As the people of God, we love His Festivals—even, perhaps especially, on a physical level. It may sound strange to some, but it makes many of us feel good to humble ourselves and wash someone else’s feet. We enjoy the meal on the Night to Be Much Observed and look forward to those unleavened treats that grace our tables and fill our lunchboxes for seven days each year.
Pentecost may involve getting together with spiritual brothers and sisters for a fine meal—sometimes a special covered-dish meal between services, other times in someone’s home or at a nice restaurant after services. And when the Feast of Trumpets comes around, we know that the Feast of Tabernacles is not far behind, but again, we may enjoy Trumpets with a fine meal surrounded by wonderful company. And can I say anything to describe the Feast of Tabernacles that has not been said before? Only the Day of Atonement lacks a bit when it comes to our physical enjoyments.
Of course, we tell ourselves that these Festivals are about the spiritual, not the physical, and I have no doubt that we are sincere in this assessment. Yet the coronavirus lockdown has challenged us all to do things differently and to evaluate our thoughts and emotions. Why is it, dear brethren, that the physical too often overshadows the spiritual? Is there a disconnect between what we profess and what we truly think? We say that God’s Feasts are about spiritual matters—about living out the meaning of each Festival—but some, if they cannot go to a new site or cannot meet up with their family and friends, suddenly consider these same Feasts problematic. Please stop and consider, brethren: What is most important to you?
Occasionally I hear people say, “Going to the Feast is my vacation time,” and it is true that many brethren must take “vacation time” from work in order to go to the Feast. But is that what the Feast is about? We profess that it is not, but do our actions tell a different story? Some think that Church employees, who get vacation time in addition to time off for the Feast, do not fully appreciate the challenge others may face. That is a fair observation—however, this is not always as cut and dried as it may appear. Many men and women in our employ could, and did, make more money by not working for the Church, and have given up higher-paying jobs in order to work for the Church. And for many of us, the Feast, while enjoyable, is hardly a vacation. Just ask my wife what it is like to travel to two or three sites and hear the same messages from her husband several times!
As she describes it, the Feast for her is something akin to Groundhog Day, a movie in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who gets trapped in a time loop and keeps living the same day over and over again. Sometimes ministerial wives and children experience a similar feeling—hear the sermon that was given yesterday, pack up, travel, unpack, and go to the next site to hear the sermon a third time. The Feast is meaningful to those of us who spend it that way, but experiences like seeing the local attractions and getting together with our physical families are often sacrificed. We are there to serve, and we serve joyously. Ministers experience the Feast differently in some ways, but that does not mean that we cannot remind you of what the Feast is about for all of us.
The “Faith Hall of Fame”
How real to you, brethren, is the meaning of each Festival? That may sound like a simple question, but it is not. God was real to Abraham and the other heroes listed in Hebrews 11, which we frequently call the “Faith Chapter.” That is why they sacrificed so much during their lives. Ask yourself, What would I do if God instructed me as He did Abraham? It is easy to say we would follow Abraham’s example, but would we? Picking up and moving is not easy, but even beyond that, consider the whole picture of his life.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:8–10).
Seriously, brethren, I have been around long enough and heard enough complaining about things so comparatively trivial that I doubt one in a hundred would obey such a command—and I have to look in the mirror and ask myself if I would. Then there was the test to sacrifice his son. Wow! How difficult that must have been—but we read of no hesitation on his part.
And it was not Abraham alone who exercised great faith. Many others listed in that “Hall of Fame” in Hebrews have gone before us, putting everything on the line. They may not have been alive to hear Jesus’ warning in Luke 14:26–33 concerning sacrificing all we have—a warning we almost always review with new converts before baptism—but they certainly lived their lives with that understanding, for as we are told,
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13–16).
The full evidence that these who went before us put it all on the line is shown at the end of Hebrews 11. While many received miraculous interventions, we see that others became witnesses of true faith in a very different way. Clearly, God was real to those who “had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment… [who] were stoned… [and] sawn in two” (vv. 36–37). Yes, as portrayed in the “Museum of Torture” in Mexico City, people once did saw their fellow man asunder in Europe and elsewhere—and not that long ago! God was real to those who “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented” (v. 37). God was real to Daniel, who was thrown into a den with hungry lions, and to his three friends, who were thrown into a fiery furnace. It is so easy for us to think, I would do that if confronted with the same choices, but we know the end of the stories while they did not. How easy it is to talk a good fight. Let us not forget the example of Peter when Christ was taken into custody (Mark 14:29–31, 66–72).
Will We Pass the Test?
Brethren, how many of us are willing to put it all on the line? That is not an easy question to answer, as none of us knows what we will do when such a supreme test comes—but we do have a hint. The best indicator of future behavior is current behavior. Someone who today does not stand up to keep the Sabbath or Festivals or who does not tithe faithfully will not likely stand up when the going really becomes difficult. If, during a time of turmoil, it is such a big test to go to an assigned Festival site without murmuring, what will we do when our lives are on the line? And yes, that is a reasonable question to ask.
When I first came into the Church, I wondered how the Israelites could murmur so much when they saw God perform mighty miracle after mighty miracle. I no longer wonder. How naïve I was and how little I understood about my own nature.
God lovingly and compassionately spoke to Jeremiah, “If you have run with the footmen, and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses? And if in the land of peace, in which you trusted, they wearied you, then how will you do in the floodplain of the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5). It is helpful to understand the reason for Jeremiah’s feeling sorry for himself—there was a credible threat against his life, even from his own brothers!
