Wednesday, November 14, 2018

On Fallowed Ground


            In many, maybe most, industrialized countries, people spend most of their lives producing something. Here in America especially, productivity is king. But let’s not limit productivity to making money. That would be too simplistic. Americans tend to be obsessed with producing something whether it is at work, at school, or at home. Americans are “doers.” I’m not saying that as though it is necessarily a bad thing, I’m saying that it seems to be the primary motivation in the lives of most people—especially Americans. In truth, I believe it is part and parcel of being co-creators with our Creator. And ministry is no exception as I sit at my desk producing another lesson for you. I’m sure it will not come as surprise to you, especially if you know me, that I read a lot—it’s an occupational hazard that I happen to love.

            I recently read a book by Janet Hagberg called Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations. The book outlines the six stages that people go through where they work. Hagberg identifies the organizational stages of personal power as:

·      Stage One: Powerlessness
·      Stage Two: Power by Association
·      Stage Three: Power by Achievement
·      Stage Four: Power by Reflection
·      Stage Five: Power by Purpose
·      Stage Six: Power by Wisdom

What’s important to understand about Hagberg’s stages is that most Americans, according to Hagberg, are stuck at Stage Three because productivity is king. We get all we think we need when we produce and achieve—money, perks (i.e. cars, trips, etc.), and recognition in general. However, unless we remove productivity and achievement from the throne of our lives, we will fail to move on to the higher stages of personal power where we will enjoy our true and ultimate value within an organization.

Hagberg’s book on personal power in organizations, while recognizing a higher power at work in the world that affects how we operate within organizations, is not specifically Christian. However, after she published the first edition of the book in 1984, she published another book in partnership with Dr. Robert A. Guelich called, The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith. In The Critical Journey, Hagberg and Guelich outline six stages of faith in the life of Christians.

·      Stage One: The Recognition of God
·      Stage Two: The Life of Discipleship
·      Stage Three: The Productive Life
·      Stage Four: The Journey Inward
·      Stage Five: The Journey Outward
·      Stage Six: The Life of Love

Like people who are stuck at Stage Three of personal power within organizations, I think many Christians, at least here in America, are stuck at Stage Three in their faith journey. Even in the life of faith, productivity can become king. Stage Three in the life of faith is important and necessary. It is a life filled with doing and serving. It is a life filled with mission work, church planting, Bible study, preaching, teaching, and worshipping. It is a life filled with the “doing” stage of our faith journey. It is clearly an important stage. However, until we remove “doing” from the throne of our faith, we will fail to move to the deeper, not higher, stages of our faith journey. At some point, we have to learn how to stop “doing,” at least for a time, and simply learn how to “be.” How to “be” in deep relationship with the Creator who created us as human “beings” not human “doings.”

            God, in His infinite wisdom, provided the perfect mechanism for humanity to remove productivity from the throne of their lives—the Sabbath. According to the Scriptures, God allows for us to be productive for six days but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, we are commanded to rest—to stop producing. Sabbath; a time of rest, is at the root of God’s created order. In the creation narrative of Genesis, we learn that God created everything in six days, but on the seventh day, He rested—not because He was tired but because He was finished. God created the Sabbath day as a pause in activity; in productivity. God provided a model for humanity, created in the image of God, to follow and imitate. For six days, we are permitted to create, to achieve, and to produce like God did in the beginning. But on the seventh day, we are to rest like the One who created us.

            The number seven is a special number in the Bible. It is the number of completeness. There is, of course, the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week as I just explained. We have the cycle of seven weeks between Passover and Pentecost which is the Old Testament “Feast of Weeks.” There is also the very important cycle of seven times seven years (49 years), which brings us to the Year of Jubilee celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month leading up to the 50th year. However, what I’d like to focus on in this lesson, is God’s command that Israel could plant and harvest from the land flowing with milk and honey; the Promised Land, for six years. However, in the seventh year, they had to let the land rest—a Sabbath rest specifically designated for the land. They had to let their fields and vineyards go fallow. They had to stop producing. They had to learn how to trust God while living On Fallowed Ground.

