The biblical season of “Counting the Omer” happens between Passover and Pentecost. Pentecost in the Bible is known as the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot in Hebrew, but it all means the same thing: 50 (pente) days, or the equivalent seven weeks (shavuot) if you’re counting in weeks.
In 2020, Passover has had extra potency in the plague-induced lockdown, and many ears are pricking up and eyes are opening to biblical matters as a result – even among those for whom much of this Jewish stuff may be unfamiliar territory. But if it’s in the God-breathed word on your bookshelf, it concerns us all. Particularly this year, since everything seems to be all the more magnified in meaning.
What’s with the counting?
In Leviticus 23, the chapter in which God lays down the law on how to celebrate all the feasts, He says this:
“You shall count seven full weeks from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering. You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
God told His people to count 50 days after Passover. Each year they were to celebrate Passover on 14th Nisan, then the following Sunday was to be a celebration of Firstfruits. Sheaves of wheat are to be waved in the air, representing gratitude to God for the harvest and trust in His provision. Then, and only then, should The Counting begin. The counting is essentially the journey of waiting between Passover and Shavuot.
And that’s where we are, folks. In that season of counting. Waiting. Anticipation.
To understand the counting, we need to understand Shavuot. What’s this countdown leading up to?
Imagine what you might say to the Israelites who had just walked through the Red Sea with the drama of Sinai ahead of them. Looking back at the closed sea in shock, the Egyptian army gone forever and the water now apparently back to its original state… free at last! What a victory! What a miracle! That blood! That water! Now what?
Perhaps you might encourage them with words like these: “You have a long journey ahead of you. The way will be rocky and hard, but full of adventure. You will encounter hunger, thirst, illness, and will at times lose all hope, but God’s going to look after you. You will certainly get there in the end.”
Who could have imagined what was coming? But God was with them and was going to provide everything they needed along the way. God saw their journey coming with all its twists and turns, and He also saw the day they would arrive at the Promised Land. He knew every moment of that perilous journey and all that they would encounter.
This situation has a couple of parallels:
- One is our own journey to our heavenly home. We have been through the blood and water of salvation and baptism, we have been miraculously rescued from slavery and now we are walking in relationship with God. But we have not reached our eternal home yet, and the way there is fraught with difficulties. We’re going to need some help.
- The other parallel is the Calvary event where the blood of Jesus, our Passover Lamb was poured out for us, followed by the historic outpouring of His Spirit 50 days later at Pentecost. Jesus was with them for 40 of those days, then ascended into heaven, with the instruction: “WAIT!”
Wait! You’re gonna need this…
Shavuot is a time of gratitude, thanking God for all His provision. Traditionally, we celebrate the “Seven Species” and all that is given to us in the Promised Land:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)
God gave Israel a land of milk and honey, verdant, abundant, and flowing with goodness. Today milk and honey epitomize Shavuot in Israel, which has become something of a dairy goods festival! But milk and honey also represent the Torah. It is believed that the Torah was given to Israel at Shavuot, and many will stay awake all night, reading the Bible, for this reason.
David declared in Psalm 119:103:
“How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”
Similarly, the phrase appears in Song of Songs 4:11:
“Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; Honey and milk are under your tongue.”
Milk and honey here are thought to refer to the Torah, since Song of Songs is seen as an analogy of the love relationship between God and His people. Certainly, God’s word is both sweet and sustaining to all who know Him and love Him. Where would we be without the Bible? And where would we be without the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost?
Pentecost celebrates God, the giver of all good gifts
Seven weeks after the Exodus, at Sinai, God graciously gave His people a guidebook – the Torah.
Seven weeks after the cross, at Pentecost, He gave them a personal guide – the Holy Spirit.
Today, we are greatly blessed to have both God’s Word and His Spirit to help us on our journey. And friends, we’re going to definitely need BOTH of them for what’s up ahead.
Shavuot is about our gratitude for God’s generosity, giving us everything we need as we travel on our journey home. We have forgiveness – as much as we are ever going to need. We have grace that never runs out and love that has no end. We have our Father God, the dread warrior by our side, an ever present help in times of trouble. We have His written Word to turn to and His Spirit to help us, embolden us and do the works of Jesus through us. We have everything we need for the journey.
“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
In sending His Spirit to dwell in us, God has given us the power to live a completely different life. Elisha might have been sad to see the one who was discipling him disappear into the heavens, but he received a mantle of Elijah’s power and anointing, and went on to do even greater things. In the same way, the disciples might have felt a twinge of sorrow as Jesus disappeared from view, but they were to receive His own power not long after that. But as Jesus told them, they had to wait for it:
“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)
Many have had a glimpse of life without well-stocked supermarkets and are now frantically planting vegetables and building chicken coops. This pandemic has been a sharp wake up call for how very unprepared we are. However, more than “preppers” in the natural who invest in tinned goods, bunkers and ammunition, we must be preparing spiritually. That means understanding the times we are in, and being ready for the new reality which lies ahead. We need to be prepping our hearts, and learning to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As the lockdown begins to lift, we dare not to rush out in haste before we’re properly prepared. We too need to be clothed with power from on high.
We are witnessing the stirrings of a great end-time revival. Here in Israel we have seen a huge increase in spiritual interest and response1, as other countries also have around the world. In the UK, one in four 18-34 year olds have tried out an online service of some kind2, and Bible sales have shot up both in terms of physical copies (some stores in the US sold out completely) as well as a sharp spike in downloaded apps3.
People are hungry and thirsty for truth and for meaning as our world has been shaken. We need to be ready to share the reason for the hope that we have.
What would you actually say or do if someone came to you, wanting to know how to read the Bible? How to get to know Jesus? Have you thought about that? Are you ready for it? But more than practical programs and strategies, the most important preparation we can do at this time is prepare our own hearts.
This is no time to be dancing with joy at the coming revival while so many are grieving lost ones. It’s a time of reflection for us all, and we need to maintain our sobriety. We need to be ready to empathise with all who are in mourning. And that includes God.
God is shaking the nations and it’s serious. It’s a time for repentance, starting with God’s house. That means you and I. It’s often said that revivals go as far as repentance goes deep. Let’s use this waiting time, this countdown to Pentecost, to listen closely to God’s heart. We can identify with His grief over sin – first of all in our own lives, but also our households, our congregations, and then our nations. God is moving. He is shaking the earth. He is calling, drawing, and bringing conviction. We need to be prepared and available to Him: holy, clean vessels, ready for Him to use for what lies ahead.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19)
Just as the Israelites fearfully kept their distance from the mountain while God was imparting His word at Sinai… and just as disciples waited in the upper room at Pentecost, let us adopt an attitude of fearful reverence and expectation in this time of waiting. May repentance among the saints go deep, carving a great channel for the Spirit to flow. Prepare the way of the Lord!
- Watch our video report:
The Observer, British public turn to prayer as one in four tune in to religious services, Harriet Sharwood, 3 May 2020
- New Statesman, How Coronavirus is leading to a religious revival, Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington, 27 April 2020
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash