Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Shall Return -- A Sermon Before a Sabbatical

Leviticus 25:1-12


When Douglas MacArthur retreated from the Philippines in the face of the Japanese invasion early in World War II, he boldly declared: “I shall return.”  And he did!  While we’re not facing invasion as a congregation, and though I’m not fleeing for my life, this phrase popped into my mind when I was thinking about what to say in my final sermon before leaving on my sabbatical.  Now, I could have gone with another famous quote; one that was uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie The Terminator:   “I’ll be back!”  Either one works, because even though I’m saying good-bye – I’ll be back before you know it! 

So, by the end of this coming week we will be entering this season of rest and renewal that we call a sabbatical.   Now, I must admit that it’s not going to be  easy for me to do this, because I’m not very good at resting.  John McCauslin is already worried about this!  

Now, I do take a day off most weeks and I take my vacations – as some of you have noticed!  But I often fill this time off with what looks like work – that is, my writing projects.  You see, I need to be doing something!  Perhaps this sounds familiar.  After all, retired people continually complain that they don’t have enough time in a day to get everything done.  I thought retirement meant that you had lots of free time!  Apparently this isn’t true. 

As I go out on my sabbatical I’m going to try to find a balance between resting and activity.  I will be doing a bit of traveling – including my long awaited trip to England in just two weeks.  There are books to read.  Writing to get done.  And, because winter will be on the horizon – I have yard work to do. 

But why do I need to take a sabbatical?  Why do I need this time of rest and renewal?  Well, this is intended to be a time of preparation for the next phase of our ministry together.   One reason why  pastors take sabbaticals is that it helps sustain a long-term pastorate, and that is important because churches tend to do better with long-term pastorates.  

You might be wondering which aspect of my ministry I’m look most forward to resting from!  That would be – meetings!!  Yes, for the next three months, I don’t have any required meetings! 

Since this is my last sermon before I head out on the sabbatical I decided to reflect on the purpose of Sabbaths.  I chose Leviticus 25 because it speaks of the Sabbath year.  And while I’m not taking a year off – I am taking off a prolonged period of time.  

In ancient Israel there were three kinds of Sabbaths, but each of them was rooted in the day of Sabbath, which according to the Ten Commandments we’re to keep holy.   
   
In Leviticus 23, the Lord gives Moses instructions about Israel’s festivals, the first of which is the Sabbath.  
Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation.  You shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.   
So what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy by not doing any work?  Well, first of all, you can’t cook – but neither can your servants or your neighbors.  You can’t do yard work.  I don’t think you can even play golf!  And, of course, you can’t blog.  So, do any of you ever break this commandment?  

Now Jesus did, on occasion,  break this commandment – but he did it for a reason.  He wanted to remind people that the Sabbath was designed for the good of God’s people, not to make life dull and boring.    
If you want to know the meaning of Sabbath-keeping you might look back at the Puritans. They went to church every Sunday morning and listened to the preacher talk for maybe three hours.  Then, they went home, ate lunch and read their bibles, prayed.  When evening came, they returned to the church and listened to the preacher for another two or three hours.  Doesn’t that sound fun?  

Now, King James I of England, whose name graces a very popular Bible Translation, didn’t seem to enjoy this kind of Sabbath, so he  issued an edict known as the Book of Sports.  The Book of Sports decreed that on Sundays the English people should dance around the Maypole and play games.  Yes, James I probably went golfing on the Sabbath!  He was from Scotland, after all!

While the Puritan form of the Sabbath might not sound all that appealing, there are benefits to the Sabbath.  John Calvin, who influenced these Puritan Sabbath enthusiasts, suggested three specific benefits.

      First, when we lay aside our own work, we leave room for God to work within us.   Friday evening I went down to Serenity Christian Church to hear Dr. Frank Thomas preach.  He preached from Joshua 9:14, which when read from the New International Version states:  “The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.”  How often do we go off and do our own thing in the name of Jesus, and never stop to “inquire of the Lord?”  The Sabbath is intended to provide us with the opportunity to “inquire of the Lord.”  

The second reason to keep the Sabbath is so that we have the opportunity to “hear the Law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works.”  And finally, it provides us with an opportunity to rest from our labors [Institutes 2:8:28].

The reason I chose Leviticus 25 instead of Leviticus 23 is that it mentions the other kinds of Sabbaths – the one that occurs every seven years and the one that occurs on the fiftieth year,  the Year of Jubilee.  This passage focuses on the use of the land, which is supposed to lay fallow every seven years.  No planting; no tending to the land.  The land will do whatever it will do.  Now there is an expectation that the people will prepare for these Sabbatical years.  You don’t just wake up one morning and realize that the  farm is going to shut down for the next year, starting today.

     To get a sense of the meaning of the Sabbath, we might turn to the story of God’s provision of the manna in the Sinai.  As the people traversed across the wilderness, they gathered manna twice a day, taking just enough for that meal.  You couldn’t hoard because the leftovers spoiled before the next morning came.   But on the sixth day of the week, the people were to gather an extra amount to get them through the seventh day, when no manna was available.   In this case, the Lord tells Moses – “Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food.”  In other words, God will provide.  

I believe that there is a word from the Lord here about the Sabbatical season.  We have done our part to prepare – hopefully inquiring of the Lord along the way.  Now, we get to put our trust in God, who promises to provide.  The Lord tells Moses that “it will be a year of special rest for the land.  Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food. . . .”  (Lev. 25:6).  

Over the next three months, while I’m away, the leadership, the members, and the friends of the church will step forward and fill gaps that I might normally fill.  But this isn’t just a time to “step up.’  It’s also a time to put our trust in God’s provision.  I need to hold on to this promise as much as you might – because if I’m going to experience rest and renewal, I can’t be worrying about what’s happening back at the church.    

So, maybe I mistitled the sermon.  Perhaps I should have entitled the sermon –  “I am here.”  Why?  Because wherever we go, we go in the empowering presence of God’s Spirit, who is our comforter, our advocate, and our tutor. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 25, 2013
14th Sunday after Pentecost

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