Tag Archives: holidays

When holidays are depressing [Third Sunday of Advent]

2 Jan
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Editor’s Note: I’m playing catch-up with blogging Faith Church’s sermons. My doctoral coursework, a heavy load grading online classes I teach, and the holidays landed simultaneously these past few weeks! So before we jump back to the Deuteronomy series, I’ll survey the last few weeks of Advent, belatedly, of course.

On the Third Sunday of Advent 2018, Emerald Peters preached the Lectionary passages. While I won’t be blogging her sermon here, for a few more weeks, you can listen here. The passages were: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. Before you listen to Emerald’s sermon, read the passages and see if you can discover a theme!

Emerald starts with a Pop Quiz! One question, multiple choice. There are many statistics that say this time of year has some of the highest rates of:

  1. Happiness
  2. Warm fuzzy feelings
  3. Suicide and depression
  4. Pleasant family interaction

What’s your answer? Listen to Emerald’s sermon not only to learn the correct answer, but also to hear how the Scripture passages on the Third Sunday of Advent address this!

Celebrating with aliens, the fatherless and widows [God’s heart for the holidays, part 5]

9 Nov

In this series of posts, we are seeking to learn God’s heart for the holidays in Deuteronomy 16, through three feasts he asks Israel to keep every year.  In the previous few posts, God expresses his heart for remembering, and in this fifth and final post, we’re going to look at two more themes. 

The second theme we see in Deuteronomy 16 is about Inclusion.

Did you notice a repeated phrase that described the Jewish feasts?  Look at verses 11 and 14.  Not only did these feasts include a person’s immediate family, but God also wanted them to include the alien, fatherless and widow!  That is astounding.  Why would God want their gatherings to include all these other people? He tells them.  In verse 12, he wants them to remember that they used to be the aliens when they were slaves in Egypt, in a land that was not their own.

Lest we think this was just a teaching for Israel, Jesus talked about this in Matthew 25:31-46 where he says in no uncertain terms that his followers are to reach out to people on the margins of life.  But the way he describes those on the margins is shocking, as he says that as much as we reach to include the stranger, the orphan, the prisoner, or the hungry, we are reaching out to him! And likewise, when we don’t reach out to those in need, we are neglecting him.  In other words, we need to see people like aliens, orphans and widows not as a threat, not as scary, not as uncomfortable, but as an opportunity to express love to Jesus!  Jesus’ brother James would write about this too, when he says in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” We Christians should be known for reaching out to those in need, including at the holidays.

Photo by Libby Penner on Unsplash

Who are the people on the margins you can reach out to?  Who can you invite to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with you?  I love the photo above not only because the table is set and ready for guests, but because of the writing on the chalkboard.  Can you see it?  It is Acts 2:46, which is a Bible verse describing how the first Christians, right after Pentecost, practiced being inclusive.  It says, “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”

I recently heard the story of a family that hosts Thanksgiving, inviting mentally disabled people from their community.  What a wonderful way to apply this this teaching.  God has a heart for people on the margins, and he wants us to include them in our lives, even in the celebrations that are traditionally focused on family.

The theme of inclusion leads right into the third theme which is Rejoicing.

We see rejoicing numerous times in Deuteronomy 16.  Look at verses 11, 14 and 15.  Three times God reveals his heart: he wanted his people to rejoice and feast.  And specifically it is a rejoicing in the Lord for the blessings he has poured out on them.  At our family holidays, then, we can purposefully focus our rejoicing on the Lord.  With all the delicious food and sharing of gifts and traditional movies and sports, it can be very easy to give the Lord barely a mention.

Families, I encourage you to think about how you can purposefully include the Lord in your holiday celebrations.  Church families can rejoice like this too.  At most worship services, Faith Church has a time for sharing how God has been at work in our lives.  I’m often a tad nervous about what people will share.  Open mics can be free-wheeling, can’t they?  But it is worth it because it gives us a chance to rejoice together!

