In the first article of this series, we looked at our denomination’s decreasing effectiveness in evangelistic conversion and member retention. We can’t expect to bring people to God and into our churches with a Bible-based evangelistic model when they don’t consider the scriptures to be authoritative. And we can’t expect people to stay in our churches when they discover that the spiritual experiences that we promised them rarely come true when they join our church. It’s time to deal with it: we’ve been exposed. The Adventist denomination is not all we’ve cracked it up to be. It would be wise for us to drop the mic and stop making promises we can’t keep.
Last week, I suggested that a possible solution to these two crucial problems would be to change our first love. Because Adventists became convinced that our calling was to proclaim the ALL CAPS truth to the world, we have been willing to stop loving everything and everyone else in order to stay faithful to our first love: our interpretation of scripture and our reputation as TRUTH-tellers. Maybe we need to decide that when we are forced to choose between loving others and loving our scriptural interpretation and our identity as TRUTH-tellers, we will choose to, in the spirit of the incarnated-and-crucified Christ, give up what we cherish most for the sake of the people who need our love. What if unplugged loving action toward others became more important than broadcasted scriptural orthodoxy? I don’t think I’m the first person to say that actions speak louder than words.
In the replies to this second article and sermon, people raised two concerns. The first was the struggle with the concept that loving others was more important than pursuing a relationship with Jesus. The second was the fear that loving people over scriptural truth will lead us away from God. For the first concern, maybe this is helpful: The most important thing for you and me to do is to follow Jesus. Jesus loved others more than he loved himself, to the point of death. And he says to us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
For the second concern, I am happy to say that if we could understand the calls to loving action embedded within Adventist core beliefs, scripture becomes an indispensable guide to growing us, not in our understanding of truth, but in loving others first (which might be the ultimate ALL CAPS truth). Today, we will consider how loving action has, ironically, always been core to Sabbath rest.
Have you ever wondered why Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week? Me either. God said it, I believe it, and that’s it. If God told the Bible writers that we needed to keep the third day holy, I’d keep the third day holy. But recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s a divine logic to its placement at the end of the week. Tell me if I’m on to something or if my imagination has gotten the best of me. It seems that Sabbath has a direct relationship to important previous work done by God:
- The final verse of the magnificent ode to the Opus Dei in Genesis 1:1-2:3 describes Elohim basking in the joy of their finished masterpiece. Sabbath comes into existence by marking the completed Divine work.
- Yahweh rescues the Hebrew slaves from their tyranny and leads them to the land of promise. In the Sabbath commandment, God says that Sabbath will be the everlasting reminder of the Exodus.
- The executors of Jesus diligently worked to make sure their ministry of killing was completed before the Sabbath began. Ironically, the Passover Sabbath began after they unwittingly revealed the most magnificent evidence of a loving God that ushered in an Eternal Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:1-11) and broke open the prison gates to a Greater Exodus (Romans 8:1,2).
Here’s what I’m thinking: maybe a weekly sabbath can only be kept if Sabbath is brought first. God didn’t keep a weekly sabbath until he tamed the chaos of an unfinished earth and made it habitable for life. The Hebrew children couldn’t keep a Saturday sabbath until God gave them Sabbath from their captors. Humanity couldn’t rest from their guilt, shame, and fear of God until Jesus brought Sabbath between us and God through his living/dying/resurrecting love (however your atonement theories are blended).
I’m sure you’ve noticed when you read the gospels that Jesus seemed to enjoy performing acts of healing on Sabbath more than any other day of the week. It’s almost like he was pointing out that there hadn’t been a Sabbath in the land for a very long time. They were still observing a weekly sabbath day on the seventh-day of the week. But they had turned it into a doctrine, a pietistic practice, a symbol of pride and identity, a burden of responsibility to prove loyalty. Jesus brought back Sabbath, not by modeling a more reverent way of observing the seventh day of the week but by bringing rest. Healing the sick. Raising the dead. Feeding the hungry. Releasing children from suffering by letting them get a seat on his lap. Kicking sabbatarians out of their sanctified seats so the sabbath-breakers could take a load off and put up their feet. There was a point to celebrating a weekly Sabbath once Jesus, and then his followers, got back to bringing Sabbath to people.
