The Messianic Significance of
THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
Sabbath Day Sermon: Saturday 14 October 2000
I am sure it is only proper for us to start today's assembly by thanking the ladies for all the hard work they have put into making the magnificent booth in which we are sitting this morning and in which we feasted last night. Though there are some who might question the need for such an effort I really do think that when the Lord asks us to do something that there is a reason for it. Like it or not we are physical beings and such symbols as the boughs of trees and branches have a marvellous way of awakening us to spiritual realities. We are, in doing what we have done, remembering our humble origins as God's people and reminding ourselves that to get on in this life that menial work is required of all of us. Sometimes we have to live in a very basic way just in order to survive. When we think of the teaming millions of chronic poor in the world who live in corrugated iron tin shacks or who have no shelter of any kind at all and live on filthy street corners, at the mercy of and frequently the victims of crime and abuse, we ought to give thanks that we have shelter and safety in our homes.
In many respects, therefore, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths, is a timely reminder for us to come down to earth and remember that as children of Adam we are little more than children of dust. We ought to be reminded of our mortality and of the tenuousness of life. And if, as some of us really are today, suffering from poor health, financial crisis, old age, or just the pressures of life, we really have double reason for thanking the Lord for what we actually do have, which is vastly more than the majority of people suffering in this world do.
The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates the dwelling in tents by the children of Israel for 40 long and arduous years. We can't begin to imagine what it would be like trudging through a scorching desert for a whole generation with nothing more to eat than the very basic food provided by Yahweh supernaturally - manna from heaven, a fluffy sticky substance which provided sugar and some basic protein, supplemented on occasion by a local bird called quail, with water, either from the rare oasis or supernaturally sometimes out of rocks, with which to wash it down. We are reminded of the privations of the prophet John the Baptist who ate nothing but locusts and honey with water, and of the prophet Elijah who ate nothing bread brought by birds and local river water. Compare these three diets with the trolley loads of goods that we buy each week from the supermarket and you get some idea of the difference. And yet, ironically, all these people were probably a lot healthier than we are!
And yet God took care of these people - a whole wandering nation and two lonely prophets. Can you imagine the boredom out there in the desert? There was nothing to play with, no entertainment of any sort, and yet the generation that was born in those harsh and, by decadent Western standards, "deprived" conditions, was probably one of the most robust that ever lived. In the desert of hardship God moulded a people of real faith. The children of those grumbling, complaining, rule, carnal and rebellious parents had real faith. Yahweh showed their disbelieving parents some of the most incredible miracles ever such as the parting of the Red Sea, but to their children He showed something even more wonderful: what true faith can do. Today I want to compare these two people and see just how different they really were, and why, ultimately, God permitted so much suffering out there in the sands of the Sinai desert.
The kinds of miracles that the parents experienced were completely unlike those of their children. The parents suffered because they were utterly carnal in their ways. They had been born and raised in a pagan nation, Egypt, and, in spite of being a slave class, loved the culture in which they lived. Had they been allowed to do exactly what they would have wanted, they would have fled from Egypt and started another country of their own exactly like the one they had left. Their natural inclination was idol worship, feminism, rebellion and sexual immorality all of which manifested when they set up the golden calf and proceeded with an orgy of demonic worship. And this having experienced the greatest miracles ever! The problem with these people were that they were reluctant followers. They didn't really want to believe but had to because of the evidence of their eyes. They were the worst kind of followers you could ever wish to have. That is why I tell people who want to see dramatic miracles as signs of the truthfulness of Christianity that they would be entirely useful to them. To use a Biblical expression, they would simply take a miracle and "consume it upon their lusts". I'm glad I'm not Moses - I wouldn't want to lead such a motley lot for every kingdom in the world. And believe you me he got tired of them.
There is no greater curse than to be brought up in the world's way of thinking, feeling and doing things. Changing a man from a sensual monster into a beautiful spiritual creature is not an easy thing. In often think of plastic surgeons who have to painstakingly rebuild a person's smashed face over many years and dozens of acutely painful operations when I think of the task faced by God's ministers in rebuilding carnal men into spiritual ones. People have this naïve and foolish idea that to be a Christian requires only passive belief. Some may concede that some good works here and there are required, but only a tiny minority will agree that to become a son or daughter of Christ requires everything that you've got. And the process of change can sometimes be very, very painful, particularly if you have been brought up in a depraved pagan culture.
Yesterday as we drove home in the car Brother Herman was reminding me of the astonishing things happening amongst Chinese Christians, of 12 year-old children going onto the street on their own initiative to preach the Gospel and actually raising by themselves congregations of adults several thousand strong. When I think of the modern Chinese Christians I think of Joshua and his generation, and when I think of the modern Western Christian I think of the rabble that Moses had to drag through the desert, because the two are that different. Your average Western Christian is lazy, indifferent, rebellious, faithless, and spiritually dead. By contrast, these astonishing Chinese are alive in Christ. There isn't any sickness at all in their congregations. If someone gets ill, they call in the elders to pray over him and he recovers. The thought of one of their people being ill is as alien as the thought to us here in the West of someone not being ill. What is it, I wonder, that gives the Chinese this enormous edge?