Subject Text

Leviticus 25:1-7

            1The LORD said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. 3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. 6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

Context

            “Leviticus” gets its name from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and means “relating to the Levites.” Levites were one of the twelve tribes of Israel and designated as priests. Moses and his brother Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi. The line of Levitical priests were male descendants of Aaron. He was the first High Priest of the Israelites.

            Before the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they spent 400-years as slaves under the harsh rule of Egypt’s Pharaohs. Moses, under the power and direction of God, using the influence of ten horrible plagues sent by God to infest and infect the Egyptians, secured the release of the Israelites from their captivity. The final plague was the angel of death who was commanded to put to death the first-born in all of Egypt. That was the final push that convinces Pharaoh to release Israel from captivity. Moses then led the “Exodus” of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children (probably over a million combined), together with livestock, personal possessions and Egyptian treasure, approximately 670 miles from Goshen to Mount Sinai over a period of about 45 days. Up to this point, the people of Israel had no rules for governing themselves as a nation or as a people or how they should live in relation to the rest of the world, to one another, or how they should live in relation to the God who saved them. The Book of Leviticus provides the blueprint; the manual for all of those relationships and more. Because the Old Testament era was primarily an agrarian era, our Subject Text includes instructions for how the Israelites were supposed to relate to the physical land of Canaan; the Promised Land itself once they got there.

Text Analysis

            1The LORD said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD.

            There are two important elements of vv. 1-2 that I want you to pay close attention to. The land God is referring to is Canaan, the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey. It is also land that is being given to Israel by God. And it is the land that is to observe a sabbath with an eye toward the One who created it, to begin with. Please don’t race past this too quickly because it serves to prove a point for all of life. Creation, all of creation, is connected to God. All of creation comes from God and, ultimately, belongs to God.

“Everything is created. Everything carries within its form and texture the signature of its Creator. No part of this material world is unconnected with God; every cell is in the organism of salvation…Since everything is by design, no part of creation can be bypassed if we intend to live in the fullest possible relation to our Creator in his creation…Significantly, while the psalmists called God a rock, they never set up a rock and called it God. They called God a shepherd but never found a good-looking shepherd and made a statue of him to preserve the form of God. They called God a shield but never embellished one with precious stones, hung it in a sacred place, and worshiped it. The Hebrews who insisted strenuously on the holiness of matter and the divinity of creation—that the very ground was sacred!—were equally insistent that God was not matter and could not be represented by matter, even precious matter like silver and gold.”[1] Instead, all of God’s created order owes its very existence to the One who created it. Keep in mind, this includes everything that we add to God creation as co-creators with God. Paul tells us to do all things as though we are doing them to the LORD (Col. 3:23-24) because ultimately all things belong to God.

3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

            We see the creation pattern on display again in vv. 3-5. For six days, God created. But on the seventh day, He rested. It is a pattern we find throughout the Bible and it was one that is infused in all of creation, whether it is acknowledged by humanity or not. The Israelites could work for six days but the seventh day was a day of rest that was to be dedicated to God. In vv. 3-5, the principle is expanded to include the land. For six years, the land could work to produce what the Israelites needed. But in the seventh year, the land was to rest as a dedication to God, who is, ultimately, the Landowner. The Israelites were commanded to let the land become fallow. Not only were they commanded to let their fields and vineyards become fallow, but they also couldn’t sow or tend their fields or prune their vineyards in any way. Remember, this is an agrarian culture. Absolutely everything revolved around what the land produced. It provided food for the people. It provided food for their livestock. It provided produce to be traded commercially. However, for one year; the seventh year, the Israelites were not permitted to derive their typical benefit from the land.

            “At harvest time some will be tempted to harvest the grain and the fruit that have grown voluntarily. But the people are not to profit from the natural growth of the seventh year. Certainly all members of a household may eat from that produce, thanking God for their daily food, but they may not harvest the yield either to sell or to stockpile. Rather, landowners are to share this produce freely with their servants, their laborers, and their animals, both domestic and wild…No one living in Israel is excluded from gathering the produce of the sabbatical year for eating.”[2]

6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

            Could you survive if you couldn’t provide for yourself or your family for one year? It is true that our Subject Text is specifically dealing with allowing the land to become fallow every seven years, but there is something else at work in vv. 6-7 as well—faith; trust. Can the Israelites trust God to provide for them? The question is obvious: How would they survive for a whole year? Or was it just one year? We’ll look closer at that question a little later. The only thing that would have grown in the seventh year were “volunteer” crops; leftovers.  Which they were permitted to “harvest” for themselves and their livestock. That certainly seems like slim pickings though.

