What do dead sheep, bloody doorposts, stone-ground flour, bread, and tents have in common? Each of these were visual aids that God gave to his people to draw them into a full-bodied relationship with himself.
God is a supreme teacher. He uses graphic imagery to communicate with his people: lambs that are slaughtered, wine poured out over an altar with reckless abandon. In Leviticus 23, God institutes feasts for the people of Israel. Each of these feasts, scheduled to coincide with the agricultural calendar, taught Israel something about who they were, who God is, and how they were to live.
During the season of Lent 2011, our congregation used Leviticus 23 as a lens through which to see Jesus more clearly. We looked at six feasts to see what each meant for Israel and how Jesus fulfilled or completed that feast.
On the Sunday before Lent began, we introduced the series by exploring the meaning of feasts and fulfillment.
For each service, we included a visual aid that was a replica or a symbol of what God had given Israel, and these visual aids helped us to understand what God was saying through the feasts. We held these services during Lent, but they could be conducted at any time of year.
Sunday before Lent:
In this service we introduce the concept of feasts and the upcoming worship series. Texts: Leviticus 23:1-2; Colossians 2:16-19.
Leviticus 23:1-2 isn’t a captivating read. There doesn’t seem to be any wisdom to follow, any advice to heed, any comfort to grasp. It’s simply a command to celebrate feasts and observe holidays. If you skim over the list of holidays given in the remainder of Leviticus 23, you notice right away that none of these holidays seems at all relevant to us today (after all, when was the last time you and your family gathered together to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets?). Furthermore, when we read Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he seems to be warning us against taking these ancient holidays too seriously. Do these words about religious observances instituted thousands of years ago have anything to say to us today?
Absolutely! Leviticus 23 shows us that God is a supreme teacher with a flair for the dramatic. God wants us to see, touch, taste, and hear who he is, what he is like, and how he calls us to live. That was why God gave the Israelites feasts.
But when we look at the Colossians passage we see that people are judging one another on their religious performance. How well are you keeping kosher? How scrupulous are you in observing the sabbath or other religious feasts? Paul warns them not to get caught up in these “pictures.”
Like the Colossians, we often think that if we play by all the religious rules, act like relatively decent and moral people, and attend church, we’ll stay on God’s good side and earn a ticket to heaven when we die.
The problem, of course, is that this never works. We try hard to be good, moral, religious, or spiritual, but we’re trying to save ourselves. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “the best way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin,” because if we think we’re good enough, then we don’t need a savior. The truth is that we are broken, fallen, and sinful people. The good news—the message that God was proclaiming in the feasts and festivals of Israel—is that someone greater has come!
The feasts of Israel were shadows, pictures; the substance is found in Christ. We have the supreme joy and comfort of knowing that Jesus has come to live the perfect life that we could never live, and to die the death that we deserve. The peace of Christ is ours when we place our hope and confidence in him alone. The next six weeks of this series will illustrate what that looks like, how we can trust Jesus, and how we live in response.
Ideas for Worship
It was fitting for us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper during this service. The Lord’s Supper is a picture that God gives his people that points to a greater reality!
“Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” CH 342, TH 499, 500, WR 384
“Grace Alone” WR 436
“In Christ Alone” LUYH, CSW 20, SWM 208
“Behold the Lamb” LUYH, CSW 27
First Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Passover
This feast reminds us of our new identity in Christ. Text: Leviticus 23:4-5.
Have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not? We’ve all felt as though we have to act a certain way to impress others. Your high school daughter thinks she has to wear the trendiest clothing (even if she doesn’t care much about fashion) so the “in” group will accept her. You think you need to buy a nicer car, live in a bigger home, or own all of the latest electronic toys in order to earn the admiration of your neighbors.
The world around us tries desperately to form us in its own image and write the story of who we are. Almost everything we do flows out of who we think we are. But Passover reminds us that God rewrites the story of his people to give them a new identity.
In the Old Testament, celebrating Passover required careful preparation. Four days before the feast, each family chose a firstborn male lamb from the flock, and in the days leading up to Passover that lamb was scrutinized to ensure that it was without any imperfection. At twilight on Passover, all of the lambs were slaughtered and their blood was spread over the doorframes of the family homes. This ritual reminded the Israelites of the night God delivered his people from slavery into freedom. Spreading the blood on the doorposts reminded the families that on the first Passover everyone who was in a home marked with blood was spared from death. The blood on the doorpost was a clear reminder that the price of innocent blood had been paid to purchase the freedom of those in that home.
