Resting in the Lord


By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, September 15, 2002

Readings

Genesis 2:1-7 The seventh day of creation

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their vast array. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a mist would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground--then the Lord God formed a human being from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.

Matthew 12:1-14 Jesus: Lord of the Sabbath

At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath."

He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath."

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?" so that they might accuse him.

"He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath. Will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

True Christian Religion #694 Eternal rest from labor

Eternal rest is not idleness, since idleness reduces the mind, and with it the whole body, to a state of feebleness, lethargy, stupidity, and sleepiness. These are not life, but death. So they can't possibly be the eternal life of the angels in heaven.

Eternal rest is a rest that banishes all these ills and makes us alive. This can only be something that uplifts our mind. So it is some interest or task that excites, enlivens, and delights our mind. And this depends upon the useful service for which, in which, and towards which our mind is directed.

This is why the whole of heaven is seen by the Lord as a vessel full of useful activity; and the angels are angels according to the use they serve. The pleasure of service carries them along, just as a favorable current carries a ship, and gives them eternal peace, and the rest that comes from it. This is what is meant by eternal rest from labors. Angels are alive just as much as their mind is focused from providing a useful service.


Sermon

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:3)

Today, as Sunday School starts up again for this church year, it is our pleasure and joy to have the children with us for the beginning of the service. And it is a special joy to have new families and new children joining us and making our church and Sunday School a richer (and livelier!) place.

This year the Sunday School will use Series 4 in the Bible Study Notes by Anita S. Dole. And just as I have done in the last three years, this year I will usually (though not always) use the readings that the children are learning about in their Sunday School classes as one of the readings for my sermons. Though these stories have become mighty familiar to those of you long-time members who have followed the "Dole Notes" for many years, I like the thought of parents, and the rest of the adults, following the same stories the children are learning. For the parents, it will provide common ground in talking with their children about their lesson for today. And for the rest of you, I hope my sermons throughout the course of the year will provide some new thoughts and insights.

The genius of the Dole Notes is their four year curriculum cycle, which guides the Sunday School classes through the entire sweep of the Bible story each year. Each year offers a different series of stories covering the major events of the Bible narrative. Once four years have passed and the cycle starts over again with Series 1, most of the children will have moved on to an older class. They can then study the familiar and well-loved stories at a deeper level, appropriate to their age. This continues right up through the adult lessons, which delve most profoundly into the spiritual meanings in each story.

The result for children, teens, and adults who follow the Dole Notes for a number of years is a grasp of the Bible as a seamless whole: a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Along with this is a growing sense of the Bible as a vast parable telling a spiritual story. It is the story of our own spiritual rebirth and growth. It is also the story of the spiritual progress of humankind as a whole. And, of course, at its deepest level the Bible is the Lord's autobiography, telling us in rich metaphorical language about who our Lord, God, and Creator is--and especially about his infinite love for us, his infinite wisdom in taking care of us, and his infinite power in drawing us into his arms just as much as we will let him.

Of course, the Bible is a huge, long book--well over a thousand pages in most editions. And despite the masterful way in which the Dole Notes give us not just one, but four one-year-long overviews of the Bible, we can still get lost in all that detail, and miss the big picture. There is so much complexity that we may be tempted to throw up our hands in despair of ever grasping it all, and of seeing how it all relates to our own spiritual journey.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the Lord has given us a summary of the whole spiritual story in just thirty-four verses at the very beginning of the Bible. That summary is the story of the seven days of creation. Two weeks ago in our final summer informal service we explored what some of those seven days mean in terms of our spiritual stages.

It all begins with our minds shrouded in spiritual darkness, when we are still focused on our own comfort and pleasure and on the things of this world. And then God says, "Let there be light," as the light dawns on us that there is a higher purpose to our lives; that God is calling us to leave behind our self-centered and worldly focus and move toward a life inspired from within and above. The first six days of creation give us an amazingly beautiful summary of every spiritual development along that path. They give us a living picture of each birth within us of new capacities for understanding and love at deeper and deeper levels--and of all our struggles, trials, and triumphs along the way. And at the end, the creation story gives us the beautiful promise of that seventh day of rest from all our labors:

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their vast array. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

However, before we go on to explore the spiritual meaning of this final day, let's take a brief look at its literal meaning as it developed in the Jewish Church, the Christian Church, and finally in the new Christian Church that we believe is now dawning upon this earth.

To start out, there is no better way to summarize the ancient Jewish perspective on the Sabbath than to read the Fourth Commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the foreigner within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

This commandment refers directly to the description of the seventh day of creation. From the statement that God rested from his work on that seventh day, it concludes that people, and even animals, should not do any work on that day either. So for the ancient Jews, the Sabbath was especially a day of rest from labor and from business. It was also a day set aside for the ritualistic worship of animal sacrifices and grain offerings.

