“Then celebrate with joy before the Lord your God for seven days… I am the LORD your God”. Leviticus 23:40,43.
Next Sunday is our Harvest service at Christ Church. We will thank God for his goodness, bring gifts of food which will be taken to the Salvation Army, and then enjoy a really good meal together. The Bible passage for the day is Leviticus 23:33-44, and reminds us of from where the custom of giving thanks for the Harvest comes. The people of Israel were in the desert, gathered around Mt Sinai, with no crops in sight. But God spoke to them through Moses, and told them what they had to do, once they were settled in the beautiful, rich, fertile land he was about to give to them. Every year, after the harvest, the entire nation was to go on an eight-day camping holiday. They were to leave their houses, and live in shelters made of branches and leaves, in memory of how they lived when God led the through the desert. This was called “Sukkot”- “the Feast of Tabernacles” or “The Festival of Shelters”. It is still celebrated by Jews today; this year it will begin on 11th October.
One remarkable thing about this was the command God gave them: they were to rejoice before him (v40). That is, they were commanded to be happy and have a good time, to enjoy the fruit of the Harvest that the LORD had given to them. God wanted his people to be happy; like a father watching his children play, he delighted in seeing their joy. The command to be rejoice and be happy in God echoes down through the Bible. It is not an optional extra, the icing on the cake of a religious life. Instead it is a basic command to God’s people: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say it: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
Of course, this could go horribly wrong. It was a constant temptation for God’s people to enjoy God’s gifts so much that they forgot about the giver, like a child who plays with his presents, and has no interest in his parents’. The joy that the Israelites were commanded to have was not just a joy in having lots of stuff. It was a joy in knowing that the Lord was their God, and that they were his forever. When they watched the corn ripen, or ran their fingers through the soil, or ate goat’s cheese, or drank wine, or watched their children play in safety, then that was a concrete experience of God’s love for them.
We too are commanded to rejoice, to enjoy belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ. This brings him pleasure and delight. We are not to seek our greatness happiness in his gifts, but to look through his gifts at the one who has given them, and be happy that we belong to him. So on Sunday we will come and enjoy ourselves in his presence.
Some more information on the Feast of Tabernacles: