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.