For Christians, the Passover feast points to a greater Lamb. In the days leading up to his death, Jesus was questioned and tested by religious and civil leaders, just as the Passover lamb was examined to ensure that it was without fault. In the end, Pilate pronounced his verdict: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:6). Nevertheless, at twilight on Passover, as lambs all around Jerusalem were being slaughtered, Jesus—our true Passover Lamb—was killed, and his blood poured out.
Because his blood has been shed, ours never will be! Those who trust in Jesus have been brought from death into life; we have been given a new identity as God’s people. We are brought out of a life that is oriented to meaningless pursuits and empty promises, into the promise of life to the full. Instead of tirelessly trying to find our identity in the contours of this world, we find our identity as children of God.
Ideas for Worship
For this service we built a simple wooden doorframe as a visual aid. During the message, the pastor used a branch from a bush (to mimic the hyssop used to spread blood on the doorpost) to spread red paint on the doorframe: one streak on each side, and one streak across the top.
“In Christ Alone” LUYH, CSW 20, SWM 208
“When Israel Was In Egypt’s Land” LUYH, PsH 476, PH 334, SFL 103, SWM 71, WR 618
Second Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Unleavened Bread
This feast points to Jesus, who frees us from a life of sin. Texts: Leviticus 23:6-8; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.
Sin is pervasive. One “innocent” transgression or a seemingly minor habit that we tell ourselves we can keep locked up in a corner quickly spreads like mold until no part of our life is untouched. We tell ourselves that greed, or lust, or an addiction, or unrelenting perfectionism is no big deal. Meanwhile, that one little sin works its way through every part of our life.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread points to a life that is free from sin. In Old Testament times, yeast was symbolic of decay. When baking bread, families would take a small lump of dough from today’s bread and use it as a “starter” for tomorrow’s dough. This could continue for days, but eventually the yeast would decay and lose its effectiveness. So families would have to throw out the old yeast and start with new yeast.
During the Feast of Unleavened Bread, God commanded the Israelites to rid their homes of all yeast. This was a clear lesson for God’s people. After their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, God wanted his people to have a fresh start spiritually. Living free from slavery meant ridding their lives from the decay of sin.
That’s what salvation means for us too. Jesus was buried on the Feast of Unleavened Bread. He took our sin—our “leaven”—from us, and brought it with him to the grave. Paul tells us that “Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed.” Because Jesus has taken our sin from us, and because he was sacrificed in our place, how can we harbor sin in our lives any longer? Since Jesus has carried our sin away from us, let’s joyfully rid our lives of the leaven of sin!
Ideas for Worship
For the visual aid in this service, we used unleavened bread (matzah). The nature of this service lends itself to confession, particularly to prayers of confession that emphasize the way that sin taints good things (relationships, sex, commerce, industry, and so on).
“Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty” LUYH, CH 3, PH 138, PsH 249, SWM 28, TH 100, WR 136
“Holiness/Take My Life” (Micah Stampley)
“Take My Life” LUYH, CH 597, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585, WR 466
Third Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Firstfruits
This feast calls us to follow Jesus in wholehearted service to God. Text: Leviticus 23:9-14.
Have you ever felt like a slave to the demands on your time? Your kids are involved in soccer, theater, music, school. Your job demands all your time and energy. Even friendships and relationships can consume your time if you’re not careful. Why is this? Could it be that we’re using some of these admittedly good things to give our lives meaning and purpose and ultimate happiness? If we are, we’ve become slaves to our desires and ambitions. But Jesus has come to set us free from slavery!
The Feast of Firstfruits was a harvest festival—a feast celebrated after Israel had entered the Promised Land to thank God for the harvest. Part of the celebration involved bringing an offering of the first grains that the land produced. That was an act of deep trust. If they brought their firstfruits, the people had to depend on God to provide beyond the firstfruits. Since God had delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land, God wanted them to offer their thanks and to freely trust him to provide for all their needs.
