Sunday, June 27, 2021

Other Fathers, Other Mothers

Almost three thousand years ago, Shechem was a bustling scene. King Solomon was dead, and the latter part of his reign had been exhausting. His heir... well, not everyone was so sure about him. But let's rewind. Three days earlier, after Solomon's funeral, representatives from every tribe in Israel had come to Shechem to meet with Solomon's son Rehoboam, a young man. And the Israelites were disgruntled. Solomon had taxed them – not in money, but in work – and all they wanted was a break. The temple was built, the capital city was built up in its defenses, the land was in good condition. If Rehoboam would just rule with a lighter hand, then he'd have their support. But, they had to admit, the presence of Jeroboam complicated things. Solomon had run this other young man out of Israel, threatening his life, all out of a rumor that Jeroboam, a kindly former taskmaster, was prophesied to steal ten tribes away from the kingdom. Now Jeroboam was back from the Egyptian court, allied to Pharoah Shoshenq, and that had its own seeming perks, compared to Rehoboam, Solomon's son by an Ammonite woman and married to a great-granddaughter of David whose own grandson he was.

Asked if he's willing to rule with a gentler hand, Rehoboam asks three days to consider. First, he goes to the old men – those who'd been counselors to his father Solomon, those who had experience and wisdom. They said he should take Israel up on the deal. A good king, after all, is a public servant in the public interest, and if he'll answer them softly, diplomatically – if he'll agree to govern accordingly – then he'll have a long and happy reign over the whole people, preserving intact what had been handed down to him. Good advice. But that good advice wasn't enough for Rehoboam. He wanted an outside perspective. So he got it from his friends, the guys who were his age – young, raised alongside him. They told him to barge ahead with swagger, to exalt himself at his dad's expense, to preen and strut and answer harshly, to intimidate Israel into submission, telling them he'd whip them with scorpions and weigh them down harder, and they'd better just get used to it, because he had big plans and a big vision. Now that sounded more to Rehoboam's liking. So that's what he did. The result was predictable. The kingdom fractured, the northern tribes disowned the legacy of David, and they called Jeroboam and made him their king. North and south – a nation divided (1 Kings 12:1-20).

Last week, we began looking at that commandment – it seems so simple – “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). And we talked about what God is teaching us about the ways we're supposed to treat the parents who represent him, hopefully well, in our lives – with respect, with submission, with support, with care. Rehoboam didn't do that. He let his buddies taunt his late father, as they advised him to say, “My little finger is thicker than my father's thighs” (1 Kings 12:10). No wonder things cracked apart. But traditionally, this commandment – to honor our parents – has been received as having implications that stretch outside of our own families. It's the basis of obligations we have to people besides those we were raised by. And so to keep it simple, today we'll look at only four of the ways this commandment was given to shape life outside our natural families.

First, this commandment has commonly been taken to suggest that we should honor, not just the father and the mother who raised us, but all people of their generation – all the elderly of our society deserve respect for their age, to be considered as other 'fathers' and other 'mothers.' God said outright, “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:32). It clearly matters to God that those we today would call 'senior citizens' should be respected, dignified, supported, and cared for. Isaiah's picture of a troubled society is one where “the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable” (Isaiah 3:5). Jewish writers before the time of Christ advise on how to act respectfully “when among elders” (Sirach 32:9), declaring that “one who pays respect to an aged man or woman who isn't of his kin may be regarded as having remembrance of his father and mother..., and therefore, in the Holy Scriptures, the young are commanded not only to yield the chief seats to the aged but also to give place to them as they pass, in reverence for the gray hairs that mark the age to which they may hope to attain who judge it worthy of precedence.”1 And even the Apostle John, in his own older age, routinely addresses older members of the church as “fathers” (1 John 2:13-14). You could say that the elderly, the senior citizens, the old or aged, are – in a certain way – especially reflective of God in the way he appeared in Daniel's vision: as the Ancient of Days, as the God who is glorious because he is so very, very old (Daniel 7:9).

The trouble for us now is that we live in a Rehoboam society. Rehoboam wasn't content with respecting the advice of age and experience. He wanted to hear the voice of his own desires reflected through the brashness and ignorance of youth. So he asked them for their fresh perspective, and immediately bent his heart to their foolish ways. So too modern America. Our society trends toward imitating Rehoboam: 'new' and 'improved' are words that naturally belong together. 'Young' always implies 'better,' being loaded with all hopes of a future. Therefore, it's no wonder that it's become so fashionable to demean and neglect the elderly, as if contemptible symbols of outmoded resistance to progress toward a better day. In the past year, we've seen it at work in how some for a while brushed off the coronavirus as something that 'only' old people were likely to be killed by, so who cares? But we've also seen it at work in the imprisonment of the elderly in nursing homes – to say nothing of those nursing homes, including some in our county, that in the past year were hit with lawsuits or negative media attention over suspiciously high death rates among residents. Meanwhile, frauds and scams targeting the elderly cost them multiple billions of dollars each year. If we were a godlier people, that would be a national scandal, a matter of severe shame in the council of the nations. As it is, we yawn and flip the page. Because as a nation, we demean old age, treating it – and not its abuse – as the greater grounds for shame. But it is a lie. Be proud of that gray hair! Age isn't merely a painful ordeal – though I think I've heard nearly every person here at some point utter the phrase, “It's no fun getting old.” No, be that as it may, age is also an honorable calling and blessing. God commands respect and honor for the elders among us. And we have many among us.

Second, this commandment has always been stretched into the realm of worldly society. Those tasked with the rule of a people have often been addressed as 'father' – or 'mother,' as the case may be. We have ancient letters from a Hittite prince where he addresses his political backer, Egypt's pharaoh, as “my lord, the king of Egypt, my father.”2 Another minor town king addressed even an Egyptian official by insisting, “You are father and lord to me.”3 In the Roman world, the Senate awarded first Augustus and then later emperors like Claudius and Nero with the noble title 'Father of his Country.'4 And it isn't foreign to the Bible, either. David, when he was still a private citizen, addressed King Saul as “my father” (1 Samuel 24:11). So down through Christian tradition, it's been common to apply this commandment to how we treat the government and those who govern in it. From a civil-society perspective, they are fathers or mothers to us. And so, to choose just one example, one English bishop in the 1600s commented that this command is broken by everyone who would “murmur, mutiny, rebel, and dishonor the king, either by denying reverence to his person or obedience to his laws or due maintenance to his state.”5 Where's he get that?

Well, look at what Scripture tells us. Those in government have a God-given authority and dignity, “for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). That implies, first, a duty of financial support for the public authorities and their work; and the amount of that support and care is dictated to us through taxes of various kinds. “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed” (Romans 13:7). “Render to Caesar what is Caesar's” (Matthew 22:21). Not only do those taxes purchase assorted goods and services, but they go to provide a living for those who govern. Refusing financial support to the public authorities would be breaking this commandment.

The command implies, second, a duty of submission and even obedience to the public authorities. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1). “Whoever resists the authorities, resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Romans 13:2). “One must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Romans 13:5). “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13). Within the domain of the public sphere, we obey the laws and the orders of our public authorities, except for those that conflict with obedience to a higher authority – God's authority. We don't disobey because we just don't feel like obeying. Nor are we allowed to act and speak as if the public authorities have no claim on our behavior. “You can't tell me what to do!” is not a Christian attitude by any stretch of the imagination.

The command also implies, third, a duty of respect and honor to the public authorities. “Honor the emperor,” says Peter (1 Peter 2:17). “Pay to all what is owed them: ...respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed,” says Paul (Romans 13:7). Even when we voice disagreement, even when we voice critique, even when we protest, we do so in an attitude of respect and honor. Even when we don't like the person, we do honor to the office by dignifying them and treating them accordingly. In honoring them, we honor the One whom the Bible calls “King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16).

