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Missional Lessons for the Holidays

GOD CREATED HOLIDAYS

Cultural celebrations are not man-made institutions. Like much of God’s creation, holidays can be—and have been—distorted for all sorts of less-than-holy purposes. But what if “Santa” really isn’t an anagram for “Satan”? What if we can we redeem this holiday season, and use it for God’s work?

Seen throughout the Old Testament, and most clearly in Leviticus 23, God commanded His people to pause several times each year, simply to feast and celebrate. Here are far-too-brief summaries of Old Testament Israel’s national holidays:

  • The Festival of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) kicked off the Jewish New Year with the blast of a ram’s horn. God’s people gathered as one, as Israel kicked off each year with ten days of feasting, celebrating God, and ceasing work to rest in Him.
  • The Day of Atonement was an annual reminder of Israel’s sin and God’s forgiveness. In a solemn service on the most important day of the Jewish year, one ram was killed as a symbol of appeasing God’s wrath, as another symbolized  God’s removal of sin, being sent into the wilderness never to return.
  • The Feast of Booths saw Israel praying for her upcoming harvest. To visibly recall God’s past deliverance from Egypt, they lived in tents for a week. As they then returned to their homes—seventeen days in total after gathering for Rosh Hashanah—they celebrated God’s gift of their permanent dwellings, symbolic of His giving them the Promised Land.
  • Passover remembers the biggest event in Israel’s history: God’s original rescue of His people, in His plaguing power over Egypt. Israel sacrificed and roasted a lamb, and still tangibly recall God’s work through readings, foods, and glasses of wine.
  • Passover kicked off the Feast of Unleavened Bread. For seven days, Israel recalled the speed with which their ancestors fled Egypt the night of the original Passover.
  • The First Fruits Offering marked the beginning of the harvest. A day of thanksgiving, the celebration included offering Israel’s best produce to God, and recalling God’s power and grace in sustaining and providing for His people.
  • The Feast of Weeks (called Pentecost) again pointed to God’s provision. Another offering made; more feasts occurred; more thanks shared—this time at the end of the wheat harvest.

LESSONS FROM THE STORY OF ISRAEL

This is more than a bit of Jewish history. Each feast foreshadows God’s work in Jesus’ death and resurrection. These celebrations were celebrated by Jews for centuries and by Jesus Himself. And they inform our own celebrations:

First, Leviticus shows that God instituted intentional celebration into the annual rhythm of His people. God’s people ceased from work and partied. They cooked meat—a luxury in those days—and enjoyed good drink. They made music, relaxed, and played together. They laughed and grieved together. Celebrations are right and good.

Celebrations also cut to the heart of mission: God’s people didn’t celebrate by themselves. They included those around them. Even people with different beliefs. Consider this instruction: “You shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are within your towns.” This idea echoes through the Old Testament Law: “sojourners” were foreigners in Israel who joined the feasts; “servants” from various nations celebrated with God’s people; “strangers” and “aliens” weren’t Israelites but joined their events.

A final Levitical lesson is that people, events, and even milestones themselves were never the focus of Israel’s celebrations. Israel celebrated one thing, in many ways throughout each year: God. They didn’t celebrate grain; they celebrated the Giver of that grain. They didn’t celebrate their power over Pharaoh; they had no such power! They celebrated God’s power. These lessons combine to show us not only that not-yet-believers were invited to Israel’s feasts; they observed—and in ways, even participated—as God’s people celebrated God, on days God created for just that occasion.

REDEEMING THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

If Israel—geographically set apart from the rest of the world—publicly celebrated God in the midst of strangers, foreigners, and sojourners, there’s hope for us as we consider holidays. Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, and God didn’t invent Halloween or Thanksgiving. But these and other annual days have been carved into our culture, to cease work, celebrate, and engage others. Gifts abound in December, giving us an easy chance to surprise coworkers and classmates with cookies or a brief note. And the world still rings in the New Year with gatherings and far more pomp than Israel’s trumpet blast.

Instead of celebrating this Christmas season, New Years Eve, and other occasions alone or with just-Christian friends—and instead of creating “Christian” versions of special events already happening in our city and neighborhood— let’s celebrate these occasions on mission. Let’s display the gospel through generosity, grace, conversation, and joy. And let’s declare the gospel through stories, toasts, and prayers. Sure, many cultural celebrations have long forgotten God. But we haven’t, and we’ve been sent to those who have. God is sovereign, even the fact that someone declared certain days holidays. God uses even the most broken things—and days—for His mission. How can we do the same?

Ben Connelly, his wife Jess, and their daughters Charlotte and Maggie live in Fort Worth, TX. He started and now co-pastors The City Church, part of the Acts29 network and Soma family of churches. Ben is also co-author of A Field Guide for Everyday Mission (Moody Publishers, 2014). With degrees from Baylor University and Dallas Theological Seminary, Ben teaches public speaking at TCU, writes for various publications, trains folks across the country, and blogs in spurts at benconnelly.net. Twitter: @connellyben.

(Editor’s Note: Used with permission from the authors. This is adapted from A Field Guide for Everyday Mission by Ben Connelly & Bob Roberts Jr. available from Moody Publishers. )