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by Jacob Ninan

The Book of Isaiah begins with a downright denunciation of His people, the people of Israel. God was so angry with them that He addressed them as Sodom and Gomorrah! They had turned away from Him, and had not returned to Him even after He sent them severe chastening. But in spite of this, they were carrying on with their holy festivals and offerings (Isa.1:1-15)!

They went on as if they were righteous in His sight, seeking Him day after day to know His will. They wanted to hear His decisions. They just ‘loved’ His presence! The only problem was that they could not understand why He was not listening to them in spite of their fasting and humbling of themselves (Isa.58:1-3)!

It is apparent that they did not see that anything was wrong with them. They thought they were doing all the right things, but God was not doing right with them! They complained that they were taking so much care to celebrate all His festivals, but He was not responding to them.

Does this have a relevance to the situation with Christians today in their relationship with God? On the face of it, it looks as if there is currently a resurgence among Christians. Many seem to be coming to Christ, and many seem to be taking part in church activities of various kinds. But many of them are unhappy with the way God is dealing with them, even though, as they say, they are doing so much for Him.

Come November, people can be seen preparing for Christmas. The choir is choosing their special songs and practising their singing, sacrificing their time and comfort in order to put up a great show for the church. People spend a lot of money decorating their houses and churches with extraordinary attention to the appearance and novelty. They go shopping for new clothes and gifts for their loved ones and friends. Social networks become very active with greetings and good wishes. They have a gala time on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Then the cycle repeats for the New Year celebrations, and later on for Good Friday and Easter. So much of planning, efforts, time and money are spent on all these, and people think God must be happy with their ‘offerings’. Is it possible that, with many of them, God’s word is, “I hate your festivals”?

Why would God hate the things His people do for His sake? Is He not the One who established many festivals for His people Israel and gave them detailed instructions about how they should celebrate them? What is His problem when they do more than what they can (by even taking loans), in order to celebrate them?

It was God who asked Israel to celebrate their special festivals in order to help them think about what He had done for their fathers earlier. But His real goal for them was not that they should be a people who would faithfully hold these festivals every year. His priorities were different. What He really wanted them to do was to love Him with all their heart, mind and strength and to love the others as themselves (Matt.22:37-39). This love was to be shown in a moment by moment relationship of the heart and not in celebrating festivals every year with a sense of duty and giving gifts to people.

While there is a warning to Christians not to be subject to rules and regulations regarding celebration of festivals (Col.2:16,17), there is freedom for those who want to consider every day with equal importance and not celebrate any particular day as special, or to celebrate special days when they do it as unto the Lord (Rom.14:5,6). The discussion here is not whether one should celebrate Christian festivals or not, but about what is more important: our relationship with the Lord.

It is obvious that, for many people, these festivals are not about Him, but themselves. They want to enjoy themselves, impress others or to follow the customs and traditions of society. Some people do it all ‘for the sake of the children’ because they don’t want the children to miss all the fun! But when they do this in the name of Christ and go to extremes, it is Christ’s name that gets shamed. For example, when Christmas is all about the celebrations and not about Christ, even non-Christians feel quite comfortable to join in. Merchants make much about ‘Xmas’ or the ‘Holiday Season’ purely for business. But when someone brings in the name of Christ in a serious way, everyone immediately recognises that it is not politically correct!

Some others go through much effort and expenditure because they think that they can please God by all this sacrifice. But God is interested in their obedience that comes from their hearts out of their relationship with Him and not really in sacrifices (1Sam.15:22). Some people think that these sacrifices can compensate for their lapses in other areas of life.

We may have heard about the practice of many unscrupulous businessmen in India who put biscuits or bricks of gold in the temple offering once a year to atone for all their wrongdoing, while planning at the same time to continue with the same business practices and offering of gold every year!

It is this attitude that God hates. He wonders why all the meticulous attention people pay towards organising and carrying out the celebration of festivals is not there when it comes to being faithful to Him in the daily situations of life. What He wants is this faithfulness and not so much the celebrations.

Why is it that when churches or people get together for ‘celebrating what the Lord has done’, there is not even a mention of repentance for their failures in the past or a prayer for help to be faithful in the future?

Festivals usually turn into mere events that are carried out in terms of external arrangements and practices. The meaning behind the practices gets secondary attention or none at all. Even unbelievers can carry out the ‘event management’ for the festivals, and even unbelievers can ‘lead the worship’ on the platform, once they have mastered the techniques. But our life with God is essentially in the innermost parts of our being and not so much in the external actions. God wants to see the fruit of His work not in the external things we do, but in the deepest parts of our life, away from the observation of other people (Psa.51:6;1Sa.16:7;Jn.4:23). If we are not faithful inside, especially if we are not even aiming at becoming faithful there, and we are very diligent in doing everything right on the outside, are we not deceiving ourselves? Are we not thinking that God must be very happy with us even though things are not right between us and God? Is it any wonder if God hates that kind of duplicity?

It is not just festivals. Can we not try to soothe our conscience by doing more ‘ministry’? We think of the sacrifices we make there, and console ourselves imagining that because of all that we are doing for God, He overlooks areas in our life where there are things we know to be wrong but we are not doing anything to set them right. We may convince ourselves that there are certain things we have to do if we have to survive in this world, and we think that God should look instead at how ‘sincerely’ we worship Him and serve Him!

One of God’s judgments against the Pharisees was that they were presenting themselves like magnificent tombs on the outside while God saw them to be like rotting flesh and bones inside (Matt.23:27,28). We too can appear to be righteous and holy because of our zealous participation in festivals, ministry and other religious activities. But He hates the falsehood and the discrepancy inside.

Our God does not expect us to be sinlessly perfect in all the areas of our life. For that we would have to be God, which we are not. But He does want us to live before Him and people with a good conscience (Acts 24:16). How can we be pleasing to Him if we are negligent in this aspect of our life and then try to compensate with extra attention to religious activities?

-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, February 2016

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