Recovering the Lost Art of Celebrating

Written by Jack Hayford
Recovering the Lost Art of Celebrating

I like the holidays! I enjoy the bowl games on New Year’s Day; I love the special services and the high celebration of Easter; I like the parades and fireworks on Independence Day, and I feast on Thanksgiving. Everything about Christmas brings excitement and joy. But in much of our society celebrating is a lost art.

In today’s society, celebrating generally involves one of two things: getting stoned out of your mind, or spending more money than you can afford.

It may involve anything from a wild party that ends up in an orgy, to jumping on a plane and heading for Tahiti, or taking a trip on booze or drugs. Because of the pollution of celebration, many believers hesitate to celebrate.

In the Church, as well as in the world, we all need to learn to recover the lost art of celebrating.

A Biblical Example

Our situation is not without precedent. In the Book of Nehemiah we find another case where people needed instruction in celebration. Nehemiah 8:8-12 describes a scene in the open square in front of one of the great gates of Jerusalem, where the people had gathered to hear the reading of the Law. Ezra, the scribe, stood on a platform and read the Law, while others of the scribes and Levites helped the people to understand the words of the Law.

So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God; and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites quieted all the people saying, “Be still for the day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink, to send portions and rejoice greatly because they understood the words that were declared to them.

These people had come together to celebrate the rebuilding of the temple and the city at the Feast of Tabernacles. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of three feasts in which everybody was to come to Jerusalem each year. It would have been late in September, or early in October on our calendar. And, as they came to the Feast of Tabernacles, the people gathered to hear the Word of God read. They had not heard the Word in this way since the reinstitution of the city, so this was a new experience for them.

While they were hearing the Word being ministered by Ezra and other teachers there, the people became aware of their own inadequacies—their failure to measure up to the standards of the Word. Sincere tears began to flow, and a peculiar thing happened: they were told to stop crying.

It’s important to understand that there is an appropriate time to weep in repentance and to regret that you’ve walked in violation of God’s Word. But there is also a balance point. As the Word was presented and the people responded, they were not permitted to continue in a mourning mode. Nehemiah and Ezra instructed the other leaders to stop the people’s crying. They said, “Wait! You don’t understand! There is a right response of repentance, but this day is holy to the Lord your God. Don’t mourn or weep.”

Many people don’t realize that the original derivation of our word “holiday” is from “holy day.” So when Nehemiah and Ezra said, “This day is holy to the Lord your God,” what they were saying was, “This is a holiday; it’s a time to celebrate, not to mourn and weep.” And they gave the people instructions on how to celebrate.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” – Nehemiah 8:10

When they said “eat the fat” they were talking about eating meat. But I like that it says “fat.” What it’s saying is, “Go ahead and enjoy yourselves! Eat what you like.” Today we might say, “Go ahead! Have two desserts!” And give presents or food to each other—”send portions!” So they “went their way to eat and drink and send portions and rejoiced greatly because they understood.” These people had to be taught how to celebrate in the light of God’s Word.

Why didn’t they understand? They had lived in captivity too long. Now they were free and back in the circle of the life of the Living God and they didn’t know how to live in His ways. They didn’t know how to celebrate. They had to be taught all over again.

Let’s look at how celebration can be recovered, because it’s important that we understand both the biblical grounds and the practical implementation of celebrating.

Biblical Grounds for Celebrating

Deuteronomy 16 names three feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits and the Feast of Tabernacles. For those feasts, everybody was to come to the national hometown, Jerusalem, for the celebration. Afterwards, they would return to their own homes where the celebration continued.

These celebrations were written into the law of God’s people. Everybody knows the Lord said, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not worship the idols that falsely represent God, and you shall not bear false witness, you shall not covet.” But here the Lord said, “You shall feast.” It was a directive on His part. He called everybody to do it. We need to see that the nature and the character of God is completely consistent with joyful celebration. We also need to understand that those celebrations had a context.

