Remember when you were at school and you were told that science and religion were incompatible? You were told to choose between scientific facts and religious faith? Well, not any more! “Scientists turn to God to save the planet” was the headline in the Independent on Friday.
“Two of the world’s leading scientists have made an unprecedented call on religious leaders to spark a “massive mobilisation of public opinion”, insisting that only through God can we save the environment.
Writing in the journal Science, Cambridge University’s Partha Dasgupta and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, of the University of California, have made an impassioned plea for help in curbing the “potentially catastrophic” effects of what they call “the ongoing abuse of the planet’s natural resources”.
Naomi Oreskes, professor of history of science at Harvard University, said the call was a remarkable development in the world of climate science.
“This is a watershed moment. For 20 years, scientists have been reluctant to speak out on the need to change business as usual for fear of being labelled ‘political’ and reluctant to address the moral dimensions of climate change for fear of being labelled ‘unscientific’,” she said… “I think a lot of people see the religious contribution as a cosy topic which we should only discuss on Sunday mornings, but it could prove decisive.”
I think you will agree that so far, this sermon series on Jesus and Creation has been far from a ‘cosy topic’ only for ‘Sunday mornings’. Some of us have been troubled and disturbed as we have considered the devastating consequences of climate change globally, especially on the poor and vulnerable. From the scriptures we have been reminded that Jesus is Lord of Creation, and that we are responsible to him to be good stewards of the earth entrusted to us. Jesus is also Lord of the covenant God has made with the earth. All of creation is connected, all of creation is significant and all of creation is to be cherished.
Howard Snyder says:
“Here is the biblical basis for a theology of creation care. In the biblical view, earth’s creatures and species are to be “stewarded” for four key reasons: God created them; God delights in them; we depend on them; they are part of God’s larger plan…. [because] Salvation Means Creation Healed.” Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath rest too.
The Meaning of the Sabbath
The word Sabbath simply means “rest” and is rooted in what God did after creating the world in six days.
“Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:1-3)
That is why the Sabbath rest is commanded of God’s people. Indeed, it is the first commandment after the first three summarize true worship of God.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
The Sabbath rest applies equally to the earth too.
“When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord” (Leviticus 25:2).
The land must be left fallow for a whole year, every seven years, so the fertility of the soil could be restored. There is clearly a link between the need for humans to take time out to rest and recover each week, and the need for the earth to be given time to rest and recover too seasonally but also every seven years. This clearly has implications for the long-term effect of intensive factory farming, the massive use of chemical fertilisers, genetically modified crops and the value of organic food. Even the controversy surrounding Sunday trading and working 24/7 is nothing new either. In Nehemiah’s day, a loophole in the Sabbath regulations was being exploited. It was OK to buy on the Sabbath as long as the sellers were foreigners. But under the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah instituted as a result of the public reading of scripture, they agreed.
“When the neighbouring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts. (Nehemiah 10:31)
I don’t think it really matters ‘which’ day we take as our Sabbath. What matters is that we take a weekly Sabbath seriously. Scripturally, biologically and ecologically, both we and creation both need the rhythm and balance between work and rest. This is vital if we are to live as part of a healthy creation instead of abusing ourselves, exploiting other people and abusing the earth. The meaning of the sabbath.
The Lord of the Sabbath
Jesus enhances our understanding of the Sabbath as he debated the religious leaders over its application.
“One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 5 Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:1-5)
In the eyes of the Pharisees, the disciples were breaking the Sabbath law, harvesting, winnowing, and preparing food. Jesus took them back to the Scripture and to what King David did when we was hungry. God is more concerned about meeting human needs than about protecting religious rules. Better that David and his men receive strength to serve God than that they go hungry and perish. Then Jesus makes one of his most controversial statements. He is Lord of the Sabbath. Be implication, he established the Sabbath and is therefore free to do on it and with it whatever He pleases. The passage continues:
“On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. 8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored.” (Luke 6:6-10)
Matthew records the additional words of Jesus:
“If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:11-12)
The religious leaders had turned God’s gift of the Sabbath rest into a heavy yoke that nobody could bear. And frankly, the human contribution to climate change is a burden we cannot bear either. Jesus miracle illustrates the power of faith. Jesus commanded the man to do the very thing he could not do, and yet he did it! God’s commandments are always to protect and provide. We find they are God’s liberating pathways when we trust him to lead the way. If we take them seriously, we can make a difference to climate change. That is why Jesus offers the ultimate Sabbath rest, every moment of every day.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Jesus promises a “Sabbath rest” every day. With his wisdom and guidance we can steward God’s creation responsibly and sustainably. So how can we apply the Sabbath law and live more harmoniously with ourselves, with one another and our world?
