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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

Rest and Risk: Connecting Our Core Values

“…nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Matthew 26:39 ESV

Resting and risking are two of New City’s core values. From my experience, these are the two core values that are uncommon to most churches. The other two core values are love and send, two commonly heard values in a church— to love God and one another (Lk 10:27) and to “go and make disciples of all nations”(Matt 28:19). This leaves me asking two questions: What scriptures point to resting and risking? And how do rest and risk relate to each other in the Christian life?

Resting is not New City’s idea, resting is God’s idea. God initiates rest in the creation story in Genesis 2:2-3: “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” However, this verse is not about giving up all responsibilities and sipping lemonade on an island. Jesus continues saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” There is still a responsibility for Christians in the resting, but it is a responsibility given by Christ, exemplified in Christ, and fueled by rest in Christ. This is why Jesus says come to him–not only is our rest found in His presence, but our purpose is found in His presence, too.

Risk is seen often when Jesus calls his first disciples to leave their current jobs and lives in order to follow him. Believe it or not, Jesus did get a few rejections. There was a rich man who asked Jesus, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”(Matt 19:17) Jesus responds, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt 19:21). Jesus is asking the man to risk his current state, his status, and his financial security before following Jesus. Scripture records that although this man followed many of the commandments, “when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions”(Matt 19:22). The risk was too much for him.

We see Jesus ask the same thing of Simon Peter and Andrew. While they were fishing, Jesus says “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). Immediately they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. They left their current state of fishing, which was their job. They left their financial security and status and followed Jesus. They took the risk.While scripture shows us rest and risk separately, how do the two relate to one another? It reminds me of trying to get back into exercising. A lot of times when I have not exercised in a while I think, “what’s something I can do for exercise that won’t make me sweat?” I hope you laughed at that, because this goes against the very nature of exercising. What I really want is the effect of exercising without the requirements. The only requirement of exercise that you probably should break a sweat, even if it’s only a little.

This is similar to how rest and risk relate to one another. If we only take risks out of our own wants, ideas, and dreams, then how is this following Jesus? Does this not just become making a name for ourselves? Like the rich man, we think we fulfill the requirements to follow Jesus but this kind “risk” only leads to worry, exhaustion, and a life of trying to prove ourselves.

This is where rest comes in. Just like how exercise requires at least some sweat, risking requires resting in God. And vice-versa, resting in God requires taking risks. This sounds counter-intuitive and maybe even impossible, but we see this in several biblical leaders–especially Jesus.

I think most people would agree that giving one’s life for another is the greatest risk. Scripture tells us that “greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When Jesus is with his friends the night before his own death, he goes to the presence of the Father. Jesus is about to risk and lose his life, and he comes to God for rest. Finding seclusion with a few disciples nearby and “going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’” Jesus falls down in exhaustion and asks God if there is another way. In a time when Jesus is looking for rest, he confesses to the difficulty of the risk, then confesses of His need of his Father. Jesus comes to God wanting another way and leaves knowing that this is the way God has planned.

Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane

We see Jesus take on a risk, and when he goes to the Father for rest he finds his purpose again, “not as I will, but as you will”. This is why we need to continue to rest even when we step out on a limb and risk. We cannot just rest when life is easy, rather the most important time to rest in God is when we are no longer sure of what we are doing. This is the very moment when I try and contrive my own plan, convince myself that my way is God’s way, or try to do it in my own strength. In these times, be reminded of Jesus, fallen on his face in the garden, resting and risking, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Questions to Reflect on This Week:

  • In what ways are you risking this week?
  • Where are you acting in your own strength?
  • How do you best rest in the presence of God?
  • How can you implement this resting into your areas of risk this week?
  • Who can you share your experience of resting and risking with this week?

 

Mary Katherine Wildeman, New City Stories Contributor 

 

Being is More Important than Doing

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 NRSV

For the majority of my adolescence, I thought I had the answer to the meaning of life. I thought it was logical, biblical, and honestly, kind of easy. When someone at youth group or at school would begin to discuss why we were created, I pulled my answer out of my holster of ready-made Sunday School answers, throwing Matthew 28:19-20 at them with a sure smile.

