11 Jun 2023
Passage Exodus 23:10-19
Speaker Chris Haley
Series Exodus: The Redeemer
Happy National German Chocolate Cake Day! Yes, who knew it! It's National German Chocolate Cake Day… in America! But still! It's also international Jaguar day, I'm assuming that's the animal, not the car, or their marketing firm has really been earning its keep! What significance do we give to days, weeks, months, years?
It's also Sunday. It's June. It's 2023 in the west, 1444 in Muslim Countries. It's 10 days 'til the first day of summer. It's 244 days… until Chinese New Year! (197 until Christmas!) It's Saint Barnabas's day, it's Hugh Laurie's Birthday. It's the anniversary of the death of Alexander the Great and Deforest Kelly who played Bones in Star Trek!
Days, weeks, months have different significance to different people in different places. How we mark time is part of our culture, and also how we understand the world. We base it around the things that are important to us. The thread that holds our passage together is the use of time, the marking of time. The weeks, the years, the festivals, the events that are important in the year. What are the elements that we are to build into our calendars, our diaries, our months, our weeks, our years?
As with all the passages we've been looking at, we must remember we're this side of Christ, this side of the cross. Believers, God's people are not a nation as they were here. Christ has also come and fulfilled the law. But that doesn't make these commands irrelevant. It's not whether they apply, it's how they apply. And that means looking for the underlying principles.
So firstly, of our three points this morning:
The first two commands are expansions on the fourth commandment on the Sabbath and are to do with rest. These commands show that the idea of rest and Sabbath is much broader than we give it credit for and also have implications for the oppressed and needy, as many of the laws do, as we began to see. First of all, there is…
Rest for the land in service to the poor v10-11
The land itself was to have a rest every seven years, either in a crop rotational cycle as some think, or every field at the same time, as we certainly know happened between the Testaments. God promised that the sixth year would be especially abundant, a bit like the way they were given enough manna for two days on a Friday in the wilderness. Either way, the land was due its rest. The idea was that the land would have a rest. Intensive, exhaustive farming can ruin a land, and they were not to ruin the land. It also meant that the food that grew naturally on the land, even when not farmed, would provide for the poor. That would make more sense if which field has a rest was rotated rather than all of them at once. Otherwise, the poor would only have access to this food every seven years. It also gave provision for the wild animals, that they might be provided for too! This is rest, but rest with a purpose, that the needy might be provided for.
The thing is, though, this was nearly really kept, not for much of Israel's history. In 2 Chronicles 36, it tells us:
2 Chronicles 36:20-21 ESV He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfil seventy years. The Lord had promised in Leviticus that the land would get rest this way if they did not allow it rest.
Rest for everyone, that the burdened may be refreshed v12
You might be tempted to think this is just a repeat of the fourth commandment, but it isn't. Its focus is on those who benefit from the rest that everyone is to have: the ox and the donkey, working animals; the son of the servant woman, literally slave women (this seems to be a biblical term for the lowest of the low, used in two of the Psalms to emphasize the psalmist's humility); and the alien (it is exactly the same word as sojourner we saw in the last passage, I have no idea why they translated it differently), someone who's staying in your country. Those last two can be refreshed, literally they breathe, they can have a breather, we'd probably say! Rest is there, not to stop us from doing well at our job, not to stop us making money, it's there for our benefit and that we might not overwork and exhaust others, especially those who have no choice over what they can do by making them work all the time. We're to let them have a breather. If we are in a position of authority where those under us have little option but to work if we tell them to, we need to be making sure we're allowing them time to rest. It's something that we leaders of churches need to take into account too.
Rest is a big deal in the Bible. Rest really is the goal of creation. Back in Genesis, right at the beginning, the seventh day is when God rests, not because he was tired, but that he may enjoy his creation. And rest is still where we're heading too! In Hebrews 4:9, we're told that there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. We're told in Romans 8:21 that creation itself will one day be set free from its bondage to corruption and decay and enjoy freedom, a picture of rest. The rest that it speaks of is a permanent final rest, an enjoyment of all that God has made and done. Until then, all rest is temporary and there mostly for recovery and refreshment, a breather rather than a final rest.
I think the closest analogy we get to this in our experience is flat pack furniture. Most of us will know the experience of building a bookcase, or a cabinet, or even a shed! If you're anything like me, about halfway through, there comes a point when you need a breather—several times nowadays! You get some air, a cold drink. But it's a temporary break, it's not the final. It's enjoyable, but mostly because it's a break from the back-breaking labour! Then there comes that moment when it's finished, and you can enjoy final rest and sit back and admire your handy work. That is the final rest the mini-rests look forward to, well, almost. You find an excuse to have your friends round. Rejoice with me! I've finished my shed! Rejoice with me! I've got a place to put all my books! If we really want to be true to life, there's also usually a point further down the line when it all falls apart and you have to remake the broken thing, only now it's reinforced with every available screw and every brand of superglue you can get your hand on! Never to break again! Never to come apart again! That is the final rest, even the other final rest looked forward to! All the work is done, there is nothing more to do! But until that final rest, there's a sense in which all other rests are just breathers. Necessary, but never enough. Helpful, but fleeting.
