By Tina Wilson
At a pastor’s conference I attended with my husband a few years ago, we sat down for lunch with a group of leaders, most of whom we had just met. One man at the table asked Matt to share our church’s story with the group. This is one of my favorite things to do—share the testimony of modern-day miracles God has let us witness in our church-planting journey. In this setting, it was my husband’s story to tell, so I tried to keep quiet and just let him . . . but from the edge of my seat, I couldn’t help breaking in a couple of times to say, “Oh, and tell them about this. . . .”
After my husband’s five-minute recap (which was extended due to my enthusiasm), another leader was asked to share his church’s story. He gave his whole testimony in less than 50 words and 20 seconds. That short version was an amazing story of redemption and reversal that reminded me of Joseph in the Old Testament. I would’ve loved to hear every detail, but his presentation was blasé, and he had to be coaxed into sharing even that much.
I immediately felt a tinge of embarrassment. We represented the smallest of the churches at this table, and I was visibly more excited about our story than were the leaders of churches tracking way ahead of us. Ugh . . . why hadn’t I just played it cool?
I just can’t help it. I am compelled to celebrate.
A HEART OF GRATITUDE
Midway through the book of Exodus is what I consider the greatest shadow God gave to reveal the redemption he would bring in Christ. To be spared from the plague on the firstborn, the Israelites were commanded to slaughter a male lamb without defect, put the blood of the lamb on the doorframes of their houses, and eat the lamb in haste. God commanded his people to keep the observance: “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance” (Exodus 12:14).
Jesus used this celebration to teach his disciples about his sacrifice—his body beaten and his blood spilled for us on the cross. In Communion—the culmination of the Passover—whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). I love this fulfillment and I love this remembrance—our weekly celebration of the sacrifice that delivered us. It’s a celebration that spans millennia . . . an Old Testament shadow and a New Testament reality.
Celebration (like this weekly remembrance) ought to be an expression of thankfulness. Without celebration (a show of gratitude and a memorial of God’s goodness), our marriages, jobs, and lives would be miserable. Without celebration, our prayers would just be lists of all that is wrong and needs God’s attention. Why in the world, then, do we neglect this practice? Maybe we don’t know how to celebrate.
Are we guilty of advancing on the journey but never acknowledging the milestones? Are we accepting of God’s yes but oblivious to the blessing of his no?
Are we bored with old things, or do we commemorate longevity? Are we leery of new things, or do we delight in possibility?
Are we so afraid of appearing boastful or obnoxious that we conceal God’s victories? Are we so acquainted with self-indulgence that we are blind to God’s command and our need for thankful celebration?
COVENANT MEMORIALS AND KINGDOM CELEBRATIONS
Having delivered his people from bondage in Egypt and established a tabernacle, priesthood, and blood so that his holy presence could dwell with them, God also instituted a schedule of weekly worship and yearly festivals—and even perpetually burning lamps—to memorialize the victory he had won for this nation.
Celebratory expressions of gratitude mattered to God then, and they still matter today.
The Sabbath finds fulfillment in the Lord’s Day; the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread are fulfilled in the Lord’s Supper; Wave Sheaf Day in Christ’s resurrection; the Festival of Weeks in Pentecost; the Day of Atonement in our cleansing from sin by Christ, who bore our iniquities. The Feast of Trumpets was accompanied by a call to repentance—a change still celebrated by angels according to Jesus in Luke 15. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated Israel’s wilderness wandering, and Jesus used this opportunity to aﬃrm himself as the Word, the source of living water these Israelites needed when they were thirsty on their journey. Even the continually burning lamp expressing the ongoing work of the priesthood has a heavenly reality as “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, oﬀering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).
If these celebrations endured from Old Testament to New Testament, shouldn’t we too carry on covenant and kingdom memorials to honor our Lord and declare his works to generations? For every good thing shadowed in the law, we can see that the reality continues in our church today. Surely this is pleasing and honoring to God, who had the idea for these celebrations.
KINGDOM CELEBRATIONS IN THE LOCAL CHURCH CONTEXT
Sabbath: Every single Lord’s Day should be a celebration. We ought to prepare in advance by setting our hearts and minds on spiritual fellowship and anticipating the presence and work of God. We should be excited, single-minded, and prayerful. The gathering of the church should be a priority memorial and celebration for which we are grateful and joyful.
