What do you think of when you hear the word “Celebration”? One of the first thing that comes to my mind Is parties. Birthday parties. Anniversary parties. Graduation parties. Bon voyage parties. Celebration is linked in my mind with joyful occasions that bring together folks that truly care for us and want to share in our deepest moments in life.
But how many of you would consider celebration to be a spiritual discipline? We are now concluding our ten week sermon series on spiritual disciplines - those practices that draw us closer to God. When most people hear the phrase “spiritual discipline” thoughts come to mind of praying, fasting, and reading the bible. What does celebration have to do with growing closer to God?
The answer is everything. Celebration has everything to do with growing closer to God because it is the culmination of all of the other disciplines, for celebration is the very heart and the way of Christ. Think back to the verse we read from the gospel of Luke this morning when the angels came and announced to the shepherds that Jesus’ very birth was good news of great joy. A cause for celestial celebration. The word Gospel, which we use to summarize the story of Jesus from birth to resurrection, means good news. Christians are to celebrate the life of Jesus and Jesus working in each of our lives. But do we live as if it matters?
There are many things that can cause us as Christians to cease celebrating God’s work among us. One of the biggest things that blocks us though is worry. Worrying about tomorrow. Worrying about paying the bills. About what we are going to make for dinner. About where the money is going to come from. Worry sucks the life of celebration right out of us. But God offers us in Christ, freedom from anxiety and deep, tender care, as we are encouraged to cast our burdens upon him. Do we live like this? Do we live a life of worry or a life of celebration? Because it is very hard for the two to co-exist.
The discipline of celebration frees us to find joyful, passionate pleasure in God and glory in all that God has created - the Word, the world, God’s very nature, each of us. When we take time to allow celebration to be the center of our lives, something inside of us changes. We start to bear the fruit of the spirit - joy. And that joy gives us strength. I love the part of today’s verse from the prophet Nehemiah that says the “joy of the Lord is our strength”. There is a popular praise song that proclaims the same thing, but most people don’t know that it came from this prophet, because it is the most unlikely of places. Nehemiah is bringing a divested people back to an even more devastated land and asking them to join him in an impossible task - rebuilding the city of Jerusalem, brick by brick and wall by wall. The people are overwhelmed with the job and start to doubt, yet the prophet proclaims, even when all else fails, even when facing the impossible, “the joy of the Lord is the strength.” Can we proclaim the same thing about our lives? When the divorce papers are served? Or the kids ends up in serious trouble? We get that letter from the IRS? Or we are deeply lonely after the death of a spouse? That the joy of the Lord is our sustaining strength? Its a nice catch phrase, but it is a hard truth to live into - thats why we need to practice at it, time and time again, through celebration.
Because the truth of the statement that the joy of the Lord is our strength, is that we don’t celebrate God based only on circumstances or if we feel happy. We are called to praise and celebrate God simply because of who God is, by doing the things that bring us the deepest sense of joy - those things that bring our heart gladness. For some of us, we praise God through spending time with other people, sharing meals around the table, or serving in the community for the sake of the Kingdom. Other express their thanksgiving for God’s goodness through working, worshiping, or laughing. Have you ever thought of laughter as a spiritual discipline before? But it is because without experiencing the joy of the Lord and expressing it, we are simply existing. We aren’t living. And we certainly aren’t living for God’s glory.
Celebration is central to all of the other spiritual disciplines, because without a joyful spirit, the disciplines simply become something to check off of our to-do list. The true spiritual life isn’t about doing something to check it off, but rather living into the disciplines out of joyful obedience.
Notice though that I did not say happy. We may not be happy about our circumstances, and some days just wear on us. But when we have the right perspective, putting God’s goodness and glory first, we begin to realize that God sanctifies the ordinary. Celebration is the beginning and end of the disciplines functioning in our lives. It comes with redemption and the freedom God brings us.
But like all of the other disciplines, celebration is hard. Because being free from care, free to celebrate is so foreign to us. We need to practice not taking ourselves too seriously. We need to practice on putting things in perspective and putting God first. We need to practice expressing gratitude towards God in whatever way comes naturally to you - be it singing, dancing, shouting, or laughing. Doing whatever we need to do to reflect God’s goodness.
One of my favorite stories of celebration comes out of the book of Esther and is the Jewish celebration of purim. Purim is a celebration that even though enemies tried to destroy the people of Israel, God saved them. When our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate purim they go all out - noise is made, people eat and drink, and express they have the joy they have for being saved. Money is given to charity. There may even be a carnival. It is truly a celebration of God’s goodness.
Friends, we have something to celebrate as Christians as well. For we, too, have been saved from the hands of the enemy who seek to destroy us and suck the joy from us. We have been saved through Jesus Christ and have been called forth by his goodness and mercy to go and make disciples, to celebrate the Kingdom of God with the world. Yet, sometimes I think we would be hard pressed to find that spirit of celebration on Sunday mornings. Instead of celebrating God’s saving grace, we look and sound more like a group of people who are suffering through. We need to embrace the discipline of celebration. Celebrating and praising God for all that God has done that is a reflection of who God is! We need to let our joy spill over into the streets. We need to proclaim that once we were bound but now we are free and that the joy of the Lord is our strength. Now is the time, brothers and sisters. Now is the time to celebrate our Lord and Savior. Amen.