“Sabbath for the Rest” – Mark 3:1-6

This was a short sermon (5 minutes) that I wrote for the ACTS D.Min. program in Chicago.  It utilized “incarnational translation” as part of the methodology for the sermon.  

 

The Pharisees sat in the pews keeping a suspicious eye on Jesus, waiting to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.  Work was strictly prohibited on Sabbath.  The Jewish religious leaders had created numerous laws designed to restrict working on Sabbath.  Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.  Don’t take too many steps on this day.  You can’t prepare meals on this day.  You aren’t allowed to do any manual labor.  It was a long, extensive, exhaustive, comprehensive, encyclopedic list of prohibitions they were required to follow.  The Pharisees prowled around the sanctuary just waiting for Jesus to step one toe out of line and break the Sabbath.

Jesus tells the man with the withered hand to stand where everyone in worship can see him.  As the congregation has gathered in their holy huddle, Jesus asks them an unsettling question: “What’s the whole purpose behind Sabbath?  Is it for doing good or evil, for sustaining life or promoting death?”  The Pharisees believe the Sabbath is about not working.  But Jesus says the Sabbath is about re-defining our work – not simply stopping it.  It’s not only about avoiding evil, but actively doing that which is good – preserving, sustaining, and blessing life for all.

You may have heard the old saying, “We don’t drink, smoke or chew, and we don’t go with girls that do.”  There have been times, we, as Nazarenes, were known for what we didn’t do.  We didn’t play cards.  We didn’t go to movies.  We weren’t allowed to dance.  We didn’t drink alcohol.  I’m not even sure we were allowed to smile.  Somewhere along the way, we rooted our identity in what we were against, but we weren’t sure what we were for.  We can list what we shouldn’t be doing, but we struggle to name what we should be doing.

While we may have avoided doing some harmful things, while we may have insulated ourselves from “a dangerous world out there,” we have also divorced ourselves from God’s Sabbath call.  Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and upon doing so the man’s hand is healed.  Jesus demonstrates in this healing that the “work” of Sabbath is the work of justice.  It is the work of restoration.  It is the work of renewal.  It is the work of reconciliation.  Sabbath is not only rest – Sabbath is restitution.

We stand at a crossroads in the life of our state and community.  It is a crossroad which recognizes that worship which fails to engage the real issues of this world isn’t really worship.  Our state has experienced a massive shortage in money for budgets.  It was a gross mishandling of money entrusted to them by its citizens.  The result was significant cuts to education, mental health care, and loss of tax breaks for our poorest neighbors.  Simultaneously, huge tax breaks were given to large oil companies.  The disturbing misuse of power and privilege which tramples over the most vulnerable people in our state and in our community is unacceptable and we cannot remain silent.  We cannot remain on the sidelines.

Jesus stands in our midst today, asking us: “Why have we gathered here in worship?  Is it just to avoid being tainted by the world outside?  Is it to build a huge wall of security around ourselves so that we might not concern ourselves with the world’s brokenness?  Or, is it so that we might be empowered to do that which is good, that which is right, that which preserves life?”  Perhaps we have been gathered here in worship to be reminded that God wants to heal our withered hands so that we might be sent back out into the world to work for the good of others.

Genesis 1: Comparative Analysis of Terrence Fretheim and Bill Arnold

Written in poetic prose, Genesis 1 contains a rhythm and rhyme that provide a certain meter to the content.  This rhythm strengthens the overall sense of orderliness inherent in God’s ordering of tōhû wābōhû.  Other creation narratives from the ancient Middle East contain many parallels with the Hebrew narrative.  Arnold maintains that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical in nature to these other narratives.  He does recognize the parallels and suggests that it is implicitly polemical.  At this point, Arnold seems to be splitting hairs.  First, nobody can really know if this was or was not the intent of the author.  Second, we can recognize that it is polemical, whether that is the intention or not.

Fretheim agrees with Arnold by stating that God acts in entirely different ways in Genesis 1 than does Marduk and the other gods of ancient Middle Eastern creation narratives.  The gods of the other nations are violent, whereas Genesis 1 describes God as merely speaking to simultaneously command and invite Creation into being.  God does not struggle with chaos.  The watery deep is not like Tiamat, but is invited to cooperate with God.  Fretheim also uses science to back up his position concerning chaos.  Although chaos is randomness, that randomness falls within certain boundaries.  There is orderliness that proceeds from chaos, although it still may not be predictable.

