(Note: This is Part Two of a sermon series delivered online for the Zion Bishan Church, Singapore, 2020.10.11. Part One Renewing Our Home – The Gospel, Shalom, and Royal Priesthood can be found here)
Good Morning from Vancouver Canada!
And again, thank you very much Pastor Daniel for inviting me to speak to you all these two Sundays, and to Denise for her diligent work in translating these messages into Mandarin.
Last week, I attempted to present to you the grand landscape and the comprehensive scope of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, covering almost the entire Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. I admit it’s a very ambitious attempt for just one sermon, a nearly impossible task. We began with the first two chapters of Genesis, unpacking the initial pictures of God’s purpose for the whole creation and our place in all these, that is, being the royal priesthood for the Sovereign God. And then we explored a little more about that God’s purpose in the form of the three-fold reconciliation: between God and humanity, among humanity, and between humanity and the lands, which leads to the biblical vision of Shalom. And then we covered a little bit of the Old Testament prophetic cry of the Good Tidings, which profoundly shaped the proclamation of the Gospel of Heaven by Jesus, his disciples and the early church. From a Roman imperial announcement, in the context of violence and injustice, the Gospel of Jesus Christ turns that announcement upside down, declaring instead that the real Sovereign Lord God has returned as King, now in the person of the resurrected Jesus, with his all-encompassing glory and presence on all the earth, and he will reconcile ALL THINGS to himself, and bringing forth the New Heaven and New Earth, which is our ultimate hope. At the end I used two examples, being a chef and a financial adviser, to explain how that “royal priesthood” could look like in our modern time in anticipation of the coming New Heaven and New Earth.
Why I did this? Am I supposed to talk about creation care, the Christian way to respond to our contemporary environmental crises? Why I talked instead about the Gospel, Shalom and Royal Priesthood? Why not a much simpler message with a to-do list?
Fundamentally, because creation care is not merely about Christian activism on the environmental front (well, appropriate actions are great and badly needed by faithful followers of Christ, no doubt!); nor even it’s merely about being a good steward for the earth (yes, we surely are stewards of the Earth and need to be a faithful one). It’s in fact at the core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He has come as the Lord of ALL and for ALL, and let me emphasize again: He is going to reconcile ALL THINGS to himself, things on earth and in the heavens (mind you, the heavens are often described in plural, biblically speaking – an important hint showing us that Heaven(s) in the Bible is not what we usually think about or refer to). We the followers of Christ proclaiming the Gospel are to bear witness to this grand objective, and that witness includes, among many aspects, our relations with the lands, the oceans, the wildlife, farm animals, plants, insects, and other human communities, as well as our ways of living in and interactions with this wonderful creation of the great King, in the economy, politics, culture… Yes, it’s about everything under the Lordship of Christ! Yes, this is our Gospel call!!
I recognize that whole message last week was not an easy one to speak about and to listen to. It’s NOT the way we usually talk about the Gospel in our churches, particularly among the Chinese speaking churches around the world. I have experienced this difficulty in Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, even in Europe and so on. And all of the topics I touched on, such as the grand scheme of the Gospel itself, or Shalom, or Royal Priesthood, or New Heaven and New Earth, every one of them deserves its own sermon series, in order to unpack its richness and to debunk many of the misconceptions long-held by God’s people.
Meanwhile, many might want me to talk about the practical right the way. I would like to share with you more on that too, and I certainly will give you some examples, as you will see later. But I am convinced that, my job and focus as the preacher in the worship service this morning must be the Word of God. For these 30-40 minutes our mind must be on what God has done, is doing, and will do according to the Scripture, rather than what we human can or should do. For great examples and tips on what to do as Christians or what A Rocha is doing on this front as a model, I encourage you reach out to one of your own, Melissa Ong, who has traveled around the world capturing many video footages for A Rocha in the last 12 years, meeting numerous devoted people working on this front and seeing many wonderful stories of Christ’s followers caring for God’s world. Certainly she knows much better, and it’s a blessing that you guys have her among you. Go talk to her!!
Nevertheless, I will engage you now on the “How” after touching on the “Why” last week. We will take a deeper look into Sabbath, a distinctively Christian response to many of the challenges we face today, including the environmental and climate crises, and beyond.
