Summary: Before our Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S., I was prompted at 5:30 AM Saturday morning to change my planned sermon text to consider Israel’s harvest festival. This sermon is full of details, to be avoided by those who don’t like teaching in preaching.
This sermon needs a disclaimer and it doesn’t need to be one of those bits of legalese that we see in 6 point type in a print ad, appears briefly in barely legible type at the bottom of a television screen, or is read as rapidly as possible by a radio announcer: “Offer listed is manufacturer’s suggested retail price and may not reflect delivery or preparation fees, dealer surcharges and local restrictions may apply.” My disclaimer needs to be right out front. This sermon is not an attempt to Judaize and create a new ritual within the church nor is it an attempt to sanctify the official United States’ holiday of Thanksgiving. It is intended to use both the ancient Festival of Booths (not to be confused with modern festivals of booze) and the holiday we know as Thanksgiving as an illustration of our proper response to God.
Our text today comes from one of the Hallels, one of the songs of praise associated with the harvest feast that we know as the Feast of Booths. Exodus 23:16 and 34:22 call it the Feast of Ingathering (Harvest). This special altar we’re going to use as a focal point for offering thanksgiving isn’t intended to be a substitute for anything missing in our worship experience or as an idol (a golden branch instead of a golden calf?) to add to some new worship liturgy. It is a visual illustration to help us remember that God once commanded a harvest festival and that harvest festival (like all of God’s early covenants) pointed toward the new covenant.
Israel’s harvest festival took place in the seventh month of their calendar year, not the eleventh month. It lasted for seven days. Each morning for the first six days, the priests would circle the altar with lulavs (symbolic arrangements of palm, willow, myrtle, and citron banded together—see Leviticus 23:40) in their right hands and reciting Psalms (especially 118:25). On the seventh day, they circled the altar seven times. Now, if you’ve heard me preach very often, you probably see some significance in that. Seven is a very special number in the Bible. I believe it is composed of the number 3 (God who caused, God who is, and God who always will be) plus the number 4 (the creation is divided into four cardinal directions, four rivers coming out of the Garden of Eden, and four types of living creatures around the throne of God). So, seven represents God and the created order in its right relationship. What better symbolism could there be for a harvest festival? Without God, there is no harvest—nothing for which Israel could be thankful.
Israel’s harvest festival involved booths. Originally, these booths related to temporary shelters that would be assembled during the harvest so that the landowners could stand guard and be certain that no thieves “rustled” their harvest. This may be why the Mishnah forbids an Israelite to sleep under a bed (under the covers) during that period. It is intended to be a watchful period of being alert. For Israel, they were also commanded to live in these booths for seven days (Leviticus 23:42). Such temporary quarters reminded them that God’s people are intended to be people on the move, going wherever God would command them. In fact, the booths had to be free-standing so that they couldn’t lean on an existing building and they couldn’t have a permanent roof lest the Israelites be tempted to make them permanent constructions. Of course, since they represent Israel on the move as well as Israel bringing in the harvest, it was perfectly acceptable to build them on carts or ships. Of course, modern Jews aren’t quite as careful, leading to urban Sukkoths and mere party venues.
Still, one rabbi has described going into a Succoth or “booth” as being a way of entering into a mitzvah, entering into that sacred space of obedience to God. Ironically, we as participants in the New Covenant, God’s New Contract with humankind, are privileged to have the mitzvah enter into us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The use of booths served both to remind Israel to expect blessing from God and to be prepared to move on whenever God led in a different direction.
On the first day of the feast (remember that the Hebrew day begins while it is still dark), the priests would go to the Pool of Siloam and gather enough water to use in water libations (pouring out water on the altar) during all seven days of the feast (actually, the feast lasted eight days in total, but the festivities were broken off for the Sabbath). We’ll consider the symbolism of the water later.
Also, during the period we know as night, the younger priests would light four huge menorah with the wicks made from the old, cast-off garments of the priests and the entire temple courtyard was said to be illuminated with light—light that symbolized the LIGHT of God. The Mishnah tells us “There was not a court in Jerusalem that was not made bright by the light of the water-drawing.”