This challenges us, because our culture has become one of routine disrespect toward those in political authority, making them the commonest butt of our jokes. It's like the attitude of those northern tribes who, unimpressed with Solomon's son, cried out, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, O David” (1 Kings 12:16). Today, we'd translate that as, “Not my president!” The tribes refused to recognize the lawful king's authority. They rebelled. They even started stoning his officials to death, rebelling against the crown (1 Kings 12:18-19). Today our expressions of the attitude are mostly less violent, but equally defiant. It's true that our presidents and our governors and our senators and representatives don't always make honoring them easy. We've had our fair share of Sauls and of Rehoboams. But it remains a commandment that we honor the president, that we honor the governor, that we honor senator and representative, as if – in the realm of civil society – they were each a father or mother to us. And yet, I have to say, I frequently overhear people – maybe especially Christians – who talk about these public authorities in disrespectful, mocking, even cruel tones – tones that, if used to speak of natural father or mother, would be in 'mouth-cleaned-out-with-soap' territory. Have you shown an attitude of honor toward this governor, this president? How about the last one? We each ask ourselves if we're fostering the culture of respect this commandment calls for. “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exodus 22:28).

Third comes an area I find awkward to talk about, for reasons that will be obvious. But Paul never said, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God except for the awkward bits” (cf. Acts 20:27), and God willing, neither will I have to. Because the third application of this commandment beyond the family is in the religious world – in the church. We see this already in the Old Testament. When the prophet Elisha was on his deathbed, even Israel's king humbled himself to weep over him, crying out over him, “My father, my father!” (2 Kings 13:14). Jeremiah's depiction of a social catastrophe is summed up as, “No honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders” (Lamentations 4:16). One Jewish writing follows instructions about honor to our parents by immediately extending that command like this: “With all your soul, fear God and revere his priests; with all your strength, love your Maker and do not neglect his ministers. Honor God and respect the priest; give him his portion as you have been commanded: firstfruits and contributions, his portion of victims and holy offerings” (Sirach 7:29-31).

In the New Testament, Jesus announces that Peter will be to him what the prime ministers like Eliakim were to the Old Testament kings who sat on David's throne: just as they had the keys to the kingdom, so Jesus will give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19). Jesus is looking back at how Isaiah described what would be given to Eliakim. But not only does Isaiah describe Eliakim as wearing a robe and sash like a high priest, Isaiah also says that Eliakim will be “a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (Isaiah 22:21). So Jesus established Peter in a fatherly role toward all the people of the New Jerusalem, which is the Church. But the other apostles also had fatherly roles. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I have begotten you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” as their father in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:15); he describes his treatment of the Thessalonians as “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11); he says that Timothy “served with me in the gospel... as a son with a father” (Philippians 2:22). And as the apostles departed to be with Christ, they refused to leave their churches as orphans, so they left behind those who would be fathers to each church.

From the earliest days of Christianity, we read commands to “not despise [bishops and deacons], for they are the honored men among you,”6 and calls that each church should “respect the bishop as representing the Father.”7 Even outsiders recognized one early bishop, John's disciple Polycarp, as “the father of the Christians.”8 And by the end of just the third century, those trends were developed into these commands:

Know your bishops... Love the one who, after God, has become your father and your mother, for “whoever despises his father and his mother shall die with the death.” You then should honor the bishops, those who have set you free from sin … These you should revere and honor with all honor, for they have received authority from God over life and death.... Therefore, love the bishop as a father, fear him as a king, honor him as God. Offer him the fruits and the work of your hands so as to receive a blessing, giving him your tithes and your firstfruits and your vows...9

In time, as the Church grew and it was rarer for Christians to be in direct contact with their bishop, this fatherly role of care and guidance was extended more and more through the pastor of each church, who came to be seen as the spiritual father of the flock there. And the New Testament is very clear about how pastors should be seen and treated, in light of it. Paul describes them as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1), telling the Corinthians to “not pronounce judgment” on them (1 Corinthians 4:5). He reminds the Thessalonians to “respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). He says, “Let the presbyters who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). The Hebrews are reminded to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). And Paul brings things full circle by looking back to the Old Testament priests as an example: “Don't you know that those employed in temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offering? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14).

By analogy with what's due to public authorities, we find at least three things due to church authorities, whether the bishop or the local pastor. First, we find the duty of financial support – just as the priests were owed tithes and firstfruits and a share in offerings, so today we tithe and offer as a way of showing honor. Second, we find the duty of submission and obedience in matters pertaining to the spiritual and moral life and to the life of the church. And third, we find the duty of respect and honorable treatment – the way we speak about the spiritual fathers whom God has placed over us. In honoring them, we honor the Jesus whom the Bible calls “the Pastor and Bishop of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25).

But, going back to that old story, think of what Jeroboam did after he dragged the ten tribes away. He broke faith with the religion God had appointed. And he did that by inventing new priests who weren't successors of Aaron, weren't even Levites at all. “Any who wanted, he ordained to be priests of the high places” (1 Kings 13:33). In other words, he rejected the authority of the Aaronic priests. Likewise, he made up his own holiday “in a month that he had devised in his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33). And when the Lord sent a “man of God” to admonish and discipline him, Jeroboam behaved not with submission but with contempt, giving orders to seize this spiritual father to harm him – leading to God's curse (1 Kings 13:4). Like Jeroboam, I've sadly witnessed scenes in churches (not this one), and have heard stories from others, about people yelling at their pastor, denouncing and slandering their pastor, disregarding their pastor's instructions and directions, leading rebellions in their church against the pastor, and so on. But if a pastor is called as a father, then behavior like that is a sin against the commandment, a sin not unlike Jeroboam's sin.

Fourth and finally, this commandment can be applied to cherishing tradition. Think not about Jeroboam but about the kingdom he founded. Dynasties rose and fell quickly, and in time, Elisha anointed a commander named Jehu to take over. After Jehu destroyed the clan of Ahab, he met a man named Jehonadab ben Rechab, and became fast friends out of their shared zeal for the Lord (2 Kings 10:15-16). This Jehonadab was a Kenite, an outsider to Israel whose people used to dwell in tents and roam the land, but who had started to settle in cities and change their way of life. Jehonadab wanted to buck the trend, wanted to stand athwart history and tell it to stop, so he commanded his children to keep to the old ways. We don't hear about them again, until Jeremiah 35. There, God sends Jeremiah to test the Rechabites, Jehonadab's descendants, by offering them wine in the temple – but they tell him they can't accept, because they keep to everything Jehonadab commanded them. Now, by this time, it's been as long since Jehonadab's days as from George Washington to us! And because they were faithful to their ancestral traditions, God blesses the Rechabites in words of joy (Jeremiah 35:18-19).

When God's Law tells us to honor our father and mother, the assumption is that the father and mother are also bound to honor. To honor what? Tradition. They stand within a living tradition, they act within it, they pass it on. That's why the assumption can be that they've got wisdom to share – it's the accumulated wisdom that was handed to them, about the way things can best be done. And so God prescribes that certain traditions must be passed down to children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7; 11:18-19), and that certain answers should be given to questions that children ask about this or that (Exodus 12:26-27; 13:14-15; Deuteronomy 6:20-25; Joshua 4:6-7). And yet, in our day, we have a hard time relating to the Rechabites. Whether in society or in church, we chase after fads – whatever is newest, freshest, most cutting-edge – and forget the old ways.

