The art of celebration

It appears as though the use of anti-depressants have doubled in most countries since the turn of the century according to a report in November 2013.  Commenting on the report in a Harvard Health article Peter Wehrein states that most medical practitioners agree depression has been under-diagnosed for long, and the rise in anti-depressant use could be ascribed to more accurate diagnoses of those suffering from depression.  To give perspective to the commonality of clinical depression, anti-depressants are the third-most prescribed, and most used drug in the USA. The number of Americans using anti-depressant have increased by 400% between 1994 and 2008.  One in ten people in Iceland use anti-depressants.  In South Africa, almost 1 in 5 people suffer from mental illness such as depression, anxiety, etc.  It is fair to say that our world is generally depressed and anxious, and people are living in a state of hopelessness – as Paul put it having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).

This is in stark contrast from the “life more abundantly” which Christ came to offer us (John 10:10).  For the Christian, life is a gift which is celebrated now, not dreaded or endured until we are delivered from this earth.  The Psalmist sings “this is the day that the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24).  Life – here and now – ought to be celebrated and enjoyed as a gift from God.

Celebration does not come naturally to us.  Sadly, depression, anxiety and hopelessness comes naturally in this fallen world – the stats mentioned above serves as evidence that humanity’s natural drive is towards passivity and cynicism.  So how do we learn the art of celebration?  What does the Bible say about it?

 

theartofcelebration-rend_coll

My favorite CD this year is The Art of Celebration from Rend Collective; I can’t get enough of the message in the music; it stirs such thankfulness and joy in my heart towards God the giver of life and giver of hope. Take a look at the story behind the album for a motive and message behind the recording.  This album has done a work of God in me to deliberately celebrate life with God.

Celebration is a major theme in the Bible.  Frequently we are called by the Psalmists and prophets to celebrate the works of God (including God’s creation, salvation and wonders).  Celebration is prominent from the Mosaic Law and through the history books.  Jesus’ first miracle was to prolong the celebration of a local wedding, and many of his prominent teachings were during the annual feasts of Israel, including the promise of the Great Celebration of his wedding when he returns.  It is evident that God created life to be celebrated – he is a God who loves joyful festivity!

The Annual Feasts of Israel

The Jewish calendar is marked by 8 major festivals every year. Each of these feasts are special Sabbaths and therefore regarded as “holy days” (from there our word ‘holidays’) with the  command to rest. The weekly Sabbaths were celebrating as perpetual reminder Israel’s covenant with God (Deuteronomy 5:15); they were redeemed from insignificant slaves to “a holy people to the Lord… chosen for himself… a special treasure” (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2).  And subsequently each annual “holy day” reinforces an aspect of this truth of the Jew’s legacy – their identity as covenant people of God with a destiny in God’s eternal plan.

 

During Passover every family had to prepare - and finish - "a lamb for every household". Nothing may be left for the next day.  What a feast!
During Passover every family had to prepare – and finish – “a lamb for every household”. Nothing may be left for the next day. What a feast!

The original seven feasts took place in two seasons of the year – four in spring and three in autumn (Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16).  The first feast was Passover (Leviticus 23:5) commemorating the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery when the Angel of Death “passed over” homes where the blood of a lamb was applied to door posts (Exodus 12:5). This is the only festival that ought to be celebrated with the family wherever Jews find themselves, with their families.  The celebration remembers God’s great deliverance of their nation, reinforcing their identity as God’s covenant people, no longer slaves, as well as within their families.

feast_of_Unleavened-Bread

The second feast begins the next day, lasting a week: the feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23:6) where for one whole week no bread with leaven (yeast) may be eaten.  As in most instances in the Bible “leaven” is a symbol for sin, so eating unleavened bread for a week is a reminder that our lives should be holy, blameless.  Typically Jewish homes get “spring cleaned” the week before Passover so that no trace of yeast could be found in the home (it becomes a game for the children to find some).  This cleaning is a powerful symbolic act that serves as a time of introspection and sanctification for the adults and a time of instruction for the young ones – while remaining a joyful celebration as families come together and the nation stop to consider God.

First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.
First-fruits of Barley harvest being sifted.

