Liturgical Holidays

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony…” Job 1:5

“Job would send for his children and perform a ceremony as a way of asking God to forgive them of any wrongs they might have done. He would get up early the next morning and offer a sacrifice for each of them, just in case they had sinned or silently cursed God,” Job 1:5 CEV.

We as humans are religion creators. We have an innate tendency to perform ceremonies, be pious, do extra, go extreme, and settle into ritualistic security.

Job was a religion creator just like the rest of us. Most bible translations add to vs. 5 that this ceremony to cleanse his children not of actual, but of fictitious sins, was Job’s “regular practice.”

Job deeply desired to please God– and God completely recognized his piety and blamelessness– but Job approached God through religion not faith. He displayed a type of existential anxiety in relation to the Lord that would be common to the pagans of his day.

I think many of us begin our journey toward faith in a superstitious religiosity in the midst of which, and despite of, the Lord extends to us an offer of experiencing Him through faith and freedom from our “regular practices.”

Job was a contemporary of Abraham– both of them would have begun as idolaters. Job was a religious man in the fashion of the spirit of the age– ritual sacrifice. At that time everyone offered sacrifices to the gods and burnt offerings. Religion always emerges from culture.

But Job’s faith emerges outside of his culture. He has an encounter with God that has nothing to do with his sacrifices.

I know that can be hard to take in, being that Mosaic religion is a religion based on atonement by sacrifice– on that note let me remind you that in at least 21 passages of scripture God says that sacrifice and offering is not what He really wants, desires, or accepts. He says it first to Samuel (1 Samuel 15:22);that His true desire is obedience.

In subsequent scriptures throughout the Bible, God relays His preferences over sacrifice as being: love, knowledge of Him, a broken and contrite spirit, righteousness and justice, mercy, to love Him with all our heart and strength and understanding, love our neighbors, love kindness, walk before Him humbly, walk in the way He commands us, delight to do His will, carry His law within our hearts, draw near to listen, faithfulness, to attend to others, to be reconciled to our brothers, to obey, to listen to His voice, and to do all He commands us.

This explains the entire book of Hebrews! Isaiah 1:11-17 says:

What makes you think I want all your sacrifices? says the Lord. I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and Sabbath and your special days for fasting– they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourself and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. 

This is a little confusing in light that God instituted all of those rituals. But! The author of Hebrews tells us that the first model that was given us was in fact only a model! It was a model of the heavenly things put into an earthly context, but once Jesus came that earthly context was no longer needed because Jesus revealed all to us, and now our worship is not to be in the fleshly way– for the fleshly way is in fact quite replicable by the world– but rather we are to worship in spirit and in truth for God is spirit (John 4:24).

See in Hebrews 10:1-10 how Jesus’ sacrifice put an end to ritual sacrifices to make way for true religion. The Apostle James defines this true religion in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

The sacrificial system was in a sense a syncretistic in that the Lord allowed a world system to act as a spiritual system. It was a system that seems to have emerged from the world not outside of it.

It’s not that God didn’t act, interact, or accept the sacrifices but religious piety– which was all the sacrificial system accomplished en masse– was not the ultimate goal, but rather the goal was relationship with God through faith. We see this starting all the way back with Job– the oldest book in the Bible. He is the first to say, “I know that my Redeemer lives!” and “If only I had an advocate.” The first person whose rebirth through faith is set into record was the first to say, “I thought I knew before, but now I know.” And that knowing is knowing that religion is a shadow— it is merely a carbon-based form for our carbon-based brains.

Religion speaks to us in our fleshly, worldly context before we are born again into the spirit.

We are a people in context, but we are called to live out of context. We are treasure in a field (Matthew 13:44). We are in the temporal but are of the eternal.

As we are surrounded by a worldly context it is difficult to not be saturated by that context. It is difficult to keep ourselves “undefiled.” And by undefiled I am actually not talking about by sin, but by religion.

It is the inevitable human tendency to create religion, I say again.

We as Christians have inherited both a faith and a religion. How do we interact with the religion we have inherited– the part of our worship that is of the earth, of the age, sometimes borrowed from false religion and often syncretistic?

How do we maintain faithfulness and obedience when even our own institutions and leaders bait us into unspiritual practices that emerge from man and culture?

The liturgical holidays are a great example of practical syncretism in the Christian religion.