It's important, though, that we build in time to rest into our calendars, into our days, into our weeks. As we organize our time, we must build in periods of rest. We were never designed to be 24/7 people. If we try to live like that, we will break ourselves and we will break others, especially those who have little choice whether to work. Rest is not laziness! Rest is part of God's good design! But rest is not the only thing we need to build into our calendars. There’s also…
Ok, I’m going out on a limb here. No one else I read this week says this, but this is what I think v13 is about. Most commentaries I read are not looking for any pattern or structure in any of the sections we’ve looked at in the last couple of weeks. But I believe there is one. There are not random commands dropped in, but they fit in their context. That means v13 must be talking about this theme of time, sabbaths, and festivals that we see here. And when you delve into the original language, that fits. The phrase ‘pay attention’ is literally the word ‘keep.’ It’s also the word that’s translated as 'keep' in v15 and twice in verse 16, 'to keep or observe the feast.' And the word ‘mention’ is literally the word ‘remember’ or ‘mark,’ as in Exodus 20:8 ESV: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy." It’s not a random verse in the middle; it fits with what’s around, and it’s to do with marking, remembering. They are not to mark the names of other gods; they are not to remember them in terms of gatherings. They’re not even to have them on their lips. What is it talking about? Well, I think it’s talking about not marking all those Egyptian and Canaanite festivals and time markers that are to do with the false gods of their time. The Egyptians named their festivals and months after gods. Nearly all the months of them are named after gods or festivals to gods; the rest are of uncertain origin. In contrast, it would seem God gave the Israelites new names for their months and new festivals, which is explained in verses 15 to 19. The question is, though, if this is right, how do we apply it? Do we need to have Christian versions of the names for months and weeks? Because half our months are named after Roman gods, and half our days of the week are named after Norse ones! Is that marking the names of other gods? Remembering them? I think initially it could have been. I’m not sure how wise our ancestors were in keeping those names! But in modern-day usage, they have lost their meaning. It’s trivia that Thursday was the day you worshipped Thor. I had to look up who Maia is, who May is named after! (Roman goddess of growth, just to stop your mind wandering!) What I do think it means is that we should be marking our time differently from the world around us. We’ll look at how the Israelites were to do it, then we’ll come back to think about it for us.
The Israelite year was to be marked out by three different festivals. There were others, but these were the compulsory ones, the ones all the men of the household were required to attend in verse 17. These were the three line whip ones! We’re not going to say everything we could about them, but pick up on what the chapter highlights. Firstly…
Unleavened Bread (v15 & 18)
This festival was right at the beginning of the Biblical Year. This is what we normally call Passover, but here it’s referred to as the feast of Unleavened bread. We’re told the name of the month it’s to be celebrated in, Abib – meaning a green ear of grain. No pagan gods there! We’re told its meaning. It’s because in that month, they were rescued from Egypt. It’s a festival to remember the rescue. It’s when we celebrate Easter, unfortunately named after the Old English word for April, Eostra, which was, you guessed it, the name of a Roman goddess! We renamed the month and somehow forgot to rename the festival! Anyway, the feast of unleavened bread was the weeklong festival of Passover when no leaven was to be eaten, and a lamb was to be sacrificed. No one could do without one; no one could appear empty-handed. Verse 18 then seems to give a specific command linked to this festival, v18: "You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the fat of my feast remain until the morning." Both these commands were linked with Passover. The command to not use leaven and the command that none be left until morning are found elsewhere, but they are found first with Passover. Second festival…
Firstfruits (v16a & 19a)
This festival was 50 days after the first one, so it was also known as Pentecost or the feast of weeks or Shavuot in Hebrew. It marked the beginning of the Harvest, the firstfruits. And that’s what we’re told it’s for in verse 16. The beginning of v19 gives a command linked to the festival, v19: "The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the LORD your God." Not just any, but the best of the firstfruits was to be given to the Lord! The third and final festival was…
Ingathering (v16b & 19b)
We’re told simply it's at the end of the year. We find out in Leviticus that it’s in the seventh month right after the feast of trumpets and the day of atonement. The day of atonement marks the National New Year. That’s right, they had two. We do also! The beginning of the national year in January and the beginning of the tax year in April! It was another weeklong festival, and this one marked the end of the harvest, when everything was gathered in. Hence the name ‘Feast of Ingathering’. In our calendar, it’s the end of September when we usually have our harvest festivals. The weird thing is the command it’s then seemingly linked with, v19: "You shall not boil a young goat in its mother's milk." Famous for its obscurity, here it seemed linked with the festival of ingathering. When it reappears in Exodus 34, it does so again after the festivals in the same order and with the same commands in the same order, again linking it with the festival. When it appears in Deuteronomy though, it’s just there listed with what you can and cannot eat. What is it about? The most likely explanation is that it was a pagan sacrifice performed linked to the harvest. This is the time of year when goats are young. Weaning would stop just after this time to allow for goats to have more kids. That’s right, I looked into the life cycle of a goat so you don’t have to! There is mention in fairly recently discovered documents of a pagan fertility sacrifice involving a young goat cooked in goat butter, to try and attain a good harvest the coming year. It could this practice is what is being forbidden. That would make sense.
