A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Sabbath Shalom

Image by Erik Drost (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Sabbath Shalom
Rev. Doug Floyd
Ezekiel 31:1-14, Psalm 92, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Mark 4:26-34

After traveling the world for over 20 years to document humans in their various contexts, Sebastio Salgado lost faith in humanity and was ready to give up photography forever. He had photographed several war zones, but the impact of photography the Rwandan genocide and the subsequent fallout, devastated him. He began thinking that we humans have no right to live on this plane because we are so vile.

How can we rest in a world of turmoil? How can we find peace when the nations are at war? How can we rejoice in a world of such sorrows?

Salgado’s wife compelled him to return to his abandoned family farm in Brazil. Together they began exploring ways to restore this damaged landscape by reforesting the land. In 1999, they began a project of seeking to return this land to its natural state as a subtropical forest. With the help of a variety of people, they transformed over 17,000 acres of devastated land. Within 15 years, a fertile woodland replaced the barren fields. Species that had been gone for over a millennia reappeared. Natural springs were restored. Animals and plants repopulated the forests. Today it is a model for restoring other tracts of land throughout the world.

In the Salgado’s story, I see a glimpse of how the Lord created us are caretakers of this earth. I see an image of hope that presses through darkness and acts in the world to transform and renew. Though I don’t know if Salgado is a believer, I do think his life reveals an aspect of our role as images of God.

Over the last couple weeks, I have talked about Sabbath remembering and Sabbath in exile. Today I want to think about Sabbath Peace (Shabbat Shalom). In some ways, I’ve been applying a way of approaching our calling in light of the personal, the family, and the cosmic. The personal aspect of our faith is the one Evangelicals are most familiar with. We talk about a personal relationship with Christ. We often think about our faith in personal terms: What is God calling me to do? How do I need to repent or to obey or to pray? How can I live more faithfully?

There is an aspect of Sabbath rest and remembering that is personal. I to pause, to wait, to remember. I need times of prayer and reflection and renewal.

There is also the family or social. I use the word family because it is emphasized all through Scripture. God sets the lonely in family. He calls Abraham to bless the families of the earth. Israel is a group of families or tribes. In Christ, we are adopted into a new family of Jews and Gentiles. For ancient Hebrews and for some Christians, the family or social dimension is the focal point of faith. I live and serve within a community of faith. We move through time as a part of the communion of saints.

Sabbath remembering is a community action. The family gathers. Eats a meal. Rejoices in God’s goodness, and anticipates the complete unveiling of God’s kingdom. We rehearse his social aspect of Sabbath each week.

Then we might speak of a cosmic dimension of our faith. This involves the systems and structures that develop as a result of human participation and it involves all aspects of creation. Created in the image of God, humans have the capacity to create things and structures that are bigger than ourselves. From governments to buildings to rocket ships. We see images of humans building cities and towers and temples and all sorts structures in Scriptures. The capacity to do this is God given. And yet, the tendency is for humans to look to their own creations as substitutes for God. The story of the tower of Babel reveals God’s judgment against human presumption and idolatry. Our reading from Ezekiel this morning might parallel the Babel story. Ezekiel warns Pharaoh by pointing to the Assyrian kingdom.

The kingdom grew tall and powerful like a Cedar of Lebanon: the birds of the heaven rested in its limbs, the nations lived in its great shadow. It was greater than any tree of Eden. And yet, it is cut to the ground falling lower than the trees of Eden. Just as God brought the idolatry of Babel, he will eventually bring down the nations and kings who exalt themselves as gods of the earth.

When we think of Sabbath Shalom or Sabbath Peace, we are thinking of the longed for transformation of powers and systems and structures of this world. The word shalom carries the sense of peace that nourishes flourishing and healing and restoration. It is an image of wholeness. The true Shalom we long for is unveiled in the New Jerusalem, in the new heavens and the new earth.

If we look back to the initial Sabbath story in Genesis, we see the Lord commissioning humans at the end of chapter 1:

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Humans are given dominion over the three stories of creation: the sea, the land, and the air. The Hebrew word for dominion is radah (raw·daw) and has been a difficult word to translate and the root word has been translated in a variety of ways from having to do with priestly duties to treading grapes for wine to shepherding. It is most often used of kings and kingly rule. Many of the images we see of kings in Scripture are images of using force, crushing, taking dominion in a negative sense.

We could tell the story of the world through this negative use of dominion and power. Unjust rulers. Wicked governments. Cruelty that becomes institutionalized. Earlier in the spring, I finished Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. The novel tells the story of Prince Nekhlyudov. It is a tale about his conversion from an aristocrat who takes advantage of the poor and weak to a man who lives out the Sermon of the Mount.