Obviously, I thought, we were created for the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all nations. We were created for missions. We were created to do things for God. I lived through that paradigm for a long time. I did as many things for God as I could, whether at church, with nonprofits, or even at school. My life became a scrapbook of all the activities I thought were giving me purpose, a resume rapidly lengthening.

I didn’t think anything compared to the importance of doing things for God, even pursuit of relationships. All my works came from a genuine place of loving and wanting to serve God, so I assumed the tiredness that snowballed over time was normal. I thought it was probably just part of the experience of being a Christian. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was striving to give God reasons to love me.

When God called me to seminary, I thought he was giving me the chance to go to a perfect place to do even more things for him. I was surprised to find God’s expectations were a little less stringent than mine. After arriving at seminary, I started to question the paradigm I had trusted for so long. I felt uncomfortable and a little disoriented as I traversed readings about concepts like rest and love. In the short time I had spent attending New City, the preaching and teaching there had simultaneously pressed me and pulled me in, like both sides of a magnet, always giving an appealing yet perplexing perspective on how to live for God through love and rest. I didn’t know what to do with the magnitude of God’s love I was beginning to glimpse.

Then, one Sunday, Zach challenged us to pray a bold prayer for God to wreck us. In my desperation, I did. In his love, God agreed.

God had begun to deconstruct my paradigm of doing to earn love. Piece by piece, realization by realization, He was breaking me down until all that was left was a vague idea of who I was and no real reason for my own existence. However, God used my blank canvas to paint a more comforting and freeing paradigm than I could have imagined. This is what I learned.

When God created the world, it was sinless. At the time, there was no need for missions. He created everything, including humans, and for a while, everything was good. No one needed to be evangelized. This wrecked my Sunday school answer. Without having things to do for God, I had no purpose. I had no way to measure up or earn his love. I had nothing to strive for. I had no reason to exist. In the midst of all my seminarian pondering of the things of the deep, I realized the way I had always framed my purpose had placed undue pressure on my life. It was too self-centered. It was too complicated.

I realized my real purpose belonged not in my doing, but in my being.

Before creation of the earth, people, or even the construct of time, God existed relationally in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who love better and more deeply than we can fathom. God alone defines love. God is love, and love existed before the world was created. Love created the world. Love created us. We were created because of a love so strong it wouldn’t keep to itself, so it overflowed and manifested itself in the creation of you, me, your best friend, my mom, that guy on the bus, and everybody else. To put it simply, God created us to hang out. Seriously, God created us for relationship. He created us out of love and for love, so he could love us and so we could love Him back. He created us, even knowing ahead of time about all the messed up stuff we would do, because even then He thought we were worth it.

Even now, He continues to create. He still thinks we’re worth it. Love existed before mission was even necessary, and love will outlast its necessity. Worship will outlast it. We were made for worship. We were made for love. In the meantime, God does call us to do many things, and we shouldn’t ignore those calls, but our purpose is greater than the fulfillment of a checklist.

As these pieces came together, I realized all the things I did for God over the years seemed meager when overshadowed by the immense amount of love God has for me. I realized that simply being is more important than doing. God wants us to be with him—in love, in kindness, in patience, in joy, and in all the good things to which He calls us. I used to think these things were what I needed to do for God to pay attention to me, but I realize now those things are what God invites us to be, with him and through him. Love is not a thing we do, a place we visit occasionally, or our day job; rather, it is the house we’re called to live in.

Ultimately, life is not about anything we can do for God. It’s about what He’s already done for us. The way He lived out love allows us to simply be redeemed, be rested, be fulfilled, and be His. Ultimately, the point of our lives is to be loved, and that can start right now, before we can do anything about it.

