The final chapter of Michael LeFebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation sums up his argument that the creation story is primarily a calendar narrative guiding human work, rest, and worship. He runs through the negative side effects of the modern obsession with a scientific interpretation of the text. The text was never intended to provide a detailed scientific and journalistic account of God’s acts of creation. Issues with an overly “scientific” interpretation were noted even by early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine. In fact, Luther seems to be the first major figure in the church to focus unambiguously on creation in six 24 hour days some 6000 years ago.
Modern science doesn’t dictate interpretation of Scripture – but it can help us sort through plausible interpretations. “Modern astronomy, geology, biology, and other sciences have not threatened “the historic” interpretation of the creation week. Modern science has helped the church to better sort out which historical interpretations are viable.” (p. 200) In fact, LeFebvre argues that the only consistent historical interpretation of the creation week lies in its cadence of work and worship. The calendrical function of the text endures.
What does that mean for us today? Most Christians do not observe the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship. Most of us focus on the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day. It is on this day that we worship and (possibly) rest. Given the institution of the Sabbath tied to the creation narrative, is this justified? In Exodus 20 we read:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. …For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Ex 20:8-11)
But LeFebvre points out that after the sojourn in the desert, as the people prepared to enter the promised land, Moses restates the commandments and gives another explanation for the Sabbath.
Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, … Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Dt 5:12-15)
So what does the Sabbath call God’s people to remember? Although the reference is not as clear, LeFebvre suggests that the focus may well have changed again after the return from Babylonian exile .Jeremiah may allude to this.
“So then, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when people will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the descendants of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ Jer 23:7-8
The focus of remembrance will move from the Exodus from Egypt to the return from exile. All of these events (creation, exodus, and return from exile) are demonstrations of God’s power and promise in the world. God’s goodness is remembered in the keeping of his sabbath. It is not strictly a historical remembrance of a specific day of creation.
The move from a weekly rhythm of work and worship focused on the seventh day of the week to the Christian practice of a weekly rhythm of work and worship focused on the first day of the week continues the trend of remembrance with a focus on what we see to be the culminating act of God in his creation: the life, death, and most importantly the resurrection of Jesus. It is appropriate to observe this day in our weekly rhythm. LeFebvre argues that this change was already at work in Paul’s teaching and was carried on in the early church. The religious festivals including the Sabbath were “a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Col. 2:17) To move from seventh day to first day remembrance is entirely appropriate. But the creation calendar remains important.
The cadence of labor and worship taught in the creation week calendar is the cadence that enables us to keep all our work framed in the joy of God’s reign over us and his victories to provide us with present and eternal life. After the resurrection, now more than at any time before, we have reason to keep faith in the promises engaged through labor and worship in the cadence and vision of the creation week calendar. (p. 217)
In fact, in our rather troubled world, this is more important than ever. LeFebvre wrote this well before our present time of upheaval. Both disease and violence are all too evident to us today. But his conclusion takes on even more relevance as we face the world.
In our age of intense social strain, economic pressures, political tensions, and widespread Christian lukewarmness, we don’t need better science from Genesis 1 (as wonderful as science is). We need to bring our mundane labors into the worshipful cadence of hope and faith taught in the Genesis 1 creation week calendar. (p. 219-220).
So I leave you with two questions to ponder.
Is the Christian move from seventh day to first day worship in keeping with the purpose of the weekly rhythm of work and worship? Put differently, is the practice of Sunday worship a valid continuation of the Old Testament sabbath?
As Christians is the weekly rhythm of work and worship important at all? Should we observe a corporate day of worship and rest? What is the purpose of this practice?
I have only touched on some of the points raised by Michael LeFebvre in The Liturgy of Creation. If this has wet your appetite for more, I recommend his book and also many of the books he references throughout. There is much food for thought in this book and his arguments are well worth considering.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
This post is also visible at Jesus Creed now at Christianity Today.
I welcome comments that enlighten us on the topic or ask questions. Expressions of disagreement, agreement, and elaboration are also welcome. Comments are moderated and comments that are excessively long, are abusive or aggressive, or are off-topic will not appear. Imagine that you are holding a conversation over coffee with a friend and you want to remain friends. Your first comment will be held for moderation – subsequent comments will usually appear automatically.
(The link above is a paid referral – try this one if you prefer: The Liturgy of Creation.)