I will now finally define syncretism for those of you who don’t have that definition on file. Syncretism is the practice of two religions at one time. It is the blending of a person’s old religious practices while believing in the tenets of one’s new faith. It is borrowing traditions and practices in one religion for use in another.

This is why I postulate that ritual sacrifice was possibly syncretism. Sacrificing made sense to pagans– still does unfortunately. Even modernly, it is in fact, legal in America to ritually sacrifice animals, and neo-pagans in Britain are committing kidnappings for human sacrifices today.

The most important point I want to make about ritual sacrifice, is that Jesus ended it. God may have allowed blood sacrifice as the agreement for atonement for a time, but it was only for a time until a better agreement was made. There is, therefore, in the same way, no longer a place for sacrifices or any other forms of culturally emergent Christian religious practice.

Inadvertently, American Christians still practice syncretism through the liturgical holidays. (You are in fact reading the preface post for my Liturgical Holiday series.)

Let’s identify syncretism in Christian religion and contemporary Christian practice by playing a game called “Who Borrowed Whose Holiday?”

  • Halloween is actually a Catholic holiday that the neo-pagans borrow, not the other way around!
  • Thanksgiving is not actually a Puritan holiday but is an assimilation of the Catholic St. Martin’s Day, a holiday that is still huge all throughout Europe.
  • And Christmas, the holiday we consider to be ultimately Christian, is actually the only one that is not Catholic by origin but pagan!
  • And just a side note: The only holidays that are ordained in the Bible are in the Old Testament, which very few Christians even know about. And, we are not commanded to celebrate Jesus’ birth nor His resurrection day. We are however, commanded to remember Him through participating in the Lord’s Supper and providing for each other’s needs– ordinances which we treat flippantly, without cheer, and with a bah hum bug closed-heartedness.

So, with this back drop let me explain what this series on the liturgical holidays will and will not be.

It will not be an exhortation to stop celebrating the liturgical holidays. I will make the argument that it is not going to damn you to celebrate Christmas. We will be talking through Paul’s perspectives on pagan feasts in 1 Corinthians to explore our freedoms regarding the liturgical/pagan observances.

It will be an exploration of the spiritual warfare involved in the liturgical holidays. On this count we will explore Balaam in Numbers, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.

It will be a spring board to critique the emergent, missional, and discipleship Christian movements to assess in what ways our post-modernist efforts to evangelize do in fact “fish” men out of their context or if we are simply falling into the same assimilation traps that resulted in the Catholics giving us the liturgical holidays– occasions that leave us fat, sleepy, broke, accidently falling prey to spiritual attack, and very little conformed to the image of Christ.

Don’t worry: I don’t hate the holidays. But I do think they are a far better litmus for the state of the American church than we think. They are a great indicator that we love our “regular practices” and our ceremonies more than we love “walking humbly” and keeping his covenant (Exodus 19:5).

Warning! Through this seasonal series, let’s keep more in mind our own failings in practicing “pure and genuine religion,” than transferring blame onto Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. This exploration’s goal is to draw us into humility not pride.

The Lord is notorious for His patience with worldliness in His holy people so that they might eventually learn to recognize godliness. None of us can boast.

Testimony

Who’s afraid of Yom Kippur? My devotional journey as a Wilderness Christian.

This devotional is a repost from last year’s Fall Feasts series. It gives both background on Yom Kippur and my personal relationship with “the Old Covenant.” This year during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot I will be diving deeper into the Sabbatical calendar as a meta-narrative of the Bible. As Chuck Missler says, “for Jews their calendar is their catechism.” This fall I would like to attempt to use the Hebrew Calendar as an inspiration to look deeply at: the salvation plan, the gospel, the kingdom, the Trinity, and discipleship. Rosh Hashanah kicks off the Fall Feasts on September 29 this year. Please look forward to the 2019 Fall Feasts series entitled, “Salvation on our Heads, the Gospel on our Feet.”

I have been a little stumped on what to write about for Yom Kippur. My week got hijacked by a burning need to understand covenant theologies vs. dispensational theologies and all the “progressive” versions of those theologies in between.

It wasn’t a completely unrelated pursuit.

Christians are often curious about how the Old Testament figures into salvation by grace through faith. This definitely raises the question of why I would be interested in writing about the Fall Feasts as someone saved under the New Covenant of grace, not justified by the law?

