less comfortably strengthen our spiritual connection with God?
- Why does God want ‘firstfruits’, and what might this look like in the twenty-first century?