Sermon for January 5, 2020

Readings: Psalm 157:12-20 • Ephesians 1:3-14 • John 1:1-9;10-18 • Jeremiah 31:7-14

The theme for this week is God’s riches. Each passage discusses feasting and celebration because of God’s riches given to us. The sermon, “The Discipline of Feasting,” is based on Jeremiah 31:7-14. Psalm 147:12-20 envisions God providing the seasons and controlling the weather. Ephesians 1:3-14 tells of the lavish inheritance we have in Christ. John 1:1-18 praises God’s generous plan to redeem us through giving His son.

The Discipline of Feasting

Jeremiah 31:7-14 NRSV

Did you make a New Year’s Resolution this year? Most of us did, in some kind of absent way as we put back the last of the dishes or stood on the scale in the morning. The festival is done, and real life waits with alarm clocks and schedules.

This can lead to an anecdote or fun discussion here about New Year’s Resolutions

Statistics show that the top category for New Year’s Resolutions is diet and exercise. Eat less, eat better, take up running—these top the list. Gyms see a reliable jump in membership and make some good money. Christmas for gym owners is January!

The next category is money—budgeting or just plain spending less. This year we’re gonna get organized! This year we’re pay off the credit cards (with cash—not other credit cards)!

New Year’s resolutions have about an 8% success rate. The gym attendance flattens out and the budgeting app goes to the third screen on our phones, unused. We find ourselves back on that bathroom scale in the morning without much change.

Why is this the rhythm every year? Why is there this binging and purging around the holidays? We get our credit card bill or our cholesterol checked in January and think—what happened?

There are plenty of reasons we can think of, but it seems there’s always a vague sense of guilt around the holidays. We spend too much, we eat too much, we drink too much. We just plain “too much” and then we try to sober up come January.

Have you ever felt guilty about enjoying yourself? Have you—at Christmas dinner or knee-deep in wrapping paper—thought, I wonder how God feels about this? Why do we always have nagging uncertainty about what he thinks of it all?

We think maybe he’s really just happy with us when we’re somehow restricting ourselves—getting up early, going to the gym, giving to the needy. He tolerates our good times if we just offset it with enough seriousness and tithing and self-denial.

But look at this passage from Jeremiah:

Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,…

…a great company, they shall return here…

…Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. (Jeremiah 31:7, 8, 13 NRSV)

There is joy, happiness, and silliness everywhere. There’s not a whiff here of guilt or even restraint—this is a party! This is a vision of God’s restoration and of God’s over-provision for his people. This is God bringing us together for that enormous meal, to stand knee-deep in wrapping paper.

Have you practiced the discipline of feasting? I didn’t say fasting. The discipline of singing, dancing, enjoying the abundance of blessing. Let’s look at that today:

    • Gratitude
    • Gathering
    • Groundedness

Gratitude…

The book of Jeremiah can be divided roughly in half. The first half is about God’s judgment on Israel using the surrounding nations—Assyria, Babylon and others. The second half is about God’s judgments on those nations. The whole book is about God’s righteous judgment and the need for obedience and transformation.

Through the middle of it, though, like a stream through a dry ground, is this “book of consolation.” Just a few chapters here about God restoring Israel and Judah. Most of the verses you’ve heard or seen on a cross-stitch sampler from Jeremiah are from this short section. These chapters talk about God’s eventual deliverance and love for his people—about a hope and future.

It’s full of gorgeous images of provision:

They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. (Jeremiah 31:12 NRSV)

They shall be a watered garden. They shall languish no more. Consolation indeed. Look at this imagery: gardens, water in a dry place. Do you think this would mean a lot to Old Testament people? People who grew up with stories of the desert Exodus and the Garden of Eden.

Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet.” He is constantly talking about judgment and pain, but suddenly here’s this intermission. Life is never just all one thing, is it? Just when we’ve given in to bitterness, cynicism, pessimism, God breaks the chain of events.

We end up with what G.K. Chesterton, the lay theologian, called “the problem of pleasure.” You have probably heard the phrase “problem of pain,” but this is it from the other side: joy out of nowhere blindsided. You’re suddenly visited by an old friend or you see a sunset that stops you in your tracks. Or you have a season of rest and peace after a long time uphill. This problem of pleasure that tells us there’s Someone there, sending love to us.

These images of feasting and consolation remind us that this is really what’s at the center of it all. As the Trinity is in continual joyful fellowship with each other, so we were meant to be. All this: the stress, the grief, the death is secondary. It was never meant to be. The nucleus of the universe is joy.

Think of the Jewish rhythm that Jeremiah’s community would be all about. Everything in the week pointed toward the Sabbath, and this day marked them out as God’s people. And what was the day for besides worship? Nothing! It was for rest and relationship. One of the most important religious observances they had was rest.

Pop quiz: what was Jesus’ first miracle in the book of John? To change water into wine. To change the necessary for the unnecessary, to change sustenance into a party. Because that’s what’s at the center.