There are two great principles in all of the things that are fundamental to God’s order for His people: The first is sacrifice; the second is feasting. In sacrifice God was calling people to come to terms with their relationship with Him. Then, in the feasts He invited them to celebrate in the context of that relationship and to recognize the liberty that could be enjoyed by people who live in relationship with Him. The entire sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant forecasted the final sacrifice at Calvary. The Bible says the Law was a tutor to bring us to Christ. The Book of Hebrews elaborates how the network of sacrifices in Israel were pointing to the person of Jesus.

God provided a sacrifice for our sin. And we dare not be foolish enough to suppose that there’s reason for feasting, living in liberty, and rejoicing unless relationship has been established with God first. Therefore, on the grounds of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Bible invites us to enter into the spirit of His liberty and rejoicing. If you have not yet entered into relationship with Jesus Christ as your Savior, I urge you to do it right now. You will then have the best reason in the world to celebrate: new life in Jesus Christ.

Biblical Guidelines for Celebrating

In Deuteronomy 16:3-17 we also find four principles of celebration that God has ordained. In verse 3, the Lord instructs how the Feast of Unleavened Bread (or the Passover) ought to be observed. He says that the primary reason for this feast was to remind Israel how the Lord brought them out of Egypt. In other words, the first principle of celebration is remembrance. Each part of the Passover Feast was symbolic and representative of what had taken place in the sacrifice of the lamb for deliverance from captivity. The Feast of Unleavened Bread involved purging homes as a reminder that they were to be rid of Egypt so they could enter into the way of God’s people. The Feast of Firstfruits was a beautiful demonstration of remembering to thank God for every harvest. And the Feast of Tabernacles was to remember the Lord’s sustaining grace throughout the wilderness journey. These feasts each contained an element of remembrance.

Secondly, in Deuteronomy 16:11, God’s people are instructed to rejoice. The Lord said, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and your son and your daughter, and your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide.” The Lord is saying, “Gather together where the people of God worship, and let your celebration include joyful praise.”

In verse 14, He says, “You shall rejoice in your feast.” And the feasting is to include all that are within your gates. So here it is in plain English: Gather together and praise the Lord with rejoicing at the worship center; then go to your homes with the orphans, the destitute, the foreigners, and all your relatives. Then the Lord said, “feast in your house.” I can’t tell you how pleased I am that God says, “Feast.” When I sit down at the holiday dinner, I am always very, very scriptural!

Finally, in verse 17 the Lord said, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you.” Giving is involved—giving in the sense of offerings and in the sense of giving gifts. So celebration, as outlined in God’s word, involves these things: remembering, rejoicing, feasting, and giving.

Unfortunately, what has characterized the celebration of our culture is drunkenness, foolishness, and giddiness. It may have its moments of fun, but it ends in a letdown or a hangover. And many believers who have come out of that world scene and don’t know how to celebrate say, “Well, I know I’m not to celebrate that way. So I guess I’ll celebrate by doing nothing.”

I don’t know of anything that distresses me more deeply than the number of people whose notion of being godly is to remove anything celebrative in the context of the culture. Many have been systematically taught that if you’re a believer in Jesus Christ and believe the Word of God then there are a whole set of rituals that you need to observe or not observe. And I have dealt with people who are the shattered remnants of children who were raised in homes where parents said, “We serve God. You will not get Christmas presents because that’s the world system.” Or “We should thank God all the time so we don’t have a special day called Thanksgiving.” God wants to deliver His people from religious bondage that preempts the place of celebration.

Practical Guidelines for Celebrating

So how do we celebrate? I’m going to talk about Thanksgiving and Christmas specifically, but I also want to talk about celebrating in general because these principles had to do with all the feasts God has instituted. I want us to see the traits of those as they’re brought over and applied to our lives today.

There are three Greek words upon which I would like to build this application: kurios, chairo, and koinonia. Kurios is the Greek word for “Lord,” chairo is the verb for “rejoice,” and koinonia is the word for “share” or “sharing.” Let’s look at the heart of all celebration and to see how these three things are observed.