 

Rachel Smith, New City Stories Contributor

We are Not Asking You to be Lazy

 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NRSV)

I have a confession to make…I lived for Homecoming court, Student Council elections, and senior superlatives. I hated tryouts, but loved making the team and wearing the coveted gear. I was a pro at being “impressive” and if I wasn’t looking put together, I tried to woo people with my vulnerability and authenticity.  In Christian college I loved sharing stories of my unique experiences and sounding edgy in my Bible classes. When I graduated college I landed a cool job at a mega-church in an “only God can” way. Nothing besides my deep love for naps communicated that I was a man marked by rest…

Now, I am not saying everyone who wins homecoming king or student council is striving too much, BUT I do know that I had a whole lot of identity caught up in it all. Through a long and difficult season, the Lord absolutely blindsided me with this concept of rest.  Not only did He personally wreck my life (in a great way) by this Truth, but He asked me to plant a church marked by it. The difficulty in this is that church planters have a great number of temptations and concerns that come against this conviction of REST. Here are just a few:

  • We need to do more for the community
  • We need more impressive gatherings so we can grow
  • We are too Spirit-led and not organized or structured enough
  • We are too organized and structured, we need to be more Spirit-led
  • We need a better social media presence
  • We are trying too hard on social media
  • I need to do more so we see growth faster

Now rest is a funny thing—really any core value is—because you can’t just say it, put it on your website and printed materials, and then put it on the shelf. When you’ve discerned a part of your church’s God-given DNA, you have to live it out. Not only as a leader do you have to live it out but you’ll be tested on it. Bill Hybels, planter and pastor, says, “if you want your people to bleed something, you must hemorrhage it.” As our church has begun to bleed this conviction of rest, we have received lots of questions and even heard serious concerns.  This post will dive into some of these, but first, I want to offer us a working definition of rest in this context. Rest is security in God’s finished work, and living in rest means being marked by divine expectation and engagement. Christ is satisfied so we rest, and we do so with expectation that the Spirit will move, create, and invite. In this way we stay ready to engage in what He is stirring up.

Now that we’ve established the definition of rest, here are some common questions and concerns:

So, you’re against work? No, we are not asking you to be lazy. We just desire to be faithful. Being faithful sometimes requires waiting and listening and sometimes requires working our butts off.  This ultimately has to do with our motive. People who are pursuing a life marked by rest do not get out of showing up, working hard, and sacrificing. Their main aim is to prioritize listening to God’s voice and being faithful to what He says, even when it’s unpopular.

How do I know if I’m marked by rest, or just being lazy? I’ve heard this from many people in our church family but I particularly remember asking this question myself to my mentor. His answer was simple: “Are you being faithful to what God is asking of you?” I believe if we have a ready “yes,” if we are continually engaged in listening for the voice of God, and if we are expectant for the invitation to participate in what God is creating, we won’t be lazy or miss out. Those around us, in and out of the church, might think we are being lazy; however, if we are being attentive to the Spirit and always willing to follow, we won’t be. In all actuality just the act of being attentive to the Spirit requires action and sometimes that’s all God wants…our attentiveness and eagerness to say, “Yes.”

People are dying and going to hell, how can we rest!? I live in a pretty consistent state of heartbreak for those around me that are not yet living in intimacy with Jesus. Early in my life as a Christ follower, I had to accept the reality that there are people so near and dear to my heart that the Holy Spirit is pursuing continually, and His act of drawing them in is so much more compelling than anything I can or will ever be able to do. In that, I have received freedom to really trust God. He is in control—all of those people, those close to me and those I do not know, are so much more on God’s radar than mine (He is omniscient, omnipresent, all-loving, and way better at all of this than me). I believe that this question is very valid BUT my response is usually one that goes directly to or quickly towards intercession EXCEPT if God prompts me to go. If He tells me to go, I desire to be faithful, to speak up, to share, to do anything He asks. My prayer is that those who live aware of this reality and want to live marked by rest let that broken heart, urgency, and love for the lost drive them to be passionate intercessors for the world. When God says go for it, then you go for it. Rest in the fact that the Holy Spirit is REALLY good at His job and won’t leave us out.

