The Feast of Tabernacles was a celebration of a successful harvest season at the same time being a reminder of God residing with His people for 40 years in the wilderness. Leviticus 23:40 (NLT) commands, “On the first day gather branches from magnificent trees–palm fronds, boughs from leafy trees, and willows that grow by the streams. Then celebrate with joy before the LORD your God for seven days.” Leafy trees I think represent provision and abundance. The palm in Scripture spoke of victory and success. Think Hawaii; think happy dance. The willow, on the other hand, represents tears, trials and adversity. Life is a combination of all of these. We have palm days and willow days. I will not have palm days all the time; I will not have weeping willow days all the time. Life is a mixture but through it God is the same, unchanging. His goodness is with me all the time. He is not just the God of palm days. God is there in the valley, in the tears.
Deuteronomy 31:6 (NIV) says, “He will never leave you nor forsake you.” Willow days do not mean I am out of the presence of God. Happy days, experiencing His blessing, are good but they are not a sign that God is with me more strongly. He is unchanging. I need to learn to rejoice through it all. Paul in Philippians 4:12 (NIV) said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Whether in a palace or a prison, Paul made the decision to praise. How is that even possible? He goes on in verse 13, “I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.”
A palm day can switch to a willow day in an instant. I might be enjoying a beautiful spring day cruising down the street until the blue lights start flashing in the rear view mirror. About 4 years ago I was walking into church anticipating a great service. There was a light dusting of snow that covered an icy patch. Down I went fracturing my pelvis. Palm to willow in the blink of an eye. Philippians 4:4 commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” There are days when I feel tore up from the floor up, but even if it is a willow in my hand, God says rejoice.
Ever notice how we make a bigger deal of our willow days than our palm days? We whine, complain and make sure everybody feels sorry for us (not that anybody cares because they are too busy focused on their own problems.) Is the only time God can get my attention is when I am in trouble? Is that why I am so often in trouble? Reality is that in good times we tend to coast. Over 40 years ago, I broke my hand playing volleyball. Today I can still feel where the break occurred, not because it is still broken, but because it grew back even stronger. Our trials make us stronger.
I tend to think of palm days as no big deal while I make a big deal about my trials. I need to make a big deal about my blessings too. We ought to shout so much about our blessings we get on our neighbor’s nerves. How do we pray? Is it always needs and petitions (willows) or do we focus on worship and thanksgiving (palms)?
There is man-made pain: war, crime, hated and prejudice. There are natural disasters: floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, also sickness and disease. Where is God in that suffering? Isaiah 53:5 promises, “By His stripes we are healed.” Yet our Pastor died of cancer. My son was killed by a drunk driver. Nearly every day we read of terrorist attacks, bombings or beheadings. Psalm 23:4 says we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Aren’t we under the shadow of death our whole lives? From the day I was born I was on my way to leaving this world. James 4:14 (NIV) tells us, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
Romans 8:16-17 (NKJV): “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” Wouldn’t it be nice if the verse ended there, but it goes on, “if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” We like to skip over the “suffer” part. I don’t suffer for the victory Jesus achieved on the cross, but I will face negativity, face my own laziness and face the desires of my flesh. I can say Jesus is Lord but am I willing to go through the challenges of serving Him as Lord?
The passage continues with verse18, “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory He will reveal to us later.” I have lost a child, but that pain does not compare to the joy of being reunited in heaven. I will not minimize or trivialize the pain we go through: it’s bad. God is not expecting us to ignore the pain or deny the hurt. But that does not compare to the glory to come. Yes, life here sucks. But there is more to life than here on earth.
