Thursday, November 22, 2012

Holiday Feasting!

Everyone knows, of course, that the pilgrims established a feast, invited the Indians and the whole community, and all for the purpose of giving thanks to God for his gracious provisions.  But did you know that in decreeing a feast, they were acting according to a long tradition among the people of God?A tradition that gives priority to feasts—joyous communal eating and drinking—over against fasting and penitential self-affliction?

When the church is healthy she multiplies feasts, when she is sick and wayward she increases fasting and turns the feasting Table of the Lord’s Supper into a somber Tomb.   This is what happened in the late Middle Ages, before Calvin and Luther restored weekly communion, feasting, singing, and gave Christian people a reason for giving thanks.  Knowing that Jesus died to set us from from sin, death, and the devil leads to thankful feasting.

This tradition of giving precedence to feasting is not merely a tradition, it’s mandated by God in the Bible—Old and New Testaments.  God multiplied feasts and commanded his people to eat and drink and rejoice regularly, repeatedly.  Here is just one example:
And before the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. And if the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household (Deut. 14:23-26).
So why does God command us to feast?

First, feasting facilitates the fear of God.  Deuteronomy 14:23 says that you feast "that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always."  How is this?  This is counter intuitive.  How could feasting teach us to fear God?  You might think that fasting would teach us to fear God.  If God wants us to fear him why doesn’t he impose upon us some really onerous task to put us in our place, thereby teaching us what low-life, mud-licking creatures were are.

In our fallen logic, we teach people to fear us by scaring them.

When I played football I was a tight end—something of a mix between a lineman and a receiver.  My hero growing up was Jackie Smith of the then St. Louis Cardinals.  The coach who trained us as lineman in high school was a big huge man, the Math and Geometry teacher—Coach Edwards.  He would get in our face and say, "You have to make them fear you, boys.  Look in their eyes.  Hurt them on the first play or two.  Make them fear you."

Well, sometimes, to be sure, God manifests something of his infinite power and makes people hit the ground trembling.  At Mt. Sinai, for example.

But his normal way of inculcating fear is to make us feast.  The calendar of Israel was chocked full of feasts.  They were all feasts, not fasts, save one—the day of atonement.  How does feasting teach us the fear of God?  Something like this, I propose.  The Israelite farmer had to give up a pretty substantial portion of his farm’s yield for this feast—10% of his grain, of his wine, of his oil, the firstborn of all his cattle, sheep, goats etc.  He wasn’t told to save it, to store it up, but to eat it all with the community at a feast (at least once every three years).

Now, if you are a farmer, you have to decide who or what you are going to fear—God or the forces of nature.  On whom or on what do you depend?  Will you fear the weather, your own ignorance, your own lack of power?

God says, "Fear me."  Relax.  Rejoice.  Relinquish your control.  Redirect your fears.  Don’t be anxious about the weather or the forces of nature or your own skill and limited ability to produce.  I control the forces of nature, not you.  I make the land fertile, not you.  Lose control for a while.  Feast.  Wine and strong drink even!  Enjoy yourself.  A little excess at a feast is a good thing.  No guilt.

Christians who fear God, ought to be the best feasters.  Instead, we are often control freaks.   We can’t relinquish control.  Relax.  Eat.  Drink.  Give up the first and best, enjoy yourself, and thereby confess that God will provide.  Fear him.

The second reason for feasting is that feasting brings us before the face of God.  

This also seems wrong.  If we want to experience God, we need to fast and punish our bodies.  Again, feasting to experience God is counter intuitive to fallen religious consciousness.  But in virtually every sentence of the Deuteronomy 14 passage I quoted above we read "before the face of Yahweh" (vss. 24, 25, 25).  Before the face of God there is a feast, not a fast.  

We need to remember just how central food is in the Bible.  Adam and Eve are tested with food in the Garden of Eden.  When Moses, Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel ascended Mt. Sinai, Exodus 24:11 says, ". . . they beheld God, and ate and drank."  All the sacrifices offered daily in the Tabernacle and later the temple are all "food" (Lev. 21:6).  The "altar" is a table, from which cooked meat is served.  Eating was the last thing Jesus did with his disciples before his death and it was the first thing he did with them to reorient them after his resurrection (John 21).  And every Christian church has a Table at the center of it's space and life.  

Everywhere in the Bible we find the same thing: when you are in God's presence you eat and drink.  Indeed, the world ends with a great feast (Rev. 21-22).   The end of the creation of God is a royal wedding feast for the people of God.

Thirdly, when Christians feast they experience fellowship with one another and extend the hospitality of God to others, particularly the poor.  This is also in Deut. 14:27-29.  If the true God is a God who invites people before his face, into his house for a feast—then his people will be like him.  Christians ought to be like our Father and like Jesus himself, inviting people to feast with us.

James 1: 27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, and the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction”  True religion begins with inviting the poorer and afflicted to feast with you.  Everyone is to participate, rich and poor alike.  

Now, of course, unbelievers and pagans eat and drink and feast, too. The devil can do nothing but ape God, so he has his own demonic communities that also eat and drink, for tomorrow they die.  There are differences:  

We feast to live, they to escape life.

We feast and thank God, they feast and thank goodness or fortune.

We feast as a community, as families, they feast to escape from each other.  

At the table or feast of demons people eat and drink by themselves, for themselves.  They may come together but no one really cares about anyone else.  Each is there to get drunk by his or her lonesome.   There is no genuine rejoicing, only cynical laughter and a token nod to fate or chance. 

A typical pagan feast ends in America with everyone drunk, sprawled around a room, each person has checked out of reality on their own.  One is on the couch, another in a chair in the corner, typically someone is also in the bathroom hunched over the toilet.  You know the scene.  The’ve all indulged themselves into a death-like sleep of self-gratification, self-indulgence, and self-medication. Holidays and feasts in modern American culture tend to go this way.  But that does not mean that Christians should shun feasting or drinking or laughter or joyous celebration and go around afflicting ourselves in order to be different from the pagans.  Not at all.

Rather, a typical Christian feast, although it may contained lots of food and especially wine, will culminate with conversations, story telling, laughter, playing games together, even dancing together arm in arm.  No one checks out drunk.  But everybody is able to lose themselves in the food and drink and fellowship, praising and thanking God for his good gifts.  There is true community.  And we are always incorporating others into our feasts, not just family members, but those that are alone, without families, or the poor.

Do you fear God?  Then feast!  Do you want to experience the face of God, the favor of God?  You will around a table with other believers.  Rid yourself of the remnants of this false spirituality that fears feasting.  No guilt.  The feast is God's ordained way of giving thanks to him.  We, of all people, ought to be feast-loving people.   Known by all to be joyous, fun-loving people of faith.  We have been set free from slavery to sin, death, and the devil to sit at the Lord’s Table now and in the new heavens and earth.  May the Lord grant this to each of you during this festive holiday season!

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