Right from the Beginning – #5

(Please read Genesis 2:1-3 in your Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Lewis Sperry Chafer, in his book Grace, told the following story:
“One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had.

“’I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.’

“‘But you didn’t notice,’ said the winning woodsman, ‘that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.’”

<Retrieved from http://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-illustrations/5615/i-was-sharpening-my-ax/ on 10/27/16.>

This little parable tells us that constant activity is not a guarantee of success.  Workaholism is no more noble an addiction than any other addicted behavior.  To be faithful and successful, periods of work must be alternated with periods of rest.

In our study of Genesis, we have arrived at the final day of creation, a day when God did no more creating.  It is so significant that the creation account ends in this way and yet it is probably the most under-utilized passage of Scripture in the Church.  God set for us an example we are to follow by taking a day of rest following His six days of work.

In Jesus’ time, God’s people went to crazy extremes of legalism about keeping the Sabbath.  There were hundreds of interpretations of what it meant to cease from work.  In our time, God’s people have pretty much gone to the opposite extreme, where keeping a Sabbath is something virtually ignored.  We think that keeping the Sabbath is accomplished by spending an hour or so in church once a week.  In the process of cheating God, we’ve cheated ourselves out of the blessing of knowing what a Sabbath is and how to observe it in a way that pleases God.

For a year now, I’ve had an “infographic” on my desk that shows religious observation in the United States.  The data was assembled by the Gallup organization and has limited usefulness, but offers a snapshot of the religious life of our nation.

The data shows the total WEEKLY attendance of a church, synagogue, or mosque in 2014.  The state with the highest attendance was Mississippi, which notched 47%.  The state with the lowest attendance was Vermont, with just 17%.  South Dakota is smack in the middle of those extremes at 31%.  Just one third of peoples of faith honor the Sabbath on a weekly basis.  Never mind which faiths or which day of the week, lump them all together and that’s the best we can come up with.

Did God intend His people should take the Sabbath seriously?  The answer is yes.  In Exodus 20, it is the fourth of the Ten Commandments and easily the lengthiest Commandment.  In Exodus 31:14 the LORD said, “OBSERVE THE SABBATH, BECAUSE IT IS HOLY TO YOU.  ANYONE WHO DESECRATES IT IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH; THOSE WHO DO ANY WORK ON THAT DAY MUST BE CUT OFF FROM THEIR PEOPLE.”  Sabbath violators were to receive the death penalty.  I’d say it doesn’t get any more serious than that!

While we as Christians are not bound to the Law of Moses in the same way as our Jewish forebears were, the command to observe the Sabbath remains.  We are not free in Christ to ignore the Sabbath, but we are free to observe it in ways that are appropriate to us individually.

REVIEW

  1. Before creation: Only God existed (1:1-2).
  2. Creation, Day One: Separating day and night (1:3-5).
  3. Day Two: Separating sky and sea (1:6-8).
  4. Day Three: Separating the sea and the land; growing plants on the land (1:9-13).
  1. Day Four: Creating heavenly lights (1:14-19).
  2. Day Five: Creating animals for the sea & sky (1:20-23).

NEW

  1. Day Seven: Instituting the Sabbath (2:1-3).

GOD HAD FINISHED THE WORK HE HAD BEEN DOING (1).  God declared His creation VERY GOOD (1:31).  Part of what that means is that it was complete.  It was finished.  One of His purposes in instituting the Sabbath was to give His people a weekly reminder that we are creation, He is our Creator.  He is worthy of our worship and devotion.  The Hebrew word for WORK here occurs three times in this passage and is the usual word for our ordinary operations.  It’s ironic that such an ordinary word is used to sum up the supernatural work of creation, but creation is what God does.

ON THE SEVENTH DAY HE RESTED FROM ALL HIS WORK (2). The Hebrew word sabbat (“rest”) is qualified by the phrase FROM HIS WORK.  It means that He ceased the creative labors.  God stopped doing what He had been doing.

We noted last week that one of the eight things about the creation of humans was that He created us to work.  On the 7th day we learn He also created us to rest.  REST involves several things:

– Ceasing from our usual labor.

– Being inactive long enough to restore health; getting enough sleep.

– Restoring balance to our lives.  We are not just workers and this world is not our home.  We need to be reminded of our true selves and rightly ordered priorities.

– Finding a place of safety.  We make take adequate food and shelter for granted, but not all people do; observing a Sabbath reminds us to be thankful.

– Sabbath activity must serve only sacred purposes.  We have six days to live in the world; we need one to cleanse ourselves of the world’s influence and reset.

– Get back to nature: pay attention to creation, and, by association, our Creator.

THEN GOD BLESSED THE SEVENTH DAY (3).  In 1:31 God declared creation was VERY GOOD.  Of all the days of creation, this is the only one God BLESSED.  This makes it special and worthy of note.

AND MADE IT HOLY (3).  HOLY in this case means set apart to be used for divine purposes only.  Of all the days of creation, this is the only one God MADE HOLY.  That also makes it worthy of note.

