The Third Sunday After Trinity
Hungry for God
My paternal grandmother, Jennie Clementine Mooney Fowler, late of County Offaly, Ireland, byway of Sour Lake, Texas, had two sisters. These Mooney sisters, Maggie and Hattie, married brothers, the O’Brien boys, Lawrence and Arthur.
Both couples settled in Humble, Texas, now a suburb of Houston but back then a sleepy country town to the north of the metropolis. Of my two great uncles, Lawrence I never knew because he died young but Arthur made an indelible impression on me.
Uncle Arthur served his country in World War I. He got as close to the action as Charleston, South Carolina, where one night he got good and drunk and fell out of a moving Jeep, sustaining injuries that rendered him no longer of use to America’s war effort.
Back home in Humble, he received a disability check each month for the rest of his life as compensation for the injuries he suffered while serving his country. I do not contend that government acts rationally.
It wasn’t long at all before Uncle Arthur was stepping quite nimbly; he could hardly argue that he was too stove up to work. So he began looking for a job.
For 40 years, Uncle Arthur followed the same routine every weekday. He rolled a Bull Durham cigarette, stuck it in one corner of his mouth, kissed Aunt Hattie goodbye with the other corner of his mouth, walked down the street, caught the bus and rode into Houston to look for work.
He left the bus at the same stop, crossed the street and took up his position in front of the same fire house and propped up the same oak tree for the remainder of the day, passing the time in conversation with the firemen and any others who would let him bend their ears.
Around quitting time, he caught the bus and headed back to Humble. On weekends, he rested up. To our astonishment, Uncle Arthur never found a job.
All the while, Aunt Hattie was taking in laundry and sewing, tending the vegetable garden out back and working every hour she could get at the five-and- dime to make ends meet.
I must have been 8 or so when Uncle Arthur died. I had little experience of funerals. It seemed
to me death was a serious matter and so I expected a somber affair.
The service itself seemed to me rather matter-of- fact but then, back at Aunt Hattie’s house, all these people – everybody in town, as far as I could tell – showed up carrying platters of fried chicken and sliced ham and potato salad and chocolate cake and pecan pie.
The men wore striped ties with plaid shirts and the ladies all wore hats. We’ll call their hats “interesting” and leave it at that. It was as though we had wandered onto the set of the old “Hee Haw” TV show.
Everybody was chattering and laughing and before long I gave up on the glum expression I had put on for the occasion and went for the fried chicken.
But the thing I remember best was something my father said when he was driving us to the church. It was 60 years ago but I recall it as clearly as if it happened yesterday. “The one thing I do not want to hear from that preacher,” Dad said, “is that Arthur has gone on to his rest . . . because there’s no way on earth he got tired.”
Uncle Arthur did not hold a biblical view of work.
Our text in Genesis 1 and 2 will teach us much about both work and rest. God put man in the garden “to tend and keep it.” Put another way, God made man a priest. This we know because when they are used together elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible the two verbs translated “tend” and “keep” refer to the duties of the priest.
A priest is a gate-keeper. This is the function for which he is ordained that a deacon is not. A deacon is a servant – as is a priest – but not a gate-keeper. In the first century, it was the same. When our Lord Jesus came upon 10 lepers who begged for cleansing He commanded them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests” (Luke 17:14).
He had effected their healing, which only God can do. But for re-entry into the community, He instructed them to seek the priests’ permission. The priest guards the gate.
Soon enough we will see Adam fail in this role, allowing into the garden the serpent, who has no business there. But we must not get ahead of our story.
God had provided in His garden trees which were pleasant to the sight and good for food. He had ordered the garden in such a way that it might sustain life in abundance. Adam and Eve enjoyed a rollicking good life there.
Food not only for the body but for the spirit also was close at hand, because God visited them and communed with them and assured them of His deep love for them, His creatures. The Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann captures this unified life of body and spirit brilliantly:
“In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God . . . All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man.
“God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’
“Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by ‘eating.’
“The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God’s blessing with his blessing.”
So wrote Father Schmemann.
Life in the garden was life par excellence – but even there, there was no free lunch. To tend and to keep the garden was to cultivate its trees and to defend its boundaries. Before man’s sin, before God’s curse upon the ground, these were not arduous tasks – but they were vital ones.
Adam and Eve – and primarily he, for he was uniquely the priest, ordained by God before Eve was created – were given the enormous privilege of expanding the garden, of pushing its boundaries outward until it covered the whole earth.
As they worked, so too would they be fruitful and multiply. And they and their seed would fulfill the “cultural mandate,” as the theologians call it, filling the creation to brimming with joyous worshipers of God Most High.
Here was the society God laid out for Eden, Adam’s sons and Eve’s daughters building a shining city on a hill that knows no limits, marshaling their God-given creative and productive powers for the good of the kingdom and the glory of the King.
In the very presence of the Almighty, under His loving care and watchful eye, they would construct a civilization without greed, envy or malice . . . but they would not know it, for they would have no knowledge of wicked things.
How could they, for these obedient subjects would never eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?
In their world, beauty and justice, truth and love, would flow as living waters in the four rivers of Eden, down from the high ground of the garden and out to irrigate the entire creation. Government would be good and all-wise, commerce fair, conflict unknown. Perfect peace would prevail.
Expanding paradise so that it produced life ever more abundantly is the work God gave our first parents.
So, yes, Adam and Eve had work to do. But after work came rest.