Many in our churches have greatly misunderstood Sabbath. Perhaps this concept and practice remind you of the notorious Jewish legalism that Sabbath is often made associated with. Maybe you remember the stories about the Pharisees accusing Jesus for breaking the rules on Sabbath, and you would think: “Oh, holding on to Sabbath, like the Pharisees did, must be bad.” Maybe you think that Sabbath belongs to the Old Testament era, “Now we have the Lord’s Day in its place; it’s no longer relevant.” As I just said, and you would be surprised that these above are not the Sabbath in the Bible at all, as we will see in a moment.
Meanwhile, some church leaders have started to think that it’s good to follow the ancients’ footstep in “keeping Sabbath,” that taking one-day of rest every week would be beneficial for our bodies and minds, keeping us sane in the midst of frantic schedule and workload. No doubt the rhythm of resting is excellent and needed, but still, they miss the whole point about Sabbath!
What is Sabbath then?
Last week I mentioned that the Creation narrative in Genesis Chapter 1 saw its consummation not in the creation of humans, but in Sabbath.
If we pay attention to the Hebrew original of the first creation narrative, we will find that Genesis 1;1 – 2:1-3 belong together as a narrative unit. (Genesis 1:1 – 2:1-3)
1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…
2:1 Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Without getting into too many details on the Hebrew language, we now know that the structure of 2:1-3 is crafted in such a way that Sabbath is described as the climax of the entire creation story. Also, remember I mentioned last week that the creation is described as the royal palace of the Lord God? For the ancients, when a king rests at the throne in his royal palace, particularly after winning a major battle or completing a major work, it always means that he is enthroned and in charge, thus his reign is finally here.
Likewise in the Creation narrative, the Lord God has finished his grand work of creation; all things are complete and good, even very good; no more addition is needed. And now his reign begins!! This is the climax of the whole story!
Then, what does this climax in Sabbath here have anything to do with the narratives and commandments on Sabbath later? What is going on?
In short, Sabbath is the symbol of God’s reign; he is totally in-charge. His people, being his royal representatives, needs to reflect this reign through their behaviors in all aspects. Thus Sabbath keeping is THE sign of identity for God’s people. This leads to a very interesting story in Exodus 16 – the Israelites were introduced to Sabbath-keeping, even before they were introduced to the Law!
The Lord God liberated the descendants of Abraham from the Egyptian enslavement. But now, not even three months had passed, this terrible bunch of complaint-prone people started grumbling after running out of food in the wilderness. The Lord God was not angry but very patient with them as we hear the narrative repeats comically four times: “he has heard your grumbling against him” (v.7, 8, 9, 12). At the same time in the narrative, there is another even more profound saying in repetition – for four times we hear “In the evening you will know (eat)… in the morning you will see (be filled)…” (v.6-7, 8, 12, 13). Do you remember when you have read or heard something similar to this? Yes, in Genesis Chapter 1! “There was evening and there was morning” for six times. This is the Hebrew understanding of how a day begins and ends, starting with the evening and ending in the morning! Yes, this is a very graphic reminder of the works of the Lord God in creation!! He is at work; He is in charge; He will provide; No more worry!!
And they were provided with quail and the thin-flakes called manna, but some rules followed:
‘Everyone is to gather as much as they need.” No one would gather more than needed, yet no one would be lacking.
And then, they were told, “No one is to keep any of it overnight.” – Here they bumped into the first lesson: someone kept the excess overnight: “they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell.”
And then they bumped into their second lesson: “22 On the sixth day, they gathered twice as much for each person.” And they were instructed:
“ 23 …‘Tomorrow is to be a day of sabbath rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.’”
24 So they saved it until morning, as Moses commanded, and it did not stink or get maggots in it. 25 “Eat it today,” Moses said, “because today is a sabbath to the Lord. You will not find any of it on the ground today. 26 Six days you are to gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will not be any.”
For this stubbornly rebellious bunch, they would never give up challenging God until they bumped into yet another humiliation:
“27 Nevertheless, some of the people went out on the seventh day to gather it, but they found none.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commands and my instructions? 29 Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day. “
And toward the end of this story, there is an extraordinary remark:
35 The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a land that was settled; they ate manna until they reached the border of Canaan.