Clearly, God anticipated this very concern later in the chapter in vv. 18-22. Therein God promises:

            18“Follow my decrees and be careful to obey my laws, and you will live safely in the land. 19Then the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live there in safety. 20You may ask, ‘What will we eat in the seventh year if we do not plant or harvest our crops?’ 21I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. 22While you plant during the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and will continue to eat from it until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.”

            These verses seem a little out of place so let’s see how they inform our Subject Text. Of course, vv. 1-7 is our Subject Text. However, vv. 8-17 and vv. 23-54 give specific instruction for the way the Israelites should relate to one another, to slaves, and to resident aliens during the Year of Jubilee which occurs every fifty years (the year following seven times seven sabbath years). And then stuck right in the middle are vv. 18-22 which, I believe, have as much to do with our Subject Text and the year before and the two-years following each Sabbath year as they do with the Year of Jubilee. It certainly applies to the Year of Jubilee, which would have been the seventh year of seven years, but it seems like a broader promise and one that seems entirely necessary every seven years. Agriculturally, there is nothing different about the first seven years or the second seven years as the seventh seven years. If you haven’t thought about it to this point, you have to think about it now. If they weren’t permitted to sow their fields or prune their vineyards in the seventh year, the seventh year wouldn’t be the only year when the land wouldn’t produce anything significant for their benefit. They would be permitted to sow their fields and prune their vineyards in the eighth year but nothing would be ready to harvest for their personal or commercial benefit until the ninth year. There was certainly divine intervention in the process, but God didn’t miraculously make things grow in the eighth year when they sowed their fields and pruned their vineyards so that they could harvest in the eighth year. They had to wait for the normal growth cycle which would have taken them into the ninth year—more than two years after their last harvest! I’ve read these verses countless times and it never dawned on me (not being a farmer) that God was asking them to sacrifice more than one year of their life provisions and livelihood, but I’m pretty sure the Israelites, being primarily farmers, realized it right away.

            However, God in His infinite wisdom had it all planned out. All the Israelites needed to do was trust Him and obey all His laws. If they were willing to trust God in this most essential element of their everyday lives and livelihood then in the sixth year God would triple their crop and vineyard production—enough for the seventh, eighth, and part of the ninth year when the fields they sowed and vineyards they pruned in the eighth year could finally be harvested again. Pay attention though, the promise is not unconditional. Technically, v. 18 is a conditional clause. Specifically, in order to receive the promise of a 300% increase in crop production in the sixth year, they had to be very intentional about following His decrees and obeying His laws. Note the circularity of God’s decree. He requires their obedience to allow the land to become fallow in the seventh year, and they have to trust that He will provide for them so that they can be obedient and allow the land to become fallow in the seventh year. If they don’t trust God then they can’t or won’t be obedient to do what He says. It was a relationship built, in large part, on a foundation of trust and obedience on their part and faithfulness on God’s part.

            “God, the owner of the land, gives it to Israel as her inheritance for entering into covenant with him. This truth is the foundation for these laws on the sabbatical year…God is concerned that the land has a periodic rest every seventh year. God wants his people to be free from continuous labor in order that they might enjoy the gift of the of the promised land and the grace of his blessing. Observance of this rest honors Yahweh…By such observance the people clearly acknowledge Yahweh’s ownership of the land and boldly demonstrate their trust in him for their food supply.”[3]

            It is important to remember, that Jesus gave us essentially the same message when He said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Mt. 6:25-33).” You see, there is never a question about whether or not God will be faithful to provide. The question is always whether or not we will trust and obey Him. It is for us, like it was for the Israelites, a relationship whose roots grow deeper as we learn to do life with God On Fallowed Ground.