We Christians, then, are to be people of rejoicing!  I get it, life can sometimes be hard.  It can be very easy to get grumpy, to complain.  Ask the people around you, what are you known for?  Grumpiness?  Complaining?  Negativity?  Criticism?  People of God, we are to be known for rejoicing! We are joy-filled people because God is so good.  We have received his goodness, and we remember, we include others in our remembering and we rejoice.

So may yours be a church family that celebrates, even in the dark times, because of who God is and what he has done, and because of his constant presence in our lives.  He has been faithful in the past and he is faithful in the present!

Why I observe the Christian Calendar [God’s heart for the holidays, part 4]

8 Nov

Does your church follow the Christian calendar?  Just as God instituted feasts for the people of Israel to follow, ancient Christians created feasts as well.  That Christian calendar, while not commanded by God in his New Covenant with the church, is designed to help Christians remember and re-enact the story of Jesus, very much like God’s feasts for the Jews were to help them remember and re-enact the story of his faithfulness and salvation in their nation.  In the previous three posts in this series we looked at three Jewish feasts mentioned in Deuteronomy 16, seeking to learn God’s heart for the holidays.  Now we attempt to apply God’s heart to the Christian church.  To do that, let’s see if those ancient Christians who created Christian holy days (holidays!) were faithful to God’s heart.

There are many variations of the Christian calendar, depending on what Christian tradition you are from.  My guess is that the vast majority of Christians observe at least some of the holidays in the Christian calendar: Christmas and Easter.  But there are many others.  I’m going to describe what we practice at Faith Church, and this would be true for most churches in our denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church.

In just a few weeks the calendar resets with the season of Advent.  Advent means “the arrival,” and thus points to a period of four weeks of spiritual preparation before Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of or birth of Jesus, our savior.  We gather on Christmas Eve to rejoice in God’s love for us in sending his son.

The feast of Christmas lasts until January 6th, which is the day of Epiphany, a word meaning “revealing,” referring to the revealing of Jesus to the world.  Epiphany is a season marked by growth in Christ, and it lasts until Lent.

Each spring, there are 7 Sundays of Lent.  Lent is an Old English word for “length,” referring to the lengthening days of spring.  Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and like Advent, Lent is another period of spiritual preparation, marked by fasting, including the final Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, when many churches re-enact Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week, during which we have a few other special days.  There is Maundy Thursday, remembering the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples, when he washed their feet and gave them the practice of communion.  That Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples was the Passover Seder is the first of two times the Jewish feasts intersect with Christian holidays.  The next special day of Holy Week is Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

Then on Sunday we gather together with great joy to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil through his resurrection!  Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar.  The feast of Easter, then, lasts for a few more weeks, until the Sundays of Jesus’ Ascension, remembering his return to his father, and of Pentecost, remembering the giving of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church.  This is another place Jewish and Christian holidays intersect, as the Church began on the same day as one of the Jewish feasts, the Feast of Weeks.

From there the Christian calendar enters into the long period of growth called Ordinary Time.   Look at the calendar above, and you’ll notice that there are colors for each of the Christian seasons.  Ordinary Time, for example, is green.  At Faith Church we display those colors on our communion table up front, as well as on the back of our weekly bulletin.

The Christian calendar can be a helpful method for us, the church, to remember and re-enact the story of Jesus, just as God wanted Israel to do the same with the story of their Exodus to the Promised Land.  The church I grew up in observed Christmas and Easter, so when I was hired at Faith Church the Christian calendar was new.  But in 16 years I have come to deeply appreciate its rhythm of helping the church enter into the story of Jesus.  Many of us live overly-busy lives, distracted from the mission of the Kingdom of God.  The Christian calendar helps refocus us on that mission, and thus I commend it to you.  No, it is not a biblical practice that is commanded by God, but it does flow from his heart for the holidays!

Tomorrow, in our fifth and final post in this series on the Jewish feasts of Deuteronomy 16, we continue examining God’s heart for the holidays with two more themes that Christians can apply to our lives.