That’s true for us too. On the cross, Jesus was enslaved to the power of sin and death. But, as the great hymn reminds us, “death could not keep its prey; he tore the bars away.” On the Feast of Firstfruits, Jesus, the greatest sacrifice, was presented before God as a guarantee of what God is doing with us. Just as God delivered Jesus from slavery into true service and devotion, God also delivers us from slavery to sin, into service. The Feast of Firstfruits is a call to offer ourselves to God as sacrifices of thanksgiving.
Ideas for Worship
For the visual aid this week we used a bowl of flour over which we poured oil (as Israel did long ago). We also poured a basin of wine into a bowl. These were reenactments of the offerings Israel would have brought in ancient times. Consider also using a litany at the end of the service to encourage people to offer themselves to God. Our time of confession this week stressed the importance of commitment as a response to grace.
“Man of Sorrows” LUYH, CH 311, PsH 482, TH 246, WR 301
“Low in the Grave He Lay” LUYH, CH 357, PsH 396, TH 276, WR 294
“I Surrender All” LUYH, CH 596, TH 562, WR 474
“What Wondrous Love Is This” LUYH, CH 314, PH 85, PsH 379, SFL 169, TH 261, WR 257
Fourth Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
This feast illustrates how God calls his people to live obedient lives. Texts: Leviticus 23:15-22; Acts 2:1-13.
Most of us want to be good. We try hard to please God, we try to love our neighbors, and we even make an effort to love our enemies. Yet most of us, if we are honest, struggle to measure up. No matter how much we exert ourselves, we all fall short. So how can we show our gratitude to God in the way we live?
God wanted to teach Israel how to do this. Pentecost was the second harvest festival; it was a time to thank God for the wheat harvest. It was observed fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits, and the people were required to bring offerings of thankfulness for God’s provision. But over time Pentecost also became a feast designed to thank God for one of his greatest gifts: the gift of Torah, the gift of the Law. Thankfulness and obedience became closely tied together.
At the same time, obedience didn’t come easy. But when God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers on Pentecost, we were enabled to live lives of thankfulness. We can’t do that on our own, but the Holy Spirit reminds us, encourages us, and teaches us how to live in thankful obedience to God.
Ideas for Worship
For a visual aid, we placed two loaves of bread on a plate, illustrating the offerings that God’s people brought. We also planned a follow-up service on this same text, examining how God’s design all along was to draw all nations of the world into grateful obedience to God’s Word. In some traditions, the two loaves of bread symbolize Jews and Gentiles and how God intended to bring them into one family.
“Creator Spirit, by Whose Aid” PsH 425
“I Come to the Cross” WR 251
“Cry of My Heart” SNC 81
“Dwell In Me, O Blessed Spirit” LUYH, PsH 427
Fifth Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Trumpets
This feast invites us to experience the fullness of God’s presence. Text: Leviticus 23:23-25.
Do you ever feel far from God? Most of us do, at one time or another. We get preoccupied with other things, or something happens to deflate our spirit, or we drift into a rut . . . and, before we know it, God seems distant.
The Feast of Trumpets was a solemn holiday at the end of the harvesting season. During the busyness of the agricultural year, it was easy to make God a lower priority. On the Feast of Trumpets, the priest sounded the trumpet all day long. Trumpets were audible symbols of God’s presence, and hearing the trumpet blast called the people to experience God’s presence anew.
In a way, that was a terrifying thought. God’s presence is so holy and awe-inspiring that the Israelite people were deeply fearful. At the same time, God’s presence is transformative; anyone who sees the beauty and majesty of God is never the same again. We too have experienced the presence of God! The Feast of Trumpets serves as a reminder that God’s presence has entered our world. When we see Jesus on the cross, we see both the holiness and the love of God. We see the holiness of God as he judges our sin, but we also see the deep love of God as he bears our punishment himself. Let us experience God’s presence anew today!
Ideas for Worship
As a visual aid, we purchased a shofar (available from judaism.com or amazon.com). With some practice, it is possible to blow this in church! If a shofar is not available, you can download the sound of a shofar blast from the Internet. Since the Feast of Trumpets is a somber time of spiritual preparation, this service lends itself well to a great deal of silence, self-examination, and confession.
“Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders” PsH 614, TH 319
“I Stand in Awe” CH 80, WR 53
“In the Presence” CSW 11
“Majesty” CH 10, WR 43
“Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” LUYH, CH 306, PH 78, PsH 385, TH 254, WR 263
“Rejoice, the Lord Is King” LUYH, CH 370 , PH 155, PsH 408, SFL 180, SWM 140, TH 310, WR 342
Sixth Sunday of Lent:
The Feast of Tabernacles
This feast reminds us that we can trust in God’s care for us. Texts: Leviticus 23:33-44; John 7:37-43.
Most of us struggle with worry. We worry about money, our children, our jobs, friendships. Worry is often a result of the difficulty we have in fully trusting in God. The Feast of Tabernacles was God’s reminder to Israel that he would always provide adequately for his people.
After Israel had settled in the land, God didn’t want them thinking that they were self-sufficient. So every year on the Feast of Tabernacles, God insisted that his people live in booths for a week, remembering how God provided for their ancestors while they wandered in the desert. On the last day of the feast, the priest drew water from a spring and poured it out on an altar in the temple. This was a way of remembering and trusting God to provide rain in the upcoming year.
During his ministry, Jesus attended this feast. While the priest was pouring out the water, Jesus made an astonishing claim: “Whoever is thirsty, let him come to me!” Jesus was saying something unmistakable: I am the water that will quench your deepest thirst!
That’s proof enough that we can trust in God. Like Israel, we are on a journey. Our homes in this world are tents, not permanent houses. Like Israel, we must trust in God to lead us. How can we trust and not worry? By remembering and believing that Jesus has satisfied our deepest needs. Jesus loves us so much that he laid down his life for us, and if God made that sacrifice for us, he is most certainly trustworthy.
Ideas for Worship
For a visual aid, we borrowed a sukkah, or booth, from a local Jewish congregation. It was a simple metal gazebo frame with a mesh screen around the sides and bamboo slats across the top. The slats enable those in the tent to see the night sky as a reminder that they are living in temporary shelters.
“Abide with Me” LUYH, CH 642, PH 543, PsH 442, TH 402, WR 521
“Lead Me, Guide Me” LUYH, PsH 544, RN 176, SFL 220, WR 498
“If You But Trust in God to Guide You” LUYH, PH 282, PsH 446, SFL 210, TH 670, WR 429
The Day of Atonement
This feast illustrates how Jesus is both our sacrificial lamb and our scapegoat. Text: Leviticus 23:26-32
Guilt is a powerful force in our lives. Even if we’ve taken responsibility for some wrongdoing and made amends with those we’ve hurt, feelings of guilt can continue to haunt us. Or we may struggle with intense guilt over sins that we can’t overcome. Indeed, guilt can hold us back from the life of joy God intends for us. The Day of Atonement was one of the most solemn days of the Jewish calendar, and it was meant to illustrate how God removes our sin and guilt.
Two goats played a part in this feast God instituted for his people. The first goat was slaughtered in the temple courtyard and its blood was poured out on the altar in the Most Holy Place—right in the presence of God. This was meant to illustrate that sin is no trifling matter, but a deep debt that requires bloodshed to satisfy the justice of God. The second goat was a scapegoat. The priest would publicly confess the sins of the people over the lamb, symbolically transferring guilt from Israel to the lamb. The lamb was then released outside the Israelite camp, demonstrating to Israel that God had removed their guilt from them.
In Jesus, we know a far greater reality. At the cross, Jesus is both our sacrificial lamb and our scapegoat. His blood was shed to make payment for our debt. His death is in place of ours. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was crucified outside the city gates of Jerusalem, outside the city of God. Exiled from the city, Jesus experienced total abandonment because he was covered in our guilt. But the wonderful result is that we no longer carry our guilt around with us. We can live free from guilt and shame forever!
Ideas for Worship
Even though this feast is listed second to last in Leviticus 23 (and therefore should have been celebrated two weeks before Easter), we chose to examine this feast last, on Good Friday, since the theme fit so well with the crucifixion.
“Blessed Assurance” LUYH, CH 572, PH 341, PsH 490, TH 693, WR 426
“In Christ Alone” LUYH, CSW 20, SWM 208
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” LUYH, CH 316, PH 98, PsH 383, TH 247, WR 284