Easter is on a Jewish Holiday (and it is amazing)

It was a special Sunday- that first day of the week after Passover. Imagine how devastated the disciples and the followers of Jesus must have been. A week before they had marched into Jerusalem with palm branches waving saying Hosanna- Save us please. Now their savior was dead. And not just dead- Crucified. Killed publically and brutally. Could they be next? Are the Romans going to silence them also?

We also need to understand that Jesus died during a very important season for the Jews. Jesus died on Passover.  Friday was the holy day of Passover, which was celebrated in homes the day before. The death of Jesus was bathed in this imagery. Jesus was the blameless lamb that was slain without putting up a defense. Jesus purchases his people from slaver. Jesus is the broken bread. Jesus is the promised Messiah come to save the people again.Firstfruits

What most people don’t know about that Sunday is that Jesus actually rose from the dead on another Jewish holiday. I did not know until I heard it in this blog post by Ron Cantor–a Messianic Jewish pastor from Israel that I follow on Facebook.

The actual day was debated between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, but at the time the Sunday following the Sabbath after Passover would have been The Festival of First Fruits. This is a festival that many cultures had to some degree or another. In that part of the world, many things would be harvested in the spring. God calls the people of Israel to a special festival at this time of year.

In Leviticus 23 God tells Israel to celebrate:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted. On the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it. And on the day when you wave the sheaf, you shall offer a male lamb a year old without blemish as a burnt offering to the LORD.   (Leviticus 23:9-12 ESV)

This was a day was set apart to celebrate 2 things. First, it was the beginning of the harvest season. The people gathered together to give God the first 10% of their harvest and pray for a bountiful remainder of the harvest season. This was also a celebration of the giving of the law at Sinai. The Law was seen as the beginning of a great harvest in Israel. It would be fruitful for the people and for the nations around them.

The celebration was the beginning of the Festival of Weeks or sometimes called the Festival of Reaping. Over the next 7 weeks, farmers could come into Jerusalem to present their offering. They would bring a sheaf of grains, sometimes on the end of a stick, and people would cheer and sing on their way to the Temple. People would bring offering from the 7 harvested plants Israel was known for—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. (Deut 8:8)

The sheaf would be brought before the priest, who would wave the sheaf around the altar. There would be dancing, praying, and singing. It was a great moment of pride and gratitude for the farmers, and it was especially esteemed to be there on the very first day of firstfruits.Sheafs

The book of Ruth was read from and sung on those days for a number of reasons. The events of the book of Ruth occur during the harvest time of year. Ruth is the great grandmother of David, and it was taught that David was born and died on the day of the bringing of the firstfruits. Ruth is a book about loving-kindness which is what the law was supposed to be about. So Ruth became associated with this festival.

This festival would go on for 7 weeks and end 50 days. In fact, the reference to 50 days in Latin is why we call this festival Pentecost.

Perhaps it is this festival that Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28 ESV)

Paul does not speak specifically about the Festival of Firstfruits to his Corinthian audience, but he very well may have had it in mind as a Pharisee. Either way, think about the stunning connection between the day of this festival and the resurrection of Jesus:

  • Jesus rose from the dead, just like a harvest. He even used the image of a grain of wheat falling to the ground so that it can grow again.
  • Jesus is the First Fruit. Just has He is resurrected, so too those who are dead in the Lord will be resurrected.
  • Jesus is the new law. He does not replace, but fulfills the law. His new way brings new fruit—the fruit of the Spirit.
  • Jesus from the line of David who is remembered on that day. In fact, Peter makes the connection in his sermon in Acts 2 when he compares the death of David and the hope of immortality with the Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Jesus the Kinsman Redeemer that saves just as Boaz saves in the book of Ruth.
  • The Resurrection of Jesus is connected to Pentecost. Though He ascends to God the Father He is with people after Pentecost in a new way.

When you think about it, this imagery is striking. Easter is the Day of Firstfruits. We may not grow our own crops anymore, but the fruit of that Easter morning can be viewed in our lives. We are an Easter people. We are a people of first fruits. May that fruit be shown in your lives this day. Amen.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt. 4- Fear and Lack of Confidence

I have been blogging about how much of a struggle it can be to be a church today. It is based on a “State of the Church Address” I preached earlier this year. After an introduction I have talked about our struggle to know what to change and how much to change. I also talked about the financial struggles that many churches find themselves in today.