Celebrating his provision [God’s heart for the holidays, part 3]

7 Nov

Photo by Jony Ariadi on Unsplash

In this series of posts we are seeking to discover God’s heart for the holidays.  He truly does care about holidays!  So we have been looking at three feasts he commanded the people of Israel to observe every year, with the goal of learning his heart so that we Christians might be able to apply his heart to the holidays we celebrate.  In this post, we look at two more feasts mentioned in Deuteronomy 16 that God wants Israel to celebrate. What we’re going to discover is that these are not connected to remembering events of the past, like we saw in part 2 with Passover, but more so connected to God’s provision in harvest.

The next feast is described in Deuteronomy 16:9-12, the Feast of Weeks, also called Pentecost. As verse 9 says, the Feast of Weeks, took place seven weeks after the beginning of the grain harvest.  Pentecost is the Greek word for “50 days,” which is just about 7 weeks.  Its purpose is clearly stated in verse 10:  the Feast of Weeks is a time to thank God for the blessings he gave them, and they rejoiced by giving a freewill offering to God, in proportion to the blessings he poured out on them in the harvest.

The next holiday is also connected to harvest.  Look at 16:13-17, where he talks about the Feast of Tabernacles.  Verse 13 tells us that this feast was to take place seven days after they gathered the produce from their threshing floor and wine-press.  Then they were to be joyful!  Furthermore, through this celebration, they receive the promise of 16:15, of God’s blessing, and that their joy would be complete.  It gives the image of a people who have been hard at work harvesting and now the work is over, and they can party, thankful to God!

Now that we have surveyed all three feasts described in Deuteronomy 16, let’s survey the important themes woven through all three.  I’ll talk about the first theme in this post, and the next two themes in the rest of the series.

First, we saw the theme of regular remembering.  I talked about it already in part 2 of this series, that God has a heart for the holidays, a heart for the people of Israel to remember his faithfulness in their lives. The system of feasts created for Israel a regular yearly rhythm of focusing on the Lord.  Multiple times every year, the pilgrimages and feasts helped the people remember who they were. And who were they? 

We studied this recently when we saw in chapter14:1-2 that God declares Israel his Children, his treasured possession.  In each of these three feasts, they remember and re-enact their identity through the story of how God saved them out of slavery and how he continues to provide for them in the harvest.

We Christians can do the same!  Why? Because God has saved us too, through Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and through the life of the church.  That is why the ancient Christians also created a series of feasts which tell Jesus’ story.  Did you know we Christians have feasts too?  I want to be clear, our feasts are not a part of the New Covenant like Israel’s feasts were commanded by God in the Old Covenant.  In other words, you won’t find these Christian feasts commanded by God in the New Testament.  But because God is a God whose heart beats for his people to regularly remember and celebrate his provision, we Christians are right to make a practice of regular remembrance as well. 

That’s why the ancient Christians created these feasts and holidays or holy days as well.  What are they? Check back in tomorrow for part 4 and we’ll take a look.

Re-enacting to remember [God’s heart for the holidays, part 2]

6 Nov
Image result for gettysburg reenactment smoke

A few years ago the Gettysburg Battlefield celebrated the 150th anniversary of the terrible and momentous events of July 1-3, 1863 during our nation’s Civil War.  Because my family lives about an hour away, we visited the battlefield hoping to see re-enactors.  While we were there before any full battle re-enactment took place, at one point we viewed a company of soldiers perform various rifle assault formations, including firing their weapons.  It was eye-opening for me to see the variations used, as well as the amount of smoke their rifles emitted.  If the wind was low during the original battle, the smoke could have been like thick fog across the fields.  Re-enactment gave me a whole new perspective. 

In this series of posts we’re talking about God’s heart for holidays, and today we’re going to see how re-enactment is very important to God.  I don’t think I ever encountered that phrase before: God’s heart for holidays.  But as we continue studying Deuteronomy 16, God very clearly has a desire for his people to have regular holidays.  Why?  Doesn’t it seem like the God of the universe should have bigger things to fuss over than holidays?  Keep reading, and perhaps we can find out.