To be fair, I am going to write about the liturgical holidays too. Perhaps I have more of a thing for calendars than I do Levitical law!—and a thing for celebrating as many holidays as possible!

I do have a pretty interesting background theologically that gives me a peculiar love for both the Old and New Covenants.

I was born into a Portuguese Catholic family that converted to Pentecostalism. Yes, conversion is the appropriate word, just for information’s sake, because evangelicals of all denominations believe in a personal conversion moment where one is born again in Christ, which Catholics absolutely do not.

From Pentecostalism, my mother lead the charge as we journeyed into Messianic teachings, then into the fundamentals of Calvary Chapel born from the Jesus Movement, then into a charismatic inner healing ministry with prosperity doctrines as incidentals, then I personally branched out as a teenager to attend a Presbyterian church where I was first exposed to post-modern mysticism and spiritual formation disciplines. I also spent a lot of time singing at a Lutheran church in high school with all the High Church formalities and completed my “theological confusion studies” at Azusa Pacific University which in 2004 was just flirting with ecumenical and inclusive theologies where I visited the seeker-sensitive and emergent meccas– Saddleback and Mosaic– albeit unimpressed. I was impressed by the Billy Graham crusade that I went to as a freshman in college— I only went because Jars of Clay was playing at it. Witnessing one of Graham’s crusades kept the revivalist ember alive somewhere in my soul.

I also got to see Francis Chan an abundance of times in Azusa’s compulsary chapels. In reality he may as well have been my pastor in terms of percentage of sermons I sat under in my college years.

So what does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? I don’t know, maybe nothing!

But, you know, I think it does. The theologies and pastors I have sat under really all come from a heritage of restorationism in one way or another. Restorationism is that old Puritan desire to return to the biblical basics of the church.

The Restoration movement could ultimately be pinned on Luther and it has taken a multitude of names over the centuries. Now we call it emerging…(not my favorite term.)

We all have a sinking feeling, and perhaps a sincere concern, that we have added so many costumes, preoccupations, and presumptions to our religious practice that we render it void. I think many of us probably fear that our personal devotional lives have gone in the same way of becoming so pretentious that we are pretty useless to the cause of the Gospel.

See, I don’t feel that the Old Testament is the mold for clunky trappings and phony tall hats. I don’t think it’s antithetical to the New Testament. I think the Old Testament and it’s Old Covenant laws is Relationship With God For Dummies.

I have gleaned four core beliefs about God from tagging along on my mother’s spiritual sojourning. The following are unshakable foundations for how I read, interpret, and organize my understanding of the unity of the Bible:

  1. God does not change His mind. (Numbers 23:19)
  2. The physical and the spiritual are one reality, though mercifully, humans have a thin veil separating their perception of the spiritual activity in their physical reality. (Talk to anyone who has done hallucigenics, had a psychotic break, experiences prophetic dreams, has been a missionary, knows a Satanist, has read Genesis 3:7, knows anything about Eastern Orthodox or Catholic beliefs on the spiritual realm, has the unfortunate experience of having seen demons, or just entertains philosophical sytems other than Western scientific rationalism and materialism.) Based on the premise that we live in an equally spiritual and physical reality, I believe that God’s physical laws and promises are in no way separate from His spiritual laws and promises. In other words, Christians are the spiritual children of Abraham and have been grafted into the physical promises of Abraham along with his spiritual promises. My belief in both of these statements is ultimately grounded in that I see no significant difference, in the Old or New Testament, between how the physical and spiritual components of reality are treated.
  3. God is Triune in the Old and New Testaments. He did not become Triune over time, neither in revelation nor in relationship to humans. (Genesis 1, Judges 6, John 1-3.) Therefore, the Levitical laws were as much from the heart of Jesus as from the heart of the Father. (John 12: 44-50)
  4. God has always been more concerned with the heart’s condition than outward disciplines. That concept did not originate in Matthew 5– in fact Jesus turned up the heat on the law, judging the heart he made the law even harder to keep! Laws are to discipline the flesh. The more yielding a heart is the more free a person is from strict disciplines. (1 Samuel 15:22-23, Psalm 40:6, 1 Corinthians 8:1-10:13, and everything written about King David.)

