Saturday, 2 October 2010

Rest for the weary

Moses reminded the Israelites that the one God, who liberated them from impoverishment and thereby owned them, was the Origin of all things. Paul says, ‘Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’ (Heb. 11:3) All existence was created by God out of nothingness.

Creation is the first act of divine providence, building a universe filled with awe and wonder (see Psalm 19). Let’s be clear: There is no discussion of the time span between verses 1 and 2 of Genesis 1. Some creationists refer to Isaiah 40:22: ‘He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.’ The stretching of space is considered by some as the ultimate display of omnipotence in controlling relativity: He who can make the sun stand still, can accelerate time on earth, completing creation in seven days and dilate time elsewhere. ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.’ (2 Pet. 3:8) (see Dr. John Hartnett: Starlight, Time and the New Physics)

What we do know is that God enjoyed the reward of His completed creation. He called on Israel to do the same in imitation and acknowledgement that they owed God (as we do) the fruit of their labours.

In the Old Testament, the keeping of the Sabbath was enforced rigorously: (Num. 15:32 – 36). Of course, there were offerings for unintended personal errors, but, if Israel was to fulfil its singular mission as the medium of God’s salvation to the world, open, flagrant rebellion had to be put down immediately.

In the New Testament, Jesus demonstrated that Sabbath-keeping could easily descend into a ritualised externalism that contradicts the immediate, internal promptings of practical love from the Holy Spirit. Paul considered its observance discretionary: ‘One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.’ (Rom. 14:5). In other words, empowerment by the Holy Spirit should inform individual consciences and allow for a level of discretion that the Old Testament didn’t. Paul was sure that all Old Testament externalisms had been cancelled on Christ’s gibbet of crucifixion. ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.’ (Col. 2:16)

So what rest is there for the Christian? After all, there is nothing quite so frustrating as pointless effort. You can walk through a busy city seeing hundreds of purposeful citizens rushing to and fro, but what if their pay or working conditions didn’t measure up to the efforts they expended?  They would soon lose motivation.

This is no less true of Christian endeavours, but it doesn’t come down to financial rewards. Relentless labour and material accumulation for its own sake always ends in dissatisfaction. There are eleven instances in which the writer of Ecclesiastes refers to this focus on ‘things under the sun’ or temporal pursuits as ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’. As humans, we need relationships and assurances that transcend material transactions and stand the test of time.

Paul elevates the idea of Christian rest beyond the Old Testament promises. In Hebrews 3 and 4, he explains that the unbelieving Israelites were condemned to die in the wilderness for their unbelief. They missed out on the rest provided in the Promised Land. Let’s be clear, God didn’t demand blind faith. These people had seen God’s mighty acts of deliverance from Egypt, but, at the first hint of hardship, they still accused God of, at least, indifference, if not pleasure in seeing their frailty : ‘Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?’ (Ex. 17:3). They could have chanted, ‘We know that the God we serve can do anything, He gives us manna from heaven. He can turn this desert into an oasis. Is anything too difficult for Him?’ But they didn’t.

David recounts this incident in Psalm 95 as a warning to us. ‘Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come’ (1 Cor. 10:11)

The verdict upon the ungrateful was then as it is now: ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known my ways.’ (Ps. 95:10). They would never understand how divine power always exposes human frailty before intervening in loving mercy, that God will not share credit for His accomplishments with anyone. Indeed, He declares unequivocally that ‘no flesh shall glory in my presence’ (1 Cor. 1:29). God’s strength and human weakness are a perfect match.

In the same psalm, God declares another rest, a rewarding conclusion to the outworking of redemption beyond the land promised to Abraham’s descendants. ‘There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.’ (Heb. 4:9,10)

Scripture reassures us on countless occasions of this ultimate reward that can’t be measured in human terms: the goal of a life devoted to God. For example, Paul reminds ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap if we faint not’ (Gal. 6:9)

‘To those, who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honour and immortality, eternal life’ (Rom. 2:7)

We are also encouraged to look away from temporal distractions and focus attention upon the eternal goal. As Paul said, ‘So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’. (2 Cor. 4:18) We should all be discussing the book of Revelations every week to understand our sacred inheritance: ‘but in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.’ (2 Pet. 3:13)

Consider the hardships that Paul endured in spreading the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of God’s final and eternal restoration of the universe: ‘Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,…’ (2 Cor. 11:25). Yet, for all this, he also explains, ‘For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ (2 Cor. 4:17). He reminds the Corinthians of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘However, as it is written: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"-- but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.’ (1 Cor. 2:9,10)

What Paul saw in his visions of the omnipotent God united with humanity in the ascended Messiah and in the final victory of His people was so astounding that he needed a counterbalancing affliction to keep his pride in check. (2 Cor. 12:7) If you spend a few nights reading the book of Revelations, you’ll get some idea of what the apostles saw in the Spirit. It gave them a different perspective on their troubles. It gave them insight. Indeed, we are guaranteed this same level of insight in our single-minded pursuit of the kingdom of God: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.’ (James 1:5)

This unseen future for which we labour on earth, our Promised Land, is our steadfast hope when all earthly hopes are removed. Without it, for all of the comforts of our daily lives, we are reminded that ‘if we have hope in this life alone, we are of all men most miserable.’ (1 Cor. 15:19).

‘For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come’ (Heb. 13:14), ‘…a city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ (Heb. 11:10).

Instead of a worldly empire of social equality, this city, the New Jerusalem is surely the eternal rest for which we toil in this world.

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