The third feast, the feast of First Fruits (Leviticus 23:11) takes place the “morning after the Sabbath” of Unleavened bread – commemorating the fruitfulness of the land the Lord gave Israel by bringing an offering of the first-fruits of the Barley (or Spring) harvest to the Lord.  The festival celebrates God’s provision faithfulness to Israel as a nation.  The Modern church calls this feast Easter after Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility).  Still today the feast is associated with symbols of fertility such as rabbits and eggs.

First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.
First fruits of the wheat harvest, a summer crop.

Fifty days later the Jews celebrate Pentecost (Leviticus 23:16) to consecrate the wheat harvest (or summer crops) to Lord as a time of thanksgiving and devotion to God.

These four Spring Feasts begin with Passover and end with Pentecost, but it is seen as one time of celebration.

Blowing of the ram's horn - a shofar (translated "trumpet" in most Bibles)
Blowing of the ram’s horn – a shofar (translated “trumpet” in most Bibles)

The autumn season of celebration begins with the Feast of the Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24) ushering in the Sabbatical month in the Jewish calendar.  The blowing of the trumpets “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:8-10).  It is a time of joyful singing and dancing.

A lamb was slaughtered  as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.
A lamb was slaughtered as substitute for the sins of the nations once a year, to make atonement for the sins of the people.

Ten days later was the holiest of days, the Feast of Atonement (Leviticus 23:27) – a day where the high priest enters into the temple to confess and atone for the sins of the nation over past year.  It is a solemn day of fasting followed by joyful celebration of reconciliation and peace with God.

During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God's protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.
During the Feast of Tabernacles all the Israelites stayed in booths or tents to remember God’s protection and provision during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Canaan.

The last of the seven feasts in the Law of Moses is the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:34) where the whole nation lives in booths (or tents), reliving the nomadic journey of Israel through the Wilderness for forty years, celebrating God’s faithful provision and protection during their ancestors’ journey.  Again, this feast serves as time of reflection on God’s faithfulness to them as God’s elect people, a time of worship and instruction for the young ones as they participate.

During Purim - and other Jewish feasts - the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.
During Purim – and other Jewish feasts – the Jews enjoy and share great food and gifts with all they celebrate the life of protection and abundance God blessed them with.

Another annual feast was added later to the Jewish calendar: the Feast of Purim instituted by Queen Eshter during the Persian exile under King Ahasarus.  It is celebrated annually on the 14th and 15th of Adar as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor” (Ester 9:22).

How do we celebrate?

Typically, the Jews celebrated as most cultures feast throughout the world: with music and dancing and ceremony, with reenactment and story-telling and worship to God, as well as gifts to one-another and to the poor.  The main elements of Biblical celebration is remembrance and retelling, leading to worship and witness.

In celebration the Jews remembered and even reenacted the great works of God for reflection and retelling (education of the younger generation).  This was done to reinforce and pass on faith in God and their identity as God’s covenant people.  The remembrance and retelling lead to worship of God for the great things he has done to them, and also as witness to onlookers, telling them of the works of Yahweh, the Great God of Israel.

A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.
A Filipino painitng of Jesus breaking bread with children.

Our celebration should be the same: remember and retell, leading to worship and witness.  Take the Lord’s Communion as an example:

“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said,  ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’  In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We remember the Lord’s death and resurrection, we retell it to one another and the young believers.  Then we worship the Lord for his selfless love and we witness of his death, resurrection and return to those around us.

What does celebration do for us?

1. Celebration creates memorials for us and coming generations. These are powerful reminders for us and our children of the works of God, teaching them to fear God and to trust God.

I will [tell of the] things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD… that the next generation might know [God’s laws], the children yet unborn, so that they may arise and tell them to their children …so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” (Psalm 78:2-8)

These acts of God must be retold so that we and our children may have faith in the Living, Mighty God who lives and works in and among us. That is the reason why so many of the Psalms are a retelling of some portion of the history of Israel (see Psalms 104-107, 136, etc).