What is going on here? Why they were instructed to do the same thing, eating in the same way, for forty years? Remember, this was even before their identity as a Priestly Nation was announced (Ch. 19) and were given the Law (Ch. 20 and on).
You see! This is the beginning of nation forming, or more precisely, nation-reforming. A people like these Hebrew slaves, being in captivity for 400 years, had absorbed everything the Egyptians and its culture imposed upon them, completely shaped in the images of Egyptian gods and overlords, while carrying their relentless drive for productivity (remember the brick making order by the young Pharaoh?). Now they would need a considerable amount of time to be formed otherwise, to become a new kind of people, suitable to be the royal representatives of the Lord God. And they need to learn to trust the Lord God.
And this situation echoes in an often quoted but misunderstood bible verse, in which we read: (Isaiah 30)
15 This is what the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it.
As we look closer, the two main stances are in parallel poetically. The word rest (Sabbath) is in fact corresponding to trust or faith, while repentance (return) is corresponding to “quietness” or silence, or even “shut up” to put it bluntly. In essence, when one practises Sabbath, he or she is also practising faith. Yes, not simply “having” faith but practising it. And we need to “shut up” in order to practise real repentance, as those Israelites stopped complaining and observed what the Lord God was doing among them.
Again, Sabbath was NOT just a day of rest; it’s about trusting the Lord: Our works paused, productivity was set aside, but the Lord is still at work and provides. The Israelites took 40 years in the Sinai Desert to learn just that!!
“The Sabbath is not simply about taking a break from our busy routines. It should not be reduced to a ‘time of rest’ or understood as inactivity, because this overlooks the rich formative potential within Sabbath teaching to transform a complete life.” (Wirzba)
At its root, Sabbath is about gift and limits. It nurtures our capacity to embrace the grace of receiving from the Creator who gives generously. Sabbath reminds us that we are not to take too much, as there would be plenty for everyone; no one would be left hungry or wanting; nor to mistake the gift for our possession. Through practising Sabbath, we realize that even before we begin to work, the Lord is working already. We could and should “let go of control” and trust the Lord who is always at work. When we stop, the earth is still running.
Furthermore, Sabbath is not just about spiritual formation for individuals; it also describes what we must care for as God’s people.
In the Ten Commandments, we see the command on Sabbath: It is for everyone in the household – sons and daughters, slaves and servants, even livestock, even the undignified and undesirable sojourners (undocumented refugees in today’s term) were to pause working and rest for the day. Everyone was on the equal ground; no one would be excluded, not even animals.
Sabbath is about thanksgiving:
According to Deuteronomy 16:9-11, every seven weeks, the Israelites were to celebrate the Feast of Weeks (七七節), with a freewill offering, which is essentially an offering of thanksgiving, showing rejoice and appreciation in the Lord.
Sabbath is about caring for the poor, the slaves, the outcast, even the wild animals. During the Sabbatical Years, the lands were to rest, so that the poor would be provided with food, even wild animals would be able to eat from the lands…(Exodus 23:10-11, Leviticus 25:1-7)
Sabbath is about proclaiming liberty. Every fifty years there was the Year of Jubilee, in which long term debts would be forfeited, life-long slaves would be released… (Leviticus 25:8-55)
Moving on to the New Testament, we can see the profound connections between the ministry of Jesus and Sabbath.
Jesus has some of his greatest conflicts with the Pharisees over Sabbath. And we hear him proclaiming: (Matt 12:8) “…For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. …” A great deal of Jesus’ healing took place on Sabbath Days, just to sample a few:
- …healed a man whose right hand was shriveled (Luke 6:6-10)
- …healed a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years(Luke 13:10-17)
- …healed a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body (Luke 14:1-6)
- …healed a man blind from birth (John 9)
And don’t forget this: In Jesus’ time healing the bodily sickness was not only about the physical health. Those who were sick as described in the stories were also alienated from their own communities, even being kicked out literally, because of their sickness. They became outcasts. Now Jesus restored their health AND their social relations, getting them back to their communities. And most of these happened during Sabbath Days.