Yesterday we talked about how one particular ritual was embedded in many of Israel’s feasts and holidays, and that is the ritual of sacrifice.  In this post, we are going look at the first of three feasts described in Deuteronomy 16 in which Israel performed  sacrifices would take place: Passover, Pentecost (or Weeks) and Tabernacles. As we read about them, we’ll see that God gives the times of the year when these feasts are to take place.  The image below presents an annual calendar of when the various feasts take place, and you’ll notice that there are other feasts not mentioned in Deuteronomy 16.

Before continuing with this post, read Deuteronomy 16:1-8, which talks about the Feast Unleavened Bread and Passover. During the celebration of Passover, Israel was to sacrifice a firstborn animal at the place God chose as a dwelling for his name.  We already heard God, in 15:20, refer to the place he would choose as a dwelling, and he will mention it a number of times in the rest of the passage as well.  So what is this place? 

Remember that Deuteronomy is the second telling of the law.  Thus, these feasts have already been commanded of God previously.  Your Bibles most likely list the Scripture references where you can read the first time that God commanded these feasts. Passover, for example, is previously described in Exodus 12, Leviticus23 and Numbers 28.

You know what that means?  These are not new festivals.  In fact, the people of Israel have already been observing them every year for about 40 years.  So that place where God says they should come, the place that he will choose for his dwelling, that would have been the tabernacle, and eventually, hundreds of years later during the reign of King Solomon, that place would be the temple in the city of Jerusalem. Look ahead to verse 16, and we see that they were to go on a pilgrimage three times every year to this place. One pilgrimage for each of the feasts we are learning about.  That’s where they are to go with their firstborn and celebrate the Passover. 

See that word, “celebrate” in verse 1.  It literally means “prepare” or “keep” the Passover.  It has much more to do with the practice of observing the holiday.  No doubt about it, we’re going to get to the rejoicing and celebrating part.  But here in verse 1, God is instituting the habit of regular holidays.  This same word “celebrate” is repeated in verse 10 and verse 13.  It is the same Hebrew word that refers to preparing or keeping the holiday. 

That is very instructive.  God wants his people to habitually, every year, observe these feasts, these holidays, and for a reason!  What reason?

God wants them to regularly remember his amazing miraculous power that freed them from slavery in Egypt.  The word “Passover” refers to the last of ten plagues that God sent on Egypt in the process of freeing Israel from slavery. 

That final plague was the one where God said the firstborn (there’s that again) child of every family would die, unless they covered the frames of their doorways with the blood of an animal sacrifice.  That blood was the sign to God’s angel that the house was to be passed over and the firstborn inside would be saved.  All the people of Israel performed the sacrifice, used the blood to mark their doorways, and they were saved.  The Egyptians did not do this, however, and their firstborn died, leading the Egyptian king Pharaoh to finally allow Moses to lead Israel to freedom.  So the people of Israel gathered their belongings quickly, and left, beginning the long journey toward the Promised Land.

If you look through the description of the holiday in Deuteronomy 16, you see that God wants his people every year to re-enact what happened during the original Passover.  Of course it is not a total re-enactment, but there are elements of the celebration that remind them of the original story.

See how they enter into the drama and story of the event?  Every part of it is an act of remembering, as he says in verse 3.

We did this a few years ago when we had a Passover Seder dinner here.  It was so great to hear the story of Passover from a Messianic Jew, and learn of all the connections between Israel’s deliverance from slavery and the whole world’s deliverance from sin in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  What we see about God’s heart for the holidays, then, is that he wants his people to remember, and he wants them to practice remembering on a regular basis. 

In part 3 of this series we’ll look at the two other feasts mentioned in Deuteronomy 16, and as we study those feasts, we’ll continue to learn about God’s heart for the holidays.

Giving our firsts to God [God’s heart for the holidays, part 1]

5 Nov
Photo by Ferenc Horvath on Unsplash

In your mind, can you recite the cycle of national holidays that tell the story of America. Get out a piece of paper, or start typing in a document.  See if you can list out our holidays.  Here’s a hint: where do you think we should start?  July 4th, of course!  There would be no America without it.  Independence Day!  Now see if you can work your way around the calendar.  What comes after July 4th? Don’t peek below!  List your guesses, then come back here and see how you did.