Passover & Feast of Unleavened Bread: Our weekly Communion service, while certainly a time of reverence and reflection, should also be cause for joy and celebration. We’re proclaiming Jesus’ death that paid our ransom! Are we communicating to people the glory of what we do when we partake?
Wave Oﬀering: Christ as our wave oﬀering, raised up as the “firstfruits,” should be celebrated with every resource available to us. We can do this annually on Easter, probably the greatest evangelistic opportunity of the year. This day deserves every bit of advanced planning, budget, creativity, hospitality, and promotion we can aﬀord. People who won’t come to church any other day of the year will come on Easter. What better way to celebrate—and to leverage that day—than do everything short of sin to see souls saved?
In the church where I worship, we have a full auditorium for all four services on a normal weekend, so we can’t expect to welcome guests if we stay in that format at Easter. So, instead, last Easter, we turned our five-acre field into a worship space with staging, sound, video, and four times the number of seats that are in our auditorium. It was audacious and expensive, but we believe it was a worthwhile use of resources for our community.
Feast of Weeks: The celebration needs not end with Easter. It didn’t end in Scripture. After the wave oﬀering, Israel began the countdown to the Feast of Weeks. After Jesus’ resurrection, there was a period of 40 days when Jesus appeared to his followers and then 10 days when they waited in Jerusalem. In my home church, we recognize this countdown with a churchwide discipleship focus called 40 Days with Jesus followed by a 10-day series about our core beliefs and values called Ten Days to Pentecost. Our goal is always “none lost through Pentecost.” On Easter, the floodgates open and visitors pour in. We immediately plug them into a next step of discipleship with the goal of bringing in the harvest for Pentecost by baptizing many into Christ. Also, this is the birthday of the church. Serve cake!
Day of Atonement: Israel’s Day of Atonement pointed us toward Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation. What greater opportunity to celebrate than when souls are baptized into Christ! Make certificates, create testimonial videos, have professionals take pictures, post them on social media. We share what we’re proud of and what matters. Demonstrate for new believers that their baptism matters. Consider throwing a monthly or quarterly “birthday party” to celebrate all the believers baptized in your church during that time.
Festival of Trumpets: Festival of Trumpets marked the beginning of a new agricultural year and signaled a call to repentance. I think of this whenever a lost sheep is found or wanders back. I didn’t always think this way. It’s easy to be oﬀended when people walk away (particularly if you serve in church leadership). Like Moses, I need constant reminders that people’s rejection of church is not a personal rejection of me. My husband and pastor beautifully modeled this for me one day. A man returned to church after not being present for more than a year. His family had left with no explanation and had ignored our attempts to reach out. When he walked in, though, my husband ran to him and hugged him. No explanation was needed. Sound the trumpet! Our brother is back!
Feast of Tabernacles: In the same way Ezra read the law during the Feast of Tabernacles and Jesus aﬃrmed himself as the fulfillment of the law at that same celebration. The public reading of Scripture is highly worthwhile of our time and celebration. Each year, we lead our congregation through a reading of the entire Bible. We’ve done this in 180 days, in 365 days, and chronologically.
Before reopening our building after COVID-19 eased, we had individuals or small groups of people come to read aloud a section of Scripture in our gathering place. When they were done, the entire Word of God had been spoken over our sanctuary during the course of several weeks.
Lamps Burning: We should take every opportunity to celebrate workers in the church. Aaron tended the lamps before the Lord continually, a clear indication that kingdom service is an ongoing commission. At my church, we give our church workers a title—world changers. We also give them a T-shirt. (Everyone loves a free T-shirt!)
Be sure every person who works to facilitate a worship service also has the opportunity to worship. If you have only one service, this may mean you should expand to two. We first implemented multiple services not out of need to seat more people, but simply to serve and celebrate our volunteers. Our first World Changer service was so small it fit in a hallway in our mobile meeting place. But God honored that commitment and it grew into a large service, and then a third service, and a fourth service. We now say, “Sit one, serve one.” If you celebrate volunteers, you create a culture of joyful service.
Ultimately, what we celebrate is what we reproduce. God’s heart for thankful celebration is revealed across time and testaments . . . and it makes sense to chase after his heart. Take joy in his story and the role he has given to you and your church. Mark the milestones. Tell the generations. Elevate what matters. Don’t play it cool; instead, delight in every good and perfect gift. Devote yourself to celebration, and your capacity for joy will increase.