Gathering…

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. (Jeremiah 31:8 NRSV)

It may seem silly, but truth often comes in the strangest packages. Let’s indulge in a children’s poem:

INVITATION
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

Maybe Shel Silverstein’s poem is a little simple, maybe a little too idealistic, but there’s truth in there, and maybe it touches on the deepest truth. When God shows up to the party, there is GATHERING. One of the sure signs of his presence is that everyone is welcome. People come out of the woodwork, and often it’s people who aren’t welcomed anywhere else.

The dreamers, the wishers, the magic bean buyers – those who society doesn’t have time for, those who are out on the fringes. Usually when you find them around the fire, Jesus is around that fire, too. When we take part in the discipline of feasting, the table has a way of lengthening to welcome all kinds of people.

Look at these images Jeremiah gives us:

    • Blind
    • Lame
    • New mothers
    • Pregnant women just about to give birth

Jeremiah wrote this in a society that was transient and in exile. His picture of God’s party includes all the people that wouldn’t have a place in that society. He pictures a community where those who are disregarded or seen as a burden are given a place at the head table. That’s the mark of God’s company. That’s the mark of the discipline of feasting.

Were you able to glimpse that during the holiday season? Were you able to see friends and family, even those with special needs or disabilities, enjoying the fellowship? Did your heart swell and expand as you saw God in the gathering? He was there, and he was rejoicing with you. When he’s not there, parties and gatherings are marked by division, one-up-man-ship. It’s only a matter of time before someone’s trying to be the funniest or the smartest in the room, and we start to divide into factions.

This constant rhythm of leaving and returning, scattering and gathering is just a foretaste of the great gathering we will have at the end with Christ. It’s no mistake that the Wedding Supper of the Lamb we’re invited to in Revelation 19 is basically a huge party where the wine is always new and table stretches from horizon to horizon.

 

Groundedness…

For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. (Jeremiah 31:11 NRSV)

Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is groundedness. When we practice feasting with grateful hearts, we realize that all we have and all we are is from God. We realize we are unworthy of our blessings, and that the greatest gifts we’ve received—kids, spouses, other relationships—are blessings we could never earn.

When we realize that these gifts are gifts, we can hold them with an open hand. We are free to rejoice because we realize that God has “redeemed us from hands too strong” for us. We are grounded again in the fact that God is in his heaven, and every good and perfect gift is from above.

Think about some of the crankiest, most demanding places you see people. Cruise ships and airports. Everyone is out to have a good time, to have the party that “we deserve.” Disneyland can be one of the unhappiest places on earth when you’ve paid too much to get there and have to wait two hours in line with a bunch of the people having “the time of their lives.” But when we can realize that every gift is a gift from God, given only by his grace, then we are truly free to party.

I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:14 NRSV)

Isn’t that a great word: satisfied?! In a culture that runs on more-more-more, a culture that makes money on dissatisfaction, we hear about a life in which we can live satisfied. The gifts God has given us have always been enough, and we can come to a place of realizing that.

Another point here. The Old Testament follows the long, bizarre history of Israel over the centuries. Their humanity is basically on display for all to see. If you watch all the way through, God promises them many things and calls them to many things. Comfort, peace, prosperity all come and go. But there is never a promise that they will be the most successful or largest of the kingdoms—they had much bigger, more powerful neighbors.

No, they were called to be the holiest nation. The nation set apart for God, characterized by love and inclusion. They were called to be a nation of gathering that brought in the strangers, those with special needs, and magic bean buyers—and that’s because they were God’s satisfied people and that’s what God’s about.

Gratitude…

Think back on your favorite time this holiday. Think back on the “problem of pleasure” and the fact that God shows up and blindsides us with joy. Don’t feel guilty for that—enjoy it, savor it.

Gathering…

Look around you on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see the miracle of God’s kind of party. There are no assigned seats, no head or foot of the table. Jesus sat next to John at the Last Supper, and who sat on his other side? Judas. When God is at the party, there’s room for everyone; everyone has a seat the feast.

Groundedness…

As we head back into real life, let’s do so grounded in the fact of God’s love, provision, and control. Grounded in the fact that he runs it all, and that all good things are a loan from him we hold with open hands. That’s another signal of God’s discipline of feasting. There’s no hangover, no regret, and you can head back into the grind of life refreshed and grateful that you have a table at the feast.

 


Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Statistically, New Year’s resolutions have an 8% success rate. Did you make a resolution this year? Have you broken it yet? Have you ever made a memorable resolution in the past?
  • In the sermon we talked about the “discipline of feasting.” Have you ever celebrated this: guilt-free enjoyment of God’s provision and bounty? Did you take part in that this Christmas?
  • What does it mean to say the nucleus of the universe is joy? To say that pain and suffering are secondary and not part of the original plan?
  • Look at verse 8: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.” What does this kind of diverse, fringe group tell us about feasts where Jesus shows up? Why does he always seem to invite those on the margins?
  • One of the signs of God’s kind of party is groundedness—it’s not an escape from life that leaves you bitter, it calls you back into life refreshed and focused. Has this been your experience? Why do you think that is?

Poem to ponder:

INVITATION
If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

 

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