Arnold states: “What God has created in vv. 3-5 is time, which is more important than space for this chapter” (39).  Although time may be an important part of the Creation (i.e., seasons and days), space plays an equally important part in the process.  Day 1-3 is the creation of space, which is then filled on days 4-6.  Day 7 can even be framed as a creating of “space” for rest.  Life does not happen without the proper “space” in which life can be sustained.  Fretheim contests that light and space are inseparable dimensions, contra Arnold.  Both are vitally important aspects of Creation that enable life.

Fretheim employed the imagery of the cosmos being formed in the likeness of the tabernacle.  Each day moves you closer to the Holy of Holies, embodied in the Sabbath.  Although I had thought about the tabernacle being a microcosm of the Creation, I had not considered the reverse in Genesis 1.  This is a powerful image in that all of Creation is gathered in this symphony of worship, where life is created, blessed and sustained.  Thus, space seems to be equally important!

In connection with this imagery, Genesis 1 revolves around the number seven.  The first sentence is made of seven words, the second has fourteen, and the third sentence has thirty-five.  Overall, there are 469 words, which is a multiple of seven.  “God ‘saw and pronounced creation ‘good’ seven times; ‘earth’ or ‘land’… appears twenty-one times; ‘God’ is repeated thirty-five times.  There are also seven days of Creation.  Seven is a significant number in this passage, connoting wholeness or completion.  Fretheim notes the differentiated order that is represented in this number’s use and how that reflects the character of the whole passage.

The phrase “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” has been interpreted in a number of ways.  Typically, the Christian faith has understood this in Trinitarian terms: Father, Son, and Spirit conversing.  Another way to understand this is to say that there is a heavenly host that is being referred to here.  I have heard both of these positions before; however, I was unaware of a third possibility.  Arnold suggests that God is simply deliberating with God’s self “about the creation of humankind… God himself decisively steps in to make humankind” (44).  This seems only mildly different than the Trinitarian formulation.

Fretheim, on the other hand, understands this to be a heavenly host rather than God’s inner dialogue and deliberation.  Fretheim bases this interpretation on other passages in the Old Testament that record the “heavenly council.”  According to Fretheim, the heavenly host has been replaced by humanity as “God’s new pantheon.”

Overall, both Arnold and Fretheim have strengths and weaknesses in their interpretations of Genesis 1.  Fretheim couples his interpretation with scientific undergirding to help shed light on the complexities of creation.  This also happens to be the weakness of his argument, especially given the changing nature of science.  This potentially limits some of its future usefulness.

Arnold offers a less holistic view of the passage.  Most of his commentary on Genesis 1 focuses on its similarities and dissimilarities with the ancient creation stories (i.e., Enuma Elish).  Although this is an important thing to consider, his argument is weak in trying to show that Genesis 1 is not explicitly polemical.  As noted above, that is not something that can be proven.  We only have the text as it is now… which is polemical when read with the other ancient creation stories.  This detracts from Arnold’s interpretation.  However, Arnold does provide some contrasts to Fretheim that allow you to see other available options.

“Productive” Pastors

Genesis 1 is the great Creation narrative.  God subdues and orders chaos with only a word.  Space is created where life can be sustained and blessed by its Creator.  For six days God creates “space” and fills it with every living creature.  On the sixth day, humanity is created, crowning the Creation of God’s delight.  On the seventh day God rests and separates that day by making it holy.

There is much that can be said concerning those first six days of Creation.  Yet, the first thing that humanity sees God “doing” is not creating but resting.  If we are truly created in the imago Dei, image of God, this might be an important thing to note.  God definitely creates us to be laborers within the creation (tilling the soil).  Yet, God does not define God’s self by the accomplishment of tasks.

Our world is one that typically values people in terms of production.  How useful we are to another’s agenda or how we benefit the “bottom line” is employed to determine our “worth.”  This business-model mentality has seeped into the Church.  Pastors are expected to make their churches “grow.”  Success is determined by how many people were “saved” or “sanctified.”  Sometimes it can almost feel like the pastor is being paraded around like a show dog in front of the judges.  It’s a lot of expectations to fill.

The culture is not entirely at fault.  Pastors quite often want to see numerical and spiritual growth.  Those are necessarily bad things.  But, we can become very easily depressed if the church does not measure up to our expectations or if it falls far short of our hopes.  We hang our heads; we mope and worry.  If we have placed our “worth” and “value” in terms of the business-model’s idea of success, we will often be severely disappointed.

Is God’s assessment of us the same as the business-model?  Are we only of use to God in terms of our productivity?  Is God’s favor derivative of our work?  Refer back to the first account of Creation.  God creates humanity on the sixth day.  Even before we have managed to do one productive thing, God blesses us along with all of Creation.  We can’t discount that God calls us to labor in the Garden, but we were created for so much more than cheap labor.  After all, God creates everything in only a word… there does not seem to be a pressing need for our productivity to get things accomplished.