A bit under a hundred years ago was the first time that a distinctive 'youth culture' formed in America, because we changed the way we arranged our schools, so for the first time, teenagers were separated out from others and corralled into peer groups increasingly devoid of adult influences. In response to the so-called 'youth problem,' American churches in the 1930s began obsessing about fears of losing this new 'youth culture' to ungodly ideas, so they began a determined campaign to appeal to youth culture. In doing so, they increasingly tailored all the aspects of church life to catering to the younger generation and its ways of thinking while still young, creating a youth group subculture. Generation after generation since then, as each age cohort has grown up to become the leading generation in America's churches, their understanding of the faith (and their approach to its practice) has borne the stamp of the youth-group subculture they grew up with – it's fundamentally the youth-marketed version from their own youth. At the same time, to reach the next generation down, they've each tried to simplify and sentimentalize Christianity another step, pandering again to the new young generation, telling a story about how these youth are destined to wield real power and influence in the world. One effect has been that, generation after generation, America's churches have become more and more immature. One scholar who studies this has called it “the juvenilization of American Christianity.” Here's what he says that means:

Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages. It begins with the praiseworthy goal of adapting the faith to appeal to the young. But it sometimes ends badly, with both youth and adults embracing immature versions of the faith.10

Not a one of us here grew up before this process started. And so, perhaps now more than ever, we're called to honor tradition – to learn to value it, learn to get deep in history, learn to surrender our culture's fashionable idolatry of youth. We must rediscover a serious faith, not one worn lightly; a committed faith, not a consumer good. We must strive after stability and maturity, not the relentless razzle-dazzle of the recent. We must dig up the deeper roots, and instead of adapting to the changing currents of our culture, we can cherish the Christianity that was around in the year 35 and the year 300 and the year 1300, taking our cues not from the latest and hippest but from the tradition that has stood the test of time – like the Rechabites did, and Jeroboam didn't.

For Christian tradition is nothing less than Jesus Christ, through his Spirit, faithfully standing with the Church our Mother down through the ages. And it is this Jesus, and no one else, who can perfectly fulfill the commands of God in us – including this command to honor tradition, to honor the fathers and mothers in the spiritual and the civil realms, to honor elders, and to honor, yes, our own natural parents. It is Jesus who forgives us where we've fallen short, as we confess and repent and fall on his mercy. And it is Jesus who enables us to give proper honor where honor is due, in all these realms of society, through respecting, submitting, supporting, and caring. And it is to the glory of Jesus, who in different ways is glimpsed in each, that we aim to live the will of God for us, in turning to an honorable and honoring life. Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Glories of a Parent

It was a busy day at the market, and people were pointing and laughing at the old man standing in the rain. He should have been wearing his hat, but no, there he was – standing still in front of a stall, silent, letting the rain beat his bare head. It was a bizarre spectacle. And it didn't matter that this was one of the most famous writers in England – author of acclaimed essays, plays, and poems galore. It didn't matter that this was the man who literally wrote the dictionary. There he was, willfully standing in silence in the rain. What was wrong with him, the people in Uttoxeter might have wondered? But to know that, we have to go back to the beginning.

Samuel came from a curious family. He was born of a difficult pregnancy, when his father Michael was 52 and his mother Sarah was 40. Theirs was not the happiest marriage: Sarah nursed a longstanding belief that she had married beneath her station, and her father Cornelius had made a humiliating, burdensome, and complicated arrangement with Michael for her dowry. Michael was a bookseller, and he'd overextended himself by going into massive debt to buy large collections to sell. Samuel was their firstborn, and it didn't take long before it became apparent that he was both an odd child – sickly and prone to twitches and tics – and a brilliant child with a flawless memory and immense abilities. Michael couldn't have been more proud. He loved to show off his son to family friends – though Samuel found it uncomfortable and often hid when people came over. But he didn't have to put up with it too often. To avoid the inevitable arguments with Sarah, Michael tended to ride his horse on long trips to fulfill book orders, so he wasn't home terribly much.

As the miracle child, the eldest of just two sons, Samuel was pampered, indulged, and rarely scolded, no matter how he behaved, so long as he was witty and clever. He got away with a lot, respecting neither parent. Michael in particular came in for his disrespect. His debts, after all, jeopardized any chance for Samuel to have a bright future with a good education. Samuel called him a “foolish old man” and thought of him as a helpless and blundering failure with a narrow world and a grim view of life. Samuel thought his father must surely be mentally ill, and his worst fear was turning out like him and amounting to no more. As Samuel finished his schooling, there wasn't enough money to send him to college anywhere, but when his mother's rich widowed cousin – about whom she was always bragging – left an inheritance, he headed off to college at Oxford, and his doting, disrespected dad sent along loads of expensive books on loan to him.

The money ran out after just thirteen months. Samuel dropped out, so penniless he couldn't even afford to bring the books home. But Michael didn't complain, because he could tell his son was seriously depressed. Over the next two years, the two argued frequently. Samuel hated spending time with him. In September 1731, Samuel suffered another crushing blow. He'd wanted to get even a low-level job at a school he'd attended, a school where they knew him and had seen his abilities – but, just a week or so before his twenty-second birthday, he got the news he'd been turned down, passed over, because he didn't have a degree. Samuel was, once again, absolutely crushed. It was about that time that Michael started to get sick.

Now, Michael's financial struggles had spiraled out of control by that point. He was a poor bookseller, and he'd lost what respect he used to have in town. His dignity was at an all-time low. He used to operate not just his bookstore in their hometown of Lichfield, but had a stall in the town of Uttoxeter where, on market days, he'd sell books to maximize his profits. He'd always hoped that Samuel would join the business, always tried to encourage Samuel to do it, but Samuel wanted nothing to do with it or him. The day came when Michael was so sick that he couldn't get out of bed, and he asked Samuel to fill in for him – to take the bundle of books for sale, go over to Uttoxeter, and sell them at the market for him. But Samuel was a proud young man of 22. He thought a task like that was beneath him. He thought it was a waste of time. He didn't want to be slyly roped into a career he hated. And so he refused to help his father. A few weeks later, Michael died.

In the years that followed, Samuel gradually clawed his way toward success and acclaim. He was nearly fifty when his mother passed away. He traveled, he wrote, he earned respect in the world. But in the later years of his life, he began to find himself haunted by regrets, particularly about the ways he'd treated his family. And that cruel incident of scorning to help his father – that began to eat at him. He knew he had to make amends, but his father was long dead. What could he do? It was, perhaps, fifty years since the day he wouldn't go to market. Now, fifty years later, he went. He went, and he stood for an hour in front of the stall where he should have worked that day. He stood, and in the silence of his heart, he prayed to God to accept this cold and rainy day as penance for the wrong he'd done to his father. He knew, looking back over the years, that his treatment of his father that day had been a sin. And the stain had to be washed away. So there he stood in the rain.1

Samuel was right about that. The way he'd treated his father that day had been a sin, and he was understandably haunted by it. For the word of the Lord, which well he knew, was this: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy: every one of you shall revere his mother and his father...” (Leviticus 19:2-3). Those are two marvelous words – 'honor' and 'revere.' They're both words the Bible more customarily uses for how we're to treat God. The first word, 'honor' – that's the same word for 'glorify.' It means to accord due weight and recognition to something, to consider it important. The second word, 'revere' – that's the same word we find in the phrase, 'the fear of the LORD.' It means to be impressed by, to be in awe of something.

The Bible considers it natural to have these reactions to parents: “A son honors his father,” God matter-of-factly says through his prophet Malachi (Malachi 1:6). It presumes that to be a parent is something very special – that being a parent isn't just an ordinary, everyday status, or even just standing in a certain relationship to someone. No, being a parent is a social role, an office, a position, not unlike being a president. The Bible presumes, all throughout, that parents have a position of authority toward their children, an authority held in trust from God; that parents hold a certain dignity by their office of parenthood; that parents are called to give so deeply that the only sensible and only fair response in ordinary circumstances is immense gratitude. And so the Bible calls their children to uphold their dignity, to defer to them and submit to them, to revere them, to support them. Nor does the Bible – like the laws of surrounding countries – call for different treatment of fathers and mothers. No, the Bible stands out by saying that both must be honored, both must be revered, on equal terms.