BECAUSE ON IT HE RESTED FROM ALL THE WORK OF CREATING THAT HE HAD DONE (3).  One of the things we did not talk about related to the IMAGE OF GOD is assumed in this passage: one way we function as the IMAGE OF GOD is by following His example.  In this case, Sabbath-keeping is one of the ways we follow God’s example.

Half of observing the Sabbath is ceasing from doing all the other stuff that is part of our typical work week.  Here’s what God said on the subject: “FOR SIX DAYS WORK IS TO BE DONE, BUT THE SEVENTH DAY IS A DAY OF SABBATH REST, HOLY TO THE LORD.  WHOEVER DOES ANY WORK ON THE SABBATH DAY IS TO BE PUT TO DEATH.” (EXODUS 31:15).

Our Sabbath observance is taking time away from our regular stuff in order to repurpose it as a gift to God.  We cease our usual labors in order free up time.  We spend part of that time resting, more of it in righteous activity.

Our observance of a weekly Sabbath is for Rest and Righteousness.  (The BEST kind of “R&R.”)

As God RESTED, we are to devote a day to rest. This means to CEASE from the labors that occupy us during the rest 0f the week.  In every way you care to mention, we need at least a day a week to get away from all the stresses and labors that are typical to our lives on the six non-Sabbath days.  Part of the wisdom of observing a Sabbath are the benefits we derive from it.

As God declared the day to be HOLY, we are to devote a day to righteousness. Righteousness is, in part, activity that draws us closer to God, to one another, and to a better understanding of ourselves.

Righteous activity is NOT the worldly entertainments and occupations we practice the other six days of the week.  We observe a Sabbath by ceasing what usually holds our attention to give it to God instead.

I’ve had to limit my remarks to this one passage and not the subject of the Sabbath because there is a lot of biblical material on the subject and a mountain of interpretation, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic, on what it means to keep the Sabbath.  This message serves to only begin a conversation by scratching the surface. Let’s review what we take away from this text alone.  Here are the “talking points.”

– Our practice of observing the Sabbath is based on the historical fact that God Himself rested one day out of seven.

– Of all the days of creation, God deemed the seventh most important because He BLESSED the day and decreed it to be HOLY.

– Observing the Sabbath requires we plan to REST and engage in RIGHTEOUS activity only.  To REST means ceasing from our usual labors.  To be RIGHTEOUS we replace time usually spent on our labors with time spent on ways that draw us closer to God, closer to His people, and into a more godly view of ourselves.

The experiences and teaching of the New Testament persons, especially Jesus, is that making Sabbath-observance a law just doesn’t work.  In the same way you can’t force anyone to love, you can’t force anyone to keep the Sabbath.  If it’s not there in your heart to begin with, it won’t be genuine.  If it’s not genuine, it’s not worth doing.

On the other hand, we need structure.  We need a place to start thinking about how we can really set aside an entire day for only two things: Rest and Righteousness.  While the following will sound legalistic, it’s not: it’s only a suggestion.  Our human nature is such that we need to make a rule and follow it until we do it because we love it.

STEP ONE: DEFINE YOUR SABBATH DAY

– You must set apart a definite period of time, not just “Sunday.”  Be sensitive to job and family demands.  Make it a time you can keep every week.  Make it 17-24 hours long.

– Some suggestions:

Sundown Saturday to Sundown Sunday.

Midnight Saturday to midnight Sunday.

Noon Saturday to noon Sunday.

– Specify, notify the people around you, especially your family, and ask them to help you stick to it.

STEP TWO: PLAN YOUR SABBATH DAY

– “Failure to plan is planning to fail.”  That’s human nature. Make an hourly plan of how you’ll spend your Sabbath.

– Your plan must include only activities that meet 2 criteria.

The activities must be restful or righteous; they must not be worldly or secular activities.  Let me elaborate on those criteria.

As God RESTED, we are to devote a day to rest.  This means to CEASE from the labors that occupy us during the rest 0f the week.  Suggestions: in your plan, include times to sleep.  Plan to get a good night’s rest AND take a nap.  We’re planning activity and INactivity!  Rest is more than sleep; it’s a refraining from physical activity in order to do mental/ emotional/

spiritual activity.  So, prayer, Bible study, reading and meditation are all appropriate as restful activities, especially in connection with sleep.

As God declared the day to be HOLY, we are to devote a day to righteousness.  Here we are planning the more active hours of our Sabbath.  If you are going to do manual labor, make sure it isn’t the kind you do through the week and that you are praying or serving others while you do it.  The Bible says that we are to work the other six days.  Part of our planning is to get our work done before our Sabbath so we’re not distracted by leftover work.

The primary kind of righteous activity draws us closer to God.  This would include worship, stewardship, prayer, Bible study, fasting.  The secondary kind of righteous activity draws us closer to one another.  This includes worship, fellowship, service, discipleship, witness; things that center on meaningful conversation and relationship-building.  Face-to-face encounters are to be preferred, but anything that facilitates conversation is great.  Give church and family priority.  The tertiary kind of righteous activity helps us understand ourselves and our place in creation.  This includes solitude, private prayer, exercise, journaling, Bible study, hobbies, reading, and meditation.