Jesus even invoked the provisions of the Sabbatical Year as he told his disciples to pick grain from the field, on a Sabbath Day (Mark 2:23, c.f. Exodus 23:11)
In the eyes of the Pharisees, the words and acts of Jesus were subversive and offensive. But when we look closely, we instead see him restoring the true meanings of Sabbath.
- Sabbath is the climax of the Creation narrative. God’s reign has begun!
- Sabbath is about Rest and cease to work, but more than that.
- Sabbath is about our Trust / Faith in God; it’s about Return and Repent –It’s about letting go of control.
- Sabbath is for everyone, even slaves, domestic animals and refugees residing among the people
- Sabbath is about thanksgiving, appreciation, and delight
- Sabbath is about the land to rest, while food for the poor and wildlife
- Sabbath is about proclaiming liberty: debt forfeited, slaves released
- Sabbath is about Healing & restoration: the blind can see, the hungry are fed, broken relations restored and reinstated.
“When we become a Sabbath people, we give one of the most compelling witnesses to the world that we worship a God who desires our collective joy and good. We give concrete expression to an authentic faith that is working to deflate the anxious and destructive pride that supposes we have to “do it all” by ourselves and through our own effort,” nor we need to alienate or marginalize others as we are struggling to climb up that social or corporate ladder, or to accumulate wealth…
Here in 21st Century, far removed from the ancient Near Eastern World of the Old & New Testaments, in our globalized world where economy trumps everything, and in our industrial society where efficiency and productivity are the King & Queen; Profit and those so-called bottom lines constitute the fundamental concerns; we never stop, never rest…The others are simply disposable and expendable…
After all, the environmental crises we are in today are basically the results of the relentless drive for more, bigger, faster, newer, higher in almost everything, for the last 150+ years, leaving not just one but many trails of destruction behind, or in fact the mess right in front of us now…
How could we practise Sabbath-keeping then? Is it too idealistic? Impractical?
What do all these have anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
As I said in the beginning, we the followers of Christ are to bear witness to the grand objective of Christ’s reconciling ALL THINGS to himself, bringing forth the New Heaven and New Earth.
How might it look like in our time?
My Canadian colleague Leah Kostamo writes about her family on Sabbath keeping: ”Our only hard and fast rule is no shopping [on that day]. The point is, we say “no” to certain things. We step out of our normal rhythms of work and commerce and step into a new way of being. …
…the Sabbath is about time. It’s about trusting in a rhythm of time that depends not on clock attuned to commerce, but on a larger clock attuned to the rhythms of creation and of God…”
Perhaps, to begin with, we could set aside one day per week in which we say “no” to certain things …
- We say “no” to our normal rhythms of frantic work;
- We say “no” to the clock attuned to commerce or desire to consume
- We say “no” to our desire / rhythms attuned and determined by technology
- We say “no” to our desire / rhythms attuned by efficiency, productivity, profitability
- We say “no” to our desire / tendency attuned by our obsession for convenience…
- We say “no” to our desire / rhythms of being entertained endlessly…
These saying “no” might mean, for a day we choose not to go shopping, no TV watching, or no email / texting / internet / social media, or no driving, or no single-use disposable stuff. I have friends who choose to have no meat for a day each week, which would remind them of the cruelty of the farm animals suffering in those industrial agro-business operations. My UK colleague Dave Bookless tried to have his family to abstain from using electricity during the Holy Week, learning along the way not to take things as “normal” as electricity for granted.
Once again, rather than being simply a one-day per week “break” from frenetic, self-obsessed way of life, Sabbath is an on-going discipline and practice, leading to the transformation of our characters, heart, mind, objectives and directions.
And in practicing Sabbath, we nurture our capacity to see in God’s perspective:
We could see that the land would be able to rest, and the poor and wildlife would be provided.
We could see liberty being proclaimed: debt forfeited, slaves released
We could see Healing & restoration: the blind can see, the hungry are feed, broken relations restored and reinstated.
We could see that possibility for Freedom, Justice, Peace, Rest, and Healing in all of creation.
And from seeing, we would be able to bear witness of God’s purpose in Shalom, and to transform our characters and behaviours along the way, in relating, eating, consumption…
May the Lord bless you all! Sabbath – Shalom!!
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