Later Jewish and Christian writers, reflecting on this commandment, tied it closely to the first commandment. They saw the close similarities of the treatment God asks for and the treatment parents are owed. They started to talk about how parents have a certain similarity to God, because they're his partners in the generation of life, and that assimilates them to God's honor and God's reverence.2 One early bishop declared that “before all others except God, our parents are the authors of our life, and they deserve to be the first ones to receive the fruits of our good deeds.”3 They came to see parenthood as an earthly shadow of a heavenly reality. Each father is an image of God, the Father “from whom every father-lineage in the heavens and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15); while each mother is an image of Zion, an image of the Church, for “the Jerusalem above... is our mother” (Galatians 4:26). And it was as earthly images of these lofty heavenly realities that both fathers and mothers had such incredible responsibilities and also such incredible dignity.

While it's natural to honor and revere parents, especially when they stand in their son or daughter's life as the representatives of a living tradition that stretches back beyond them, the Bible was well aware that it was quite possible to mistreat your parents. “Whoever robs his father or his mother and says, 'That's no transgression,' is a companion to a man who destroys” (Proverbs 28:24). “Whoever strikes his father or his mother shall be put to death” (Exodus 21:15). “There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers” (Proverbs 30:11). “Anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death: he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him” (Leviticus 20:9). And a rebellious son totally unresponsive to any paternal discipline was seen in ancient Israel as hopelessly failed, and such a danger to society that the whole community was called upon to stone him to death if even his parents had both given up on him (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

This was a commandment Israel struggled to keep. Micah complains that in his day, Judah's society is falling to pieces, that nobody trusts anybody anymore, and Micah puts his finger on the reason: it's “because the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – a man's enemies are the men of his own house” (Micah 7:6). Over a century later, Ezekiel lists the sins of Jerusalem in his day, and one of the first things out of Ezekiel's mouth is the complaint that “father and mother are treated with contempt in you” (Ezekiel 22:7). In the wake of the exile and return to the land, with a keener understanding, the Jewish people tried to adhere more faithfully to laws like this one, and so one Jewish sage from Jerusalem a couple centuries before Christ wrote about it like this:

Children, listen to me, your father; act accordingly, that you may be safe. For the Lord sets a father in honor over his children and confirms a mother's authority over her sons. Those who honor their father atone for sins; they store up riches who respect their mother. Those who honor their father will have joy in their own children, and when they pray, they are heard. Those who respect their father will live a long life; those who obey the Lord, honor their mother. Those who fear the Lord honor their father and serve their parents as masters. In word and deed, honor your father, that all blessings may come to you. A father's blessing gives a person firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant. Do not glory in your father's disgrace, for that is no glory to you! A father's glory is glory also for oneself. They multiply sin who demean their mother. My son, be steadfast in honoring your father. Do not grieve him as long as he lives. Even if his mind fails, be considerate of him. Do not revile him because you are in your prime. Kindness to a father will not be forgotten – it will serve as a sin-offering, it will take lasting root. In time of trouble, it will be recalled to your advantage; like warmth upon frost, it will melt away your sins. Those who neglect their father are like blasphemers; those who provoke their mother are accursed by their Creator. … With your whole heart, honor your father; and your mother's birth pangs, do not forget. Remember, of these parents you were born. What can you give them for all they gave you? (Sirach 3:1-16; 7:27-28)

That was the atmosphere in which Jesus, eternally God but coming to earth in human flesh and blood to grow up in a particular time and a particular place, appeared. And when he appeared, he took on himself a human mother and a human adoptive father. And we read of Jesus the simple and beautiful line about how he “came to Nazareth and was submissive to them,” that is, to Joseph and Mary (Luke 2:51). It was a lifelong endeavor – even from the cross, he was taking care of and providing for his mother Mary (John 19:25-27). But in the tales he told, he could imagine people acting differently – like the one about the son who was so desperate for his share of the inheritance that he effectively told his dad he wished he'd die already, so just hand over the money and he'll be on his way. For that is exactly the start of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-13).

Ever since then, and even before that, there have been complaints about younger generations not having a sense of respect. Today, you might well make complaining about the younger generation your pastime – kids these days, am I right? Of course, your parents and grandparents said the exact same thing about your generation. And their parents and grandparents said the same thing about their generation. We find the same complaints in ancient Greek writers who lived before Jesus was born onto the earth. But at the same time, we can't deny that, ever since the 1960s, there's been a significant shift in our culture, a shift toward disparaging authority and denying dignity – and the first target of attack in the anti-authoritarianism of the sixties was parents. Father no longer knew best. Micah and Ezekiel could've warned us what that would do to society. So what should it look like instead? What does it mean, in practice, to honor your father and mother? And what does it look like for a father and mother to assist their children in finding that commandment easier to keep?

A son or daughter is called to keep this commandment from his or her earliest days. Parents help by setting the stage through presenting a united front on how they'll parent – nothing jeopardizes the family like disagreement or even separation, dividing the authority in the family against itself. Parents model to the children a reverent and obedient life by obeying God and respecting their own parents. Parents cherish children tenderly, shunning no toil or danger to protect their children, providing good gifts of so many types that there's just no way the child can keep track of them all. And it's expected that little children are going to become curious and have a lot of questions (Joshua 4:6, 21), so it's expected that parents will share together the responsibility of beginning the process of education (Deuteronomy 11:19; Proverbs 4:1-5), to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). At times, this education – not just in the world, but in how to behave, how to treat people – can require the exercise of parental authority. And yet Paul cautions, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21); “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). It's fair and measured, not arbitrary and angry. Parents can relate by remembering and sympathizing with the temptations of childhood, much as in Jesus we have a high priest who is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

The goal is for the children to grow up with happy memories of childhood, not fearful ones – the memories on which a lifetime of gratitude can more easily be built – and to keep these happy memories even though they're corrected for veering outside the guidelines and rules that the parents set for the good of the family and child. It is to children at this stage of life that Paul is especially speaking when he says, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). Children are called to obey respectfully and just about absolutely, with gentle enforcement by the parents through their authority exercised in love.

Then children start to grow into adolescence, into those teenage years, into the age when they start to question, start to try to define their identities by setting boundaries and testing them. And parents have the obligation here to continue the process of educating and guiding their children: “We have had earthly fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them” (Hebrews 12:9). Parenting calls for correction and guidance where needed, and this is one area where King David utterly blew it with his kids: we read about how he refused to punish his son Amnon for committing major crimes (2 Samuel 13:21), how he indulged his son Absalom after he killed Amnon for those crimes (2 Samuel 13:39) which led to Absalom overthrowing David, disgracing David, even trying to have David killed (2 Samuel 17:14); and of David's son Adonjiah, the Bible outright tells us that “his father [David] had never at any time displeased him by asking, 'Why have you done such-and-such?'” (1 Kings 1:6).

In this stage of life, children are still called to act with an attitude of acquiescence instead of argument, with an air of deference and not defiance. They should continue to cherish their parents: “The glory of children is their fathers” (Proverbs 17:6). Children still owe their parents respect and even a default stance of obedience. As one early Christian wrote in the third century, “However much obedience we offer, we have not yet repaid the recompense of thanks for being born, for being carried, for drawing light, for being nurtured and perhaps educated and trained in honest skills; and, perhaps by the same originators, we came to know God and came to the Church of God and heard the word of the divine law.”4 This obedience must always, though, be subordinate to what children come to understand of God's will, like Paul says: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Ephesians 6:1).