First, they are done before the Lord—He is the Lord of the celebration. You see, all through the passage in Deuteronomy, the Lord said, “Come and rejoice before the Lord your God.” In other words, your God isn’t shocked, ashamed, or embarrassed when people get happy around Him.

By and large, the world thinks of the true, pure, living God, the God of justice and righteousness, as being rather dour and stern. And so the world creates its own gods to party around, and it bows at the shrine of Bacchus. But the living God, Jehovah allows for pure joy filled with all kinds of release—without the bondage that goes with the worship of other gods and the pursuit of the world’s system of celebration.

Celebration starts by focusing on the Lord. “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). People usually use that verse to say that you ought to be ready to witness whenever the opportunity comes. It does mean that. But I can’t imagine anything that would prompt people to ask more readily than being exposed to wholesome, happy, releasing and desirable celebrating.

Some people invite folks to their home—relatives oftentimes—and their idea of making the most of the holiday is to seize an opportunity to witness to the family. They’ll gather their family at the Thanksgiving table, and what is ostensibly a thanksgiving prayer of gratitude to God actually becomes an evangelistic sermon. People think “This is our chance! We’ve got to make hay while the sun shines; we’ve got them on the hot seat!” That’s exactly where you’ve got them, and they don’t really care to be in that kind of situation. You’re not going to win your family to Jesus that way.

But when they see the love of God in your midst and the joy of Jesus in your home and something of healthy celebration…that will touch people. They may not say anything to you, but they’ll notice it, and they’ll think about it. Sanctify the Lord God and be ready to show what it’s like to live in His liberty. That’s the way to celebrate any holiday.

What Can We Do?

First, worship. The reason our church has a service on Thanksgiving morning is so that we can sanctify the day to the Lord. You may not be able to join with others for worship but there are other things you can do.

Read the Word. Psalm 100 is one of the best known and probably the most read Thanksgiving psalm. Here are some other psalms you might read: Psalms 34, 65, 66, 67, 84 and 107. “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy…” (Psalm 107:2)

After you read the Word, sing. Sing a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. But what if none of your family knows the Lord. What can you do? When you get up in the morning, kneel by the side of your bed, worship God and praise Him. Read the Word and sing a song to the Lord. If anybody at the family table asks you to pray, then pray with thanksgiving for whatever God puts in your heart. And thank Him for all those in your family. Don’t become sermonic and don’t feel defeated or depressed. Be glad that you’re in a place where the joy of the Lord fills you and you know what it’s about. And let your light and His life overflow in a loving and sensitive way.

Rejoice! Philippians 4:4 has always amused me because I have a mental picture of how I think this happened. Paul was in jail for the testimony of Christ, and he was dictating this letter to Epaphroditus. We read, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” I’ve often thought that Paul said to Epaphroditus, “Next, rejoice in the Lord always…” And while Epaphroditus was writing that down, Paul was probably thinking, “I know those people in Philippi; they’re so dear and precious to me. But I know they’ll fly right on by that if I just say, ‘Rejoice.’” So he said, “Write: ‘…Again I will say, “rejoice!””

We need to be reminded to rejoice. Then we need to be reminded that we were reminded. How do we rejoice? The obvious way, of course, is to rejoice with feasting and not feel guilty about it. Rejoice at the holiday seasons with certain activities that contribute to the remembrance, the commemoration and the fun of what it’s all about. That isn’t giddy, that’s Godly. There’s just something about rejoicing that we need to be told “…and again I say, ‘rejoice.’” It’s consistent with God’s order of celebration.

Then the final thing is sharing, koinonia. The Bible makes it very clear in such passages as Acts 2:44, 45; and 4:32-37 that it was characteristic of the Early Church to share. And they shared everything they had. In the passage that we studied in Deuteronomy, we learn who to include in our celebrating: “those within your gates.” This includes your son and your daughter—that’s your family; your manservant and your maidservant—those are employees; the stranger—that’s the foreigner; the fatherless—that’s the orphan; the widow—that’s the destitute: everyone within your gates.

