Celebrating Water & Light

I am not sure if it has an official name or not?  It is a game I call “connect the dots.”  An even number of dots make up the rows and columns and then individuals take turns drawing a line from one dot to the next.  The goal is to avoid providing your opponent an opportunity to complete a box in which when done, he or she places their initial.  After a while, it gets difficult to not form boxes so then the goal is to limit the damage.  Eventually, the person with the most initialed boxes wins the contest.  Remember the game?  I confess that I played it a few times in church when I was a child, perhaps even in college chapel.

I have been in the Gospel of John recently, having just returned from Regent College in Vancouver where I took a class on this particular Gospel.  During the class, I was struck by some historical data that recently I fashioned into a sermon leading up to our Harvest Celebration.  Harvest Celebration is our modern day version of the Feast of Tabernacles.  It is our church's holiday season, beginning with camping on the front end and culminating with a grand celebration on the back end.  That celebration transpired this past Sunday morning, a three-hour time of reflecting on our past year together and God’s goodness in our lives.  It was a fantastic time of pictures, singing, testimonies and much more, including a catered meal.  During our celebration, we did two things this year that were new.  We participated in a Water Drawing Ceremony and another ceremony called Illumination.  Let me explain and in so doing, connect the dots.

As I understand it, these two ceremonies were part of the history of the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles.  If you know the history of this specific feast, it was a most joyous time, the “happiest” of the three feasts the Israelites were commanded to celebrate. It was a lengthy period of time in which the people celebrated not only God’s current provision but his past guidance.  They traveled to Jerusalem and lived in temporarily constructed booths.  The celebration’s focus was in large measure on their release from Egyptian bondage and how God had provided for them in the wilderness.  Two ceremonies were incorporated in this 8-day holiday and those two were called the Water Drawing Ceremony and the Illumination Ceremony.

The Water Drawing involved the priests going to a pool and drawing water that would be carried to the outer courts of the temple.  During this procession the people would follow and often recite Isaiah 12:3:  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.  The water was then poured into the water basins that stood outside the temple’s entrance, known as the Court of Women.  This ceremony was intended to remind the people of how while in the desert God had provided water for thirsty people.  You might recall the story.  Thirsty, away from the immediate provisions in Egypt, the people grumbled to Moses.  Moses went to God.  God instructed Moses to take his staff and to pass in front of the people on his way to the rock at Horeb.  You can read the story in Exodus 17.  Once there, Moses was instructed to strike the rock after which water would flow from it.  Now, if observant and aware of the whole unfolding story of the Bible, we see a theme running throughout the pages of scripture.  Each of these ceremonies will point not only to Jesus but also call us to the end of time as well.

First, note that throughout the pages of the OT and even in the NT, readers are reminded of this event.  Much is made about God’s provision of water in the Psalms and the prophets.  For example, Isaiah writes, For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground (44:3). Psalm 78 recounts the actual event.  Notice the expression of abundance.  Verses 15 & 16—He gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.  He made streams come out of the rock and caused waters to flow down like rivers.    This is our God!  John says in chapter 1:16 that from Jesus’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  Isn’t it enough to simply (as in one time) say “grace?”  John doesn’t.  It is “grace upon grace” just as in his epistle he will later write about God’s lavishing nature.  This is our God! (Pardon my repetition but we sang a song Sunday with this line in it and it resonated deeply in me)

Once again, connect the dots.  Later, Jesus is described as the Rock of Ages.  And when Jesus was crucified and his side pierced, we are told that both blood and water flowed out.  Of course, Jesus describes himself as living water and speaks of how those who believe in him will receive the flowing water of God, namely, God’s Spirit, which is precisely what Isaiah and Joel prophesied would happen.  But it doesn’t end there.  As we move toward the climax of God’s unfolding drama—Revelation—we discover water once again.  This time, water flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  It flows down the center of the city and those who are thirsty are invited to come, drink freely of the water of life!