Then children grow to young adulthood. The law of obedience loses its grip, even as children are called to keep honoring their parents by fulfilling their reasonable requests wherever possible. But young-adult children are called to continue to “hear... your father's instruction and forsake not your mother's teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). They can honor their parents by asking for advice and then acting on it wherever it's good. It's true that today, because of the rate at which culture changes, it's harder for parents to give good advice than it used to be: what worked for father and mother may not be feasible for son or daughter, and expectations that were fair even a generation ago might be unreasonable today. Ideally, parents will also give their young-adult children a good and healthy example of well-formed adult behavior, which the children can honor their parents by imitating.

Children in early adulthood, having hopefully absorbed all that was good in the lessons their parents taught them, will now have a chance to put all that into practice, and show that they've become wise. “A wise son makes a glad father,” we read, while “a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). The children can honor their parents still by addressing them kindly and respectfully, by praying for them, and by defending and protecting their parents' reputation at just the age when the world around us says it's time to expose all that your parents did wrong to mess you up. Think of Shem and Japheth, who heard that Ham had abused their father Noah when he passed out drunk and naked in his tent; so they walked in backwards and covered him up, to preserve his dignity (Genesis 9:23). And children do the same thing today when they learn to speak well of their parents even when they aren't around, and to try to understand their parents' behavior charitably.

Eventually, the children may marry, but either way, the parents will tend to reach old age, when they need care. This is the age when the children may well have another relationship, even on earth, that trumps the loyalty owed to their parents, for “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). Yet parents remain the next-closest relationship and the next-nearest priority. There's an awareness in the Christian tradition that the advice of elderly parents is still to be cherished and valued and trusted – after all, “listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Proverbs 23:22) – but also that parents may by this stage themselves be in need of their children's wise counsel and input.

By far, though, the main way this commandment is interpreted at this stage – and this is often thought to be its main meaning – is that children honor their parents by supporting and caring for them in old age. Paul calls on adult children of elderly parents to “learn to show piety to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God” (1 Timothy 5:4). An early rabbi defined honoring your parents as having six parts: “Food, drink, clothing, shelter, hospitality, and deference.”5 Throughout history, this commandment has been invoked to invite believers to really examine whether they've been willing to help their parents, support their parents, provide for their parents in times of need, when the parents become old, sick, infirm, or poor. And this is precisely where Samuel Johnson let down his father Michael.

As a pastor, I've seen situations – not in this church – where older members of the church fell on hard financial times, where they couldn't provide for themselves; and even though they had numerous children between them, not one was willing to step in and provide assistance. All pleaded one excuse or another, that they had their own lives or that they lived far away or that they were still nursing a grudge from the past. It was tragic. In my own family, I've watched certain relatives continually take advantage of their overly-indulgent elderly parent, getting that parent to pay for everything, to do their jobs for them, and so on. That is treating parents lightly, as expendable resources or as utter non-entities, and not weightily, not with honor. Jesus was furious with the Pharisees because they made up loopholes and excuses to help people escape this commandment and neglect their elderly parents (Mark 7:9-13; Matthew 15:3-9). I'm much more gratified, in this church, as I've seen times when some of you have gotten sick or needed extra help, and have had children who've stepped up, sent meals, been there by your side through the night – that is a way much more faithful to this commandment. Today, this commandment is perhaps less burdensome than it was on the Israelites – after all, with no social programs for support of the elderly, no retirement income, no Medicare, the only hope for an elderly person in Israel was to live with and be supported directly and entirely by his or her children. Today, a guaranteed fixed income takes a lot of that weight off. But the commandment still calls children to supply whatever is needed beyond that.

Finally, at some point in the children's life cycle, their parents will die. The Bible expects that, in ordinary circumstances, there's some kind of inheritance left behind: “House and wealth are inherited from fathers,” the proverb has it (Proverbs 19:14). But, unlike the prodigal son, the inheritance should never be valued above the continued life and relationship of the father or mother. Children continue honoring their parents by faithfully making sure the will is followed, and by providing a suitable funeral and decent burial. And children honor their parents by remembering them and coming to good terms with their legacy and hoping to see them again.

Now, what might all this mean here? Most of us are in the later phases of that cycle. Maybe your father and your mother are both deceased, and have been for a while. Your children might be grown, even your grandkids might be in young adulthood, and a few of you have great-grandchildren being born these days. What can all this mean for you? What call does this place on your life? Some of you, as you look back on the days you did have with your parents, can recall loving relationships. Others might remember faults that made themselves all too clear, problems with your parents that inflicted damage on your lives. That's no new insight: Christians all down through history have admitted that any given father or any given mother might be lowly, poor, frail, odd, or have their assortment of faults and failings; and yet, except in cases of abuse, they've insisted on anchoring the honor owed to parents not on the parents' personal qualities but on their official position as father or mother. Some of you might have great relationships with your children and your grandchildren. Others might be aware of a breach in relationship with one or more of them – some offense that just hasn't been gotten past. Perhaps there's something you have against them in their failure to honor you as father or mother. Perhaps it's something they have against you, in behavior that's a stumbling-block to this commandment. Perhaps it's hurt feelings that are really no one's fault but need to somehow be buried and washed away.

There are three points for us to bear in mind, where we are. The first is that there is healing for the wounds of the past. “My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in” (Psalm 27:10). The same could be said about children forsaking their parents. Whatever the wounds, wherever the abandonment, here's a promise: the Lord will take you in. He will be there for you. He will supply what you're lacking. He will tend to your damaged heart. He offers healing for the broken relationships. He offers honor and wholeness.

Second, it's never too late to address the sins of our past. Maybe – like Samuel Johnson – there are ways you look back, and you offended against this commandment when it came to how you treated your late parents, who are no longer here to apologize to, no longer here to make amends to. You may not have to stand out in the rain. But God offers ways to address those past sins all the same. It's called repentance. It's called confession. It's called receiving forgiveness – and offering it for whatever your parents maybe did that they failed to repent of in their lifetimes. Similarly, maybe you look back and can see how, in your parenting, there were times that the sins and attitudes you couldn't let go of, they went on to place stumbling-blocks in front of your children with respect to this commandment – ways you made it unnecessarily challenging for them to honor you, because you weren't honorable or easy to love in those moments. The same is true here. It's never too late to deal with that. Maybe you can apologize to those children, reach out and strengthen that relationship; maybe you can repent to God, confess; but you can receive forgiveness and offer it to your children and grandchildren as well.

And third, no matter how old your parents are, or even if they're no longer with us, the responsibility outlined in this commandment to honor them is still ongoing. Have you thought of them lately? Have you prayed for them lately? Have you thanked God for them lately? Have you remembered any good they brought you lately? How have you been with their memory, with their legacy, with their stories, and with their hope?

Reflecting on this commandment, it might be easy to become discouraged. Being a parent and being a son or a daughter to a parent can both be very challenging things, and both can be emotionally taxing as well as fruitful and wonderful. I dare say that not one of us has honored this commandment flawlessly, and for those of us who have become parents, not one of us has made this commandment perfectly simple for our children to follow. The Law declares to us, “Cursed be anyone who dishonors his father or his mother” (Deuteronomy 27:16). But the gospel sings in more beautiful melodies, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” on the cross (Galatians 3:13).