David had his share of struggles. His older brothers looked down on him. King Saul used him for target practice with his javelin. He spent years running for his life. But 1Samuel 30:6 says David encouraged himself in the Lord. In our battles if we will turn to God we will be strengthened to find joy and peace. Isaiah 43:2 (NKJV) says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you.” There is a key word here, repeated three times. Did you catch it? When you go THROUGH…
Romans 8:19 tells us we lost union with God at the Garden and all creation was placed under a curse. Now all of earth groans because the door was opened to the devil. My spirit is reborn but my body will still struggle with negative habits, destructive desires, addictions. If I’m a Christian, why do I still deal with all this junk? That’s my flesh. There is a battle, a fight of faith. Satan is trying to destroy me. He won’t stop with a pornographic web site or an attack on my marriage or filling me with fear and depression. Those are just little steps along the way. He wants to see me lose my hope and my faith in God.
Romans 15:13 (NLT): “I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him.” My joy and peace don’t come from my circumstances. They come from faith. If I let go of hope because of the circumstances, what is left? I won’t get better, only bitter. Look at someone who is full of hope and joy. Is it because their life has been easy? No, they have learned that circumstances do not define them. We groan within ourselves because this world is rough. But that is not the end of the story. Breathe in, breathe out. If you could do that, God’s not finished. Our hope is not in the world, it is in God.
Some problems we bring on ourselves. Some are just part of life. In 2Corinthians 11:23 Paul defends his ministry. He doesn’t talk about his theology degrees or his CD’s or how many come to his services. He points to his suffering. What do you think his back looked like? Whipped 5 times, beaten with rods 3 times, stoned once. If I had to go through even one of those beatings, you can keep ministry; I’m out of here. To Paul it was normal Christian life. In 2Corinthians 12:9 (NIV) the Lord assures Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.”
If I got a new job, I’d be happy. If I got a bigger salary… If I moved to a new town… Spoiler alert: I’m still won’t be happy until I change me. I am focused on my comfort while God is more interested in my character. Everything we see is temporary. If I define myself by what I own or where I live or how much money I make, my world view is messed up. 1Corinthinas 15:51 says this will all change “in the twinkling of an eye.” Everything I think is so important in this world becomes nothing the moment I put on that glorified body. I am not looking to get out of here, but I want to keep my priorities right as I am on this journey. The negatives in my world may never change but I can rise above them by trusting God.
We can get stuck in our problems and they define us more than our relationship with God. The problems I face may never get better, but I can get better. The mountain in front of me can become a barrier to moving forward or it can be the path to a higher life. The problems in life may never be fixed, but I can rise above them in Christ and not be defined by them. God isn’t going to fix everything. I don’t know why, He didn’t check with me on that. There will be times that aren’t fun. But that doesn’t mean He has left me or that He is finished with me. I can get stronger and climb that mountain. James 1:2-4 (NIV): “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” That won’t happen by running from the negative circumstances. When those struggles come do I look to the Lord for help or do I get angry and distant? I choose to press in and find joy and peace in Him.
2Timothy 2:3 encourages us to endure hardship like a good soldier. Life is a battle. We have an enemy. The bad day is not the time to skip Bible reading; that’s the day to spend extra time. “The Lord let me down. He didn’t come through when I prayed. I’m going to go watch TV.” Who am I punishing? Do I expect God to feel bad because I am mad at Him? God is not my problem; He is the answer to my problem.
I refuse to let my whole being be defined by one tragedy. Shortly after our son was killed we were encouraged to join Mothers Against Drunk Driving. We attended a meeting where a speaker from out of town described her experience. She spoke with such bitterness and pain that we thought her loss must have been recent. Then we learned it had been 13 year before. That tragedy consumed who she was. My wife and I agreed we would not let that happen to us. Romans 8:37 promises I am more than a conqueror. How do I introduce myself? My name is drug addict. My name is divorced. No, my name is child of God, a joint heir with Christ, forgiven and redeemed.
Let’s read these verses together (NKJV):
- Psalm 34:1 “I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth.”
- Psalm 103:1 “Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!”
- Psalm 115:18 “But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.”
- Psalm 30:5 “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
Don’t throw in the towel during the night. A palm day is coming. God won’t leave me in my darkness. If I am willing to praise Him in the willow days He will bring the palm days.
Let me leave you with one final verse, Revelations 7:9 (NKJV): “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” What is missing? No willows. No more tears, no more trials. That’s God’s promise.