The seventh day is the Sabbath, set apart and made holy.  The invitation to rest is given to humanity even before it has been “productive.”  This day of rest points humanity towards what is God’s deepest desire: relationship.  God is not a cruel and harsh task-master, ready to make sure we meet our quota.  Does God invite our participation in caring for Creation?  Yes.  We are called to govern over it, but even this is done in relation to God!  Yet, our “value” is found in our connection with God alone!

Pastors are stilled called today to “till the soil” and prepare the seed in the lives of people to whom we minister.  It is a wonderful, joyous calling.  However, our primary goal is not the accomplishment of tasks, productivity for bottom lines, or business-model value systems of evaluating ourselves and others.  Rather, we have the wonderful opportunity to “rest” in the presence of God and invite others to do the same.  In a world that pushes all of us to find our value in what we do rather than who we are, pastors have an important and challenging task.  We must be careful not to get wrapped up in a system that causes us to place our worth in terms of our “success.”  And, we must hold up this same vision for our congregation.  Find your value in whose you are as God’s child and “good” creation!

Theology Professor and SNU Alumni Group Awarded Pastoral Grant | Southern Nazarene University

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Posted on Wed, March 14, 2012

Professor Marty Alan Michelson and six alumni of Southern Nazarene University’s School of Theology & Ministry have been awarded a $2750 grant from the Samford University Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence.

Funded by the Lilly Foundation, Inc., the grant recognizes the challenges and demands of pastoral work, leaving ministers to feel stressed, resulting in decreasing ministry focus and creativity. The Grant provides this seven member team with funds to collaborate on a book project that will mentor new ministers for the challenges of ministry. The book will guide new ministers preparing for effective life-long ministry.

Wendell Sutton, J.D. is team member and graduate of SNU’s Master of Arts in Theology program. Wendell, a Professor at Mid-America Christian University says, “The M.A. in Theology program at Southern Nazarene University has been invaluable not only in preparation for equipping undergraduate ministry students to impact their world for Christ in their chosen vocation, but also in the opportunity to develop friendships outside the classroom. The Samford grant will strengthen the peer to peer and mentoring relationship I am blessed to experience among ministry colleagues.”

Along with the funds provided by Samford, each member of the team has committed hours for work together alongside personal funds toward their shared times for engagement and writing. Other benefactors contributing generous space and collaboration toward the Book project include: Tom Ward with SandRidge Energy in Oklahoma City and Steve & Chelsee Walden of Oak Harbor, WA.

“SNU is a wonderful starting place on this journey of life-long learning. Many of SNU’s professors have heavily invested in me for extended success in pastoral ministry. The Samford grant will enable our team to share the life-long community with others and hopefully make a significant impact on young ministers that will sustain and carry throughout their ministry,” stated Levi Jones, SNU Alum and participant.

“It is a privilege to work with great learners at SNU who are training for a life-time of ministry” says Michelson. “The seven of us invested in this project are committed to helping young ministers – and people newly in ministry – engage faithful practices in ministry that bear fruit for a lifetime.”

The seven member team, graduates of the SNU School of Theology and Ministry include: Jeremy Graham, Levi Jones, Paul Metcalfe, Marty Alan Michelson, Eli Pagel, Wendell Sutton & Stephen Vandervort.

Sabbath and Surgery

Recently, my wife needed to have surgery.  It was not a very invasive procedure.  It was an outpatient ordeal.  The surgery went fantastic.  I was very thankful to hear.  Upon release my wife received instructions about caring for herself while she recovered.  The main requirement was rest and not to over-exert herself.  Rest does not come naturally to my wife.  Sitting around, for her, makes her thinks she is being lazy.  Her natural inclination is to make herself busy with things to do and accomplish.  But, if she really would like to recover quickly and totally she had to rest and allow the body to restore itself in time.

Sabbath, I am learning, is more than just resting. It’s healing. Rest is an important factor because of what it leads to: wholeness. Perhaps continuing to push ourselves without allowing proper rest and healing is akin to straining the body too much after a surgery. It can only lead to more complications, weariness, and pain. Healing cannot happen without rest. I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Jesus came to heal and make whole. We are restored to new life as Sabbath becomes an entering into the wonderful rest of a Savior that brings healing to our hurts.

