The Color Green

We hiked in a nearby state park this weekend. Being on the coast of the Puget Sound, even in late August, it was very green. Trees, ferns, and moss everywhere. I am not interested in trees the way I am birds. Part of that may go back to emotional scars from the annual leaf collection projects of late elementary school.

But on Saturday, I was appreciating the trees. Hemlocks and cedars and big-leaf maples. Interesting configurations and ways they had adapted and overcome various challenges. It would not have surprised me to find an Ent looking down at us.

There is something restorative about being out in the green of nature. I clearly remember going camping after a year in the brown and tan of Iraq. It seemed counter-intuitive after living in a tent for a year, but there is a big difference between camping with my family and being deployed or in the field. One of those differences was the scenery.

I distinctly remember a healing moment on my kayak in Chain O’Lakes State Park in Indiana, surrounded by lily pads and trees and other greenery, floating on the water with the sun shining and a Red-winged Blackbird singing in the brush. It was cleansing. It was comforting. I received it as a gift from God.

Gary Thomas, in his book Sacred Pathways, would label me as a naturalist, one who often feels close to God or is drawn to worship and reflection in the outdoors. That’s an accurate assessment. I am amazed at God’s creativity and artistry in the world around me. From the towering peak of Mount Rainier to the Black-eyed Susans next to my neighbor’s house, it seems there is always something to look at and be amazed by.

Even something like ornamental grass going to seed is a thing of wonder and beauty. Not only the colors of green and gold and the play of the evening light upon them, but also the progression from seed to plant to more seeds. I understand enough biology to realize it is not really ex nihilo, but it still looks like it in many ways. The seed dropped in the ground disappears and from this “nothing” sprouts a plant.

Part of my appreciation for Rich Mullins’ music is that he seemed to share this naturalist / contemplative temperament. A line from his song “Here in America” sums it up:

And there’s so much beauty around us for just two eyes to see
But everywhere I go, I’m looking

Everywhere I go, I’m looking. Even in the desolate land of Iraq, I saw it. House Sparrows that came to scavenge crumbs. A fierce blue sky that only after months was traversed by one small cloud. A thunderstorm off in the distance with lightning dancing in all directions. In the beginning, God made and it was good. Much of it still is, even after millennia of sin and the effects thereof.

I leave you with the music video by Rich Mullins from which this post derives its title. It’s just an added bonus that it was shot on location in Ireland.

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10 Reasons To Use a Lectionary

There are various lectionaries for Sunday use, the most popular among Protestants being the Revised Common Lectionary. A lectionary is simply a list of prescribed scripture readings. Most contemporary lectionaries, including the Revised Common Lectionary, follow a three year cycle for Sunday readings. But why should a pastor/priest use it?

  1. You may be required to and you are almost certainly not prohibited from using it.¹ If you are in a church that expects you to follow a lectionary, the other nine reasons on this list are just icing on the cake. Follow the polity of your church.
  2. A lectionary enables you to follow the rhythms of the church year. Even “low church” pastors see the significance of Christmas and Easter. Using the lectionary helps you build up to these and other key events in the life of the church. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost are all valuable didactic tools in the spiritual formation of your flock.
  3. Related to number 2, the lectionary provides stability in preaching. It prevents reactionary sermons to the latest crisis/fad/natural disaster.
  4. It provides predictability for your congregation. Yes, many of your flock will come in on Sunday morning not having given any thought to the texts for that day, but some will, if they know what is coming up. It also makes it easier for your musicians and others to plan out what will happen in the weeks to come.
  5. It enables collaboration in a shared pulpit. Every preacher/homilist knows not only what they are doing on their Sunday, but also what is being covered the weeks before and after.
  6. It enables collaboration across pulpits. If you and your fellow pastors/priests are all looking at the same texts, you can share resources, form study groups, and generally support each other.
  7. It simplifies resource capture. With a lectionary, it is fairly easy to file away resources for upcoming sermons. Articles, fragments from books, etc. can all be filed for future use when those readings come up in the lectionary.
  8. It encourages discipline in preparation. When everyone knows what the texts are for Sunday, there is no reaching back for your favorite hip-pocket sermon. These are the texts, so you must deal with them.
  9. It infuses your service with more scripture. If your service doesn’t follow the lectionary, consider adding the reading of all four texts to your order of worship. This will probably quadruple the amount of scripture your people hear each Sunday.²
  10. Finally, it prods you to preach the whole counsel of Scripture. I have never seen a lectionary that covers every chapter of every book of the Bible,³ but if you looked at what you covered in the last three years of non-lectionary preaching versus what the lectionary covers, the lectionary will have covered more ground every time.