Of course, even today the practice of taking at least one day per week off from work continues throughout much of the world. Not only does our body need regular periods of rest so that it can repair and rejuvenate itself, but our mind also needs regular breaks from focusing on its work. Otherwise, like an overused muscle, our mind loses strength and elasticity, and our work becomes an increasingly uphill grind, while we become less and less efficient, and less satisfied in it. The ancient admonition to take regular periods of rest from our labors continues to have force in our lives today.

However, as our reading from Matthew shows, the Lord interpreted the Sabbath differently than the ancient Jewish church in which he grew up. He had been taught a Sabbath of strict rest from labor, codified in many detailed laws of what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. He rejected that view not only theoretically, but in practice.

Of course, this got him into hot water with the Pharisees--one of the leading groups of religious lawyers who saw it as their job to enforce not only the original laws of Moses, but also the many laws that had grown up around it over the years. Even such a simple act as picking heads of grain and rubbing them together to separate the grain from the chaff in order to eat the grain was considered unlawful labor, and thus was condemned as Sabbath-breaking.

Jesus had no patience for this type of literalistic, legalistic interpretation of the Law. He pointed out places in the Scriptures themselves where David--the great king of Israel--had broken the literal law by eating the sacred bread of the Lord's presence, which only the priests were supposed to eat. And the priests themselves, he pointed out, break the Sabbath by working on it. (We ministers have to take a different day off!) He then gave a new and more spiritual interpretation: "It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath."

This shift from a literal and legal interpretation to a more spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath had its effect on the Christian Church, which tended to be less rigid about prohibition of any kind of physical labor on the Sabbath. Of course, some of the more conservative Christian branches and sects have practiced a prohibition of labor on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) that rivals that of the ancient Jews. However, it is universally true among Christians that the focus of the Sabbath has moved away from not working, and toward the practice of worship and of learning about God and spirit. Sunday is seen by Christians primarily as a day to focus on the Lord, the Bible, and learning about spiritual life. And especially since the last Jewish temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD, this has become the focus of the Jewish Sabbath also.

Swedenborg picks up on this new focus for the Sabbath. He writes:

When the Lord was in the world . . . he did away with the Sabbath as an occasion on which representative worship--the kind of worship established among the Israelite people--took place, and made the Sabbath day a day for instruction in teachings about faith and love. (Arcana Coelestia #10360)

Today we join other Christians in observing each Sunday as a day of worshipping the Lord and of learning the ways of spiritual life.

However, we still haven't dealt with the Lord's teaching that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." Doesn't this explicitly violate one of the Ten Commandments, which says we are not to do any work on the Sabbath?

If we read the commandments literally, yes. But Jesus also said, "The spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing" (John 6:63). And Paul explained, "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant--not of the letter but of the spirit. For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6). In other words, in establishing Christianity, the Lord laid aside the old covenant based on adherence to external, ritualistic laws, and replaced it with a covenant based on following the Lord's spirit from within.

This clears the way for us to understand how the Lord's teaching that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath does not abolish, but fulfills the Law. Swedenborg's spiritual interpretation of the law of the Sabbath provides the missing link.

Physically, we labor when we are working against resistance. If we are digging a hole in soil that is full of rocks and roots, or scrubbing a floor that has many tough, greasy, ground in stains, we really feel the effort. We literally do our work in the sweat of our brow! However, if the soil is already a loose, rich loam, or the floor simply has a minor spill on it, we hardly think of it as work, because it is so easy to do.

If we think of labor this way--as working against resistance--then we can get a clearer picture of the spiritual meaning of the six days of labor. The six days of labor are the times in our lives when it is a struggle to keep ourselves on the right path and do the right thing--or to keep up our spirits in the face of frustration, discouragement, and despair. Spiritually, we labor when we are working against the resistance of our own old habits and lower tendencies, and against all the forces around and inside us that tend to tear us down. We labor when part of us wants to follow God, and live a constructive, kind, and spiritual life, but another part wants to forget all that, and just do what feels good to me right now. We labor when we get so discouraged that we start to think there is no way we could possibly live the kind of life shown to us by the Lord.

We do have to go through our six days of labor, over and over again. Our old self does not simply lie down and play dead because we have decided we now want to live a spiritual life. It fights against us every step of the way. Our old habits and our old character die hard. Overcoming them, and putting the Lord's path in their place, is our spiritual labor.

The promise of the Sabbath of rest is that if we will do our labor through all of those six days; if we will stay the course and overcome our old self-indulgent and defeatist self; if we will turn to the Lord to give us the will, the understanding, and the strength to engage in that labor, then in the end, we will come to a time when our inner labors are at an end. We will come to a time when we love to do the work of serving others; when doing our daily work does not feel like work at all, because we are busy in the Lord's work--and we enjoy every minute of it!

This is the eternal rest from labors that the angels enjoy. It is not a rest of idleness, but a rest of joyful, single-minded useful activity--and, of course regular breaks for worship, leisure time, and fun! This is resting in the Lord. Amen.


 

   
 

 

 

Painting entitled "Weighing In"
Tom
Sierak and used with permission

Music: Touched by a Rose
2002 Bruce DeBoer
Used with permission

Floating Leaf Script by