Feasting in the mist
Here are some thoughts from our second feast day at Trinity. It was another epic time of fellowship!
I’d like to talk to you again today about feasting and its place in the life of a Christian community. I’d like to come at the subject today, though, from a very different direction than I did on July 14. Let me start by saying that I think my parents ruined me when, in my very early years, they let me listen for hours on end to an LP soundtrack of the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof. The songs from that film are burned into my deepest memory and pop into my head at the oddest moments. There’s one song that has grown in meaning for me over the years: it’s called “Sunrise, Sunset.” I can still recall the lyrics instantly and hear the plaintive melody rising from the LP: “Sunrise, sunset; swiftly fly the years, one season following another, laden with happiness and tears.”
It was decades after I first memorized these lyrics as a child that I began perspiring my way through a preaching series on the book of Ecclesiastes. Here I found a biblical writer who might have written “Sunrise, Sunset”: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.”
In part through long wrestling with the melancholy of this Preacher, I began to sense a deep mystery that lurks at the heart of our Christian faith. The mystery is this: we know that everything that occurs under the sun, every season and everything accompanying each season, is ordained by our sovereign God and is part of His will and plan for His world; yet, at the same time, many things happen under the sun that He plainly says He hates! Stop and think about that. The horrors of evil that occur under the sun are, at the same time, both God’s will and absolutely not His will. In no sense whatsoever am I saying that God is the cause or author of sin, yet it can’t be denied biblically that sin happens in the world only because He permits (even, in some sense, ordains) it; yet He assures us that He hates and abhors all sin. To us, this is a very great mystery. . . .
The writer of Ecclesiastes agonizes over various outworkings of this mystery, as we do. Every one of us has things in his or her life (maybe right now, maybe in the past) that are, by any biblical account, just plain messed up – broken, evil, heartbreaking, miserable, not as God says they should be. We are confronted with injustices, inequities, loveless behavior, betrayals, cruelties, obstacles, frustrations, thorns, thistles, and a whole lot more. There are times when, if you think about it all too much, you feel like you’re losing your mind, because there are really wicked people out there having a grand old time, while a lot of those most faithful to God are getting their teeth kicked in – and then we all die in the end, so what’s the advantage of being on God’s side, anyway? And all of this I’m getting from the Preacher, so if you think I’m not sounding very chipper and Christian, maybe take it up with him!
In the end the Preacher ends up where we have to end up with these questions: at the final judgment. God is going to “bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” That is proof positive that there are many things happening right now under God’s rule of the world that He hates – His promise to judge these evils, and to set everything right in the end, shows us how He feels about evil. There’s no question about it: everything broken and ruined will be healed in the end. As Julian of Norwich put it, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”
With this enormous hope looming on the horizon of the world, we turn back to everyday life. Here, I must confess, my tendency would be to sit around in a bit of a funk, riding out the storms and wishing Judgment Day could be hurried along. But that’s not at all what our friend the Preacher does. As his faith in God is renewed and refreshed, as he reminds himself of the promises of God that cannot fail, here is his advice (and here, at long last, we arrive at the subject of feasting): “Go, eat your bread in joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” Not quite what one is used to hearing from an orthodox preacher, to be sure, but it’s marvelously profound. If you and I really believe that God is in control of this broken universe, that nothing happens here apart from His sovereign will, and that the evils and miseries we experience daily under the sun are under His judgment and will one day be made entirely right and entirely whole; then there’s no higher and better expression of that faith than to enjoy the fruits of our toil with glad and thankful hearts. How better could we honor God, and say to Him that we trust Him? Moreover, there’s some merit to the idea that in feasting on His gifts to us, we thumb our noses at the malicious Devil who sought the ruin of our race and the undoing of God’s good creation. We’re saying, as we feast, “The Lord our God reigns, He will win in the end, and we’re raising our glasses to His victory even now.” We’re not trapped in an endless cycle of happiness and tears; the story of the world is going somewhere, and where it’s going is very good indeed.
This means that eating great pulled pork, drinking substantial beer, splashing about in a kiddie pool, jumping like fools on a volleyball court or a dance floor, wearing festive clothes, and enjoying simple summer pleasures are not injections of anesthesia for us – they aren’t activities we do to get what we can out of a hard and finally pointless life, while ignoring all the bad stuff – they are expressions of faith! They are practical ways in which we declare to ourselves, to God, to the world, and to the Devil that we believe our Father is behind every good gift, and that each gift is a foretaste of His coming victory over evil and death and the Devil. Put another way, the pleasure of feasting isn’t something we’re permitted to enjoy as a kind of questionable sidebar to the serious business of Christian faith; feasting is the business of Christian faith! I’m convinced that it’s in part to drive this home that our Lord instituted a weekly feast as the climax of His worship.
There’s something about this time of year for me that’s a little bit sad. Summer is drawing to a close. There’s a nip in the evening air that whispers of autumn, and a long winter beyond. It’s invigorating, in a way; but like other zones of twilight in life it always makes me reflective. “Sunrise, sunset; swiftly fly the years, one season following another, laden with happiness and tears.” The paling of the sun in the autumn reminds us that the sun does not always shine brightly in our lives; often, indeed, it slips behind great clouds that pummel us with cold and driving rain. It’s a reminder to me that faith, if it is to be biblical faith, must be a very hardy thing – it must be able to weather all seasons, the brightness of dawning day, but also the pensive uncertainties of gathering night. For this, it needs to be fed well on the promises of God, especially His promise of final victory, when there will be no more night, and all will be well beyond imagining. But if we are to stoke the fires of such faith, we must eat well, drink well, dress well, and play well. We mustn’t just sit and think about the promises of our Lord; we must act in confidence that they are surely true, indeed, as if we’ve already seen them come true. We must spend on the credit line of faith, because with our God the promise is as good as the fulfillment.
Once more, from our Preacher friend: “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. . . . Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or bad.”
And thanks be to God for that. It’s the reason for this and every Christian feast.