China is a communist country though much of its Confucian traditions are still alive. It is a country where people have had to live with little. Communist China, in spite of its terrible abuses, has nevertheless raised the standard of living of its people so that everybody now has just enough to live. By our standards they are poor but compared to what they lived under the Emperors and War Lords they are well off. Chinese society is tightly knit, the sense of family bonds are strong. Their lack of money and luxuries has meant that they have learned to be careful with what they have, not wasting anything, and being satisfied with having little. And their Confucian ethic, which has taught them respect for family elders and for authority, good manners, humility, and other virtues, has made fertile soil for Christianity. Here Christianity has found natural soil to grow in. Frankly, Western Christianity disgusts me when I think of what God is doing in the Far East.
The Chinese Christian today reminds me a lot of Joshua and the second generation of Israelites who left Egypt for an uncertain future. They were robust men and women who had learned to live with and be content with little. They knew that their life depended on God and not on the Welfare State. They were young and fresh in their attitudes and more than ready to enter Canaan and conquer it for the Lord. Unlike their lazy, whining parents, they couldn't wait to get into battle. When forced to march around the walls of Jericho day after day without attacking it, they grew restless and impatient. They too had to learn to do things the Lord's way and not men's. And had they followed the Jericho example all their lives they would have been practically invincible. They conquered the strongest fortification in the known world without the loss of s single man, learning to let God fight their battles for them. They trusted their leader, Joshua, implicitly. As you probably know, Joshua in the Hebrew is "Jehoshua" and that the Hebrew for Jesus, Yah'shua, is a slight contraction of Joshua. In fact, the names are the same. And that is why you will find a minor error in the King James Bible where the translators have accidentally written "Jesus" instead of "Joshua" in the text. Joshua was a prophetic type of the very Messiah who was to come, and His followers of the disciples of the Yah'shua. The kind of man and woman that Yah'shua (Jesus) wants is the kind that followed Joshua in those early days. Like their parents, they too lived in tents and in booths, only there were a different breed altogether from the generation before them.
We are commanded to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for ever and it is a tragedy that the Catholic Church removed it and substituted its own pagan traditions. In so doing, Christendom was robbed of some vital truths about Christian living for over 1,500 years. By being deprived of this festival, we have been robbed of a truth we dare not forget, namely, that in order to be turned into the world's into God's men and women we have to go through our desert of suffering until the old man or woman is completely burned out. And that, friends, is why God permit much of the suffering that goes on in the world, because most people are so resistant to spiritual change that were they not to be deprived of what they think are essentials, they would most likely become eternally lost. The difficulties and hardships we encounter are God's way of waking us up out of spiritual coma to show us a completely new world. The spiritually dead Israelites did not want to leave Egypt and her fleshiest - can you believe it, they would have preferred to go back into slavery rather than suffer in the desert and inherit a land of freedom flowing with milk and honey? Yet they did - they wanted to go back into imprisonment. So does your flesh. The carnal human nature will always want to drag you back into sin and spiritual slavery. And those brought up in the world, in our neo-pagan culture, coming into the Holy Land of Christ is not an easy thing. That is why Western Christianity today is so lukewarm and dead. Christians have grown accustomed with the egocentric, do-it-yourself, instant coffee Western way of life. They don't want to pursue any way that costs them anything, that requires hard work, that might actually entail suffering and loss! So instead they choose slavery in the state system, a system which controls every aspect of your life from cradle to grave. That is why preaching the true Gospel in the West meets with so little success. What a difference in China!
Now when Joshua and his men got to the Promised Land God did not serve it to them on a plate. They couldn't just march in and take over the country. The land was already inhabited by others. They were a fierce, pagan, wicked and depraved people who thought nothing of murdering their new-born babies and young children to the demon god Molech. They thought nothing of temple prostitution, of adult human sacrifices, and indeed they were probably one of the mist depraved people in the world. The Bible says they were "ripened in iniquity", meaning that they had become as wicked as they possible could and that they had crossed the line that offered them the chance of salvation. They were now so hardened in their hearts that they would reject the Gospel no matter what. For this reason, they were marked down for destruction, and Yahweh chose the Israelites to be His executioners. Thus when Israel took over the Holy Land they were not robbing and plundering an innocent people - they were simply carrying out God's death sentence.
What is remarkable about the Canaanites, who comprised many different tribes, incidentally, was that in spite of their spiritual depravity they were very technologically advanced for their time. Their cities were impressive, they were expert farmers and had turned the land into a veritable paradise. You will often find that technological progress grows hand in hand with spiritual perversion. It has happened in our time. Whilst technology brings many good things, it most certainly brings far more evil. The blessing of the Israelites in physical terms was that they would inherit all this technological advance without having to do anything themselves - ready built cities, ready cultivated farmland, ready planted vineyards, and so on. The pride of these pagans was about to be taken out of their hands and given to a more worthy people. That is the way Yahweh redistributes wealth, taking it from the evil and giving it to the good, an improvement on socialism which takes it way from the rich whether good or evil and gives it to the poor whether good or evil. In socialism, wealth is transferred from one group of people to another but nothing changes. Corruption and exploitation still remain. In God's system, wealth is transferred from the evil to the good. Rather better, I think!