So, what is it about these Festivals that is most important? Is it the special unleavened bread? Is it a wonderful meal on the Night to Be Much Observed? Is it going to some new part of the world for the Feast of Tabernacles? Is it your “vacation” time? We all enjoy the physical aspects of God’s Festivals—I certainly do! We enjoy family and friends and seeing a new part of God’s great planet. But especially here in North America, we enjoy things not available to many of our brethren around the world.
It is easy to get caught up in the physical, to deceive ourselves—even sincerely—that it is the spiritual that is most important to us, until a rock is thrown in our path. If we truly believe that what these Festivals portray is real, the spiritual should so overtake the physical that we will find joy and fulfillment wherever, and with whomever, we share them.
A Larger Vision of God
Do we really believe that a member of the God Family “emptied Himself” and was born of a woman? Do we really believe Bible accounts of Noah’s Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the children of Israel walking through the Red Sea? Do we really believe that the fulfillment of the four Festivals of the seventh month is just around the corner? Are we willing to give up everything because these truths are real to us? I hope so!
Ancient King David meditated on God’s reality—which he could see all around him. He wrote, “For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well” (Psalm 139:13–14).
If God was so real to David that He could say this with the limited knowledge of the universe available to him, how much more ought we to believe, based on what we can see at the end of this age? David could see the big things about physical life—let’s say the eyes, ears, mouth, taste buds, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, etc. He no doubt butchered many animals and saw how marvelously they were designed. He also saw human birth and the beginning of life itself. He could see birds, fish, and every form of living creature, and he recognized the hand of God in them all. But we can see all of that and more! We are now able to peer more deeply than David ever could into the very mysteries of life itself. When we do, we find the structure of even our microscopic cells is amazing beyond belief.
Mr. Richard Ames and I have quoted from Bill Bryson’s 2004 book A Short History of Nearly Everything, in which he describes the odds as one in 10260 against a typical protein of 200 amino acids forming by chance. That is one chance in 1 followed by 260 zeros. Collagen, the most common protein in our bodies, is much larger at 1,055 amino acids meaningfully strung together, and the odds of it forming by chance, he admits, “are, frankly, nil. It just isn’t going to happen” (p. 288). Now, if the odds against a much smaller protein of 200 “letters” spontaneously self-assembling is greater (much greater) than all the atoms in the known universe, what are the staggering odds of titin, the largest protein in our bodies, forming by chance?
Bryson’s 2019 book The Body: A Guide for Occupants mentions titin, which helps control muscle elasticity and is made from a string of, not 200, not 1,055, but 189,819 amino acids (p. 7)! That is like writing a sentence by randomly drawing out one letter out of 20, one at a time and in order, and stringing them together until you have a meaningful sentence. There is a formula one can use to figure the odds, but without the formula it would take you quite some time to work it out the slow way—by multiplying 20, the number of amino acids, times itself 189,819 times! And titin and collagen are just two of a million or more different kinds of protein found in the human body!
Bryson, who against all reason believes in evolution, points out the incredible complexity of life and the kind of Mind necessary to pull it off. “You could call together all the brainiest people who are alive now or have ever lived and endow them with the complete sum of human knowledge, and they could not between them make a single living cell” (p. 4). And yet we are expected to believe that life somehow evolved by chance! No wonder God tells us in Romans that those who reject Him are without excuse!
Brethren, awesome is too inadequate a word to describe our Creator. We are at a total loss to describe Him—no word or combination of words is sufficient. The Mind that could put us together as working, living creatures—and put together all the other creatures, seen and unseen—is a Mind that can tell the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). That Mind can resurrect us from the dead and give us life eternal! Either that is reality to us or it is not. But that Creator must know that He can trust us to be loyal to Him forever. He must know that we will obey Him through thick and thin, during good times and not-so-good times. He must know what is truly important to us.
Not a New Challenge
Some things, brethren, never change, because there is always a downward pull on our human nature, and sometimes it is subtle. We do not always see clearly what is happening in our thoughts and emotions. When it comes to the approach we have regarding the Feast, the problem of human nature is nothing new. In a sermon he recently recorded here in Charlotte, Mr. Phil Sena pointed back to old Worldwide News articles from the 1970s that plainly illustrated how the Church has historically faced the same problems we face today. For instance, comments then described the need to emphasize “the spiritual aspect of God’s Festival.” The comments made 40–50 years ago in those pages spoke of being careful not to see the Feast as simply a big vacation, and even discussed concerns about too many members transferring from their assigned sites. One article even mentioned Pasadena was considering limiting transfers to “emergency situations” only. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
Of course, none of this is meant to say that the Feast of Tabernacles is not to be enjoyed. Of course it is! Our Heavenly Father certainly desires for us to rejoice during all His Festivals—He even commands us to do so! We all love the special foods, as well as the opportunities to see friends and family members and do things that we might not be able to do on other occasions. But we must never lose sight of the purpose for these special occasions and the profound meaning they hold for us. We must not carry a “vacation” mentality.
If we are faithful and grasp the big picture, we will—in the very near future—be changed or resurrected to share eternal life together. We must not set dates, as many prophecies have yet to be fulfilled. But this year, of all years, is a reminder of how suddenly things can happen and how the end can come at a time when we do not expect it. Let us keep the Feast this year with the realization that Jesus Christ will return soon, that He will remove the great troublemaker, that we will rule with Him for a thousand years if we prove we can live under His rule, and that a Great White Throne Judgment is coming.