Gratitude fosters joy

The title of this post pretty much sums up the lessons about joy to be found in Deuteronomy 16. As Moses moves on to discuss the three major feasts of the Jewish year – Passover, Weeks, and Tabernacles – he uses the word “rejoice” three times in five verses. As I’ve said before, any time you have such a concentration of a word, you need to take a closer look. And so the question before me today is simple: what is the tie between the three festivals and joy?

Of course, I can think of three basic reasons why a festival could bring joy: fun, food, and/or the underlying reason for the feast. In the case of the three Jewish feasts, I have a little bit of each of these things, so I need to examine all that’s going on to figure out exactly what is fueling the rejoicing.

So let’s talk about fun. Each of these festivals incorporated a little bit of fun. They were all a time for everyone to get together. Family, neighbors, friends, and even people you only saw once per year would gather for each of these feasts, and if there is one thing that I know it’s that, when you put together a bunch of people that you like, the potential for fun rises dramatically. For instance, this last week, we spent most of three days with my wife’s family. There was plenty of fun for everyone. The kids played together, the adults talked and joked, and there were games for everyone. The same thing happens at our church. About a month ago, a bunch of us got together to decorate the facility for Christmas. Now, we don’t do a lot of decorating at our church (the idea is that simpler is better), but this still meant work as we hauled out ladders, sorted decorations, and decked the place to celebrate the birth of Jesus. At least I worked up a sweat. But everyone had a blast! Fun is an inherent part of any celebration, and these feasts were no different. But was it the fun that inspired the joy? Deuteronomy 16:11 says “Rejoice before the Lord your God… you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows living among you” (NIV). The people – the fun – is inconsequential to the rejoicing. If anything it’s an effect of the rejoicing. Certainly, while it may stoke the rejoicing, it’s not the cause of joy.

So what about the food? Food was a critical part of each of the three Jewish feasts. The Passover, of course, was celebrated by eating an animal from the flock or herd, roasted, and served with unleavened bread. It was certainly not the normal fare for the Jews. The Festival of Weeks, set to be celebrated seven weeks after the grain harvest started in the spring, was to commemorate God’s provision. While there is no particular meal prescribed, it would have been something akin to our Thanksgiving. You just can’t celebrate the harvest without food! And then there was the Feast of Tabernacles, which was timed to celebrate the completion of the fall harvest and the beginning of the new agricultural year. It involved a week-long campout, but if there’s one thing I know about camping, it’s that camp food is always good. I mean, who doesn’t love hot dogs over the fire and s’mores?  But was it the source of the Israelites’ rejoicing? It’s funny that the only feast that prescribes a particular meal doesn’t say anything about joy. Joy was certainly a part of the Passover, as the Jews commemorated their departure from Egypt, but it had nothing to do with the food.

It had everything to do with the remembering. Consider that the Passover was all about remembering how God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt. Weeks celebrated God’s provision and blessings during the year. And Tabernacles commemorated with gratitude all that God had done for them while Israel camped out in the desert between the exodus and the moment when Joshua led them across the Jordan to take possession of the promise land and looked forward to all that He was going to do in the coming year.

Do I see a pattern here? The Jews were to rejoice because they were grateful for the things that God had done!

Gratitude is an essential part of joy. If I forget to be thankful and start to take things for granted, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to believe that God is up to something amazing. And if I forget that God is up to something amazing, I start to wonder if He’s even real. And if He’s not real, even if I would never utter those words myself, then there is no reason to believe that things will ultimately work out for my good. In other words, there’s no reason for joy.

I live in a society which has trained me to think that I deserve an awful lot. So I take a lot of things for granted. If I want to have joy, though, then I need to change our attitude from that of the entitled consumer to that of the blessed child of God. Here’s how it works.

For weeks leading up to Christmas, my daughter wanted two things: a unicorn pillow pet and a stuffed Clarice (as in, Rudolph’s girlfriend). My good friend Santa was kind enough to take care of the pillow pet, and Nicole and I found Clarice. On Christmas morning, Nicole had placed the stuffed reindeer into a box and wrapped it beautifully, and our little girl tore into it eagerly. As soon as the first strip of paper came off, she exclaimed, “It’s a box! It’s a box! Thank you!” She hadn’t even seen the actual gift yet, but she was grateful for the simple box.

So the challenge of Deuteronomy 16 is that, if I’m going to have joy in my lives, I must first be grateful. Grateful for all that God has done in both the distant and near past (e.g., Passover and Weeks, respectively), and thankful for all that God is going to do (e.g., Tabernacles).

I can think of no better time than to start this sort of gratitude than the present. As we close out 2010, be thankful for the blessings you’ve received, and as we start 2011, be grateful also for the blessings you’re going to receive. Because, as the title says, gratitude fosters joy.

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