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Rejoice

The first time I really experienced the first five books of the bible was the year I joined a Torah club back in high school. In Jewish culture it is tradition to read through these books every year with allotted portions for every day. In my club we read the daily portions and a daily commentary written by a messianic rabbi (a rabbi who believes that Jesus was the Messiah). Once a week we gathered together to talk about what we studied.

I say it was an experience because it was the first time I read these books consecutively and without Sunday school polish and gloss. Every scandal and heartbreak was there right along with every triumph and promise. The faults of the biblical heroes played out with the strengths.

Now most people, when asked, which of these five (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) would be the hardest to stick to and finish, most would say Leviticus. I have to disagree. Leviticus is a poetic book. There’s cadence and rhythm all throughout so that the read itself feels like an act of worship. What’s not to love about a poem teaching people newly freed from slavery about hygiene, dignity, and social structure?

For me, the most difficult book was Deuteronomy. It repeats everything that happens in the previous three books. The name Deuteronomy literally means “repetition of the law.” So you finish reading Numbers only to start it over in a way – talk about discipline. What 17 year old has the attention span to read something twice?

I came away from my Torah experience with a deeper love for the Old Testament and a lasting dread of Deuteronomy. In the last 15 years I have only ventured back into Deuteronomy when absolutely necessary.

During my research for the post “Overlooked” Strong’s Concordance kept sending me into the heart of my biblical dread. In that heart I found something new. An invitation to dinner and delight.

Near the end of chapter 14 Deuteronomy starts explaining the tithe. It commands the Israelites to set aside a tithe from the increase of their grain, new wine, and livestock. Then they are commanded to take that tithe to “where He chooses to make His name abide” and “Eat before the LORD your God.” (Deut. 14:23) God invites His people to take the fruit of their labor and come make a dinner party out of it at His house!

Now the Israelites haven’t yet taken the Promised Land, so they don’t know where the temple of the LORD will be. I think there may have been some anxiety about how far they might have to carry all this grain, wine, and livestock. God is sensitive to this anxiety and reassures His people. He says if the journey is too far and too long to carry the tithe, the people should trade their tithe in for money. Thereby making it easier to carry on their trip. “When the LORD your God has blessed you, … take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the LORD your God chooses.” Here’s the part that made me stop and re-read, “You shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the LORD our God, and you shall rejoice.” (Deut. 14:22-26 NKJV)

It doesn’t say, “Hand your money over to the priest. There, you’ve done your bit, now go home.” It doesn’t even say, “Buy exactly what you had at home before your exchanged your tithe for money.” It says “spend the money on whatever your heart desires.” Say you had chardonnay at home, but the whiskey is better at the temple. God says, “Have the whisky!” Better still, say you had a cow of general quality at home, but at the temple there are Japanese cows raised for Kobe steak. God says, “Have the Kobe!”

God wants His people to come over and find delight. He tells His people to budget for this party whether they come with their own food or money for food. God blesses His people just so they can go and celebrate the blessing with Him.

I’m not saying all tithe is like this. There are other tithes for the sake of keeping the temple and the priests, which is where we get most of our understanding and patterns for tithing today. But why have we left this tithe out? Why aren’t we setting money aside for the purpose of rejoicing with God over some whiskey and Kobe?

Later, in chapter 16, the Feast of Tabernacles is reviewed. The people are literally commanded to rejoice. “And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant and the Levite, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your gates.” No one is left out. God names the people with status as well as people without status, He names the people who own and the people who serve, everyone is invited and everyone needs to take time to rejoice. “The LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you surely rejoice.” God promises to give them what they need in order to come and rejoice. (Deut. 16:14-15 NKJV)

Paul suggests that we rejoice many times throughout his epistles. In fact he says to, “Rejoice always.” (1 Thess. 5:16) This message is repeated with emphasis in Philippians, “Rejoice always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4)  Interestingly enough, rejoice is actually the first word of this sentence in the original Greek. This is interesting because in biblical Greek the endings and prefixes determine the role of each word (unlike English, where word order informs the structure of the sentence). Which means the most important person or idea is usually listed first. Word order lets you know importance. So God, Christ, or Jesus, are almost automatically first in a Greek sentence. According to emphatic tradition, Κυρίω (k-uh-pi-oh), meaning “The Lord” (aka Jesus), should have been listed first. But it wasn’t, Χαίρετε (ch-eye-pet-eh), meaning “Rejoice,” is listed first.

Paul really wants us to rejoice in Christ.

What’s the big deal with rejoicing? Why is it tied so deeply to blessing in Deuteronomy, and emphasized so strongly in Philippians? I have a theory: I think that rejoicing is how we accept blessing from God.

Think about it, when you give a gift to someone, don’t you want to be there when they open it so you can see their reaction? Isn’t it the best when they love it and get all high pitched and happy? The happy reaction lets you know this person received your gift and the love that was in it.

How about when the person doesn’t like it? There’s that awkward pause and the one squinty eye with an “oh” that sounds like it’s drowning in tar. Your heart sinks and you know the gift wasn’t received nor the love that was in it. At best the gift will end up in a back closet; at worst, the trash.

This raises the question: If we don’t rejoice when God blesses us, are we rejecting the blessing of God?

It’s a chilling thought.

In his talk “Celebration Must Be Stronger Than Cynicism” pastor Jon Tyson talks about our passages in Deuteronomy and compares them to the parables in the gospels that likens the kingdom of God to feasts. He points out that in both OT and NT passages God wants to celebrate with His people at a really good feast. In the parables the people who are invited give excuses and don’t come. So God goes on to find other people who will accept, and rejoice with God. (I seriously recommend finding this and listening to it. Phenomenal message.)

The feasts in the Old Testament were foreshadowing redemption; the command to rejoice at the feasts was teaching the Israelites how to accept that redemption. In the parables about feast invitations the people invited first won’t come because they are content with what they already have: new property, new livestock, what we would consider wealth. A new wife. They make these good things sound like a chore and not a blessing. They won’t take the time to stop and rejoice with God. They won’t rejoice, they reject the blessing of the invitation.

Our culture has a tendency to make good fortune about us. I think the enemy positions this tendency as a distraction from the Giver of good gifts. We spend all this time caught up in the gifts and how many we have and whether we are getting enough of them and are they better than the Jones’ blessing? The blessing is great, but it’s not the point. God is the point.

The point of the blessing is to have an unrestrained dinner party with God. The point of rejoicing in the Lord is to reorient our hearts and minds to permanent gratefulness. In that gratefulness we don’t miss the point and we accept the kingdom of God and all its blessing. The point is God the Father, God the Son, the Holy Spirit, and our reunion into their Trinitarian eternal love.

So let’s remember the point and rejoice!

-Etta Woods

 

“Celebration Must Be Stronger Than Cynicism – Jon Tyson” Church of the City New York Youtube channel. 2018.

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