It is interesting that in John 7, during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus seizes upon the watery context of the Feast to speak to the souls of people.  Waiting till the very last day (I wonder why?), Jesus stands up—after all the fun, food and fellowship of the previous 7 days—and asks if anyone remained thirsty.  Is there something more for which your soul thirsts?  That is a question for us as well.  Am I aware of my thirst that cannot be quenched by what this life offers?  Am I willing to embrace this thirst, acknowledging that I am waiting for something more that nothing, no one here can ultimately satisfy (see Hebrews 11:13ff)?  That is a tall order but one I find freeing when I actually choose it.

Then there was the Illumination Ceremony.  At some point during the evening, perhaps the night before the grand celebration on that final day, candles were light in the temple area.  Maybe it was all week.  This act of lighting symbolized the fact that God was with His people in the darkness of the wilderness by a pillar of fire.  Remember that story?  You can read about it in Exodus 13.  Psalm 78 again, a psalm of remembrance, reminds later generations of this truth about their God.  I like the phrasing of the ESV when it translates the words all the night with a fiery light he led them.  It wasn’t just part of the night. It was ALL the night.  That seems wasteful.  We turn our lights off at night but not our God.  Perhaps He knows our frame, that we are a fearful lot in need of light.  No wonder Isaiah warns the people not to “light their own fires” but rather in the darkness to wait on the Lord because He is our light (Isa 50).

Once again, connect the dots.  Start in John 8.  Older manuscripts don’t contain the story in the first 11 verses of John 8, the story about the woman caught in adultery.  If that is true, then essentially, we jump from Jesus’s words about thirst in John 7 to his words in John 8:12:  I am the Light of the world.  I suspect once again, Jesus was using what was right in front of Him at the feast.  First water, then light. Seizing these two objects and more specifically these two ceremonies, He applied them to Himself. We should not be surprised by this connection on the part of Jesus.  For after the resurrection, on the road to Emma’s, Jesus connected the dots of Law and prophets to Himself.  And of course, as we move deeper into the Revelation of God, continuing to connect the dots, we come to see what Isaiah spoke of years before John, namely, that there would be no need for the sun or moon for the Lord would be our Light (Isa 60:19; Rev 22:5).

The feast celebrated two ceremonies and used two objects to do so:  water and light.  But I failed to inform you that there was third aspect that the Israelites also celebrated at this historic feast.  Behind these two objects was this all encompassing idea:  Presence!  God present with His people.  He was back then in the form of water for their thirsty souls and fire light for their fearful souls.

But once again, connect the dots.  Jesus is God with us—Emmanuel.  He came here to be with us so that we might be with him.  As John puts it, at least in the Message version, Jesus moved into the neighborhood.  More precisely perhaps, Jesus became like us so that we might become like Him.  

But we aren’t finished yet, are we?  We go to the end of time as we know it, the book of Revelation once more, and there we read these words—and listen for the “with-ness” of God:  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth….And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.  And I heard a loud voice (so as not to be missed perhaps; we are so easily distracted, you know) from the throne saying, Behold the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.

We could almost be persuaded that God actually likes us, me, that he wants to be with me.  I sat at lunch yesterday with a man newer to our Fellowship.  He has a hard time believing anyone would like him apart from what he has to offer. He works hard.  But on Sunday at our Feast/Harvest, two people turned to him and expressed with a smile their gladness for this man and his family’s presence among us.  He said to me that it went into him deeply, “powerfully” was the word he used, because they don’t know him and yet their words were so genuine.  We just never know where or how God’s presence might make its appearance and light our way, touch our thirst a bit, and free our souls from bondage.  But that is His good work along the way and we celebrate it.  Water.  Light.  Presence. Remember. Celebrate.

For now, we see dimly.  Only in part do we connect the dots and even then, probably not all that accurately.  Eventually, it will all be on full display and we shall behold his Glory and stand amazed at it all.  Until then, we live by faith believing...

…the best is yet to come!  Peace and grace upon grace to you.