Have you been in an Adventist evangelistic series where you get to the end of the second or third sermon on Sabbath (there’s always two to three sermons about Sabbath; usually just one on Jesus), and the organist comes up and plays “Just As I Am” or “I Surrender All” as the evangelist begins his (always a his) sober appeal for people to do soul-searching over whether they will be obedient to God and begin to keep the seventh-day Sabbath? “Will you stand up for Jesus/come forward to the altar/check the box on the decision card as your testimony that you will keep the Sabbath?”
In my early years as a pastor, after these Sabbath presentations, there were always two to three sermon-free days built into the evangelistic calendar so that the evangelist and I could go and work on these souls to help them make the right decision. Eternity hung in the balance for these dear people who responded to the brochure in their mailboxes with the beasts on them.
I’m beginning to have a hunch that we Adventists manufactured a sabbath day divorced from Sabbath. It seems like we wouldn’t need to twist people's arms to rest on Saturday if we had followed Jesus in bringing Sabbath to them first.
So my friend Christina serves me fast food at a drive-in once or twice a week (don’t worry, I replace the meat in the tacos with beans cooked in vegetable oil). We start our conversation at the menu loudspeaker and then continue it between her taking my money, giving me change, and tossing me the beans. If there’s no one behind me, we’ll talk a little longer. Over the course of our relationship, I’ve learned that she’s a single mom with two teenagers that she works hard to keep a roof over their head, feed them, pay their bus fare and keep them clothed in last year’s fashions. Because no corporate entity offers full-time jobs with benefits to unskilled labor, she works two part-time jobs. And those two jobs require her to work seven days a week.
Christina doesn’t keep the seventh-day sabbath. She tramples on God’s holy law every week. How do I convince her to give up the job that desecrates the Friday sundown–Saturday sundown seal of human loyalty to God? Which ABC Sharing Book do I give her? Where can I get one of those license plate holders that has “The Seventh-day Is the Sabbath” on top and “Exodus 20:8-11” on the bottom (perfect for drive-thru witnessing)? What is the most effective supporting-ministry tract that I can slide in with my fiver at the window?
I have to confess: I haven’t told her anything about Saturday being the Sabbath. I haven’t begged her to give up her job so that she and her children can be more sure of their salvation. You know why? I don’t think the seventh-day sabbath would bring her any rest. If she is barely surviving on seven days’ pay, what will happen if she cuts back at all? And, more importantly, how dare I! How dare I consider talking to her about keeping the seventh-day sabbath when all I do is smile and give her my “Jesus loves you” wave as I drive off, leaving her in her unrest. I can’t ask her to keep sabbath until she receives God’s Sabbath.
What I have tried to do is convince Christina to talk to another friend of mine, Priscila, who’s a case manager for a non-profit organization that our Adventist congregation helped start. Priscila, who’s not an Adventist, is a Sabbath-bringer. She has helped dozens of people find jobs that pay enough for them to have a day of rest each week. She’s helped a couple people enroll in our local community college so they can qualify for better paying jobs with benefits. She also introduces them to another friend of mine, Bryan, who is an Adventist and a financial planner, who helps people learn how to better manage the extra money that they’re earning in their new jobs so they don’t fall into the unrest of new debt (this could also qualify as the loving way to live out Fundamental Belief #21).
I’ve begged Christina to let me introduce her to Priscila. With my taco money, I’ve slipped in little tracts from the non-profit with the good news about Priscila and the number where she can reach her. Christina smiles, rolls her eyes, and tells me she’s fine. Don’t worry about her. She knows I care about her, but she hasn’t taken me up on the offer yet. But I’m not giving up. I’m a Seventh-day Adventist. And Christina needs Sabbath.
Todd J. Leonard is senior pastor at Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church and president of Glendale Communitas Initiative, a local non-profit organization devoted to families working their way out of poverty. (To learn more, visit GlendaleCommunitasInitiative.org.) He shares life with his wife, Robin, and three daughters, Halle, Abigail and Emma.
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