Refraining from all worldly entertainments and activities is one of the simplest ways to be righteous on the Sabbath.

STEP THREE: KEEP YOUR SABBATH DAY

Start with prayer, end with prayer.  Keep a record of your plan, how you did, and what you did.  Give yourself plenty of grace, but learn from your mistakes.

(If you would like to see and hear this message preached, look us up on YouTube at EBCSF.)

 

 

 

2016 is a Year of Jubilee

(Please read Leviticus 25:8-22.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Message – God commanded a Year of Jubilee as a special Sabbath. We can do this in our own way.

  1. What the Year of Jubilee meant to Israel.

It meant freedom for indentured servants with the forgiveness of debts (39-43).  God did not free His people from slavery to the Egyptians (see the book of Exodus) only to make them slaves to one another.

In this culture, the “safety net” for poverty was for the head of the household to sell himself and/or family members into slavery.  We might call it “indentured servitude” to differentiate is from the other kind of slavery.  Indentured servants were countrymen and were generally assigned household chores.  Slave were Gentiles, became slaves by being conquered in war, and were not freed by the Year of Jubilee.  This allowed the man to work off his debt and when that was accomplished, everyone regained their freedom.

While this system his may sound cruel to our ears, I think it has some points to commend itself versus our system of welfare.  The indentured servants were provided a home, food, and work to do to restore their homes.  They were to be treated respectfully – as fellow countrymen – by their masters.  Our system creates a cruel dependency and a massive bureaucracy, both of which have been proven to be toxic to our social and political life.

While each approach to poverty has its strengths and weaknesses, the point is that the exception to this rule was the Year of Jubilee.  In this case, the debt that created indentured servitude was simply forgiven.

It also meant a second consecutive year of rest for the land (11-12; see Exodus 23:10-11).  It can be a little confusing because the term “Sabbath” is used in a variety of ways.

– The seventh day of the week was designated as the weekly Sabbath.

– The seventh year was designated as a Sabbath Year.

– I suppose you could say the Year of Jubilee was to be a “Sabbath of Sabbaths;” observed every 50 years, occurring after seven Sabbath Years were held (8).

In every case, however, a Sabbath is a rest from work, replacing work with worship and prayer. The term literally means “solemn rest.”  As God rested from His work of creation, so are His people to rest from their works.  But this was also a rest for the land.  The people were not to raise crops, but to trust God that He would provide for their needs through what grew on its own.  Imagine an entire year devoted to God!  What would 365 Sundays feel like?

I’m no farmer and have a black thumb, but I understand that land which is tilled and planted loses its vitality.  That’s why crops are rotated and occasionally land is left idle; to renew it.

The Year of Jubilee also required restoration of lands to their ancestral owners (10, 13).

This means that the land – the PROMISED Land – could not be sold permanently.  V. 23 = THE LAND MUST NOT BE SOLD PERMANENTLY, BECAUSE THE LAND IS MINE AND YOU ARE BUT ALIENS AND TENANTS.  This is the true theology of stewardship; everything belongs to God and He has appointed us as caretakers over it.  Our possessiveness, materialism, and pride are false and sinful because we don’t truly own a single thing.  How wonderful that every seventh year the people of God would get a powerful reminder not to put their hopes in money or earthly goods of any kind, but to trust in God instead.

The Year of Jubilee had practical as well as spiritual benefits.

– It emphasized the ties of family and brought them back to their origins: EACH ONE OF YOU IS TO RETURN TO HIS FAMILY PROPERTY AND EACH TO HIS OWN CLAN (10).

– It controlled inflation by resetting real estate prices every 50 years. (Today we use dollars in the way we used pennies 50 years ago and our purchasing power is diminishing.  Imagine how much better off we’d be with a 50 year reset!)

– It kept people from getting too far in debt. We know debt is hard on relationships.  (These days people are taking EIGHT YEARS to pay on a car, say nothing of 30 and 40 year mortgages!)

– Most importantly, it reinforced the essential truth that THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S (see Psalm 24:1).  This stops us from being selfish & materialistic.

By now you may be thinking of the ways in which the Year of Jubilee might be abused.  Notice that this passage required scaling prices according to the number of years until the next Jubilee (14-16).  This was a practical way to avoid abuse of the system.

Verse 17 provided a theological way to avoid abuse by forbidding abuse in principle: DO NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EACH OTHER, BUT FEAR YOUR GOD.  I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD.  This is exactly what GRACE is all about.  It risks abuse and misuse in order to make exceptions and aid others.

– The Year of Jubilee was to be 365 days of GRACE! WOW!!

– It was to be a whole year of trusting God to provide for you, not you busting your chops to grab all you can for yourself; a year of FAITH.

This sounds like crazy talk to worldly ears; utter foolishness.  Faith and grace have that effect on worldly-minded folk.  Grace is impractical and risky.  It has its own kind of logic that frequently opposes what the world says is reasonable.  The Year of Jubilee was also a practice run for the Kingdom of God, the ideal situation that will exist after the Day of the Lord.

The sad fact is that there is no biblical record of a Sabbath Year being observed, let alone a Year of Jubilee.  Apart from it being commanded in Leviticus and Numbers, it is never mentioned again in the Bible.  What a shame!  This wonderful command of God, so full of grace, was never adopted by the people of God.  What an opportunity wasted!

  1. What this Year of Jubilee will mean for us.

Freeing the captives and forgiving debts can be accomplished in our lives by our forgiveness of grudges and reconciliation of persons.  Forget about monetary debts; let us solve the relational problems in our lives by forgiveness.  We don’t need “drama and trauma” in our relationships.  God has called us to something far better: love.

One gauge of your spiritual life is the number of relationships that bring you joy compared to the number that are associated with negative emotions.  The more joy, the more spiritually mature you are.

An equivalent to resting the land can be taking rest from the tyranny of the ordinary and familiar.  Traditions and rituals exist to provide context, not constraint.  Spiritually mature people balance context with creativity and flexibility to follow the Spirit’s leadership.  Changing everything and changing nothing are ridiculous extremes and are scarcely worth mentioning.  Again, balance is key.  As human beings, we find joy in variety and familiarity.  This should balance should be sought as we make decisions together and live with one another.

In this, we can take as our example Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  God created the institution for people, not people for the institution.

Being restored to our ancestral lands can take place by the restoration of our church’s place in our neighborhood and our attitude toward the people who live next to the place we call home.  I realize that the so-called experts say that neighborhood churches are a thing of the past, that everyone drives to church these days.  So what?  Be a neighborhood church!  Should any one of our neighbors die without receiving Jesus as Savior, let it not be because we failed to reach out and share the Gospel.

HOW WE GOT HERE – Pastor Dwayne and I were having a staff meeting, conversing about how difficult 2015 has been.  We decided to claim 2016 as a year of grace, of fruitfulness, and the fullness of God’s blessing.  “Let’s call it a Year of Jubilee,” we decided.  Something about that struck a chord, and we googled it.  We were surprised to find out that Pope Francis had already had this idea and announced it as such!

But we were even more surprised when we found that it we are already in an official Year of Jubilee according to the Hebrew calendar.  That is the traditional lunar calendar that is currently in year 5776!  According to that calendar, the Year of Jubilee began on September 23 of this year and will continue until the Day of Atonement next year.

SO, even though we’re a little late to the party, we’re going to adapt this biblical command to our church in the coming year!  I mentioned this later that day at the Nehemiah Prayer Group and we ran with it there too.  Since there are nine months left in the Year of Jubilee, we’ll emphasize one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit each month.  We pray that this emphasis improves church life and extends our outreach to our community.

Rest for Your Weary Soul

Part Two of the Previous Post

When you’re weary, go to Jesus for rest.

(Please read Matthew 11:25-30.)

        Let’s begin by examining the context. The New Testament is the record of the New Covenant, the new agreement between God and man, mediated by Jesus Christ.  The first book of the New Testament is Matthew, where we see that the New Covenant is established by Jesus Christ, the long-anticipated Messiah.  In chapter 11 the emphasis is on John the Baptist who, enduring the rigors of imprisonment, sent some of his disciples to Jesus to settle new doubts that Jesus was the Messiah.  Jesus’ answer attracted a crowd and these words were directed at them. And specifically, we learn in verses 28-29 that those who, like John the Baptist, become weary and have second thoughts, can find REST in Jesus.

What’s central to our purpose today is the truth that whatever wearies us, we find true REST in Jesus. When Jesus said, “COME TO ME,” He’s reminding us that our part is to seek Jesus.  Similarly, in Matthew 7:7-8 He said, “ASK AND IT WILL BE GIVEN TO YOU; SEEK AND YOU WILL FIND; KNOCK AND THE DOOR WILL BE OPENED TO YOU.  FOR EVERYONE WHO ASKS RECEIVES; HE WHO SEEKS FINDS; AND TO HIM WHO KNOCKS, THE DOOR WILL BE OPENED.” Jesus’ promise echoes Jeremiah 31:25; “I WILL REFRESH THE WEARY AND SATISFY THE FAINT.”

Our need to seek Jesus is the second step of faith; God has already sought us. We try all sorts of worldly remedies, but only Jesus gives us true rest; only He can restore our souls.  Would the worldly wise folk mentioned in verse 25 come to him?

Jesus invited ALL who are “WEARY AND BURDENED” to seek Him. As Paul pictured this state in Galatians, here too we have the picture of the “weary warrior;” someone burdened with cares that become a detriment to their health and sense of well-being. What’s different here in Matthew is that it doesn’t matter what causes the weariness –what matters is where go for REST.

Jesus promises ultimate REST in this world and in the world to come. In verse 28 He said, “I WILL GIVE YOU REST.”  The promise is repeated in verse 29; “YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS,” which is a phrase directly quoted from Jeremiah 6:16.

Jesus’ teaching about REST takes in 3 aspects. The first is a personal sense of security based on membership in the family of God (see Matthew 12:46-50). The second is assurance of care and provision for our daily human needs (see Matthew 6:8, 25-34; 7:11). The third is an expectant hope for blessing in the world to come (see Matthew 5:2-12).

