I admit that “party” is not found in most Bible translations. But the concept is certainly there. We just don’t see it.
How did the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son deal with the return of his son?
(Lk. 15:22-25 ESV) 22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.”
He had a feast of a fatted calf (in a culture where beef was a rare luxury), played music, and danced. <sarcasm font>Jesus, of course, is opposed to these things — and so why he used them to illustrate the behavior of YHWH, God of the Jews, is more than a little intriguing.</sarcasm font>
(Lk. 7:31-34 ESV) 31 “To what then shall I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? 32 They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33 For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ 34 The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ “
Jesus describes his own mission as “eating and drinking” in contrast to John’s ministry characterized as “you did not dance.” Jesus further contrasts his mission to John’s, who drank no wine. Obviously, Jesus was different.
Jesus seemed to behave as though there was continually something to celebrate (cf 5:33–34), and he drew into this celebration tax collectors and sinners—people known to be unsavory types who lived beyond the edge of respectable society (cf at 5:30). The uncomprehending generation could not understand that Jesus was signaling the in-breaking of the eschatological time of salvation: that his meals with sinners presaged the eschatological banquet (cf at 13:29) of those who have received God’s grace and forgiveness at the time of his eschatological visitation.
John Nolland, Luke 1–9:20, Word Bible C 35A; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 345-346.
(Ps. 30:11-12 ESV) 11 You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, 12 that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!
Now, dancing in the world of David and Jesus was not like dancing at an American prom. It wasn’t (and isn’t) sexual. It is, however, a recognition that the physical part of the Creation is good — and that we can celebrate God’s victories not only mentally but physically. All else is Gnosticism.
There’s nothing wrong with liturgical dance or simply jumping up and down in delight. (My four-year old grandson cannot be happy without expressing it physically by jumping over and over. It’s how God makes us. It’s takes years of training to remove that bit of God’s image from us.)
Again, as we rejoice with those who rejoice, we are drawn closer together. As a people, we’re pretty good at mourning with those who mourn. Our preachers and elders and friends will show up at a visitation or funeral. But rejoicing … well, that’s different. We barely know how.
(Jer. 31:1-4 ESV) “At that time, declares the LORD, I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they shall be my people.” 2 Thus says the LORD: “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. 4 Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall adorn yourself with tambourines and shall go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
(Jer. 31:10-14 ESV) 10 “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ 11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD.”
If you’ve read this blog for long, you’ve read Jer 31:31 ff, which speaks of the new covenant. This passage is in the same context. Jeremiah is speaking of the end of Exile — the day we call Pentecost. And if he prophesies aright, then on Mt. Zion, the newly formed church sang, and and danced, played tambourines, and feasted together.
The expression “At that time” [in 31:1] refers to 30:24, “in the end of the days,” which means the Messianic future.
Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 8:268.
This sounds like a stretch to our ears, but it’s how people all over the world celebrate — and it’s certainly how Jews celebrated the return of God to Zion in the First Century. To imagine that they put away their instruments, sat in pews, and stared quietly into space while long-winded sermons were pronounced is to read the culture of Calvin’s Geneva and the Puritans back into the First Century. Northern Europeans may have acted the way we do, but we are nothing like the Easterners Jeremiah is describing.
And so we’re missing something ineffable. Celebrating together — physically — demonstratively — bonds people together. How you can you not love someone that you celebrated with? Like a four-year old jumping up and down in unbridled excitement? Shouted with?
What we need in church is more love — and one step in that direction would be some tambourines. Seriously.
Ray Vander Laan makes the point well. Imagine that you’re an Israelite leaving Egypt after the Passover and the deaths of the Egyptian firstborns. You pack hurriedly. Famously, you don’t have time to bring leaven — so that your first meal together must be unleavened bread.
Then by a miracle, you cross the Red Sea and God destroys the pursuing Egyptian army behind you. Years of slavery come to an end and the Promised Land beckons. And so you celebrate.
Miriam leads the women in dancing and singing — with tambourines. But there are no tambourine stores on the east bank of the Red Sea. Amazon does not deliver there. Someone thought that in all the panic and furor and desperation, it might be worth the trouble to bring along tambourines. Who knows? Maybe there’d be a need to celebrate!
So this is the faith of Miriam and likely one reason she is celebrated as a leader of Israel in scripture (Mic 6:4 NET). In all cultures, the women do the packing, and Miriam thought to pack the tambourines.
And the Song of Miriam and the celebration she led is legendary — and not some old, obsolete, abandoned, Old Testament understanding of God. Jeremiah tells us that this is how it should be when the Exile ends and God returns to Mt. Zion and the Spirit is outpoured and the Kingdom is established and the Messiah is enthroned. We just don’t see it because we’re too afraid to celebrate even a baptism.
And since we so badly misunderstand God’s love for us, we struggle to know how to love each other.
We need to relearn the art of celebration — so easy even a four-year old can do it. It’s how God made us.