But the question on everyone’s minds, I know, is what on Earth does any of this have to do with us now? Well, to start with: What are these festivals about? Well, the Feast of Unleavened Bread was fulfilled at Eastertime when Jesus died as a sacrificial lamb to rescue us, and then rose again. The Feast of Firstfruits is fulfilled at Pentecost, the beginning of the worldwide harvest, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to bring it about. The Feast of Ingathering is still to be fulfilled; it’s Jesus’ second coming once the harvest is over. If we make the fulfilment of these things just another festival, I think we miss the significance. The fulfilment of Passover is not Easter Sunday; it’s a new reality now under Jesus, knowing forgiveness and peace with God. The fulfilment of Firstfruits is not Pentecost Sunday; it’s renewed lives on mission for God through the ministry and empowering of the Holy Spirit. The fulfilment of Ingathering is not an Autumn harvest festival; it’s living in expectancy of His return and the hope of Glory. That’s so much more than giving a few tins or wearing white one Sunday a year! The question becomes then, how do we remember those things? How do we bring them to remembrance? How do we keep them before our eyes? How do we build rest into our lives? And so our last point…
Building Rest and Remembrance into our Lives
We could carry on with these three festivals, but Christian versions. We do to some extent: Easter, Pentecost, and Harvest. But we need to be careful. Paul writes to the Galatians:
Galatians 4:9-11 ESV But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have laboured over you in vain.
There’s an observation of these things that can be unhelpful. When we base our righteousness on it, when we make it more an act than a remembrance. We all know those who make an appearance once or twice a year at church, not normally ours, thinking that it puts them in God’s good books when it does nothing of the sort.
We should be careful though, Romans and Colossians warn us of passing judgment in this area. Colossians 2 says:
Colossians 2:16-17 ESV Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ."
Paul is quite clear. These things are obsolete shadows. Yet still, we are not to pass judgment on those who practice them, if they are doing it in faithful service to God. People get on their high horses on both sides, and we need to be careful about that.
I have been challenged by this though as to how we do this together as a church. I tend to shy away from festivals, liturgical calendars, and seasons like Lent and Advent. But if we’re not going to do it that way, how are we going to build in rest and remembrance into our calendars? Into our lives? Because if we don’t do it, there’s a danger the world will just set the agenda.
The world wants to fill up our calendar with what it believes is important. On Wednesday, it’s World Blood Donor Day. On Saturday, it’s World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought and Otley Carnival. On Sunday, it’s Father’s Day and also Sustainable Gastronomy Day. And of course, mixed into all that, we’re now in the middle of Pride Month. The world has its own calendar, and we need to decide what to go along with, what to ignore, and when to set the agenda ourselves.
It’s something I know we need to think about as leaders, as we think about the months and years ahead. I think evangelistically we do well plugging into the rhythms and patterns of the world, nationally and locally where we can. Otley Carnival, the Victorian Fayre, Christmas. But what about those patterns of rest and remembrance? What about those key events of the cross, the resurrection, the coming of the Spirit, the return of Christ? What about times of rest and refreshment? How can we build those things into our church life in a meaningful way?
Of course, part of the answer is the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Those were given to us by Christ as a regular means of remembrance - that’s in part what they are there for. But I’m sure there is more that we can do as a church. Something for us to think about together.
And what about us as individuals, and in some cases families? We need to think about how we build in rest into our agendas. We need to think about how we build in remembrance in our calendars. It’s interesting to note that rest and remembrance were put together with the festivals. The rest was there in part for remembrance. Could we convert some of our leisure time into time with God? Could we set apart some time in our holiday for God? We usually do special family Bible time during holidays. It’s a chance to spend time with God in a bit of a less rushed way. I know many use their holidays for Mission: Christian camps, beach missions, short-term international missions, and things like that, which is a great sacrificial use of time. I’m not knocking it in the slightest. I’d encourage it, in fact! But are we also building in time to receive and remember? There are conferences and Christian holidays that include those things. Or could you take a day off, switch off your phone, and just read your Bible and pray for a chunk of the day?
We need to be deliberate about these things. Otherwise, they won’t happen. We need to make sure we are not just going along with the world, and we'll end up celebrating German chocolate cake and forget about Jesus in the ebb and flow of life! So let’s take a moment now before we pray to think through. Take a breath, think through: What could I do this week to build in rest and remembrance of God into my life? Then I’ll pray.