As he tries to help one woman sentenced to hard labor, he begins to help a series of prisoners and encounters the all the problems of injustice within the system. Many of the prisoners are suffering intense hardships for relatively minor transgressions. Some are in prison simply because they offended the wrong person. As he seeks for justice, he encounters a variety of men and women in positions of power who are good Christian people. They would never take advantage of anyone in their personal lives and they genuinely care about people. Their role within the criminal justice system causes them to make decisions and act in ways that will lead to harm and death of many people. They may feel genuine pity for those who suffer, but they fail to help them and even prevent others from doing so because they feel obligated by the duty of their office. The prince eventually concludes, “If one acknowledges but for a single hour that anything can be more important than love for one’s fellowmen, even in some one exceptional case, any crime can be committed without a feeling of guilt.”[i]

When I read those words, I thought about how Tolstoy anticipates Nazi Germany and other brutal systems where people have suffered and died at the hands of good people who pray and try to live a good life but submit to systems and ways of acting that sustain oppression.

We can tell the history of the world through these dark and horrible images of human oppression and domination.

But there is another way to understand the word dominion from Genesis one:

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Another way the root word for dominion is translated involves the image of the treading of grapes to make wine. The treading of the grapes brings out the full potential of the grape. The root word is also translated into shepherding in Ezekiel 34. There is a form of rule looks more like shepherding, like cultivation, like opening up to a greater potential. God creates a world filled with potential, but the potential will only be fully unveiled as humans work together in God’s love. We are given the commission to cultivate, to serve as caretakers, to be gardeners.

In Genesis 2, we see the Lord putting man into a garden to work and cultivate it. God is cultivating man even as man is cultivating the land. Man is also given a commission to name all the animals. He is a caretaker, and he is learning from the Lord how to rule. Then in Genesis 3, we see man and woman grasping for power and knowledge and turning from God in the process. The God-given gifts for ruling, cultivating, and leading will eventually be used in destructive ways.

But the Lord doesn’t abandon his project. He will continue to sustain it and eventually heal it and finally lead it to fulness or to glory. The Sabbath command calls for a rhythm of work or cultivation and rest or celebration. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” (Ex 20:10).

The command helps us to think not only about personal rest and remembering but family rest and remembering as well as a provision for those who serve, the animals, and even the sojourners or refugees in our midst. The Sabbath command offers in seed form a way of justice for the weakest members of society that will be rehearsed again and again in the prophets.

Later, the law will include provisions for a year-long rest of the land. Nothing is to be overworked, overused. The Sabbath rest is not simply for the wealthy landowner, but for everyone and for all creation. It is a gift of peace. Each Sabbath anticipates the completed work, the harvest time, the celebration at the end of the season. Each Sabbath looks toward another Sabbath, a rest in God. A true Sabbath Shalom.

The book of Hebrews takes up this theme. In chapter four, we see that simply entering the promised land was not the fulfillment of Sabbath rest. It still pointed toward a future day. This rest was the vanquishing of sin in Christ Jesus, and the restoration of God’s purposes that humans will cultivate the land and lead it to glory.

When we practice Sabbath rest and when we gather on the Lord’s Day for worship and word, we are anticipating a coming rest that has been made complete in Christ and will be fully unveiled in the fulness of time. This is the hope we see in our Gospel reading today. The kingdom does not look impressive. It is the tiniest seed in the garden. The mustard seed grows up into a large bush, and yet, this unimpressive bush will not fall like Assyria and the kingdoms of old. It will fill all the earth with its branches and the birds of the air will nest in its limbs and find refuge in its shade. This is an image of true Shalom that will only be made known in God’s rule.

Today we are called to work and serve and live in hope for that unveiling. Even as Sabbath remembering calls us to rehearse the story of God’s good creation and God’s faithful redemption, we look ahead to the glorious unveiling of God’s purposes for his creation and for us.

The vision of shalom compels us to face injustices here and now. It compels us to work to peace and healing and renewal. It compels us to consider the weakest among us. Those who serve us in all sorts of capacities. Our work toward justice may seem limited and at times doomed to fail, but we work toward hope that the way of God’s shalom will ultimately prevail.

Even as Sebastio Salgado focused on one farm and worked toward restoration, we focus on the small plot of ground in front of us. We may be forced to ask hard questions of our own participation in systems and structures that cultivate violence and destruction. We may take small steps that involve caring for people around us and caring for God’s good creation. But we act and work and cultivate in hope that in God’s timing, his glorious promise of Shalom will be unveiled.

[i] Tolstoy, Leo. Resurrection (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essay) (Kindle Locations 7371-7373). Golgotha Press. Kindle Edition.


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