Application

            Was God serious about the sabbatical year? I mean, it’s not like nothing would grow in the seventh year. Clearly, something would grow in the seventh year since there were volunteer crops that were allowed to be consumed. So, was it really a big deal if the Israelites didn’t follow God’s decree regarding the sabbatical year? Yes, I think it was a big deal; I think He was very serious about it! We learn in 2 Chronicles 36:21 that the law was generally neglected by the Israelites. Therefore, as punishment, the land had to lay desolate for seventy years while they were in exile in Babylon to make up for all the sabbath years they disobeyed God’s decree.

            So, what does that mean for us today since we are not under the “law” of the Old Covenant (Testament), but instead under the “grace” of the New Covenant (Testament)? Certainly, not all the laws of the Old Testament apply to us today, especially those related to offering sacrifices. Jesus’ sacrifice fulfilled all the Old Testament sacrificial requirements once and for all. However, there are still laws that apply during the New Testament era. For example, the Ten Commandments apply to us, in the same way, today as the day when they were first given to Moses by God. And other decrees, while not necessarily mandated, are still beneficial to our health and welfare. For example, observance of the weekly Sabbath, although practiced on Sundays in accordance with the New Testament as opposed to Saturdays in accordance with the Old Testament; the principle of resting on the seventh day in worship to God still applies. Similarly, I believe the sabbatical year has application in all of our lives as well. Perhaps not specifically in relation to the land, since we are not inheritors of the Promised Land, but certainly with respect to other areas of our lives. (Although I know farmers rotate the sowing and harvesting of their fields in order to allow some of their land to become fallow and recover. I don’t know if they do that in seven-year cycles according to the Bible or whether it has anything with the Bible at all, or just because it is a valuable practice that nurtures the land and produces healthier and more abundant crops.) Nevertheless, I don’t believe God ever intended us to “labor” continuously for our entire lives in any area of our lives, without some kind of extended sabbatical to seek God in those areas of our lives and determine if we are still being faithful to follow His will in those areas. Whether or not that should be every seven years or for a whole year is debatable. For you, perhaps it is a seven-day sabbatical every quarter of a year or a seven-week sabbatical every year. This is something you must decide with God’s leading. Since there is no specific biblical mandate for a sabbatical other than the Sabbath day each week, you must pray about this and determine for yourself if God is calling you to stop, for some period of time, whatever you consider to be your daily “labor.” This should not be limited to what you get paid to do. For example, if you are a stay-at-home mother or father, you too must decide if some type of extended sabbatical is appropriate for you to seek God and determine if you are being faithful to your calling as a stay-at-home mother or father. I know that sounds like heresy, especially within Christian circles, but we presume upon God when we assume that just because at one point in our lives He called us to something we perceived as valuable and noble, that it automatically means that He expects us to continue that calling indefinitely. Remember, just like Israel, God is not primarily interested in our “doing” things for Him. He is far more interested in our “being” in relationship with Him. That means being obedient to His calling and trusting that He will guide us and provide for us especially during the time we spend with Him On Fallowed Ground. You may not decide to spend an entire year On Fallowed Ground, but I think it’s a good place to start, for me.

Personal Application

            I’ve been thinking about this in the context of A Pastor’s Thoughts ministry. It has now been seven years since God led me to start this ministry in September 2011. There are nearly 300 lessons available on the website. Over the last seven years, the lessons have been accessed in either written or audio form more than 60,000 times in over 150 countries around the world! God has been faithful to use the lessons to not only encourage and edify Christians around the world but to provide academically supported lessons to pastors in countries who have used them to preach in their churches.

For the last seven years, I have tried to be faithful to carefully apply the vision of the ministry derived from 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man [and woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” And equally important, I have sought to be hopeful and actively engaged in the mission of the ministry derived from Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18-20 when He commissioned His disciples, which includes me, saying: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I praise God for the people who have been edified and encouraged and who came to know and trust Christ through the various lessons I prepared and published.

            Having said that, after much prayer, I believe God is calling me a sabbatical year from A Pastor’s Thoughts ministry. For a myriad of reasons, not the least of which includes the continued struggle with my personal health, I am convinced that God is asking me to stop “doing” and start “being” for the next year. I have to confess that I have sensed this from God for more than a year, and have ignored it because I believed that God somehow “needed” me to continue teaching and preaching because that’s what He called me to do. It was foolish and prideful on my part because I know that God doesn’t “need” me to do anything for Him. Instead, for the last seven years, He has “allowed” me to be part of what He is already doing. Just like the Promised Land didn’t ultimately belong to Israel but to God, this ministry doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to God—I have just been too arrogant, until recently, to admit that to myself. So now, He is calling me to stop and recognize that just like the land at rest every seven years is a sabbath to God, this ministry at rest after seven years can be a sabbath to God. (Technically, September 2017 would have been the start of the seventh year of A Pastor’s Thoughts, so I’m actually a year late.)

