It’s the new year! And it’s not the new year, at the same time.
We are the church, and we live by at least two calendars. One says the new year begins January 1st. Meanwhile, the new church year began on November 27th, the first Sunday in Advent.
In Davenport, we live near an elementary school, and in New Jersey, we did too. And when I was in between school—after I finished school, and before Susannah began preschool—I would be surprised twice a year every year. Where did all these cars suddenly come from? And then, where did everybody go? It was a reminder. Not everyone lived on my calendar. There are other ways of marking time.
Take the creation story. “It was evening and morning, the first day,” says Genesis 1. Seems backwards, right? But there’s more than one way to count a day. For us, one day is sunrise to sunrise. For the ancient Hebrews, God’s people Israel who lived and wrote much of the bible, one day was sunset to sunset.
Does it matter? Isn’t a day is a day no matter when you slice it?
Maybe both are good but wholly different rhythms of life. The day beginning in the evening: with dinner and rest, perhaps gathered together as family, community. And only after, ending with work, time scattered and busy.
Fighting for a day of rest
When the people of Israel put the creation story to paper, it was a new time. After losing a devastating war, many were slaves in Babylon. They feared forgetting their homeland and their God. The same holy stories they’d always remembered out loud, they now told in new ways. In Babylon, they wrote. And so, the war raged on in competing stories about the divine…and competing calendars.
Babylon worshipped other gods. Babylon’s gods created the world in an act of murderous violence. Humans were made to be slaves of those brutal gods and their earthly stand-in, the king of Babylon. Imagine the rhythm of their calendar. In Babylon, every day was a day of work.
For the people of Israel, remembering their God’s creation story was an act of resistance. Built into the story was another way of marking time. Israel’s God created the world in love. On the seventh day, Israel’s God rested. And so may humans.
What a gift! A full day, sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It was a defiant symbol of a holy and humane way of living, a sharply contrasting vision of what life is for. Humans were made to be enjoyed by God and to enjoy loving community with God and all creation.
Early on, Christians began to worship on Sunday, with the sunrise on the day of the Sun a symbol for the resurrection. Early Christians called it the eighth day, the first day of a new creation. During the Reformation, Martin Luther said many times, Sabbath law no longer binds Christians. We modern people may consider it progress to say: Every day is holy, and all of life is holy, and practices that immerse us individually and as a community in God's holiness are good every day.
True enough, but incomplete. When I go to a restaurant for Sunday brunch, someone else is working to serve me. And I wonder, when does my server rest?
Two times, God said through the prophets, "I hate your worship and prayers and songs, because as you do them, you as a society cheat the poor and favor the rich" (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:12-17).
Labor unions in this country organized and won a five-day work week—two whole days of rest. But as conservatives undermine unions, and jobs shift to non-unionized sectors, corporate calendars cheat people out of time. Many never get a day off. They can’t afford it.
And yet, a day of rest is the birthright of all God’s children. In the language of Leviticus 23, you, your family, your livestock, the foreigners in your country, even your slaves must rest on the Sabbath. Everyone with no exceptions. At stake is what God wrote into the fabric of creation and won in the exodus from Egypt and the return from exile in Babylon: freedom for all.
A new year
True worship leads us, as an act of love, to begin changing our calendars and the calendar of society.
January 1st is as good and holy a day as any to notice and wonder. How do I schedule work and rest? Who is working today and who is resting? And what work does our other calendar suggest, so all may rejoice and be glad for this day that God has made?
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith