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The Sabbath Keeps Us

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;

 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 ESV

The other morning while I was sitting on my front porch during the Sabbath, I noticed a finch perched in the tree a few feet away.  It was bright yellow with jet black accents along its wings, chirping a beautiful melody from its blazing orange beak.  This tiny bird drew me into its performance; I couldn’t help but to just sit and watch and listen.

In my listening, I began to notice that the finch wasn’t alone in its song, but was joined by an entire choir of hundreds of other birds from nearby trees, creating a kind of invisible symphony that touched every inch of the atmosphere around me.  The trees swayed to their song, rhythmically bending and bowing in an act of worship. The sun flickered off of the leaves, dancing to the psalms being sung.  I was witnessing the hymn of nature, a song of effortless gratitude.

I realized in that moment that the world around me was completely suspended in grace, myself included.

***

It is no coincidence that I remembered God’s grace during my practice of the Sabbath, which is a weekly time set aside to slow down and turn my heart and mind and body towards God in thanksgiving.  It is not an accident that as I participated in God’s rest—a rest that He has prescribed and promised to His people from the beginning (Genesis 2:3)—His perfect economy of grace was revealed to me.   Exodus 20:11 tells us that “the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”  This means that Sabbath rest is charged with God’s presence in a special way and in that presence we find that blessing and sanctification are offered for us, His creation.

Mariano-Fortuny-St.-Paul-in-the-Areopagus

Many Greek thinkers in the time of the early church worshipped, along with other pagan gods, an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23).  Some believed this “unknown god” to be a far-off deity who created the cosmos but was distant and indifferent towards his creation.  In Acts 17, Paul addresses these very thinkers.  He tells the philosophers that God is not distant or “unknown;” in reality, it is in this God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) and this God “gives to all mankind life and breath” (v.25).

 

I wonder how many of us today worship an “unknown god.”  Sure, we may not say that the God we worship is “unknown,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t live like He is distant from our lives.  Many of us, including myself, have a habit of keeping God at a distance with our actions.  We function as if His grace is not the reality that sustains us and instead live each day by the power of our own individual pursuits and strivings and reputations and creations.  The cultural message that many of us have adopted is that we can be “self-made,” and it is only when we focus on working to fulfill our individual desires that we can experience rest and freedom.  This contemporary mindset has kept us from living, moving, and having our very being grounded in the sustaining love and grace of God.  We say we worship the God of abundance, but act as if we serve the gods of scarcity.  The result of this is that we, like the first century Greeks, make God “unknown” in our own hearts and minds.

Fortunately for us, God and His grace are made known to us during the Sabbath.

Sabbath is a powerful space where we are reminded that God’s grace, His very presence, is what sustains us continually.   In our individualized, consumerist, materialistic, and technological culture, our imaginations are inundated with the idea that we own our lives, that the sustaining of our existence is solely predicated on our own ceaseless work and productivity.  Even as Christians, whether we realize it or not, our hearts and minds have been trained to look primarily to ourselves for fulfillment.  We find ourselves swimming in the waters of our culture—waters that often flow contrary to what God’s word says about rest, freedom, peace, contentment, and joy.  Sabbath-keeping is a weekly resistance against this way of life.

When we cease from our to-do lists and anxieties and production, we are confronted with the reality that the world keeps on spinning. We creatures are not the ones that rotate the world on its axis or push it around the Sun, nor are we the ones that provide our next meal.  Everything is the Father’s and Sabbath teaches us that the Father is generous.  In other words, isn’t just that the practice of Sabbath provides us with rest from our labor throughout the week (though it does); it reminds us of our limits and insufficiency in light of God’s sovereignty and providence.  During the Sabbath we come to terms with our “creatureliness” and God’s sovereignty.  This is the starting point for true freedom.

The psalmist says, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:20,45 ESV).  Talk about counter-cultural! The psalmist here is saying that freedom comes from recovering our God-given limitations.  In an age where we are told that it is our right to go beyond established and natural boundaries, that we need to keep pushing and climbing the social ladder at all costs, that we have little value outside of how much we produce, the Church would do well to heed the psalmists’ words.  It is through practicing the Sabbath that we come to know these limits – and consequently this freedom – in a deep way.  In the Sabbath, we are carried to the “wide space” where we can walk freely with Jesus Christ, who is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark: 2:28 ESV).

Christ and the Pharisees by Earnst Zimmerman

Jesus was not against keeping the law, particularly the Sabbath.  What he was against, however, was using the law to create barriers between us and God.  He was against using the law to make God “unknown.”  This is why Jesus boldly reminded the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).

 

Sabbath-keeping gives us a kind of “holy pause” in our lives.  This “pause” isn’t passive or empty, however.  Instead, this “pause” is filled with God’s presence, reminding us that our work, our toils, and our striving are totally derivative of a work that is already complete.  It is through the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping that we come to know the One who finished the work on our behalf, and from this we can move into a life where our work (and play!) is not independent of and distant from the grace of God, but participates fully in it.  In keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us.

***

As I sat on my front porch that Sunday morning watching and listening to the finch and the surrounding symphony of gratitude, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26 ESV).  I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesus got this imagery of the birds and the grace they displayed.  I imagined Jesus himself, weary from a week of labor, retreating into nature one morning and sitting under a tree, watching and listening to this same hymn of nature.  I imagine that as he sat and observed the birds singing while they fluttered from branch to branch, he too was reminded of his Father’s grace that sustains him as he goes into the world to accomplish His will.

It is in these moments of Sabbath rest, of a retreat back into the finished work of God, that we remember who we are and who God is.  In this remembering we are given the freedom and grace to go out to do the Father’s will, which is to ultimately invite all of creation into the song of the golden finch, into the hymn of effortless gratitude and praise to the only One who can and will sustain us.

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor

Love of a Lion, Love of a Lamb

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!’ ”  Revelation 5:11-12 (NRSV)

How does the Church love in a world with so many opposing views of what love should look like?  We see some who say that love can be boiled down to telling the truth and demanding that everyone lives up to its standard.  There are others who say genuine love is letting people live their lives however they see fit, no matter the consequences.  The problem with these options is that truth without grace becomes cold and indifferent to the experiences of others, while grace divorced from truth dissolves into a kind of whimsical feeling shifting from one day to the next. We need to be a Church that enters into this world upholding both grace and truth.

But how?  Well, we can start by clinging to the One that is full of both.

John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory…full of grace and truth” (NASB).  Word became flesh.  Grace and truth.  It is no accident that John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, chooses these words to describe Jesus.  They are apparent contradictions, seemingly irreconcilable with each other.  How can this person be completely full of both “grace” and “truth”?  It is precisely in this tension that we begin to uncover the beautiful mystery of divine love.

But what, exactly, does this “divine love” look like?

Fortunately for us, Jesus provides us with tangible examples of this divine love throughout his life as recorded in the gospels. Here are just a few of these examples:

  • Jesus drives out merchants from the temple with all the force of a fanatic (Mt. 21:12-13) and then turns around to show compassion and heal the lame and the blind (Jn. 5:7-9).
  • Jesus, with a mighty word, calms the screaming winds and the towering waves (Mk. 4:35-41), but finds himself speechless when weeping with his closest friends (Jn. 11:35).
  • Jesus scolds the religious leaders of his day with all of the conviction of a prophet (Mt. 23:33), but is also willing to converse with a Pharisee under the cloak of night (Jn. 3:1-21).  
  • Jesus, the same one who on the mountainside became transfigured in radiant glory (Lk. 9:28-36) was somehow able to forgive those who tortured and mocked him (Lk 23:34).
  • Jesus, the King of the Cosmos (Rev. 19:16), the second person in the divine community (Jn. 10:30), and the promised Messiah (Is. 9:6-7) finds himself forsaken and alone on the cross struggling for every breath (Matthew 27).

As we study the constellation of events, teachings, and actions throughout Jesus’ life, a pattern of divine love begins to emerge.

In Jesus we see the fullness of grace and the fullness of truth exist without tension. This kind of paradoxical love transcends all of our earthly categories, it breaks into our feeble constructs and completely transforms everything it touches.  In Jesus we have our answer to the problem  of having to choose between one good thing at the expense of the other.  Jesus, fully God and fully man, showed us that in him all beauty and goodness can exist together in perfect harmony. Grace and truth, justice and compassion, rest and action, all of these things find their fullest expression in the life and love of Jesus.  

Artwork by Hubert Van Eyck

To help us understand this more clearly, John in Revelation 5 provides a beautiful picture of this divine love.  He describes his vision of the angels searching for the one who is able to break the seal of the scrolls that hold within them all of mysteries of God and His Truth.  Then one of the elders tells John to not worry because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah… has conquered” and will be able to accomplish what no one else can do.  But when John looks around for this “Lion,” he instead sees “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” taking the scrolls with authority and power.  What a breathtaking picture.  The logic of divine love, which is the wisdom of God, tells us that the fierce power of the Lion finds its ultimate expression through the humble state of a sacrificed Lamb. 