            So, what does a sabbath year you look like for me and how will it affect you? From a strictly calendric perspective, this will be my final lesson until January 2020. It’s a little longer than a year but I’m starting a year later than I probably should have. From a biblical perspective, I would like to illustrate using our Subject Text.

            1The LORD said to Moses at Mount Sinai, 2“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD.

            A Pastor’s Thoughts ministry was part of God’s calling for me from the very beginning. He gave it to me when I completed my seminary classes so that I could participate with Him in the work He was already doing around the world. The ministry still belongs to Him and must always honor Him as the Creator of all things. In a sense, I am giving the ministry back to God so it can observe a sabbath to Him.

3For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. 4But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. 5Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.

            For five years I prepared and published lessons every week. It has only been over the last two years that I have gone from weekly lessons to monthly lessons because my health continued to deteriorate. Nevertheless, for the last seven years, I have published lessons each week or each month. However, after this lesson and until January 2020, I will not be adding any new lessons, either in written or in audio form, to the website. Also, I will not be doing any formal guest preaching or teaching during that time.

6Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, 7as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

            To be clear, being a pastor is who I am not what I do. The website and access to all lessons I have prepared and published to date will remain accessible during the sabbatical year. I will also continue to respond to questions and comments as I have done to this point, and I will continue to pray for you as you may request. Additionally, I will continue to communicate and meet with whoever might need pastoral care. You will always be able to contact me using the email address provided on the website or through the comment section at the end of each lesson. The primary change that you will notice during the sabbatical year is that I will no longer be preparing and publishing new lessons.

Honestly, I have been so busy “doing” ministry that I have been blind to what God has been trying to show me for the last year. Although I have mentioned this to a number of people, I haven’t been able to explain it until now. For the last year, access to the lessons, either in written or in audio form, has increased by almost exactly 300%. And while I’d like to tell you that it’s because my lessons have become 300% more interesting, I can finally see what I’ve either been unable or unwilling to see to this point—God has sent His blessing in advance of the ministry’s sabbatical year. The increase in popularity seems completely arbitrary unless you look at it through the lens of God’s faithfulness to me and the ministry that was His idea, to begin with. In the same way that God provided for Israel in advance of the land’s sabbatical year (Lev. 25:18-22), He has provided for me in advance of A Pastor’s Thoughts’ sabbatical year.

What Happens Now?

            I know that some of you may be asking this question, so let me share with you the limited view God has provided to this point. I will be continuing the research and writing for my doctoral work. However, for the next year, I will be spending considerable time praying, fasting, and seeking God’s will for the way He wants to use me in ministry. I want to be able to have a sense that returning to A Pastor’s Thoughts ministry in the same capacity continues to be His will for my life of ministry. I have always promised God that I would go where He wants me to go and do what He wants me to do, and I want to use the next year to be sure that I am still honoring that promise. However, until January 2020, I will be particularly focused on not “doing” ministry but instead on “being” in relationship with God as I spend the year with Him On Fallowed Ground.

God’s Blessing For You

            This lesson has been from the Book of Leviticus—a book of instructions for the Levitical priesthood. One of the primary functions of the priests was to bless the people. I hope that that is one of the things I have been able to do for you through the lessons I prepared and published over the last seven years. However, in advance of the sabbatical year that will begin after this lesson is published, I want to bless you with the blessing that God instructed the Levites to pray over the people (Num. 6:24-26):

“The LORD bless you
and keep you;
the LORD make his face shine on you;
and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you;
and give you peace.”



[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: the Psalms as tools for prayer, (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1989), 71, 77.
[2] John E. Hartley, Leviticus—Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashvile, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 433-434.
[3] Ibid., 433.





(Audio version: Music--"Touch The Sky" and "Oceans" by: Hillsong UNITED)