We think of family as kin—blood relatives. But the Lord says that when you celebrate you include people that otherwise would be left out. He was establishing a mode that needed to be perceived by His people as characteristic of the grand embrace of His heart toward everybody. And He says that we ought to let our sharing be like that.

Now sharing takes place in three ways: in funds, in feasting and in family. First of all, in funds: that’s money—giving. The Lord says when you celebrate, give. At Thanksgiving time it is particularly appropriate to give to organizations who help feed the hungry. But that would also be an appropriate part of any holiday. Giving is a natural part of celebrating Christmas. But along with giving to your family, don’t forget to give outside your family circle as well.

Feasting has to do with rejoicing with family around the table. Don’t restrict these times to blood family. If you don’t have any family, begin to develop one. Invite a lonely neighbor, a single coworker, a visiting businessman. We Christians need to stop sitting around licking our wounds. Look for others with whom you can share the holidays. Pour yourself out!

One of the first holidays Anna and I were in the ministry we were invited to a home that had very little resource and very little of what I would call just plain social know-how of how to put on a dinner. But the couple invited us to their home for a holiday meal. We were just two kids out by ourselves all the way across the country with none of our family around and, I’ll tell you, the love that those people showed far outweighed the fact that they really didn’t know how to put on a fancy dinner the way some people do. There are people who are afraid to cook for others because they’re not outstanding cooks or outstanding hostesses. Some guys may not be able to cook at all. Well, fast for about four days, take the money you’ve saved on food, get a ready-cooked ham or turkey, and bring some people in. Just pour yourself out.

Celebrating Christmas

Anytime you talk about Santa Claus or Christmas trees and lights, or gifts, you will find sincere people who love the Lord and think they have to verify it by denouncing certain things related to celebrating Christmas.

I have seen literature where someone has rearranged the word “Santa” to make it spell “Satan.” Many people then assume that if Santa is satanic, then all of the trappings of Christmas are evil, and they don’t celebrate at all.

I don’t believe that Santa is an evil figure. Wrapped up in Santa Claus is powerful imagery that can be interpreted and presented in a precious, tender, and scriptural way. To begin with, Santa’s point of reference for our culture comes from the United Kingdom—Britain. The British people called him “Father Christmas,” the one who comes to make Christmas fulfilling and remind us of the Living God who gave the ultimate gift: His Son. It’s very easy to make that transition to the spirit of giving and the spirit of love, and the reason we give gifts to each other.

Basically, I think it’s a matter of taking a close look at any holiday and then asking the Lord to give you a spiritual significance to it…one that is positive, not prohibitive.

For example, the Christmas tree is not simply a lovely point of decoration in your home. It can also be a powerful point of instruction. I don’t think we need to sit the kids down in front of the Christmas tree every night before we turn on the lights and remind them that it’s holy and spiritual. But the fact is the evergreen tree is a marvelous reminder that everlasting life was given to us on a tree. The Christmas tree represents God’s gracious gift to us, because it was on the CrossTree that God gave us His Son. We come to receive gifts at the foot of the Christmas tree, and at the foot of the Cross, we receive not only the gift of eternal life but the gift of God’s Spirit and His provision for our lives. The ornaments hanging on the tree are beautiful pictures of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, the Christmas story needs to be carefully told from the Scriptures, and it can be done effectively, graciously and joyously. Don’t be a holy humbug. Welcome Christmas into your heart, your life and your home, and look for ways to help others see the life and the joy of the season.

The Lord Calls Us to Celebrate

God established a biblical base and pattern for it, and He calls His people to commemorate with understanding, to rejoice with a focus and to share and pour themselves out. There is something that seems woefully pathetic and withering about people who live under the notion that the only way to celebrate is the world’s way. But in Christ’s life and love there’s plenty of room for rejoicing established on the basis of finished sacrifice and relationship with Him.

There is release into the joy of rejoicing. Let’s live there.

Copyright 2000, 2010 by Jack W. Hayford, Jack Hayford Ministries

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