¹ While researching on the internet, I often read contrarian views to whatever topic I’m studying. I could not find any serious anti-lectionary rhetoric, however, but merely a few posts explaining why some individuals choose not to use it, though they were not advocating that no one should.

² This is what first led me to using the lectionary. If you are concerned that reading that much scripture will cut into your sermon or the singing, you need to keep saying that out loud until the Holy Spirit brings conviction upon you for placing yourself above his word.

³ There are some passages whose absence is more glaring than others and discussions and arguments abound over what should and should not be in a lectionary. All are selective, because you only have 156 Sundays in three years. I have a dream that someday I’ll do a midweek service or teaching on texts that don’t show up in the lectionary.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 6

Previous posts in this series examined the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, the practice of the disciples, and the Epistles. In this final installment, we will consider the question, “What does the Sabbath mean for me today?”

The spectrum of Christian reaction to, and teaching on, the Fourth Commandment runs from total disregard on one end to Pharisaical obsession on the other. The consensus seems skewed toward the former, however, so any suggestion that we should restrict our actions on the Sabbath will be labeled as legalism by many. We live in a post-Christian society and the ethics of capitalism have shaped us not just in the marketplace.¹ We have gone beyond that which the Israelites were condemned for by Amos.

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”

Amos 8:4-6 (ESV)

The Sabbath is no longer a hinderance to our 24/7 consumerism (unless you want something from Hobby Lobby or Chick-fil-A) as it was to those Amos spoke to. Let us return for a moment to remind ourselves what the Fourth Commandment says.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11 (ESV)

Work six, rest one. Not just you, but everyone who works for you. That is the simplest, most straightforward reading of these verses I can manage.²  This raises the question, “What is work?” That was the question the Pharisees were seeking to answer in their interpretation and application of the the Fourth Commandment, and we can see the danger looming already.

I would offer this tentative definition for your consideration. Any activity you are paid to perform is work. So, we should refrain from doing anything to earn a wage on the Sabbath. This may not be possible for everyone — myself included as I’ve had to work the past two Sundays — but I think it’s a fair reading of the text.

After spending several weeks looking at all these passages, I don’t think we can escape the command to keep the Sabbath. We have been discussing ways to try to better observe the Sabbath in our household, but I’m not going to post those here. I encourage you to make it a matter of prayer. Ask the Lord what he would have you do (and not do) on the Sabbath. Pray that he would teach you how to be obedient to his word in this area (and all others).

God desires us to rest in him. Let us have the faith to set aside our work and do just that.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28 (ESV)

¹ I commend David Bentley Hart’s thoughtful article in First Things to your consideration and reflection on this point.

² I have learned to appreciate Augustine of Hippo’s penchant for allegorical interpretation of texts, but my default remains unchanged: when in doubt, take the path of least explanation.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 5

Thus far we have looked at the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, the Gospels, and the practice of the disciples in relation to the Sabbath. Today I will look at two more New Testament texts.

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Colossians 2:13-17 (ESV)

What does Paul mean by “let no one pass judgement on you”? Does it mean we can completely disregard these observances? Or does it mean we should not become consumed in their observance, as the Pharisees had?

This one text is not clear enough to warrant complete disregard of the Fourth Commandment. The early church drew no such conclusion, either. The teaching of candidates for baptism historically included the 10 Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles Creed. They did not redact the Fourth Commandment in their teaching.

Hebrews 4:1-11 is the last teaching on the Sabbath in the New Testament.

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said, “They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:1-11 (ESV)

This passage clearly has both symbolic and eschatological applications. It also serves to reinforce the importance of rest in God. Coupled with the above passage in Colossians, we are reminded that the Sabbath is a shadow of things to come. This does not, however, mean that it is unimportant now. On the contrary, all of our worship — including the Eucharist — is a shadow of things to come.