But Jesus also makes it clear that we don’t come to Jesus on our own terms; we find REST on His terms.  When He said, “TAKE MY YOKE UPON YOU,” He was using a common idiom of His time.

In the Jewish faith, a YOKE was a symbol that meant to come under the authority of a rabbi to be trained by him in t use of the Law. But Jesus offered a respite from the burden of keeping the Law.  He offered REST to those who’d been wearied by the religious burdens the rabbis created with their manifold interpretations and applications of the Law. “LEARN FROM ME” is another way of saying the same thing.

His REST is easier, more positive, and more pleasant than merely being religious and significantly better than living the world’s way.  This is, in part, due to His character; “I AM GENTLE AND HUMBLE IN HEART” These qualities feel more restful, don’t they?  Jesus has the authority to offer rest because of His GENTLE and HUMBLE character. Also, He was the fulfillment of the “True Servant” prophecies of Isaiah 42:2-3; 53:1-2 and Zechariah 9:9.

He mentioned the YOKE twice; “MY YOKE IS EASY” He said the second time. Some have speculated that as a carpenter, Jesus specialized in making yokes and that this expression may have been something like a slogan. EASY is Chrestos in the Greek and it means “well-fitting;” it referred to a yoke that had been expertly made to fit a certain beast.  When it fit well, it did not chafe the neck or shoulders of the animal.

In spiritual terms, this means that God will not call you to do anything for which He has not already equipped you.  Whether by experience, ability, talent, or Spiritual Gift, God has already made you able to succeed.

Jesus’ use of YOKE is meant to explain His REST. It is not refraining from work, but doing work that we love.  Or, better still, doing work because we love. It is doing work that has meaning and significance; that makes an eternal difference in God’s kingdom.

Similarly, He added, “MY BURDEN IS LIGHT.” Things are not a BURDEN to us when we do them in love.  Whether we love what we’re doing and/or we love the people for whom we are doing them, we don’t mind hard work as much. The difficulty comes in aligning our will with God’s; learning to love the things He loves in the first place and then doing the things He wants us to do in the second place.

One quick and easy method to experience a bit of Jesus’ peace is to take a short break from whatever you’re doing.  Go into what I call “record mode.”  Similar to pushing the “record” button on a camcorder, take careful note of your surroundings.  Take several seconds to indulge each of your five senses to the fullest.  Deliberately make a memory for what you’re experiencing.  If you’re deliberate, this will be a memory you’ll be able to access again, and the feelings may come back with it too.

At first, the idea is to pay attention to the details that your mind automatically filters out as unimportant.  Focusing on the details will help you to experience your situation more fully.

Then, when you have fixed the memory, and you feel your attention may start to wander, thank God for all the individual items you have experienced with your five senses.  This is not a complicated prayer; just a feeling of gratitude and a connection with the Spirit is what you seek.

As a result of the first two steps, you will begin to sense God’s presence in a way to which you have not been attentive to Him before.  This will give you a sense of peace.  You will experience a transcendence of the moment even though you are, paradoxically, more aware of the moment than you were before you began.  The purpose is not to empty your mind, but to fill your awareness with all the variety of the moment and surety of God’s abiding presence.  In that, you will feel His peace, know His rest, and receive a refreshing time that only He can provide.

Try it.  Let me know how you fare.

Take a Break from Weariness

Time was that when you asked someone in greeting, “How are you?” the stock response was “Fine.”  Lately, I’ve been getting a lot more of this answer, “Tired.”  This is merely anecdotal and doesn’t prove a thing, but this observation made me turn to the Word to see what God told us about weariness.  (I sometimes suspect I get this answer a lot more often because I’m a pastor and when people see me, they’re concerned I’m going to ask them a favor. So out of self-defense, they want me to know they’re unavailable by virtue of being tired.)  What I found was instructive and I want to share it with you now.  Actually, I’ll share the first half today and the next half this week.  I believe that weariness is so endemic to our culture that it deserves full consideration.

Doing good is wearying, but don’t quit!

(Please read Galatians 6:7-10)

To avoid proof-texting, we need to first unpack the context.

  • New Testament: the New Covenant, the new agreement between God and man, mediated by Jesus Christ.
  • Galatians: the truth of the New Covenant threatened by people telling new converts they have to be Jews first.
  • Galatians 6:1-10: One part of truly being a Christian is doing good to others.
  • Galatians 6:9-10: Doing good can wear us out, but we can’t quit!

What makes us weary?

        Doing evil (acts and attitudes that are morally wrong). In the short term especially, doing evil is sometimes easier and quicker.  However, as Galatians 6:7-8 warns us, the Law of Sowing and Reaping (the spiritual version of the physical law of “Cause and Effect”) is always at work, and doing evil is ultimately more difficult and harder on us.

Hangovers, flashbacks, and STDs are all examples of the way that sinful choices work against us in the body. We’ve all known folks who are characterized by doing wrong and their body betrays them; they look older than they are and have directly-related health problems.

Doing OK (morally neutral actions and attitudes). This is more common; people overload their lives doing too much.  Too much work, too much play, too many activities, too full a schedule. Each of their activities aren’t right or wrong, they’re just too numerous.

We do harm to ourselves in every way when we don’t schedule enough “down” time; time to rest and reflect.  We all need time when we take a break from DOING.

Doing good (attitudes and actions that are morally right). Now we come to our passage.  Paul is writing here about people who are doing God’s will and finding it difficult; they find it wearying.

In the original language, verse 9 is a play on words; “Let us not ‘go to seed’ during the time of harvest.”  The reward for our labors, the fruit of our ministry is right around the corner; this is no time to give up!

In response to the problem of weariness that discouragement that comes from doing good, Paul offers a promise: AT THE PROPER TIME WE WILL REAP A HARVEST IF WE DO NOT GIVE UP.  Let’s unpack three truths from this sentence:

  • AT THE PROPER TIME refers to God’s timing. God’s time is always the PROPER TIME; our timing may not be. Just as the weather and the seasons are not ours to command, the periods of sowing & reaping are ours to determine. What’s up to us is to be obedient at all times.
  • REAP A HARVEST introduces Paul’s explanation of how the Law of Sowing & Reaping benefits those who do good. The HARVEST will come, in part, on Judgment Day when eternal rewards are sorted out and it will come, in another part, at any point in this life that God chooses.  We can trust that He will reward us and leave the timing to Him.
  • IF WE DO NOT GIVE UP. There are days. We have them in this life.  But God’s promises are to the OVERCOMER, to the one who finishes in the faith, to the one who does not give up! Surely this is what inspired the Apostle to write ONLY LET US LIVE UP 2 WHAT WE’VE ALREADY ATTAINED (Philippians 3:16).  There will be days when the best progress we can make is to not go backward.  That’s OK.  It’s just human nature and divine testing.  God is no less in control and our salvation is closer, not further away.  DON’T GIVE UP!

Paul also offers a method: AS WE HAVE OPPORTUNITY, LET US DO GOOD TO ALL PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY TO THOSE WHO BELONG TO THE FAMILY OF BELIEVERS.  Again, we have three truths to unpack:

  • AS WE HAVE OPPORTUNITY is the corelary to AT THE PROPER TIME: the emphasis is on God’s sovereignty. Sometimes we beat ourselves up because we’re not more assertive or aggressive or proactive; we’re not out there creating opportunities. What seems to be more important to God is that we act when HE presents us with an opportunity. We must drop what we’re doing & follow Him.

Opportunities will hardly ever be convenient; it will frequently not make sense and it will almost always require us to get out of our comfort zone.  On the other hand, it will always be the right thing to do, it will always be operating within our giftedness, and it will always result in a blessing (HARVEST) for ourselves and others.

This is not about legalism or planning or any other kind of activity that is related to our own strengths.  It is simply about obedience.  God tells you what to do.  Will you do it or not?

  • LET US DO GOOD TO ALL PEOPLE is like “Who is my neighbor? We’re told all the time that we live in a more global world, that technology is making global connections. Well… maybe. But what’s true here is that Christians have always had a global concern for people.  We define “neighbor” not by geography or ethnicity, but by need.  All who need are “neighbor” to us!
  • ESPECIALLY TO THOSE WHO BELONG TO THE FAMILY OF BELIEVERS. While we are to love globally, there is still a priority given to our brothers and sisters in the faith. We’re to care for one another first and foremost. This is not an exclusive kind of caring, but a prioritizing.  We must seize every OPPORTUNITY to love and serve one another.

I’ve been LABORING on a Book Report

 

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A BOOK REPORT on WORK: A KINGDOM PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR

Ben Witherington III, Eerdmans, 2011

 

            There’s a couple incidentals that stand out about Witherington’s book that I want to mention at the outset and then move on to the meat of the matter.  The first is that the reader should read the final section of the book (aptly named “Overtime”) both first and last.  That chapter is a very apt summary of the book and it would serve the reader as an overview before reading and a reminder after reading of what the central issues are.

            The second is that Witherington states more than once that we need to form a theology of work.  I want to ask, “Shouldn’t that be your job?  Why are you asking us to spend 166 pages with you if not to set forth a theology of work?” It seems that Witherington is more concerned about identifying the issues and surveying some of the answers others have given than creating a theology of work.  This is not to say that a theology of work does not present itself within the pages. Perhaps the author means to call us to the table, to do the work of deciding what God wants us to know about this essential but by no means all-important aspect of our lives.

            Personally, I found Witherington’s theology of play to be the most edifying part of the book.  He sets forth good reasoning for a call to balance between work, rest and play.  Of the three of these, play is the most neglected aspect of life in Christian theology and it is both instructive and refreshing to see Witherington ably support the need for play.  Balanced living knows that life consists of work, rest and play – not necessarily in that order.  Pathological lives are those that are imbalanced in any one direction.