And here is where we enter the picture, Church: It is precisely because we are in relationship with Jesus, who mysteriously holds all these things together, that we are compelled to do the same.  We too have this very same love because we are in Christ and Christ is in us (2 Cor. 13:5). By virtue of Christ’s presence in our lives, we carry this divine love wherever we go. We need Christ Himself to indwell us with His Spirit so that we may carry the fullness of truth and grace into the world.  This means we do not have to choose between our convictions and our compassion but instead we allow them, through Christ, to inform who we are and what we do in this world.  Is this not the Gospel message that we are both saved from our sins by God’s grace and are now called to live in His truth?  Does Jesus not, after saving the adulterous woman from death by stoning then tell her to “go and sin no more”? 

So, as the Church, we must reject the ultimatums of our world outright.  We cannot subscribe only to grace or truth, to only compassion or justice, to only us or them.  We have a better answer, the only answer: The Love of the Lion and of the Lamb.

So this day, this week, and for the rest of your lives abide in Jesus Christ and let his perfect love transform all of who you are.  The world desperately needs it.  

 

Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor 

 

(Featured Image artwork: The Sacrificial Lamb by Josefa de Ayala)

God is Good to Everybody

Perhaps one of the most popular cultural and religious ideas is the notion of karma. It’s an Eastern teaching that is everywhere is pop culture: the philosophies of celebrities like the Beatles, the sub-plots of films like It’s a Wonderful Life or Pay it Forward, or, my personal favorite, TV shows like My Name is Earl.

In the show, Jason Lee plays a middle-aged low-life (he’s the one whose name is “Earl”) who has enjoyed an entirely self-centered existence of theft, drunkenness, cheating on his various partners, and general debauchery. One day on a whim he decides to buy a lottery ticket, wins $100,000 and, as he runs outside to celebrate, gets hit by a car. As he recovers in the hospital, he learns about karma, the idea that we are repaid, at some point in the present or future, for our daily actions, good or bad. He decides that day to use the $100,000 to make a list of every bad thing he has ever done in his life and, one-by-one, try to make up for it. The rest of the show documents Earl tackling his list one bad decision at a time, leaving room for a lot of what is honestly pretty hilarious comedy.

Karma appeals to our innate sensibilities for justice. It makes sense for people to be punished for what they do wrong and rewarded for what they do right. Not only that, but we inwardly rage about the unfairness of the world because it so rarely reflects that instinctual reality. Who hasn’t had thoughts about who really deserves those promotions, what that paycheck should look like, or whether that person will get what’s coming to them. It’s a lens many of us look at the world through that always leave us upset when our idea of justice is not played out.

Believe it or not, Jesus spoke on this issue. In Matthew 5, Jesus spends a lot of his time redefining what it means to follow God. He attacks the conceptions of the people at the time in terms of their view on divorce, relationships with their friends, how we view people, and even justice. In the final section of his teaching, right after he calls his followers to love their enemies (ouch), he makes this statement “He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45b).

Jesus teaching the crowds in his Sermon on the Mount

What is Jesus saying here? That God has no standard of right and wrong? That our actions have no consequences? I don’t think so. What I think Jesus is doing here is drawing a constant comparison between what comes to us instinctively and what God desires for his people. Remember, this is a passage where, at the end, Jesus says to his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).

This is not a literal moral perfection, but instead a call to us to act in the world as our perfect God does. And our God shows love to people (through the sun and the rain) to everybody (evil and good, righteous and unrighteous). Remember, Jesus was talking to a farming people; the sun and the rain were absolutely essential for their livelihood and well-being. It would seem to make sense to us that the God of our instincts, the God of karma, would set up the world so that the rain would only fall and the sun would only shine on those who are good to others and worship God correctly. However, that is obviously not the case; instead, God shows love and goodness to all people, whether they acknowledge him or not.

What are the implications here? It seems like Jesus is calling us to look at the world through a different lens, and that lens is grace. The more we use words like deserve, or should, or payment, the more we are getting away from the good news of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came and died for us, through no power or work of our own, so that we could be forgiven and live in relationship with our Creator and Lord. Grace is the unmerited favor of the Lord, and our response to that should be gratefulness for the love he has shown us, and a desire to share that grace and love with others.

This is our call: to love all people, evil or good, unrighteous or righteous. Remember, God rejects our own instinctual, retributive justice that would call us to be condemned for our sin and instead embraces a justice that brings redemption through the cross. Hallelujah, amen.

 Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor