How about New York Cheesecake as part of a religious celebration? When Christians celebrate Pentecost, that particular dessert rarely figures into the equation. However, the observance of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot often has mouths savoring that delicious treat.
Can we imagine cheesecake as a holy food? It puts a whole new spin on the psalm saying, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).
Okay, backing up a bit… Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks.” It is one of the three festivals in the Hebrew scriptures required for pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. The other two are Passover (or Pesach) and the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot).
Shavuot was originally a harvest festival when the first of the crops sprouted, thus the term “firstfruits,” which were brought to the temple. It was observed seven weeks and one day after Passover—fifty days. In Greek, “Pentecost” means fifty. For the church, Pentecost is today. For Jews, Shavuot ended yesterday at sundown; it is celebrated for two days. The timing difference is due to Shavuot being counted after Passover and Pentecost being counted after Easter.
When the Romans destroyed the temple in the year 70, there was nowhere to bring the firstfruits. Consequently, the focus shifted to the revelation of Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. Other than the exodus from Egypt, this is the premier event giving identity to the Jewish people. The giving of the word is the aspect I wish to make my focus.
Lacking any specific requirements, Shavuot is kept by special services, recognizing it as a day of rest, and among other events, enjoying holiday meals. Dairy foods are highlighted, thus the mention of cheesecake!
Still, the divine encounter with Moses, associated with the day of Pentecost, is front and center. That is given special attention. One way of giving that attention is by pulling an all-nighter while engaged in the study of scripture. Some might suggest having coffee and strong tea on hand!
[As an aside, I have a story about strong tea—quite strong tea, which Turkish tea is. Banu’s parents were visiting us from Istanbul when we lived in Jamestown (about 20 years ago now). Turks drink a lot of tea, which is fine with me, because I love tea. They use small glasses, which we had. Then I got the smart idea of filling up a large mug. Turkish tea, with its elevated volume of caffeine, has an even greater diuretic effect. Suffice to say, I made a greater than usual amount of trips to the bathroom that evening.]
There is a legend saying God offered the Torah to 70 different nations, doing so in their own languages. All refused to accept it. However, when God approached Israel at Sinai, the word was welcomed. In Exodus 19:8 we read, “The people all answered as one, ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.”
By the way, that puts a different spin on Israel being God’s “chosen” people. They “chose” to follow the Torah. (Perhaps the word is better translated as “instructions” or “teachings.”)
Naomi Wolf, who throughout her life has been a decidedly left-wing feminist (though doesn’t one have to be leftist to be a feminist!), has over the past couple of years, rediscovered her faith. She speaks of the “Hebrew Bible [as] more about love and less about rules. The rules are the guardrails for the love. And God is always seeking out ordinary people—while clothed in his own Person.” I really like that definition of Torah: rules as guardrails for love.
In the New Testament, in Acts 2, we see Jews from many far-flung nations gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost. We are told how the Holy Spirit rushed in like a violent wind with fire. Descending upon them all, they spoke in tongues in their native languages, praising the Lord.
Incidentally, in verse 1 we hear, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Were they doing the all-night study? Maybe they had some strong tea.
Pentecost is often considered to be the birthday of the church. After the fire fell, the Spirit being poured out on all flesh, the number of believers began to increase exponentially. Starting in Jerusalem, the church quickly spread out in all directions.
The legend of the nations refusing the word of the Lord was reversed.
Can we see, or better, can we hear those with their own languages understanding each other? The nations represented did not all live in blissful accord with one other. Understanding that, the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace” of the Empire imposed in a somewhat and imperfectly harmonious way a sense of stability and prosperity.
We often hear of the Roman Empire as the enemy of the church. That wasn’t always the case, through it’s true there were some emperors who made a special effort at persecution. Having said that, the Empire greatly aided in spreading the gospel. There are many ways in which this happened, but I’ll limit myself to three.
First, the Romans had an impressive and well-maintained network of roads. This aided people in their travels, including folks like the apostle Paul and his friends.
Secondly, the imperial economy enabled commerce from a vast expanse of territory on three continents. There was a great exchange of peoples, with various nationalities, beliefs, social classes, whatever—but it made no difference, because the gospel of Jesus Christ appeals to all.
The last one I’ll mention deals with language, since that’s the theme we’ve been addressing. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great did his part in spreading Greek culture throughout the Middle East and into Egypt. Of course, the local languages remained, but the Romans used Greek as the primary language in the eastern half of the empire. When you want to carry a message, it helps if there’s a common tongue to express it!
I’m not really speaking of revolution on a national scale. Rather for each of us, it must start from within: a revolution within our minds, hearts, and spirits.
That is the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost.
In Deuteronomy 26, we see instructions on how the firstfruits are to be handled. With verses 5 to 9, we have a confession of faith, an affirmation of faith. “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (v. 5). The reference is to Jacob. (By the way, Aram was a region encompassing Syria and northern modern-day Iraq.)
There follows a sketch of historical events. The Israelites, having settled in Egypt, became numerous and the Egyptians in turn subjected them to slavery. But the Lord heard their cry and delivered them. They were brought into “a land flowing with milk and honey” (v. 9). Acknowledging the goodness of God, the Israelites present before the Lord “the first of the fruit of the ground” (v. 10).
The passage ends at verse 11, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” We often see special provisions for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and so on. However, here we see singled out “the aliens who reside among you.”
There is the reminder just as the Lord had mercy on the Israelites while aliens in Egypt, so they are to extend that same mercy to the aliens in their midst, to the sojourners among them.
That is a big part of the promise and power of Shavuot, of Pentecost: the word empowering us to reach out to all nations.
The empowering word is ultimately focused in the Living Word.
John 7 declares, “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’” (v. 37).
The festival referred to isn’t Pentecost, rather it is the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three mentioned earlier requiring observation for those at all capable of making the trip to the temple.
Jesus continues, “let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (v. 38). Which scripture is meant is a mystery. It doesn’t appear in the Bible. A number of suggestions have been made. Perhaps the most likely is Exodus 17:6, where Moses strikes the rock and water comes gushing out.
[I mentioned this last month. Due to their bitter thirst, the people threaten to stone Moses. The Lord has Moses whack the stone.]
We are told, “Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive, for as yet there was no Spirit because Jesus was not yet glorified” (v. 39). That doesn’t mean the Spirit did not exist, but instead the Spirit had not yet been given. This is, so to speak, a pre-Pentecost statement.
Later in his gospel, John has the final conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus says, “When the Advocate [that is, the Helper or Comforter] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify, because you have been with me from the beginning” (14:26-27).
The Spirit will speak the word on behalf of Jesus, on behalf of the Messiah. We also are to speak the word. We are to testify, to give witness, on behalf of Jesus.
Are we thirsty for the water of the Spirit? We can be a well springing up with the Holy Spirit.
There is a word pointing to a reality beyond our imagining, beyond our usual frame of reference. It bears an unveiling; it displays the debris. It burns away the impurities. We are given power to say no to squandering our lives and resources on meaningless consumption. We are given courage to embrace a lifestyle not dictated by marketing trends or unhealthy spending habits.
It is the word come alive. It is the word revealed at Sinai, the word spoken at Pentecost. It is not simply the word to be read. It is the word desiring to befriend us, to unleash our creativity.
That is the word we desperately need when it calls our name.