            On a related note, Witherington ventures – in not so many words – that laughter may be part of the Image of God. I believe the “Image” is everything that distinguishes human life from the rest of creation – the aspects of humanity that are not found anywhere else in creation.  While animals play, none of them – even hyenas – can really be said to laugh.  It is a fascinating thought and certainly deserves more attention.

            A reviewer can and typically dose, insert themselves into the book to reflect on its comments.  I have already done some of that.  But it’s also important to let the author speak for himself.  To that end, I offer what I’ve identified as “key thoughts,” expressions of the core of the author’s teaching.

            “One of the major problems with the extant exercises in biblical theology on the subject of work is that they work forward through the Bible, rather than backward, and the end result is that in most cases they never get to an eschatological or Kingdom perspective on work, that is, work in light of the in-breaking Kingdom, which is the contribution of this particular study.” (p. xvi)

            “On closer inspection, it is perfectly clear that God’s good plan always included human beings working, or, more specifically, living in the constant cycle of work and rest.” (p. 2)

            “And since the Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit enables persons to imitate the behavior of Christ in what they do, including their work.  This automatically eliminates certain jobs for Christians.” (p. 37)

            “In terms of vocation, every Christian has a primary obligation to fulfill the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.  This is ‘job one.'” (P. 46, emphasis his.)

            “The making that we do, whether we call it work or not, is culture making, as it remakes our world – both the world out there, usually called ‘nature,’ and the world within my mind.” (p. 104)

            “Christianity, in order to be truly Christian, has to go public, has to become a shared public good, not merely a private self-help program for the already convinced.”

(THAT’S a zinger on p. 106.)

            “Ideas and worldviews alone don’t change the world; behavior and hard work do.  Cultural change happens when a new way of doing things displace the old way of doing things.” (p. 110)

            “This is why it is good to have personal discipline about how much one works, how much one rests, and also how much one plays.” (p. 143)

            “The question we should be asking ourselves honestly is this: Is my sense of identity so bound up in what I do that I have become a compulsive workaholic just to validate my existence and give myself a sense of importance, worth, and value? If we can plead guilty in this charge, then it is clear that what we need in our lives is not merely a more biblical sense and understanding of work, but a biblical understanding of self as well.” (pp. 155-156)

            “…an adequate amount of rest, play, and worship provides the boundaries for work and the reminders that work is not the be-all and end-all of our existence.” (p. 158)

            It is an aspect of the Fall, not Creation that we have goofy ideas about work.  Generally speaking, God has loftier ideas about work than we do.  Witherington surveys the literature on the subject but also introduces his own conclusions. At times the book seems like a stream of consciousness, with Witherington switching subjects and not doing us the courtesy of showing the reader how the parts sum up to the whole.

            While the chapter on callings versus vocations might be a tad esoteric for the average reader, I found Witherington’s book to be accessible and potentially useful in a classroom setting; if your aim is to produce a theology of labor.  It would be helpful in a church setting as a needed defense of the virtue of balance of rest, play, and work, but that’s just chapter seven.  The chapter on work as culture-making (chapter six) was also potentially useful as a lesson on the role of the believer in our culture.

            THE BOTTOM LINE – the strength of this book is in its last three sections.  I recommend it all as a study of the topic of labor, but the last of it is the most serviceable for a general audience.

Rest and Renewal Sound Good?

Please read Psalm 23:2-3 from the New Living Translation.

Here’s a parody of the 23rd Psalm that pretty aptly describes modern life.

The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest. It makes me lie down only when exhausted. It leads me into deep depression. It hounds my soul.

It leads me in circles of frenzy, for activities’ sake. Even though I run frantically from task to task, I will never get it all done, for my ideal is with me. Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.

They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule. They anoint my head with migraines, my in-basket overflows.

Surely fatigue and time pressures shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever. (Attributed to Marsha K. Hornok at http://unfinishedchristian.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/psalm-23-for-the-workaholic/, retrieved on July 12, 2013.)

God does not drive His sheep, He leads. God gives each of us perfect free will. We will get what we want. If we want worldly comforts, amusements and achievements, then that’s what we will have. And that’s all we will have. God is gracious; He may not give us what we deserve, but He will always give us what we want.

My Shepherd leads me in the restful way.

Verse two is the very picture of a restful place, with its views of “green meadows” and “peaceful streams.” Left to themselves, sheep will not always find these places when they need them. The shepherd has to lead them to these places. In David’s world, these were seasonal places. Some areas, even parts of the desert, would be green with grass in the rainy spring and winter seasons, but in the summer and fall, they would dry up entirely.

This is a picture of having had the needs of nature met, including the need for rest. It is a symbol of God’s complete provision. Who would worry in such a situation?

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, Philip Keller revealed three other requirements – in addition to food and water – that sheep have before they will lie down.

  • Because they are timid creatures, sheep must be free from fear.

  • Because they are social creatures, sheep be free from friction with others in the flock.

  • Because they are easily disturbed, sheep must be free from torment by flies or parasites.

Based on these surprising observations, Keller concluded two things:

  • It is the shepherd’s job to provide release from these anxieties.

