It was during my seminary days at Princeton that I was first introduced to the ancient custom of blowing the shofar (Hebrew for a trumpet made from the horn of a ram or similar animal) before worship. Ironically, though seminary is a time of preparation for Christian ministry, it can also be a time in which the academic study of the Bible, systematic theology, ancient Greek and Hebrew, church history, mission, worship, preaching, pastoral care etc. leaves one feeling intellectually challenged, but spiritually dry. That’s why I loved the fact that my colleagues on the fourth floor of Alexander Hall wanted to gather together to sing and pray to the Lord each Thursday night. We determined not to lose our passion while pursuing our call to ministry.
Among the traditions of “Fourth Alex” was the blowing of a shofar before these Thursday night rituals, partly for fun, and partly to announce the solemn occasion! Where the shofar came from we did not know…apparently it was passed down from one class to the next. But every Thursday night one of us would grab the shofar, open the window that pointed toward the inner courtyard of our seminary campus, and let the whole world know – so to speak.
The sound of that shofar blast has both an ancient and contemporary relevance for every follower of the Messiah. In Revelation 11:15, John sees a vision of the seventh trumpet, the trumpet that announces the Kingdom of God fully established on earth and the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The trumpet is sounded after a period of silence in heaven in which the prayers of the saints rise before God. John tells us that an angel takes these prayers and mixes them in a golden censer with incense that rises to heaven. Evidently, God does not catalogue our prayers or drop them in a cosmic black hole. He gathers up our prayers and the groaning of our hearts, and uses them.
John’s vision of the seven trumpets (beginning in Revelation 8:1-6) show how God is powerfully at work in our prayers. For the same prayers that ascended to God are mixed “with fire from the altar,” the fire of God’s purifying and empowering Spirit, and are then hurled back to earth with great affect… thunder, lightening, and earthquakes (Rev. 8:5)! What goes up…does come down! With each blow of the trumpet…catastrophic events unfold -- catastrophic, that is, for the spiritual forces of evil and the powers of darkness in our world.
Again, the trumpet blast is a call to prayer and to prayerful action, a call to trust in the Living God. When the people of Israel approached the walls of Jericho, they blew seven trumpets and the walls collapsed before them. Moreover, the trumpets were to be blown whenever she engaged in battle as a reminder that they would be “saved from [their] enemies” (Num. 10:9).
The trumpet was also to be blown before appointed feasts and celebrations; the most important of which was, and continues to be for all Jews, New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah) -- beginning the days of awe and atonement (Leviticus 25: 8-9). The Lord, speaking through the prophet Joel, calls Israel to “Sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly…and cry out to the Lord….Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain” (Joel 1: 14, 2:1). In the same way, the trumpets were blown before the daily sacrifice in the temple, reminding God’s people of his mercy and forgiveness. It is no surprise that on the day of Christ’s return,“the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels’ call and with the sound of the trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
The blow of the shofar, as I said, is a call to prayerful action. For we not only blow the shofar, we are the shofarot (prounounced: show-far-oat) we are God’s trumpets -- boldly and unapologetically announcing to the world Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen from the dead and through him a love relationship with God. We sound the good news that there is indeed a way to live life as God intended and that Jesus shows us the way. We proclaim that God’s mercy is real and turning from evil is possible with his power, that the promise of an indestructible life is a gift to all those who trust in him.
Friends, don’t be surprised if being God’s shofar, like blowing a shofar…takes some practice. Last week I decided to order a genuine shofar from Israel. It was partly nostalogia, remembering those days at Princeton Seminary; joined with the realization that God is calling us to prayer-soaked mission and service in our city at a time when global economic and inter-national troubles are only symptomatic of our deeper spiritual need. My plan was that I would sound the shofar at the end of the worship service as a dramatic conclusion to my message! Now I want you to know that I assumed I would have some difficulty (I was counting on it, in fact), but I didn't anticipate how much. When the moment in the service arrived, I grasped the shofar in my hands, took a deep breath…applied my lips to the narrow opening…and blew as hard as I could! But, alas, I heard something more like a shriek or a moan than a mighty trumpet blast…and so did everyone else! It was most unimpressive. Still, I am not one to give up easily, so I tried to sound the horn once again...and did, but again with unspectacular results. I blew harder (out of sheer pride), feeling a little dazed and light headed this time. Finally, to the relief of all -- I stopped pretending that I knew what I was doing. I pronounced the benediction, and exited the sanctuary, determined to go online and get some more lessons from a local synagogue shofar blower! Lord, have mercy!
Since then, I have succeeded in making a respectable, if unpredictable, sound…but that's not the point! Like trying to blow the shofar, we may be afraid that our first timid attempts at announcing to others the good news about Jesus will fall short. I can tell you that they will! We may wonder if our words and our witness can ever do justice to the grace and truth we have received from Christ. I can tell you that they won’t! But I wonder how much of this is a fear that we shall look silly, or that others will be unimpressed with our witness. To that end, Christ calls us to simply blow, and let him take care of the rest. Indeed, as we think of ourselves as his shofarot, his trumpets, we will remember that it is his Spirit, his Holy Ruach (Wind) that must blow through us if we are to make any sound at all! As we apply ourselves to the task, as we dare to speak and to live for him…our skills will improve, but perhaps more importantly, we will do so as we pray, "Yeshua Jesus, let your Spirit blow through us, that we your people may truly be your shofarot, humble instruments that proclaim your grace and truth."