The tragedy of the conquest of the Holy Land is that in the end the Israelites didn't do what the Lord said. They let some of the Canaanite tribes live instead of exterminating them as they had been ordered to, and the problems that brought them for generations afterwards is hard to describe. It is the same with us: we are commanded to uproot all sin, leaving none behind. If you compromise with any sinful tendencies or behaviour, it will eventually ruin you and all your previous work in uprooting sin will be of no value whatsoever. The job must be done properly, or not at all. A half done job is a job not done at all. There's no such thing as a nominal Christian, or a 50% Christian, or a 75% Christian, because the only true Christian is a 100% Christian. All the rest are merely pagans with Christian labels on.
The message of Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, for us must therefore be this: in order to obtain God's richest blessings, you must be willing to give up everything, even your fondest dreams, both things that are lawful in God's eyes and unlawful. You can never enter that promised spiritual land until you have successfully passed through the desert of affliction. It is the only way that true disciples are made. That is one reason why God permits suffering in this world because this world is an obstacle course, a spiritual training ground. We can sneak away off the course into the jungle like in that episode of It Ain't Half Hot, Mum! and arrange for our servants or friends in the world to serve us good meals while the others are trying to survive on what the jungle has to offer, and think ourselves very clever. We may cheat ourselves and the Lord for a little time, as we suppose, but in the end we have to pay the price.
When Yah'shua (Jesus) taught in the Lord's prayer, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil", he did not mean that we should try to escape difficulties in life but rather face them and find the way to get through them successfully. That, of course, is not the same as avoiding sin - this is not a licence to walk defiantly into the lion's den and then expect God to rescue us when we know we are commanded to keep away from such things. It is, rather, to trust Yahweh to meet all our needs when we are facing problems we could not avoid. Our current health and financial problems are examples of this, as also the spiritual struggles and battles we must sometimes face inside. We are not to run away from them, but face them head on courageously, without complaining, trusting the Lord to show us a way through. When problems beset us it is for a purpose, to reveal parts of ourselves to us which might otherwise be concealed. In suffering the Lord shows us most clearly our pride and other sinful tendencies, to encourage us to repent and get right with him so that we can be entirely useful to him and be a blessing to others instead of a hindrance. I can tell you I have learned a good deal these past years during my own prolonged illness. So when calamity does strike - and I mean calamity beyond our own control as opposed to deliberate sinning - consider this a blessing from the Most High, for it is in such moments that he often reveals His holiness to us and can best change us around as at no other time. All the great men and women of the Bible had to pass though great trials in order to be perfected - Joseph in Pharaoh's prison having been sold as a slave (he became a Prime Minister), Jacob who had to fight an angel who dislocated his hip bone and run away from a vengeful father-in-law, pursued by his vengeful brother (who became head of the most famous Tribe of all, Israel), Daniel who was thrown in a lion's den (and became an important political advisor), and Yah'shua (Jesus) who was nailed to cross and was brutally murdered (who arose from the dead and now offers salvation to all who will accept the conditions on which it is given). And don't forget those wicked Israelites, who had to die off in the desert, so that a new generation of righteous saints could be born and a nation founded.
It is the same with us. We too must allow God to kill off our carnal nature - that indolent tendency of sin and rebel against God - so that a new spiritual man or woman can be reborn. If you are suffering then it is either because God wants to change you or because you have already made it and He wants you to suffer as a model of righteousness. This primitive patchwork of branches and leaves in which we are symbolically living for a week is to remind us of the path of which I have spoken. If your natural inclination is to get out of this structure as fast as possible then the chances are you are symbolically rejecting the life of freedom in the Promised Spiritual Land of Christ called Heaven and are choosing to return to slavery in Egypt. I urge you, therefore, not to run away from difficulties but to meet them head-on in the power and strength of Christ. Though the way before you may look dark and bleak, as it must have done to those sinful Israelites, remember that God never asks us to suffer more than we can bear, and that all difficulties which do not arise out of our own conscious rebellion to live a holy life, and placed before us in order to teach and perfect us.
We shall, from now on, in accordance with Yahweh's command. celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles to remind us of these things. This is the last of the autumnal holidays which lasts a week and two days. The last two days are rather special, more of which I tell you about next week. The next, in midwinter, is Hanukah, a festival for mature Christians who are suffering not for their sins but for righteousness' sake. For now, we should be taking a close look at ourselves and consider what we can best do about our spiritual alienation from God. From Yom Teruah (Trumpets), to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), to Sukkot (Tabernacles) we do our very best to get ourselves right with God. We are reminded that the tendency to sin is always present, even amongst believers. We are reminded that professing belief in Christ is not enough, but that a path to perfection must be pursued. We are reminded that we can never relax the spiritual battle, but must live this life like soldiers at war until the can set aside our weapons and armour at the gates to Heaven. May these things be burned deep within our conscience as we look at this beautifully made booth and recall that we are, after all, just dust of the earth into whom God has graciously breathed life. Amen.
This page was created on 16 February 2001
Last updated on 16 February 2001
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