And so, as the Word become flesh, as the complete human incarnation of this commandment, Jesus offers us a promise – because this is, as Paul points out, “the first commandment with a promise” (Ephesians 6:2). It's “that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16; cf. Exodus 20:12; Ephesians 6:3). For the Israelites, that was an assurance of his favor and also the logical conclusion, since the strength of family ties would stabilize society and also give each next generation an example to imitate in caring for the one that kept the command. But for us, it means even more than that. In fulfilling this commandment, we honor God through our parents and love God through our children, and wherever we've failed, Christ redeems us from the curse and extends the blessing of a new creation instead – a new creation where all the family missteps here have fallen away, where reconciliation is effortless, and where Father God and Mother Zion rejoice with their children of every age. We have a bright future in store – so celebrate today, celebrate the glories of a father and a mother, celebrate what God has given and what God has planned. For in Christ, all these things will be made glorious. Amen.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Taking a Holy-day

If you were with us last Sunday, you know we began to speak of the commandment to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). And last Sunday, we focused on how God, for our own good, took this one day in seven and set us free from work, that we might not slave away any longer. But sabbath is about more than just relaxation. It's about more than just resting and recuperating. It's more than a day off. Because if it were just about those things, the ancient Israelites wouldn't have had to take it so very, very seriously. If you work through your day off, well, you're depriving yourself of a blessing, but the only one you're hurting is yourself. But about the sabbath, it was written: “The seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death” (Exodus 31:15). Now that tells us that the sabbath is about more than our personal well-being! And the key word here is 'holy.' 

Sabbath is a day that's holy, a day set apart, a day made and reserved for God's purposes rather than our own. To turn the sabbath to our own purposes wasn't just harming ourselves or depriving ourselves. It was reckoned as a serious offense against God, called “profaning his sabbaths” (Ezekiel 22:8). And if the community as a whole were to do that, it would “bring more wrath on Israel” (Nehemiah 13:18). The sabbath was indeed for Israel's benefit: it was a delightful and dearly cherished gift, when they thought of it rightly. It's just that it was a gift they were not to refuse or abuse, because it was the gift of time consecrated to a holy God. It was listed as the first and foremost of Israel's feasts, their holidays (Leviticus 23:1-3). 

Later Jewish writers developed a belief that even the angels in heaven worshipped God there by observing and celebrating the sabbath, and that Israel was blessed on earth by being the one nation invited to join the angels in this worship (Jubilees 2.18). And so Jews came to pray that they'd take this gift as “an opportunity for reverence, for knowledge of [God's] power, for hindrance of evil.”1

But what did it look like – before we get into questions of how this applies to us – what did it look like for the people of God back then to keep the sabbath holy? We've talked already about the quality of rest, about things that they didn't do on the sabbath. But what did they do? Suppose you could hop in a time machine and go visit Joseph and Mary and eight-year-old Jesus one sabbath, spend it with them. How would they have kept a holy sabbath? Resting and ceasing from the thirty-nine prohibited forms of labor, Joseph's carpentry tools laid aside untouched for the day, what might they have done?

For starters, as daylight faded and sabbath approached on Friday evening, they would have lit a lamp in their home, a way of giving the sabbath an honorable welcome, and would have done so with a prayer of blessing.2 And they would have purified themselves, washed up, made sure they were clean (2 Maccabees 12:38). On the sabbath, if they were to happen to be visiting Jerusalem at the time, they might have heard and seen and smelled the sabbath rituals at God's temple, which – among other purposes – was built specifically for the celebration of the sabbath (2 Chronicles 2:4). Jewish thought of the time held that Israel was “to rest in [the sabbath] from all work of the occupations of the children of men except to offer incense and to bring gifts and sacrifices before the Lord for the days and the sabbaths” (Jubilees 50.10). In addition to the regular daily offerings, the priests worked overtime. Each sabbath, there were an extra two lambs to offer up, and another fifth of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil, and with it a libation, a drink-offering, probably an extra quart of wine poured out (Numbers 28:9-10). Not only that, but on the sabbath, as a new shift of priests came on duty, they would have had to change out the Bread of the Presence, which your Bible may call the 'showbread' (Leviticus 24:5-8). Inside the temple, there were golden tables on which rested twelve loaves of sacred bread laid out in God's presence, sprinkled with frankincense. One of the Levite clans, the Kohathites, was specifically tasked with baking it (1 Chronicles 9:2). There they sat before the Lord for a week, and at the end of the week, each sabbath the priests would eat this bread on holy ground, alongside the offerings of the day. The sabbath was characterized by sacrifice, which benefited all Israel.

But suppose we caught Joseph and Mary and Jesus in Nazareth. What might the sabbath have looked like there with them? The scriptures that they cherished tell us that “the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:3). Now what on earth is a holy convocation? It's a feast that involves the people being called together, each in their own place. It was a public gathering of worship, whether in the temple or – away from Jerusalem – in the village synagogue. One Jewish writer of the time says that wherever Jews lived, they “assemble in the same place on these seventh days” into a “school of good sense, temperance, courage, justice, and the other virtues.”3 So to the Nazareth synagogue the Holy Family, like other families in town, would have gone. It was, after all, a holy convocation, a sacred assembly. What would it have been like there?

Luke tells us that “from ancient generations, Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21). So a reading from the Law, the first five books of our Bible, was a universal feature of sabbath worship. Luke also says that “the utterances of the prophets” are “read every sabbath” (Acts 13:27). So there were two major readings: part of the Law, and some portion of the other books of our Old Testament. Attached to this were an interpretation and sermon. We read about Jesus, as a visiting teacher, being invited to read and preach in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-21) and about Paul, as also a visiting teacher, being invited to preach at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14-16). One of the key forms of sabbath worship was attention paid to God's word, and the education gained from it. 

One prayer used in the synagogues defines the purpose of the sabbath as “a seeking out of laws,” that is, studying the word of God.4 And one Jew from the time of Jesus described it like this: The Law “required them to assemble in the same place on these seventh days...” “On that day, they abstain from every other work and betake themselves to the sacred places which are called synagogues. They are seated according to age in fixed places, the young below the old, holding themselves ready to listen with the proper good manners. Then one of them takes the books and reads.” “Sitting together in a respectful and orderly manner,” they “hear the laws read so that none should be ignorant of them.” “Most of them sit in silence except when it is the practice to add something to signify approval of what is read.” “Another, from among those with most experience, comes forward and explains anything that isn't easy to understand.” “Some priest who is present, or one of the elders, reads the holy laws to them and expounds them point-by-point till about the late afternoon, when they depart, having gained both expert knowledge of the holy laws and considerable advance in piety.”5

In addition, while there at the synagogue, those gathered there to worship on the sabbath would pray and praise God. Synagogues were sometimes even referred to as 'houses of prayer.' Even a pagan observer, two centuries before Jesus came to earth, observed that Jews would on the sabbath “pray in the temples until evening, with hands outstretched.”6 One Jewish writer describes the point of gathering on the sabbath as “to praise the Lord in the assembly of the elders and to glorify the Mighty One in the council of the older men.”7 A later synagogue prayer used on the sabbath defined the point of sabbath as “thankful praise to God on behalf of those things which he has freely given to men.”8

But the entire sabbath couldn't be spent in the synagogue. What about the rest of it? We can imagine that each family would continue its worship at home, saying their prayers and blessings, talking through and continuing to reflect on the readings from God's word. I'm sure that in their house no less than the synagogue, Joseph and Mary talked of God's grace and power and wisdom each sabbath, as young Jesus listened in. They also would have set apart the sabbath in other ways. One rabbi suggested that “your sabbath meal should not be like your weekday meal, and your sabbath garment should not be like your weekday garment”9 – in other words, dress better and eat better. Even a pagan observer could see that Jews “kept the sabbath by inviting each other to drink and enjoy wine,”10 and Jewish writings from the time say that God honored Israel by allowing them “to eat and to drink and to be satisfied on this day of festival” (Jubilees 50.10). 