Step out of Eden with me now for a moment and travel to the base of Mount Sinai. Moses, who is laying down a record of these long-ago events for God’s covenant people, has led them out of Egypt and on a pilgrimage. Their destination is the Promised Land.
They are venturing out of slavery under the yoke of a foreign master toward a land God has set aside for their possession, a land flowing with milk and honey. By now, God has created, man de-created and God re-created several times already.
God re-created when He gave Seth to Eve to continue the line of the Seed of the woman after Cain slew Abel. And again with Noah and again with Abraham and now once more still with Moses.
Palestine is the new Eden, a lush land ripe with food for the body and food for the spirit.
God’s people will build His temple there in the holy city on Mount Zion called Jerusalem and the Creator will dwell in their midst. Even more, Yahweh is inviting them into His Sabbath rest. They need not shed sweat and blood to erect homesteads and farmsteads.
The people they are displacing have done that work. God bids His own enter into the labor of those they follow. Yes, the ground is cursed because of the sins of their fathers, but laid out before them here is a new beginning, an opportunity to reform the world.
They will start at the Lord’s temple and ring it with ever-widening circles of shalom, peace and prosperity. So we find them assembled at the base of Mount Sinai to receive God’s laws, and one of those laws is this:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is
within your gates.
“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:8-11).
As God rested when His work was completed, so must His people rest at the end of each six-day cycle of their work.
That long-ago edenic paradise of perfect peace and justice has almost escaped the national consciousness. Satan invaded, Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground. Work is no longer an idyllic undertaking but a mighty effort to wrest a living from the unforgiving land.
And these stoop-shouldered ones have just emerged from Egyptian bondage. Slaves, you may have heard, get no days off. These slaves, born of slaves, have toiled under Pharaoh’s whip from childhood every day of their lives, save for the occasional religious festival.
Their very worth is in their work, and when they can no longer work they have no worth. When Moses and his brother Aaron approached Pharaoh and asked for a day off for the people to worship Yahweh, that spiteful ruler commanded that they be given no straw to produce bricks.
Henceforth they would gather straw for themselves, with no lessening of their quota of bricks, and they would feel the sting of the lash if they did not satisfy that quota. Now, rescued from their nightmare, they hear through the torn and mangled ears of slaves a commandment to rest on one day in every seven.
In the ancient world, rest was the reward of kings and conquerors. When Joshua had led God’s people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land, God gave him rest. When King David had subdued Israel’s enemies in the surrounding territories, God gave him rest.
Yahweh, unlike a human king, of course, has not vanquished a foe, for no human enemy is worthy of Him. Nor has He attained to a higher degree of sovereignty than He had enjoyed before.
God’s enthronement rest comes as the culmination of His work, as King of kings, in beginning with a blank slate that was formless and void and transforming it into a realm of beauty and order.
But here we find the common folk, only now up from broiling servitude, hearing they are entitled to rest. And their rest is Sabbath – Shabbat, the very rest God bestowed upon Himself at the completion of His creative exertions.
Yahweh, of course, does not grow weary. For Him, “rest” is not a matter of regaining strength but of relishing the wonder of all He has made. For His people, the idea of “rest” contains the thought of recharging their bodies but it means more than that.
It is their one day of every seven – seven is the number of completion – to revel in the glory of their God and His creation.
On this weekly day of rest they will worship. Their worth resides not solely – or even chiefly – in their work, but in their worship. For was that not God’s purpose for His creatures from Adam and Eve onward through Seth and Noah and Abraham and the 12 tribes – to gather and nurture an ever-expanding family of worshipers?
As long as sin remained, the curse would remain, but the people of God would have their weekly respite. And it would picture for them that glorious day when Messiah would usher in the age of eternal rest – not idleness but a return to innocence. In the everlasting Shabbat they will know never-ending shalom.
For that is the meaning of the weekly day of worship, a foreshadowing of that age of unceasing worship. Long ago, the rabbis grasped this truth. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reports:
“That the Sabbath and eternity are one – or of the same essence – is an ancient idea. A legend relates that, ‘at the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, He said to them: “My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvoth, I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession.”
‘”And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which Thou wilt give us if we obey Thy Torah?”
‘”The world to come.”
‘”Show us in this world an example of the world to come.”
‘”The Sabbath is an example of the world to come.”’”
Rabbi Heschel christened the Sabbath “a palace in time”:
“For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.
“The art of keeping the seventh day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation: as He sanctified the seventh day, so shall we. The love of the Sabbath is the love of man for what he and God have in common. Our keeping the Sabbath day is a paraphrase of His sanctification of the seventh day.”
So wrote Rabbi Heschel.
Uncle Arthur refused to see that God first worked for six days before He rested on the seventh, and so for man the Sabbath is empty of meaning without labor preceding it. Plainly put, we cannot join God in His rest if we don’t get tired in His service.
In our New Testament, one word is variously translated “worship” and “service.” It reminds us that in the eternal view our worship of God is our service to God. I do not imagine that in the next life we will remain eternally prostrate before our Creator.
More likely, I think, is that we will live in a constant disposition of worship, offering up praise and thanksgiving for all we have and all we are far more faithfully and righteously than we do now.
We will be back in the garden, tending it.
But even in this life, our work – whether filling cavities or driving a truck or running a store – ought to be a sacrifice to God. It will be if we see it as a vocation, a calling. It connects us to both Creator and creation and allows us to enter into God’s rest each Sabbath day.
For in the end as in the beginning, our rest is in Him.