A shadow tells us some things about an object, and without the shadow, we may have no knowledge of it at all. Remember Plato’s cave allegory? The inhabitants knew the outside world only through the shadows of objects that appeared upon the cave wall. When released, they recognized objects they had previously seen only as shadows.

Our observance of the Sabbath will always be imperfect in this life. We will only experience God’s perfect, promised rest when all work is done, especially the work of fighting against sin and the effects thereof. But that does not mean we cannot rest at all until that great and glorious day, any more than we are excused from worship until we can do it perfectly.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 4

Thus far, we have examined teaching on the Sabbath from the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, and the Gospels. Today I want to look at the practice of the disciples concerning the Sabbath. It can be easy to focus exclusively on what was taught in the New Testament and overlook what was actually done.

For instance, consider Mark 1:32: “That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons.” (ESV) Why does Mark mention the detail that this happened at sundown? Because this bit of narrative begins in verse 21: “And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching.” The Jews waited to bring the sick and the oppressed until after sundown because that was the end of the Sabbath, when they could perform work again, like carrying a lame or sick person to where Jesus was in Peter’s house.

Since this was the beginning of the Jesus’ ministry, we expect the crowds to still be “under the law,” so it’s no real surprise to understand that Mark is telling us that the Sabbath was observed. Surely once we arrive at the end of the Gospel, the disciples would be free of any such works-righteousness, right? Not so fast.

Consider the death and burial of Jesus. In Mark 15:42 and following, we are told of the burial of Jesus happening before the Sabbath began. The women noted where he was laid by Joseph of Arimathea and then, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (Mark 16:1 ESV) Some of Jesus’ closest disciples waited through the Sabbath before returning to perform burial preparations on Jesus’ body. We usually skip right by this, except maybe to explain the calculation of three days in the grave, and miss the obedience to the Fourth Commandment that is still taking place.

Moving on to Acts, written by Luke, we have a few more Sabbath references. Consider Acts 1:12, immediately after the ascension: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.” Why would Luke, a Gentile and close associate of the Apostle Paul, use such a reference? Granted, it is an incidental mention of Sabbath observance, but it should give us pause to consider. Not much is know about Theophilus, the addressee of Luke and Acts, but it is not unwarranted to think he may also have been a Gentile.

One could understand Matthew using a reference to a “Sabbath day’s journey” because he was a Jew writing to Jews. It only makes sense for Luke to use such a reference if the practice continued in the early church, and therefore Christian converts understood what a Sabbath day’s journey was. (2,000 cubits, or roughly 1 kilometer) If the practice of keeping to Sabbath regulations had been abolished, there is no reason to mention the distance traveled in this manner, if at all.

The Sabbath also continued as a day of religious instruction and gathering. We note throughout Acts, Paul regularly teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath. (See Acts 13:44, for example.)

Tomorrow, I will look at two references by Paul to the Sabbath in his letters and then move to implications for us as believers seeking to live in obedience to God.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 3

Thus far, we have considered teaching from the Old Testament and the Apocrypha on the Sabbath. Today, we will move into the New Testament.

In the New Testament, we witness three conflicts with the Mosaic law — Peter with dietary laws, Paul with circumcision, and Jesus with the Sabbath. Jesus seemed to be in constant conflict with the Pharisees over what constituted acceptable Sabbath conduct. The first passage in the New Testament concerning the issue is typical.

In Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field. They start harvesting and threshing the grain — at least on a very small scale — as they pick some heads, rub them between their hands, and eat them. To the Pharisees, it is a clear-cut case of Sabbath-breaking. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” cry the Pharisees.