Sabbath and Carpentry

For the past month I have been working with a friend doing various carpentry jobs around the OKC metro area.  I have done such work before on a limited basis.  So, most of this has been learning new skills and getting to know my friend better.  This has been a wonderful new experience.  On the days that I have worked, I have generally woken up very early and worked long hours (up to 15) those days.  It can be strenuous work physically and it can definitely test your patience when things are not cooperating as you might hope.

However, with that said, working this job and getting to know my friend better has been a wonderful Sabbath.  My primary occupation is a youth pastor and a Master’s student.  This is who I am.  It can become very difficult to live out each of these “jobs.”  Learning a new skill and spending time with a friend that I can discuss difficult issues has allowed me to pause, reflect, and learn.  It has broken my regular rhythms and has become a means of grace.

Odd that I should say something like that about carpentry and working long, hard hours.  As I reflect upon why this is Sabbath-like, I can only come to one conclusion.  Working carpentry with my friend allows me to rest from my typical concerns.  It is therapeutic.  I can rest my mind and find enjoyment in what my hands have made.  It’s not about how much money I can make, but it really has become a way to deepen a relationship that I value and learn new skills that I find interesting.

It is a life-giving endeavor.  It is a way for me to pray and play, yet oddly gives me rest in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life.  Who would have thought that Sabbath can be found in building closets, putting in doors, or trimming out houses.  It’s not primarily about the activities we perform, but rendering our lives open to a fresh touch from God in the midst of the places we find ourselves.

Sabbath and the Contemplative Pastor

I really enjoyed reading this book.  More than that though, it was challening reading Peterson’s understanding of pastoral ministry.  I found myself wrestling with the tensions that he describes.  How do we fulfill our vocational calling while treating those we minister to with Gospel dignity.  That is a difficult tightrope to walk at times.

I especially like the distinction that Peterson makes in outlining pastoral vocation as unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic.  Unbusy indicates that pastors are not bogged down by “running” a church.  Although administration is part and parcel of our “job” as pastors, that is not what we are called to “be.”  Being unbusy means that we are unrushed.  It is not a “works-based” righteousness.  It is important that we embody that in our ministry.

It is about being saturated in prayer and Scripture.  The Spirit, not the calendar, directs our lives.  We are not called to be important (we usually show our importance by how much stuff we do).  It is a vanity that says the Church cannot survive without my effort.  Being unbusy is a resting in God’s work in the Church and that we are called to “be” not “do.”

Furthermore, we are called to be subversive.  We oppose the culture and what it deems we are to be as pastors and as people.  It means that the kingdom of self is replaced by the Kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of our congregations.  It is looking for the Kingdom that is even now burgeoning in our lives.  And, it is allowing our wills to be subsumed by that Kingdom so that we are partners with God’s re-creational work in the world.

Finally, pastors are apocalyptic.  This is not end-of-the-world proclamations aimed at our people.  Rather, the apocalyptic pastor is one who prays, perseveres, and uses language poetically (as a “maker”).  We are truth tellers that are shaped by the Word and employ words to shape the world.  It is a confidence that God’s work in the world is already happening and will come to fruition and completion in the fullness of time.  Sabbath helps us “cease” so that we are fully present, able to listen, and focused upon what God is doing rather than on what we are doing to bring God’s Kingdom about.

For me, it has been a struggle to stop.  I don’t do it very well.  This has been especially true with finishing school, keeping up with ministry, and finishing wedding and honeymoon plans.  There’s so much to be accomplished and it seems there is so little time to accomplish it in.  Plus, I feel important when I have responsibilities that I am able to juggle.  It shows competence and skill.

But, too often it denigrates into building my kingdom rather than seeking to build God’s Kingdom.  It is an exercise in ego.  And, although I cannot neglect all of these activities and goals, it is important that I realize what is truly valuable and important in this life.  It is vital that I remember that I am valued because of who I am in Christ, not what I accomplish in life.  It doesn’t eliminate all of the tasks that must be finished, but it does prioritize them.  Sabbath is helping me remember this and re-evaluate my life in light of those facts.

Sabbath and Sickness

I have been sick the past week.  It has been rather inconvenient and miserable.  The misery was compounded by the fact that I became ill during Holy Week.  Of all weeks to be sick during the year, this is by far the most inconvenient.  I had parts in the Seder meal, was designing and setting up the service for Good Friday, needed to participate in our church’s Holy Saturday work-day, and I looked forward to Easter service!  There was so much to do and so little time to do it.

To complicate matters, schoolwork and helping to plan our wedding consumed my energies.  I was staying up late writing papers, getting up early to complete tasks, going to class, attending meetings, and reading books.  To say the least, rest was the last thing I could afford at the moment.  It was an inconvenient thing I pushed to the side so that I could accomplish all that needed to be accomplished.