  • A flock of sheeple operates under much the same dynamic. He wrote, “A flock that is restless, discontented, always agitated and disturbed never does well. And the same is true of people.” (Retrieved from http://bible-christian.org/lit/psalm23fromasheepsperspective.html on July 12, 2013.)

In Jeremiah 50:7 it says that God is our “place of rest;” He Himself is our “green meadow.” In John 6:35 Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry again. Those who believe in me will never thirst.” (NLT)

Sheep are, by nature, distrustful of moving water and dislike stagnant water. They may refuse to drink from either type. (And this for good reason – have you every tried to swim wearing a heavy wool coat?!) So PEACEFUL STREAMS is a better translation than “still waters” in the KJV. It is a body of water that strikes a balance; it moves enough to remain fresh, but not so much that it frightens the sheep.

Verse three promises that God will renew my strength. This is what the Great Shepherd promised us in Matthew 11:28-30; “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, And I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” (NLT)

The point, folks, is that God takes care of His sheeple. He wants us to enjoy life, to feel that life in His presence is worth living. God loves you and though life isn’t always pleasant, you should never feel that being a Christian is like taking medicine; “if it doesn’t taste bad it can’t be good for you”.

My Shepherd leads me in the right way.

God leads us “along right paths.” The tendency of sheep to wander off is a symbol of our human nature; we seek things rather than seek God. In a familiar verse, Peter makes it official: Once you were wandering like lost sheep. But now you have turned to your shepherd, the guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:25, NLT)

God had said the same thing hundreds of years earlier through the prophet Zechariah; So my people are wandering like lost sheep, without a shepherd to protect and guide them. (Zechariah 10:2, NLT)

Identification of a “right way” is really very simple; the correct destination must always be in sight. What makes a path “right” is that it leads to the right destination; it leads to God.

The purpose of His guidance and our right living is to bring HONOR TO HIS NAME. Simply put, the greatest, most important thing we can do is direct people’s attention to God; that includes ourselves of course. When the Bible talks about “glorifying” or “honoring” God, this is what it means; making God known.

We direct attention to God when we worship, witness, and live an obviously moral life. God is the very best and the biggest favor we can do for each other is to get people to notice Him.

Have you ever thought of it this way? God’s reputation is on the line every time you speak and with every action you take. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that they stopped going to church because of what a pastor or church member did or said to them. I’ve heard it on numerous occasions. Whether it’s an excuse or not, our misbehavior can be a genuine deterrence. On the other hand, I can tell you how many times people got involved in church were invited or inspired by someone who did right by God. EVERY TIME. Yes, 100% of people who live and love and worship in the church do so because someone said and/or lived God’s word.

(The following was retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time on July 12, 2013.) “Most countries in the developed world have seen average hours worked decrease greatly. For example in the U.S in the late 19th century it was estimated that the average work week was over 60 hours per week. Today the average hours worked in the U.S is around 33, with the average man employed full-time for 8.4 hours per work day, and the average woman employed full-time for 7.7 hours per work day. The front runners for lowest average weekly work hours are the Netherlands with 27 hours, and France with 30 hours.

“The New Economics Foundation has recommended moving to a 21 hour standard work week to address problems with unemployment, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, overworking, family care, and the general lack of free time. Actual work week lengths have been falling in the developed world.

“Factors that have contributed to lowering average work hours and increasing standard of living have been:

  • Technological advances in efficiency such as mechanization, robotics and information technology.

  • The increase of women equally participating in making income as opposed to previously being commonly bound to homemaking and child-rearing exclusively.

  • Dropping fertility rates leading to fewer hours needed to be worked to support children.”

OK, so if the work week is getting shorter, and we have more time for other stuff, why don’t we know how to rest? Why is it we’re in desperate need for renewal? People always say that a lack of time is to blame for the frantic pace of our days, but could it be that the fault really is our own? Could it be the choices we make about how we fill our time? If we choose to work hard and play hard, who really is to blame when we’re burned out?

I would say to you that if you’re always tired and often stressed, it’s time to make changes. Sheeple and sheep alike cannot lie down until the conditions are right and the conditions are obviously not right in your life. Here’s some practical ways you can follow Jesus to the GREEN MEADOWS and PEACEFUL STREAMS He’s promised us.

1. Start the day with at least five uninterrupted minutes of quiet with God. Read a little bit of Bible, but spend the balance of the time in prayer and meditation on this question, “God, what is the most important thing I can do today?”

2. Make the answer to that question your first priority. When you’ve got that done, treat yourself to an activity that does not have a lot of video or audio “noise;” something that does not make emotional demands for your attention. Music, conversation, reading, writing, thinking, praying, walking, and napping are all examples.

3. Then ask, “God, what is the SECOND most important thing I can do today?” And once it is done, treat yourself to another quiet activity. And so on, throughout the day.

4. Finally, go to bed earlier. An hour before bed, concentrate on being, not doing. You’ll sleep better if sleep is preceded by something that doesn’t involve a screen or speakers!

Most importantly, spend the day with the Great Shepherd. Sense His presence and let Him steer you away from activity that is evil or pointless. Let Him lead you to rest and renewal.