The Application of the Sabbath
Remember the word Sabbath means, “REST”. Others may go further but I have found these four principles based on R-E-S-T consistent, sensible and workable.
R is for Recreation
Sunday is a day for recreation, for outings, visits, and fun. Certain goods and services should be available which enhance that. Things like swimming pools, parks, and museums, for example, help us relax.
E is for Essentials
Emergencies can happen at any time to anyone.
We must make allowances for situations where pain or hardship is threatened. So, services such as ambulances, nurses, doctors, hospital staff and chemists, police and fire services are necessary 24/7.
S is for Social
Sunday is a day for people to relax, to meet with friends and family, to spend time together over a drink or meal. Restaurants and coffee shops, make life easier and facilitate Sunday being a rest day for others.
T is for Travel
Inevitably we all have to travel sometime on Sundays. It seems sensible that certain goods that will aid travel should be available. Fuel, transport networks and breakdown services are useful every day. We could therefore include petrol station, railway, harbor and airport staff. Although these four categories provide a basis for interpreting the Sabbath principle, they do require further qualification and two simple tests may be helpful.
1. Could the item or service be bought easily before or after Sunday? This test helps limit Sunday trading and prevents shop workers having to pay for our unreasonable disorganization.
2. Does it harm the special character of Sunday? Does it enhance our Sunday or does it detract from it? There is no good reason for working on the Sabbath, unless we are engaged in useful, essential or emergency work. And, as long as it’s voluntary and another day is taken off instead.
Yes Jesus did say, “If your ox falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, of course get him out”, but Billy Graham added, “If your ox falls into a ditch every Sabbath, either sell the ox or fill in the ditch….”
To work seven days a week shows there is something wrong with our priorities. God never designed us to do so. Failure to service your car invalidates the manufacturer’s warranty. The same applies to our bodies. Don’t blame God for your ulcers, your headaches and stress-induced illnesses if you do not take his Makers Instructions about the Sabbath seriously. Science and scripture are in harmony on this one.
Dr Hodge of Clark University in Massachusetts has shown that the nerve cells are not fully recovered from a day’s wear by a night’s rest. They must be recharged every few days, as often as once a week, or nervous exhaustion will follow. Furthermore they cannot apparently be restored by less than thirty to thirty six hours continuous rest. You can only achieve that consistently by a rest day preceded and followed by a night’s sleep. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. The Sabbath rest is a precious love gift from a caring Creator God. It is a safety net, a protection against causing serious damage to our souls and bodies as well as to our beautiful world of which we are a part.
“The Sabbath command is a defence against the hurry that desecrates time. A Sabbath-shaped week prepares us to give witness in detail of what happens when God speaks, and then to invite others to participate in receiving and caring for the whole of creation right now.” (Eugene Peterson)
“No longer [is the Sabbath] a legalistic remnant of Judaism, but it is given its full meaning in the finished work of Christ. It continues to challenge human arrogance, independence of spirit and the technical-mindedness that confuses means with ends, so that efficiency today becomes a goal in itself. . . Rest on the Sabbath signifies the goodness of God’s creation, as well as our salvation in the incarnate Christ.” (James Houston).
If you want to explore this further, I recommend three resources: Dave Bookless, Planetwise: Dare to care for God’s world (IVP); John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today (IVP) and The Green Bible (Harper Collins)
Today there is a major climate change march in London. Tearfund, one of our mission partners is actively involved. Ben Niblet writes,
“It’s part of the world’s largest ever march against climate change… on the same day. New York’s will be the biggest one, because that’s where the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is holding a climate summit on Wednesday, and the march is to tell the world’s leaders to do more about climate change, for the sake of the world’s poorest people facing floods, droughts and smaller harvests, our own future, and the planet God made and told us to care for. I’m meeting up with a group of Tearfund supporters at 12.30, next to Temple underground station, at the far end of the little park next to the station, by a statue of a girl carrying water. It’ll end by 3pm, so do come and join me!”
Let us pray:
“Creator God, You have called us to be keepers of your Earth; Through greed, we have established an economy that destroys the web of life. We have changed our climate and drown in despair.
Let oceans of justice flow, May we learn to sustain and renew the Life of our Earth. We pray for our leaders, custodians of Earth; as they gather in New York
City at the climate talks. May they negotiate with wisdom and fairness. May they act with compassion and courage, and lead us in the path of justice for the sake of our children and our children’s children.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen.” [++ Desmond Tutu]
This sermon has been enriched with material from Warren Weirsbe’s Bible Exposition Commentary, John Stott’s Issues Facing Christians Today and Dave Bookless’s, Planetwise.