These memorials also serve as vivid life lessons on which the individual and nation can build and add in their relationship with God.  For instance, celebrating the Sabbath reminded Jews that they were slaves which cried out to God and now they are his covenant people.  Likewise celebrating the first day of the week reminds Christians that Jesus rose from the grave on this day, and so will we.  Celebration reinforces key Biblical truths.

Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.
Most national festivals has as its aim to reinforce cultural identity and pride.

2. Celebration reinforces legacy – both the identity and destiny of the descendants. These festive celebrations reinforce the belonging of the individuals into the family and nation that they are part of.  It give pride in a shared history in which God has grafted this life, and also shares the purpose and destiny of this family and nation.  More than the family name, the feasts are in themselves meetings with God which serve as opportunities where we meet with God, securing our identities as “a people of God”.  Furthermore, our celebrations highlight the core values that make us a unique family and nations, reinforcing our identity in practical ways to be remembered and emulated.

water-into-wine-with-text
Jesus ensured joy at this wedding.

 

3. Celebration brings joy in a practical sense.  Celebration make life pleasant as we stop and abstain from everyday work.  Instead we laugh, play, dance, eat, make music and simply enjoy and share the fullness of life and gifts of relationships.  Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding celebration (John 2:1-11).  The wine ran out, and Jesus did a miracle to make sure the party does not end prematurely (he made about 680 additional liters of excellent wine!).  Apart from the practical miracle to ensure a full-term wedding celebration, wine is a Jewish symbol of joy; Jesus’s first miracle was done to endure that he gives full, lasting joy.  He intents for celebration to be joyful, and does the miracle to make ensure it!

4. Celebration trains us to see and appreciate the good. By stopping to remembering and thank God for his intervention in our lives and the lives of his people, celebration reinforces the truth that God is at work and among and through us.  God is here and God is at work.  In this way celebration stirs our faith and hope, and helps us anticipate and recognize the works of God.  Jesus taught that the eye is either “light” (hopeful) or “dark” (skeptical) (Matthew 6:22-23) – celebration makes our eyes “light” – it trains us to look for the hand of God in our lives.

Celebration helps us include others in our lives.
Celebration helps us include others in our lives.

5. Celebration helps us include others into our lives. As we celebrate, we acknowledge a shared legacy – thus a shared history and a shared future with others following God.  Celebration helps us move from the isolation of contemporary individualism towards the interdependence of Biblical community.  As we celebrate we recognize that we are the people of God among and through whom he works.  We see that God not only has a saving plan for me, but for us.  We learn that God is not only my Father, but rather he is our Father.  In our celebration together we learn that our struggles and pain is also shared in a real way.  Our celebration is the stepping stone into true unity.  It is as we celebrate together that we grow to become the community of which Jesus said “by your love will they know you are my disciples” (John 13:34).

Celebration is a choice

Celebration is not a matter of feeling but of choice.  God made sure of that when he made the Jewish feasts annual calendar entries dates.  Regardless of the current political situation or economic state the Jews stopped all work (and warfare) and gathered to remember and retell, to worship and witness of the works of the Lord.  During Nehemiah’s rebuilding and spiritual reformation (around 530 BC) the returned exiles celebrated for the first time the Feats of Tabernacles and wept as they heard the words of the Law explained by Ezra.  But they were rebuked by Nehemiah and Ezra, and told to celebrate the memory of the God’s faithful protection and provision during the wilderness wandering of the ancestors:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” (Nehemiah 8:9-11)

Their identity as Gods’ elect, holy and treasured people were reinforced through corporate celebration.  Their feasts informed their circumstances that there is “a God who acts for the one who waits on Him” (Isaiah 64:3-4).

Israel’s annual celebrations declared their faith in a God who saves from slavery and brings into a land of plenty in every season.  He is also a God who demands holiness.  This God brings liberty and makes atonement on your behalf, and protects you when you are vulnerable.

What does your lifestyle of celebration say to you and others?  Have you learned the art of celebration?

What is the will of God (for me)?

“What is God’s will for my life?” This is a question we hear asked more frequently than others.  It is coupled to one of the great existential questions of life: “Why am I here?” and more specific “What is the purpose of my life?”  Not surprisingly, it is one of the main themes of the Bible and also one of the things Jesus frequently spoke about – regarding his own life and the lives of his followers.