Also, with what was left, they might have spent time peacefully outside. Since, after all, God rested on the sabbath to observe the created world of nature he'd made, all those rocks and trees and skies and seas, some Jewish writers suggested that “the study of the truths of nature” would be an apt part of a balanced sabbath observance: “Learn to meditate yourself on the lessons of nature and all that in your own life makes for happiness.”11

And so we've spent a sabbath day with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. But the sabbath law, this commandment, grew to more than just that one day a week. The sabbath was the prototype for all Israel's festivals, standing at the head of their calendar; but Israel came to see the celebration of all their other holy days as an extension of what God declared in this commandment. And so the command to keep the sabbath holy also meant to keep all their holidays the way God meant them to be kept. There was, of course, the first day of each month, marked by the new moon, and sanctified with various offerings: seven lambs, two bulls, a ram, a goat, and set amounts of flour and wine (Numbers 28:11-15). Early in the spring, there was the Feast of the Passover, where each family would itself take on the priestly duty of sacrificing its own lamb (Exodus 12:3), to be roasted and completely eaten by morning (Exodus 12:8-10), while painting their doorposts and lintels with the blood (Exodus 12:22-25) and teaching their children about God's mercy in judgment (Exodus 12:26-27). The next day began the Feast of Unleavened Bread, continuing the commemoration of Israel's departure from Egypt (Exodus 23:15). They remembered it by spending a week eating bread baked without yeast (Leviticus 23:6), “the bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). The week started and ended with holy convocations on which work was banned, though the days in between could involve work (Leviticus 23:7-8; Numbers 28:18, 25). All the men had to present themselves before the LORD (Exodus 23:17), and the firstborn of every family or every creature born in the past year had to be redeemed (Exodus 34:19-20). And in Jerusalem were offered up more sacrifices for the nation, same as on the new moon (Leviticus 23:7; Numbers 28:19-22).

As spring unfolded and the barley ripened, Israel was commanded to celebrate a feast at “the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain” (Deuteronomy 16:9), to celebrate “the firstfruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field” (Exodus 23:16). Once again, all the men had to “appear before the Lord GOD (Exodus 23:17), to present the first sheaf of barley from the harvest to the priest, who would wave it high before God for his acceptance as the firstfruits. There were other offerings in Jerusalem, less elaborate than before: just one lamb, with a smaller amount of flour and wine (Leviticus 23:12-13). But only after presenting the new barley to the priest could a family begin eating new bread made from the fresh harvest (Leviticus 23:14). Some Jews came to think of this feast as a thanksgiving on behalf of the entire human race, but particularly for God's gift of the Promised Land to Israel.12

Seven weeks after the presentation of the barley firstfruits came the Feast of Weeks – a holy convocation on which work was banned (Leviticus 23:21). This time, they offered new grain from the wheat harvest (Leviticus 23:16), while remembering to leave the edges of their field unharvested so that the poor could glean from it as they pass by (Leviticus 23:22). At this festival, two loaves of leavened bread made from the new wheat flour were presented by each family to a priest, who'd again wave them high in the air for God to accept (Leviticus 23:17). In Jerusalem, it was a time of special rejoicing in God's name (Deuteronomy 16:11), with all the same offerings as a new moon but also two additional lambs as a peace offering (Leviticus 23:18-19; Numbers 28:27-31). Some Jews came to think of this feast as a time to offer God a token of gratitude for his great faithfulness, and for the Israelite's soul to rise in joy the same way that leaven makes bread rise.13

There were no holidays scheduled over the summer, but autumn kicked off with the Feast of Trumpets on the year's seventh new moon. Proclaimed with trumpet blasts (Leviticus 23:24), it was another holy convocation on which work was banned (Leviticus 23:24-25), and was mostly celebrated with more sacrifices in Jerusalem, not quite doubling the usual for the new moon (Numbers 29:3-5). Some Jews came to think of it as a reminder of the way God spoke like a trumpet blast at Mount Sinai, but also a chance to thank God for worldly peace.14

Nine days later came the Day of Atonement – not a feast but a fast, a time to “afflict yourselves” (Leviticus 23:27) – and to not share Israel's fasting on that day was to be cut off from the community (Leviticus 23:29). It was a “sabbath of solemn rest” (Leviticus 23:32), a holy convocation on which work was banned (Leviticus 23:27-28, 30-31), with the same offerings as the extra ones from the Feast of Trumpets (Numbers 29:8-11). But the purpose of the day was “to make atonement for you before the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:28), and it featured a special ritual during which all Israel's sin and guilt was laid on the head of a goat which was released into the desert, away from the people, like stuffing sin back into its envelope and stamping “Return to Sender” on it; and the high priest would purify the tabernacle (or temple) and enter God's own presence in the Holy of Holies that day (Leviticus 16).

After that, the holiday year wound down with the Feast of Ingathering, or Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, once all the summer crops had been harvested (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13). To remember the lifestyle of the generation that lived in the desert after leaving Egypt, everyone would move into tents or huts for seven days (Leviticus 23:42-43), while the first and eighth day of the festival were holy convocations (Leviticus 23:35-36, 39). Once again, the men had to present themselves before the LORD (Exodus 23:17), while in Jerusalem there'd be sacrifices each of the eight days, totaling 105 lambs, 71 bulls, 15 rams, 8 goats, nearly 15 bushels of flour, and over 66 gallons of wine poured out (Numbers 29:13-38). It was a time of special rejoicing (Leviticus 23:40; Deuteronomy 16:14), and may have been attached to prayers for a good rain over the coming rainy season to water the barley and wheat for the coming year – to keep the feast well was assurance that “the LORD your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful” (Deuteronomy 16:15). It was on the eighth day of this feast, the last holy convocation of the year, that Jesus stood up in the temple and yelled out that if anyone was thirsty, they could come to him and drink the water of life (John 7:37).

Alright, we've said all of that, but how does any of this apply to Christians today? The sabbath was good for the Israelites to observe, looking back to the creation of the world and to their redemption from Egypt. But from the very dawn of the gospel, the old sabbath was outshined by something new – a new feast that the Church came to call the Lord's Day. It was held on the same day of the week that the Romans called 'Sunday,' and each week, on the Lord's Day, the Church remembered the first day of the old creation, when God began to create the world, but also it was the eighth day of the seven – the day of overflow, the day that burst the bounds of the week with something fresh. And that something fresh was a radical new creation. For it was the day when the Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and the same day of the week when the Holy Spirit was poured out from heaven. That's why one second-century Christian said, “We observe the eighth day in gladness, the day on which Jesus was raised from the dead and appeared and ascended into the heavens.”15 

And so for Christians, observance of the old holidays – even the sabbath itself – faded into irrelevance, because the purpose of the commandment became fulfilled, for the new-covenant age, in the Lord's Day. We don't just keep the sabbath – we do one better, by fulfilling the commandment through keeping the Lord's Day holy. That's why you'll note, at the top of each bulletin you get here, that the order of worship is prefaced by saying “The Lord's Day.”

