Pastor Eric Schroeder

Text: Nehemiah 8:9-18

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How many of you have ever celebrated Thanksgiving by camping out in your backyard? Anyone? Seems like an awfully strange idea, doesn’t it? Especially in this part of the world, the end of November isn’t the ideal time for spending a night outside. Not to mention the fact that some of us might not like the idea of camping . . . no matter what time of year. We like our homes, and our beds, and our HVAC systems that keep the temperature inside right where we set it. So we have other ways of enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday, with food and drink and family gatherings that accompany our thanksgiving to God.

If, however, you were in Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish fall harvest festival, you wouldn’t call it Thanksgiving. Exactly 6 months after the Passover celebration and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, you would begin Celebrating Sukkot. Sukkot is a Hebrew Word that means “tabernacles” or “booths,” so our English NIV Bibles call this celebration the Feast of Tabernacles. The people would do exactly what is described here in Nehemiah, because it is exactly what was prescribed in Leviticus 23, where God told the people to “live in booths for seven days . . . so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42-43). All native-born Israelites were to observe this holiday for the same 8 days every year, setting up their temporary shelters, hearing God’s Word and feasting, all the while rejoicing that God keeps his promises.

 If this is the first time you remember hearing about Sukkot, then you aren’t alone. In Nehemiah we are reading about an entire nation of God’s people who would be celebrating Sukkot for the very first time, and here’s why. For nearly their entire lives, these Jews had lived near Babylon, born in exile, far away from the Promised Land. Only recently had they returned, without ever having experienced the traditions of the temple, without the calendar God had given, many of them were not even brought up to speak Hebrew—the language of Moses and the Old Testament.

But their godly leaders brought the people together to hear the Word of God. 9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

It was a story they didn’t know well, if at all. And once they got to the parts where God commanded his people how to live, it suddenly hit the people that they had been living their entire lives apart from the will of God. It’s the same feeling we get when we do a deep study of God’s law, when we hear that God commands us to love him with our whole heart, soul, and mind (and of course, we haven’t even come close). It’s the guilt we experience when we are reminded that God commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and his law exposes our selfish leanings that dishonor and disobey God on a daily basis. As the law teaches us, it always accuses us, and convicts us, and lays out the punishment we deserve from a Holy God.

But the faithful preachers had more to say. Despite the sincere guilt the people felt over their sin, they were told not to mourn or weep, but rejoice. They had reason to celebrate. 10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve.”

12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

With the nation’s long history of sinfulness and unfaithfulness to God, how could Nehemiah tell the people not to grieve? Simply put, because God is faithful to his promises. God had chosen to make a nation out of Abraham’s descendants, He would be their God and they would be his people, and through them the Savior of all nations would come. And now they could look back and see God’s promises fulfilled. One of those reminders was Sukkot. Let’s hear about it again:

13 On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law. 14 They found written in the Law, which the Lord had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month 15 and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: “Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths”—as it is written.

16 So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. 17 The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.

Why spend 7 nights camping out and then move back into a permanent dwelling? To remember that God keeps his promises. When Abraham’s descendants were enslaved in Egypt all those years, did God forget them or his promises? Of course not. Their stay was temporary, and when God’s time was right, he sent Moses to deliver them back to the Promised Land. The amazing thing is that this generation in Nehemiah chapter 8 had even greater reason to rejoice—they didn’t just have to remember history, because they lived it. When Abraham’s descendants were in exile in Babylon all those years, did God forget them or his promises? Of course not. Their stay was only temporary, and when God’s time was right, he sent people like Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther to deliver them back to the Promised Land.

What about us? Should we camp out for a while before we go to our permanent homes? . . .  Honestly, yes we should. Now, I’m not saying that we all need to rush home and construct a campsite in the backyard. As New Testament Christians, we know that Christ came to fulfill the law, so we don’t have to keep the same calendar and worship schedule that the Old Testament people did. But, since Christ came to fulfill the law for us, we rejoice because the sins that cause us so much grief and guilt have been washed away. In one sense, we could all say that we already are celebrating Sukkot . . .

Do you see it yet? Do you see how Jesus Christ is proclaimed in the Old Testament, and God’s plan is revealed to us? When you leave today, you aren’t going home. You’re going to spend a little more time in your booth, your tabernacle, your tent. But every one of us who knows Jesus rejoices that God is faithful to his promises. In a little over a week, we rejoice because we have the ultimate proof. God sent his Son to take on flesh so that he could live, obey, bleed and die for you. With redemption accomplished, we are set free from slavery to sin and guilt and hell and adopted as God’s chosen people, his royal priesthood, his holy nation, a people belonging to God, that we may declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness and into his wonderful light. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we are assured that our lives in this sin-filled world are just a temporary stay. Spend the rest of your days celebrating Sukkot.

How? One more verse. 18 Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly. How do we celebrate Sukkot? We feast on God’s forgiveness, full and free in Jesus and his saving work, and we enjoy every blessing (material or otherwise) as gifts from our heavenly father. We seek God’s Word in our daily lives, being reminded again and again that God keeps his promises. We assemble with our fellow believers to strengthen one another on our journey, and we look forward to the day when Jesus comes to deliver us from this dying world and move us into our permanent home, lovingly prepared by our Savior himself.

Life doesn’t always seem like it’s worth celebrating. Some days are harder than others to find reasons for thanksgiving. Sometimes the days drag on; other times the years fly by too quickly. But no matter how your day, your week, your year or your life are going, God hasn’t forgotten about you or his promises. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are a child of God through your baptism, fed and nourished through the Word and sacrament. Our troubles are temporary; our home is forever. Celebrate Sukkot as you celebrate Jesus. AMEN.