Jesus said he came down from heaven only to do his Father’s will (John 6:38).  Even as a young child Jesus made it clear that he was “about his Father’s business” (Luke 2:49).  Therefore he did nothing on his own, but he sought only to do his Father’s will (John 5:30), which strengthened him – even physically (John 4:34).  He told his followers that not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21; compare 21:31), and these ones who do God’s will he regards his brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:30; compare John 1:13).  In the end, Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross was in obedience to the will of his Father (Matthew 26:39; Galatians 1:4; see also Hebrews 10:5-10) destroying the works of the devil (1John 3:8).  Jesus literally lived and died to do the will of his Father – an example for us to follow after.

The Apostles followed his example of selfless obedience to the will of God for their lives, and also encouraged the churches to do the same (Philippians 2:5-8).  In fact most of the New Testament Text in itself answers the question “What is the will of God (for me)?” in a particular situation.  Some of the instructions are explicit regarding God’s will, for example “do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17), in order to “do the will of God from the heart” (Ephesians 6:6).  This will of God is not automatically known, therefore our minds need to be renewed “to know the will of God” (Romans 12:2) and the Spirit of God helps us to pray the will of God (Romans 8:27).  We are called to “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Colossians 4:12), with “endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”  (Hebrews 12:36)

It is clear that obedience to “the will of God” is extremely important, and even desirable, so what is the will of God?  What do the Biblical authors mean when they use this and similar phrases?

God’s will of decree (sovereign, predetermined, immutable)

Will of Decree

In many instances in the Bible, when the phrase “the will of God” (or similar) is used, it refers to God’s pre-determined plan for his creation.  This encompasses all the times and events in history which will take place, because God wills it and orchestrates it in his sovereignty.  As such, this “will of God” is immutable (or unchangeable, Isaiah 14:26-27), universal (or everywhere, Isaiah 14:26-27), efficacious (or certain, Isaiah 55:10-11, Hebrews 6:17-19), all-encompassing (considers all variables, human decisions and even evil plans, see Genesis 50:20, Colossians 1:16) and eternal (or for all time, Psalm 33:11).  This plan or “will of God” is unfolding (or progressively being revealed, 1 Peter 1:10-12).  The following well-knows passage in Isaiah captures God’s will of decree well:

Isaiah 46:9-11 “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

God’s will of decree is clearly seen in fulfilled prophesies as recorded in the Bible, in particular the birth, life death of Jesus Christ.  God’s redemption plan in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ is foretold in the Old Testament (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53) and revealed in the New testament (Acts 2:22-24, Hebrews 10:5-10, Ephesians 3:1-12), and in particular the many events surrounding his conception, birth and early years (Luke 1:26-38, 67-79: 2:8-14, 25-35, 2:46-50).

The knowledge of God’s will of decree comforts us with the truth that he is in control, always, everywhere.  Biblically, God’s will of decree has two sure outcomes: firstly, God’s reign will be universal (Philippians 2:10-11) and his glory known everywhere (Habakkuk 2:14), and secondly a good outcome for the Christian (Romans 8:28).

 God’s will of desire (moral, ethical, voluntary)

will_of_desire

The second use of the phrase “the will of God” (and similar phrases) implies that which is pleasing to God, that which he longs for in his creatures.  This is also known as the moral or ethical will of God and is already made known to us in the exemplary life and Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:9), or found in the commands of the Old Testament laws and the New Testament instructions.  Examples of God’s revealed will of desire include “this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3), “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and “the Father is seeking” “true worshippers [who] will worship him in Spirit and truth” (John 4:23).  His heart for salvation of all people is expressed in this will of desire: “God is not willing that any should perish, but that al should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) for he “desires all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4; Matthew 18:14) as they “look on the Son and believe in Him” (John 6:40).  The apostles wrote the letters to help the early churches understand what God’s will of desire is in their specific circumstances, as in this instance regarding suffering unjustly, “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.” (1 Peter 2:15)

These expressions of desire and instructions are labelled God’s will, but unlike the will of decree described above, humans have a choice in the matter.  It is clear that obedience to these instructions has salvivic consequences as implied in several New Testament texts.  Apart from the above verse mentioned in the previous paragraph, 1 John 2:15-17 serves as an example Do not love the world or the things in the world… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

Obedience to God’s will of desire results in eternal life and eternal rewards when Jesus returns to judge the world (Revelation 22:12).