But, the body has a funny way of reacting to all work and no rest.  There comes a point where it eventually forces you to rest.  Exhaustion takes its toll.  The immune system runs like a beat up Ford Pinto.  Finally, Sabbath is forced upon you.  Many of the tasks that I had planned to accomplish or the things I planned to attend were put on hold.  They did not get accomplished.  Work became secondary.

My body, which God designed, had re-oriented my world.  At first, I was not at all pleased with this situation.  I worried about all of the “dropped” responsibilities I had neglected.  I resented my body’s lack of stamina.  Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the “Sabbath” I had been forced to observe.  The world continued without me, the church did not fail, my work eventually was completed.

My lack of productivity was directly linked to my lack of rest.  But, more than that, the lack of rest atrophied my ability to enjoy life at the moment.  Sickness usually does not come at convenient moments, neither does Sabbath.  There’s always something pulling for our attention.  There’s always something needing to be accomplished.  But, finding the value of rest can make all of the difference in how we truly live, not just exist.

John 9: Light of the World

In John 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth.  It is a miracle that is performed on a Sabbath.  Of course, the religious leaders condemn Jesus for working of the Sabbath.  God does not give us the Sabbath simply to make us stop working.  Rather, the stopping of work on Sabbath directs our attention back to the redemptive work God is doing in and among us.  Getting caught up in the “demands” of the Sabbath without being aware of God’s presence and work leaves the Sabbath as a dead ritual.  It ceases to be life-giving.  Like Jesus, we are to “pause” and see the opportunities for God’s life-giving activity.

I am reminded through this passage that my own routine, even when I am not working, often is not Sabbath.  I am caught up in the theological questions and enigmas as were the disciples.  I discredit those that claim God’s work in their life with this-world explanations, as did the Pharisees and neighbors.  I worry and fear about how other perceive me rather than how I am perceived by God, as were the man’s parents.  I am confronted with my own blindness but have the audacity to question back, “What now?  Am I blind, too?”  I have all of my theological categories, presuppositions, and beliefs pulled together.  If it doesn’t fit in my theological box, I am quick to dismiss it as something other than God.

But what happens when God does something that doesn’t fit in my theological box?  What happens when my blindness is exposed?  Do I clamor back to the comfort of my darkness or am I willing for sight to be given by the Light of the World?  Sabbath, for me, must become much more about stepping into the Light.  It must become about putting down my guard, putting aside my box, and presenting myself before a God whose light exposes my deepest shadows.  Sabbath may be about ceasing so that we may rest… but it must also be a ceasing from striving to control, constrain, and categorize God’s work.  It is a rest in which our attention is drawn back to the One “sent” from God so that we may “see” and be saved.

Sabbath and Silent Salvation

The silence is deafening.  No mighty wind, no earthquake, no fire… just silence.  Sabbath and silence.  “Be still, and know that I AM God.”  Why is it that I find the silence so difficult to dwell in?  It could be that the culture around me saturates itself with busyness and sound and activity.  But, I am coming more to realize that this is not even the issue.

The difficulty with Sabbath and silence is that I have to come to terms with myself.  I come face-to-face with myself, with my finitude, with my creature-ness.  My world is re-oriented… but not around me.  I find that I am lacking, insufficient, and inadequate.  In short, I’m not God.  I have come to the end of myself and have entered fully into the silence.  It is in this silence that I hear the still small voice.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”

In the fire of that silence, I am changed, purified, and humbled.  I am creature, fully human.  It is not because of what I do but because of who God is.  Like Moses, I find myself on holy ground in the middle of the mundane desert of life..  Like Isaiah, I find myself a sinful man in the midst of a sinful world needing God’s transformative work in my life.  And, all too often, I find myself like the disciples sleeping while I should be praying.

To be honest, silence is difficult to enter into fully because there is always the probability that God will reveal Himself and may change us.  We drown out the still small voice, hoping to muffle the call of the Holy One.  Change is rarely something we chase after and accept willingly.  We inundate ourselves with noise and activity because to enter in Sabbath silence means we might meet God and be called to a new life.

But, we are comfortable with the old way.  We want to be God.  We want to call the shots.  We want to be in control.  But, it is only when we recognize our created-ness and center our lives upon our Creator that we become fully human and fully present.  It is only in this that we become truly free.  Sabbath re-orients us, reminding us of who we are and Whose we are.  We leave the noisy productivity of Egypt and walk into a desert dependence upon God.