Ready to check your work?  After July 4th, the next American holiday is Labor Day and then we have Columbus Day, Veterans Day, and Thanksgiving.  A couple months later we observe Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, then Presidents Day, and finally, Memorial Day.

How did you do?  Get them all?  Include some that I didn’t?  We’ll get to that just below.  For now, look at the holidays I listed.  Think about how these holidays describe the major events in the history of our nation. Every year, then, we have regular markers to help us remember our American story. Of course we could throw a few more in there such as Flag Day and Emancipation Day, which are not considered official federal holidays, but definitely point to important elements of our national story.  In more recent decades, we could point to D-Day and 9/11, which continue to tell that story.

But as I said above, there are a bunch of holidays I skipped!  I didn’t include them because those holidays have nothing to do with America. Instead they are holidays that could be celebrated around the world.  New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s & Father’s Day, and the biggest holiday of them all, Christmas.  Even these non-American holidays are important to us because of their meaning.

So let’s step back a bit, and think: What do all these holidays tell us?  Humans are a people who love to remember and celebrate. We love to mark birthdays and anniversaries.  My congregation, Faith Church, for example, just had a wonderful celebration of our 50th anniversary.

As we continue our study through Deuteronomy, we are going to see that God also loves to celebrate special days, embedding special days into the covenant law that he had with Israel.  I encourage to open a Bible as you keep reading this post.  Turn to Deuteronomy 15:19.  In this series of posts, we’re going to study Deuteronomy 15:19 through 16:17, and it is all about holidays. Just as our American holidays tell the story of America, so Israel’s holidays tell the story of their nation.

In Deut. 15:19, notice that God doesn’t start with holidays.  Instead he starts with some instructions that will apply to the celebratory ritual included in many of Israel’s holidays and feasts, the ritual of sacrificing to God. Go ahead and read 15:19-23. Did you notice that this section is basically saying that firstborn animals are to be set aside for sacrifice.

If you have children, think about the birth of your first.  How did it feel?  My guess is that it was a day of extreme emotion.  There is a major excitement about the first of anything.  Not just the birth of children, but also your first day on the job, your first time playing on a sports team, or your first time volunteering at school or at church. You’re more nervous, more emotional, and more intense about it, because is new, just like a firstborn.

Let’s be clear, firstborns are not more special than other kids.  They are just new, they’re first, and we parents of firstborns have no idea what we’re doing, so we feel more emotional about them.  Every single step along the way is a first for the firstborn, and it is a first for their parents.  We’ve walked through the emotional firsts of the first day of kindergarten, then middle school, dances, sports, high school, driving, dating, college…and a couple months ago my wife and I experienced another first with when our firstborn got engaged! What a joyful, exciting first that has been!

But travel back with me to the moment of the birth of the firstborn.  When a first child is born, in the midst of that intense emotion, the temptation is to think, “I did that, I own that, I created that, and it is mine.” 

But what does God say to Israel?  “Dedicate the firstborn to me.” 

He isn’t talking about children, by the way.  He is talking about animals.  “Set the firstborn animals apart,” he says, “and don’t work them in the fields, but reserve them for sacrifices to the Lord during the holiday, at which time you will eat them in the presence of the Lord.”  This means Israel was to have an attitude of giving back to the Lord first.  They were not to see themselves as the creator or owner of their firstborn animals.  They were to see God as the provider, God as the one who was responsible for the blessing of a firstborn. Thus they release that firstborn to God.

We can carry this principle over to the church.  We Christians are people who give God our firsts, and not just in finances, but also in our time, in our gifts and abilities.  We see his Kingdom as the priority, because he is the foundation and the cause of all the blessings we have.  We are simply stewards, or managers, or what God owns.

Paul talked about this in 1 Cor. 10:31,when he said, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all for the glory of God.”  How are you doing with living to the glory of God?  How are you doing seeing yourself as a steward?  Or do you have a too-tight hold on your life, on your children, on your possessions, on your time, on your talents? 

Check back in tomorrow as we begin to look at the special holidays God proclaimed for Israel, how sacrificing the firstborn occurred on a holiday, and how Christians can learn some important principles from Deuteronomy 15 and 16.