God’s will of direction (destiny, purpose, wisdom for situation)

God's will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation
God’s will of destiny is the purpose or goal that he has for us in life, or in a particular situation

The third way in which the phrase “the will of God” (and similar) is used implies one’s destiny, purpose or the intended direction of one’s life or a particular situation.  In Psalm 139 the psalmist sings about God’s intricate involvement in every aspect and acute awareness of every moment of one’s life – even before creation.  God’s call of the patriarchs, judges, prophets, kings in the Old Testament, as well as his call of the apostles in the New Testament shows that God does call one by name for a specific purpose.   In Jeremiah’s call we read clearly that God has this plan in mind before his birth (Jeremiah 1:5); so also in the call of Paul the apostle (Galatians 1:15).  Jesus lived with this reality of God’s will of direction for his life, referring to “the will of my Father” repeatedly in the gospels, especially in John’s gospel.  The image is what the psalmist sketches in Psalm 127 of a father directing and propelling his children towards their goal (target) in life.

God’s will of direction is also used in Scripture to indicate the wisdom of God for a specific situation, i.e. “What is the will of God for this difficult situation? What does God want us to do?”  as David did in 1 Samuel 30:8.  Much of New Old Testament prophesy is an answer to God to confused people in troubled times regarding this answer from God, where God’s expressed will comes through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit  (2 Peter 1:21).

This is the will of God we tend to pray about more as we prayerfully search for God’s guidance while making decisions regarding marriage partners, business partners, career choices, financial decisions or holidays.  And rightly so!  God’s will of direction confirms that God has an intended plan for each of his creatures, and that in his wisdom he knows best for each situation.  He invites us to ask him in relationship about these plans he has.

So what is the will of God for me?

God the Creator governs the world and nations, allotting their seasons and territories (Acts 17:26), steering the events towards the culmination of his redemptive plan for creation upon Christ’s return.  This is God’s will of Decrees; our lives form part of this great plan of God which will certainly take place regardless of our participation or opposition.

But we have a role to play in God’s will for our lives.  The first is often neglected in the pursuit for God’s will, with devastating effects.  (New Testament authors write about this as the error of Balaam).

Firstly, God’s will of desire for my life is that I will respond to his gracious invitation for salvation in Christ Jesus and that I will participate with his transforming work in shaping me into the image of his Son Jesus Christ, to embrace his character and mission.  Thus God’s will for my life is firstly to become a certain person, before I do a particular job.  God wants me to walk worthy of Christ in the everyday elementary things in life; I must represent and emulate Christ in his loving, humble, kind, obedient, joyful nature (Romans 8:28). The Bible says that this emulation of Christ is essential in fulfilling God’s will since  faith without character transformation will lead to a fruitless Christian life – the corrupted nature will thwart sincere efforts of good works and obedience to God (see 2 Peter 1:3-10).

Secondly, God’s will of direction for my life is unique; it is my calling.  And my calling is usually not towards full time Christian ministry; God calls people to teach, to build, to steward projects or finances, to govern.  God’s calls people to do essential everyday things, also “non-essential” everyday things such as arts and music.  The lives of Amos the sheep-farming prophet, Deborah the mother-judge-deliverer of Israel and Paul the tent-making-apostle-preacher teach us that you can do many things in one lifetime and be perfectly in God’s eternal will for your life.

How do I know what is God’s will of direction for my life? This question will be unpacked in a later blog, but let me leave you with this: start by sincerely asking your creator to lead you into his intended path for your life.  And while you wait, listen and respond to his promptings, comfort yourself in this mindset:

“I TRUST MORE IN GOD’s ABILITY TO LEAD ME THAN IN MY ABILITY TO FOLLOW HIM.”  Let the Good Shepherd lead you on in his path for your life!

sheherd-leading-sheep