Jesus rolls his eyes¹ and gives two counter-examples from the Old Testament. The priests work each Sabbath and David broke the Levitical law by eating the Bread of the Presence. Jesus then makes three statements: “Something greater than the temple is here,” “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

Jesus then enters a synagogue to find a man with a withered hand and is asked if it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. It’s not a wholly unreasonable question since the Mosaic law does not specifically address it, but they are seeking a reason to accuse him, not information. Christ answers in good rabbinical fashion with a question. “Which one of you, who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” The implied and assumed answer is, “Every one of you.” “Of how much more value is a man than a sheep?” Again, the obvious answer is, “Much more.” From this short argument Jesus issues the conclusion, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” He then promptly heals the man’s hand, which enrages the Pharisees who plot to destroy Jesus.²

Few things seemed to anger the Pharisees as much as Jesus healing on the Sabbath. He was violating their tightly-controlled interpretation of “work” on the Sabbath, but he was also upstaging them in doing so. He was not merely walking through grain fields, he was healing people of all sorts of ailments. This was something they were unable to do and was making him very popular among the people.

The Gospels record about 8 instances in which Jesus healed on the Sabbath, in addition to mentioning him teaching on the Sabbath. (No one ever opposed that activity. Teachers, is your job not work?) In many of the instances, when he was challenged, he gave a similar reply to the one we considered from Matthew 12. He asked either about livestock or children needing assistance or basic care on the Sabbath. The unstated answer always being, “Of course you do that.”

Was Jesus resolutely anti-fourth commandment? Tomorrow we will examine some texts from the Gospel that indicate the importance of Sabbath-keeping to his disciples.

¹ There is, of course, no scriptural support for my conjecture. In fact, I am most likely projecting myself onto Christ at this point, which is something we need to be wary of. It is easy to slip from “What would Jesus do” to “What would I do if I was Jesus?”

² The Pharisees are enraged for multiple reasons. The most reasonable reason is that Jesus is asserting authority to interpret the law which could be construed as a claim to messianic identity. To claim this falsely is blasphemy and worthy of death.

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What About the Sabbath? Part 2

Yesterday we looked at some key Old Testament passages regarding the Sabbath. Today, we’ll look at the inter-testamental period, as recorded in the Apocrypha. (If you’re new to the Apocrypha, you can read my intro here.)

Regardless of your feelings about the inspiration and canonicity of the Apocrypha, it does provide insight into the development of some themes in post-exilic Judaism. The Sabbath is not mentioned extensively, but 1 & 2 Maccabees do give us some points to ponder.

1 Maccabees 2 tells the story of Mattathias, who defied the Gentile King’s orders and refused to offer sacrifices to idols or defile the Sabbath. He fled Jerusalem with his followers and was pursued. About 1,000 of his followers were attacked by the Gentiles on the Sabbath and they chose to die instead of violate the Sabbath (2:33-38). Mattathias learns of this slaughter and mourns for the slain. Then he and his followers do some analysis.

“If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

1 Maccabees 2:40-41 (RSV)

This raises interesting and important questions about Sabbath observance that are not addressed in the Pentateuch. Armed conflict is certainly work; the exertion of hand-to-hand combat is complete. Yet in all the conflicts with the Philistines, or even the occupation of the promised land, Sabbath regulations are never mentioned.

In the period of the Maccabees, however, there is a renewed emphasis on the Sabbath. Whether rightly or wrongly, the returned exiles from Babylon held Sabbath observance in high regard. (See Nehemiah 10 and 13.) Sabbath-keeping, always a distinctive feature of Judaism, became even more important to those trying to re-establish Israel.

One further passage offers a bit more light on the question of war and the Sabbath. 2 Maccabees 8:24-29 gives us an instance of the Jews on the offensive achieving a decisive victory against the Gentiles. But, they cut off their pursuit of the defeated army because of the arrival of the Sabbath.

There is much that could be made of these incidences, and applications drawn from them, but I want to restrain our discussion of how we should observe the Sabbath until we have looked at the whole counsel of Scripture. Instead, I will leave you with some questions for reflection.

What do you make of the willingness of 1,000 men to die in 1 Maccabees 2? Were they “putting the Lord to the test” or honoring God? We don’t read that they expressed any hope of miraculous deliverance. Is that a lack of faith or a sober assessment of their situation? When Mattathias and the rest of his followers made a conscious decision to defend themselves on the Sabbath, did they demonstrate a lack of faith or wise judgement?

Pondering these life-and-death questions related to the Sabbath help us to consider our application of the fourth commandment. They also give us insight into the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is proper on the Sabbath day, but that’s for another day.

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