Why does this matter so much right now? I remember when I realized Matthew 11:28-30 was so much more of an evangelistic passage than I understood. I believe we live in an exhausted world full of striving, competing, and comparing. Whether through job reviews, Facebook posts, high school reunions, or the number of likes or followers we have, we live in a culture that combats security and rest. I believe that we can look into someone’s eyes and tell them they can rest because of what Christ did for them. We will see people come to know the Lord and live under His freedom and Kingship.

If you wanted to wrestle with this concept more, I (Zach at zach@newcitylex.com) would love to chat with you. What’s even better than coffee with me is some of these scriptures that have touched me during this journey of rest. Here are some of those passages…

  • Exodus 16- I have seen through this that God is not against effort but He doesn’t want us trying to earn. In Exodus 16 God provides the manna and the people harvest because He asked so. Harvesting is out of obedience and faithfulness but the manna, His provision, comes from Him.
  • John 14 and 15- This passage speaks of our comforter and advocate and it invites us to be vine-focused instead of fruit-focused. I believe that these two chapters are key for rest. We are called to be relying on the Spirit and abiding and remaining well.
  • Matthew 11:28-30- His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Are we experiencing that? Are we living out the Gospel in a way that communicates that? The yoke does indicate work but it’s what we are yoked to that impacts our rest or striving.
  • Hebrews 4:1-11- This passage wrestles with Sabbath and not missing out on real REST.
  • Hebrews 10- Christ is satisfied and our standing is set…take a deep breath.

My prayer is that this encourages you and you learn from me, a recovering competitive striver.

 

Zach Meerkreebs, New City Church Head Planter

New City’s Heartbeat: Our Core Values and Questions

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Matthew 11:28 NRSV

When my wife Kristin and I heard God’s call to plant New City Church here in Lexington, we specifically heard God call us to begin a community marked by rest.  As we developed this vision and listened for God’s intent in and for our ministry, we landed on four core values of Love, Rest, Risk, and Send that we utilize to lead all of our decision making. I believe that not only knowing who we are (landing our core values) is essential but that these specific DNA markers have been God ordained for ministering to our context. I have seen unconditional “love” draw hurting and burnt people into our community, “rest” attract exhausted and performing Bible-belt Christians, “risk” free us up to think outside the box, and “send” get tested early in our lifetime as we are generous to other churches and as we look to plant new expressions.

New City Church

As I personally continue to wrestle with these 4 markers of New City Church, I asked myself some questions about the foundation of this community of God. I share these with you so you can marinate in what your community is built on; you can utilize these questions in a huddle, during your quiet time journaling or praying, or even in a conversation with another New City family member. Here they are:

            Love                               

  • What is the root of my love for others?
  • How is my love expanding the hospitality in my life?
  • How is my love speaking dignity into everyone around us?
  • How am I complicating loving others? How have I simplified and missed out on loving someone in a unique way?
  • Who is someone in my life I’m not excited to love on right now?

            Rest

  • How do I rest well?
  • Where in my life am I competing, comparing, or striving?
  • What do I see God creating in my life? How can I partner in what He is creating instead of stirring something up myself?
  • How am I living in the reality of abiding as portrayed in John 15?
  • How am I experiencing the truth of rest taught in Matthew 11:28-30?

            Risk

  • Where in my life am I quick to “play it safe” or choose comfortability?
  • Who might God be asking me to risk on?
  • What is something I am holding as a “sacred cow” that I might need to risk and give up?
  • What question do I not want to be asked OR need to answer that I might need to engage in?
  • How am I engaging in dark, risky areas in our community?
  • What do I see the Spirit leading me into that freaks me out?

            Send

  • How does my life express the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:16-20?
  • How am I celebrating sending in this season?
  • Do I live a “commissioned” lifestyle?
  • How can I be radically generous this season?
  • How could I be a part of New City’s sending in this season?

My prayer is that you would grow in ownership, understanding, and comfortability with these concepts as you dive into them. My desire is that our entire community, every brother and sister, would make these their own as we partner in ministry together in 2018.

Zach Meerkreebs, New City Church Head Planter