The questions of how much to change and the financial concerns have exposed the bigger problems that we as a church are working to overcome in our quest to thrive. The deeper problems are issues of fear and a lack of confidence.

old church new castleCan we afford things exposes the deeper question- are we good enough? Are we worth fixing? Are we strong enough to make investing in our church worth it? Can we grow? Will our church die off when those currently over 60 years pass away? Will our church be here in 10 years?

One the one hand, we are encouraged by the scripture that Jesus will build His church and that the gates of Hell will not stand against it. We know that God is bigger than the trends, the culture, and the current attendance and offering numbers. But it is another thing to truly believe that about ourselves. That our church can be vibrant again. That we have a future.

What do we feel this way? There are many reasons. There is a sense that what we are doing now worked in the past. When you had a church people came and when you needed volunteers they stepped forward. I am not sure that is actually true in all cases. We often remember our past either better or worse than it actually was. But reality does not matter. We feel as though what used to work doesn’t work anymore.

I am also a big believer in momentum. Momentum is the term in physics for the reality that objects in motion tend to remain in motion and objects at rest tend to remain at rest. I think this is true for churches too. When a church is not moving it takes great effort to get anything going. Any change or any action will be difficult.

This is the area where pastors and church leaders need to focus the most. We need to help churches trust God and believe in themselves. We need to help our churches see the good things they are doing. We need to teach our churches to celebrate small wins so that they can lead to bigger wins.

The Challenges of Being a Church Today Pt 3: Church Finances

This blog series is based on a sermon I did at Westminster titled  “The State of the Church Address.” You can listen to it HERE. In the first blog post I talked about how challenging it is to be a church today. In the second blog post I talked about how hard it is to know what to change and what to keep the same in the church. Now I look at the challenge of church finances.

Church finances are one of the big challenges in many churches today. Or, at least, it is one of the most felt challenges today. Church buildings are looking very worn because there is not a lot of extra money to keep them up well. More mainline churches are cutting staff and moving to part-time ministry. Churches that used to have financial reserves are looking in the bank at empty accounts.

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Why is my church struggling financially? There are lots of reasons. There are less people than the church used to have. People have more debt and therefore less “disposable” income. Many of those who were big givers are on fixed income in retirement, paying medical bills, or supporting kids and grandkids.

It is also important to note the radical increase in nonprofit agencies that are also vying for charitable contributions. This includes hospitals (like St. Jude’s), relief organizations (like Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse), colleges and seminaries, and environmental and animal causes (like the Humane Society). These organizations depend on giving to support their work and are highly motivated and skilled at getting donations.

The church needs to understand that we have let a lot of these other agencies begin because we have not done our job of caring for the poor and the disenfranchised. We have let the government do part of that work, too. So people support these other non-profits and pay taxes for things the church should be engaged in. I am not hating on or disapproving of these organizations. I am simply trying to explain that this has an impact on church giving.

The church, on the other hand, is not very good at talking about money. I have done a previous blog about why people make choices to give charitably. We avoid talking about money. It has become, like sex, appropriate to talk about anywhere but the church. Compare that to Jesus, who talks about money all the time and makes it a part of many of his parables. We preach it timidly on stewardship Sunday or ask for it when we need more.

The church has also had a poor relationship with money. We have tended to live on our reserves and find our hope and security in our money. Reserves are a good thing. They allow a church to respond to emergencies and to have time to make decisions. Unfortunately, they also allow churches to take time and avoid dealing with issues that really need dealt with.

Many churches have lived off their reserves. They have not learned how to be a smaller church and live within their means, and they have instead try to continue to live in “the good old days.” I am seeing a number of churches that are now running out of reserves and are being forced to have very scary conversation. Many of these conversations should have happened years ago. In god we trust

The answers to such a complicated problem are not likely to be simple. Here are a few ideas to start.

  • We definitely need to better define and attack our mission in the world.
  • We need to talk about money in a healthy way—as spiritual significant and not just for keeping the lights on.
  • We need to teach our church people how to look at and relate to money personally.
  • We need to learn to be small churches. That means having less staff and more volunteers, simplifying our buildings, and becoming nimbler as churches.
  • We have got to put our hope in Jesus and trust Him to sustain and provide for our ministry.