Therefore, celebrating, and I do mean celebrating, any component of the Old Covenant does not automatically make a person a Hebrew Roots legalist. In my case, it’s just something I enjoy.

I don’t depend on the Day of Atonement to give me salvation for just one year. I depend on that atoning Good Friday long ago for my salvation forever.

I neither think that my works please God, nor do I disparage any work I do in pursuit of Him. I know where my eternal rest comes from. I know how it was that I became enrobed in righteousness. And remembering an earthly day of “solemn rest,” 1, 3, 7, or 52 sunsets a year as a foreshadowing of my Eternal Rest does not make me forget one iota that only faith pleases God.

By faith I know that God both demands sacrifice and is the sacrifice; that He simultaniously demands perfection and that He irrationally, literally, by choice sees me as perfect.

And if you choose to read Leviticus 23:26-32, regarding the institution of the Day of Atonement, let me give you the key words/phrases of faithful practice that are as applicable today as they were 3,000 years ago when the Torah was given:

  1. Be careful (1 Corinthians 16:13)
  2. Holy assembly (Hebrews 10:23-25)
  3. Deny yourselves (Matthew 16:24)
  4. Offerings of purification are made for you making you right with God (1 John 2:2)
  5. All who do not deny themselves will be cut off from God (Luke 9:24)

Be free in Jesus name. Even free enough to be unafraid of the Law– because in Jesus, it ain’t got nothing on you! (John 5:45)

 

 

Crossway Book Reviews

Book Review: Even Better Than Eden

I just completed a journey through the meta-narrative of the Bible through the lens of 9 “stories” or themes foundational to the Genesis story and consistent through to Revelation. This courtesy of Nancy Guthrie’s new book released just last month by Crossway, from whom I was able to receive a complimentary copy for review.

Even Better Than Eden by Nancy Guthrie is an accessible missional resource that is rich in storytelling and Reformed theology.

Guthrie’s work is a presentation of the gospel in a truly missional fashion: it is conversational and necessitates conversation; it is highly metaphorical and experiential; and though it is laden with heavy and unrelenting theological assertions, those assertions are expertly layered into a disarmingly vulnerable and empathetic offering.

The style of her writing is an accomplishment that would be readily accepted by the undecided, un-discipled, or estranged from faith. Her winsome approach to the Bible’s story as thematic rather than overtly theological is worshipful, and zooms out to an eternal perspective in a way that would foster great conversations on deep/hard/sensitive topics that might be otherwise difficult to broach in a church setting with a spiritually and experientially diverse group of people.

While Even Better Than Eden is written in prose that is whimsical enough to be enjoyed curled under a knit blanket with a cup of tea in the way of more frothy publications in the Spirituality/Self-Help/Christianity category for women today, it offers the benefit of true Biblical meat.

My one recommendation to the small group leader or discipleship mentor is to be aware that toward the end of the book Guthrie comes directly forward with a covenantal perspective on the Old Jerusalem where most of the book is a New Covenant Theology argument. This is obviously fine if you are of the Reformed/Calvinist tradition, but for small groups and discipleship pairs in Arminian/Wesleyan churches, a brief overview of the various covenant beliefs would be good to avoid confusion between doctrine taught from the pulpit and those explored in a study of this book.

Perhaps this theological conflict could be brought up amongst the study questions provided at the end of the book. Guthrie also provides great sources in her own appendices, providing: “Notes,” “Bibliography,” “General Index,” and “Scripture Index,” sections. She really does provide a framework for any discussion of disagreement on the book’s underlying theologies.

Here is another great resource to use for such a discussion. Written by John Piper, himself a doctrines of grace, Reformed theology subscriber, he however, does not adhere to any one covenant theology making him a good platform for an open exploration of a potentially divisive point of theology amongst denominations and traditions. Below is the link to an article where he simplistically compares the three main views on the structure of God’s relationship to man over the whole of Biblical narrative:

https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-does-john-piper-believe-about-dispensationalism-covenant-theology-and-new-covenant-theology

Overall on Even Better Than Eden: I greatly enjoyed the writing style and general argument of the book. I found it refreshing. While reading it, many of Guthrie’s insights caused me to experience not only a legitimate surge in my head knowledge of being loved by God, but also moments of genuine affection with the Lord.

Buy it here: https://www.amazon.com/Even-Better-than-Eden-Everything/dp/1433561255