But how do Christians keep the Lord's Day holy? Well, we can learn from how the people of the old covenant kept the sabbath day holy. And we first and foremost do it here at church, where we attend to God's word in the readings and sermon, we offer praise and prayer, and we celebrate the sacrifice. “On the first day of the week,” Luke writes, “we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 10:27). “On the first day of the week,” Paul orders, “each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2). John, meanwhile, declares, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord's Day” (Revelation 1:10). And the author writing to the Hebrews urges, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together (as is the habit of some) but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

And listen to the testimony of the Christians of the early centuries, what they did: “On the Lord's Day, gather together to break bread and give thanks, first confessing your failings so that your sacrifice may be pure.”16 “It is on Sunday that we all make assembly in common, since it is the first day, on which God changed darkness and matter and made the world, and Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead on the same day.”17 “We devote Sunday to joyousness.”18 “Every friend of Christ should keep the Lord's Day as a festival, the day of resurrection, the queen and chief of the days..., on which our life appeared and victory in Christ was given over death”; keep it “in a spiritual way, rejoicing in meditation on the laws..., wondering at the workmanship of God...”19 “Rejoice at all times on the first day of the week. Indeed, anyone who afflicts himself on the first day of the week is guilty of sin. … Don't lend precedence to worldly affairs over the word of God, but put them aside each Lord's Day and hurry to the church, for she is your glory. For what excuse shall they give to God, those who don't assemble on that day to hear the saving word and to be nourished with divine and everlasting food? … What excuse before the Lord God shall the one who absents himself from the assembly of the church have? He doesn't even imitate the Gentiles but, through failing to assemble, grows neglectful and scornful and distances himself and does evil.”20 “What silly excuse do most of you give? 'I can pray at home,' you say. … My friends, you are deceiving yourselves! Yes, you can pray at home, but not in the same way as you can in the church. In the church there is a large throng of spiritual fathers; there, with one accord, a cry is sent up to God. When you call upon the Lord by yourself, he does not listen to you in the same way as when you invoke him along with your brothers. Here in church, you have something more. Here you have the oneness of mind, the unison of voices, the common bond of love, the prayers of the priests.”21 “Be constant, therefore, in assembling with those faithful who are being saved in your mother, the Church, which is living and life-giving.”22 “Go to church every Sunday. … Christians should devote themselves to God alone on Sunday, and go to church for the sake of the salvation of their soul. When you come to church, pray for your sins; don't engage in quarrels or provoke scandals. … While you're standing in church, don't engage in idle conversation, but listen patiently to the divine lessons. … Pay tithes to the church out of your little profits.”23 To “observe the sabbath in a spiritual manner” is “to be zealous for good works and to engage in reading and prayer.”24

Now, what do we get out of all of that? We see, I hope, that the Lord's Day is a big deal – a much bigger deal than most of us make it. It's the queen of all days, it's the best day of the year – and we get it each and every week? What a remarkable gift! What a chance to encounter the holy Lord! And the chief way to do that, we're told, is that we are obligated to be at church each Sunday. Now, obviously, there are exceptional circumstances that might prevent one of us from assembling on a given Sunday. The lockdown last year showed us one. But terrible weather might prevent us from meeting. Or you might be sick, or injured, or responsible for caring for a loved one who can't be left unattended. Or there might be an emergency situation. But those are the exceptions – rare exceptions. 

To listen to how the old-covenant people of God observed the sabbath, and how the early Christians fulfilled it on the Lord's Day, should cause us to pause. Because these days, we've come to accept it as common for some of us to be every-other-weekers, or once-a-monthers. Assembling in the church each and every Lord's Day is not God's suggestion or God's nifty idea; it's God's commandment to his new-covenant people. The Lord's Day is a holy convocation commanded in the Law of Christ. That doesn't mean we never go on vacation, traveling to other places! But it means that the commandment goes with us, bidding us to make sure we assemble into God's church on the Lord's Day wherever we go, just as we must here at home. 

Imagine that, on a Monday morning, you were awakened by a blinding light; the Lord Jesus Christ is standing before you in his Father's glory, with a million angels behind him, and his hands outstretched to display the wounds received for your salvation; and he says to you, “We had a date, and you stood me up. I was there, waiting; where were you? What happened?” Would the way you'd spent your Sunday stand up to the light of his face? See, to skip church for our own daily agenda isn't just a matter left to our choice. God actually names it sin. 

Now, the good news – the truly great news – is that Jesus is a specialist in forgiveness of sins! He does it as we repent, confess, believe, throw ourselves to him, and offer ourselves to him for his transforming touch. And as he heals us, we hunger and thirst for the blessing of assembly on the Lord's Day.

So how should we spend the Lord's Day? In the church, of course – the assembly, not necessarily the building. But we're not here literally all day. It used to be that our tradition had both a Sunday morning and a Sunday evening assembly, but we laid that aside many years past – so how do we keep the other hours of the Lord's Day holy? What do we do with the rest of our Sunday? For when we get home from church, we don't reclaim the rest of the day as ours to do as we please. The whole day belongs to the Lord. So how do we honor that?

We might fill the Lord's Day with personal prayer and devotion, whether in our families or by ourselves. Spend a bit more time in prayer today than you did yesterday – after all, God made sure you have the time. We might also confess our sins and feel the sweet breeze of forgiveness on our souls. We can welcome the Lord's Day in a spirit of joy and cheer – after all, Jesus is raised from the dead, the Spirit is poured out on you, and that means you have the promise of a new creation coming, that life will always have the victory, and what about resting in that hope can be anything but joyful? We might take more time on the Lord's Day to read the Bible – read more of it, read chapter after chapter, read it more deeply and attentively. We might also read other spiritual books – the great classics, or simply whatever devotional you might keep. We might sing hymns around the house or in our gardens, letting them saturate our hearts. We might quiet ourselves in soul, silencing the voices in our minds, emptying ourselves so that we can dwell attentively to God's spiritual presence. We might reflect on the sheer beauty and grace of our salvation – thinking today about how abundantly God has changed us, brought us out of the darkness and into greater and greater light. We might contemplate the works of God in nature – go for a stroll and be attentive to your Father's world.

We might gather in smaller groups (family or not), might celebrate God's gifts with thankful praise, might discuss the deeper mysteries we may not always have time to consider by ourselves. We can feast mightily in the joy of the Lord, relishing God's goodness in food and drink, all while bearing in mind our Lord's teaching that “when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:13-14). And we might go forth and begin the works of mercy, for Jesus declared that “it is lawful to do good on the sabbath” (Matthew 12:12), to “save life” (Mark 3:4 / Luke 6:9). And so we might sit with the grieving, or visit the sick, or feed the hungry, or reach out to the lonely; and when done in Jesus' name, such is a beautiful and holy Lord's Day indeed. And, of course, we might give rest to our bodies with a wholesome nap, and give rest to our souls by abiding in Christ.

And just as the Lord's Day fulfills the sabbath, so the Christian calendar fulfills the Israelite calendar, by taking parts of it, reorienting them to Christ, and filling the whole year with his celebrations. We have our fasting seasons, like Advent and Lent, and our festive seasons of the year for feasting, like Epiphany and Easter (which is the Passover), and holy days like Christmas and Pentecost (which used to be the Feast of Weeks). From Christmas and Easter down to the details, the Church has filled in the year, first, with memories of the earthly and heavenly life and ministry of Jesus, and, second, with testimonials to his ongoing work in his people, like (for example) when we remember Jesus' holiness in Saint Patrick on March 17, but so many other days in so many other lives. In fact, there's so much to celebrate that it's said the average medieval peasant in England worked only two out of every three days in a year! Learning to think with this calendar and cherish all the holy days laid out for us, is how we fulfill the feasts in Christ – and how our souls throb to the heartbeat of his joy.

In keeping both the Lord's Day each week, and the other feasts of the Church, as truly holy – in reserving them as Jesus' time in our calendars – we have a grand opportunity. Our lives fulfill the commandment, true. But it's more than that. Our lives become open to grace. As we set aside this time, reserving it for God in whichever ways he asks of us, making the most of it (by his definition, not ours), our lives absorb the patterns and rhythms we keep, and so become conformed more and more to the image of God's Son, which is our ultimate goal (Romans 8:29), for in him the Church lives and moves and has her being (cf. Acts 17:29). This is the Lord's Day, fulfilling the sabbath in a truer way than ever before – so continue to take a holy-day, beginning with the church assembly and continuing through all of each Lord's Day and each high and holy feast. In doing so, we honor Jesus, we exalt him on high; and he elevates us as he draws us nearer to himself. Glory to the Lord on the Lord's Day, as we await the new heavens and new earth, born already in our hearts! For that will be the Lord's Day that knows no end. Hallelujah!