CDPCKL · The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 6: Social Justice, Part 2 (Exodus 23:10-19)

The Book of the Covenant, Chapter 6: Social Justice, Part 2 (Exodus 23:10-19)

Okay. If you have been worshiping with us over the last few weeks, then you know we are in a special section of Exodus known as The Book of the Covenant. This special book within the bigger Book of Exodus is being dictated by God directly to Moses while Moses is in the darkness at the top of Mount Sinai. 

And what The Book of the Covenant consists of is a long collection of various kinds of laws, where God is saying things like, “If you find yourselves in a situation like this, then respond like this,” or, “All of you: do this, because that will help you accomplish this other larger goal I have for you.” 

But for many of us modern readers, The Book of the Covenant can be quite confusing. Because God has already spoken his 10 Commandments to his people back in Chapter 20. Those commandments are pretty clear and direct. And from them we get a pretty good general idea of what kind of people God wants his people to grow up to be. So for many of us, when we find that Chapters 21, 22, and 23 of Exodus are suddenly full of all these confusingly detailed laws, we wonder what is going on? It was so simple and clear; why is God suddenly making things so complicated? 

So I like the way Tim described The Book of the Covenant for us last week: this section of Exodus is God’s way of double-clicking on the 10 Commandments, zooming in, expanding on each one, and showing how they all fit together. 

And once we understand that, we are able to see that there is a pattern and purpose to The Book of the Covenant. 

For instance, the first section described the basics of how worship is going to work in God’s nation — that was a double-click on the second commandment in particular, the commandment against idolatry. The second section was about Workers’ Rights, a double-click on Commandment Four, which is about patterns of work and rest. The third section was about Personal Rights: a double-click on “You shall not murder”; the fourth section about Property Rights, which was a double-click on “You shall not steal”. 

And last week Tim led us through the fifth section, which was all about Social Justice. So the fifth section was like a double-click on the ninth commandment: “You shall not give false testimony.” 

And Tim pointed out how the fifth section last week is like a sandwich: it starts with how to care for refugees, and ends with how to care for refugees. It is a Social Justice sandwich. Which is very neat, very clean. 

But Tim also noted some loose ends in that sandwich, specifically: the introduction, in which God listed some bizarre practices — like sorcery, and bestiality — and then said, “Don’t do like that!” 

Now, it turns out that those practices were actually acts of false worship performed by other nations in the area at that time. And so, from that introduction, we came to understand the point God was making with his Social Justice sandwich: he was saying that truth in worship will always lead to social justice among God’s people, while self-centered worship will always lead to a self-centered society and social injustice. 

But still, as Tim pointed out, that introduction did seem just a bit random. 

Well, today, that seeming randomness is going to be resolved. It turns out that the Social Justice sandwich of last week is a smaller sandwich contained in a larger sandwich. The fifth section last week began with God forbidding a handful of bizarre false worship practices; we are going to see that the sixth section today ends with God forbidding a few more bizarre false worship practices. 

And so, since the pieces of bread at the top and bottom of our larger sandwich are about bizarre false worship practices, this indicates that the subjects in between are all related to one another somehow. 

And when we continue our reading here in verse 10, we see that it is true. Because God says this: For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, [11] but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. 

[12] “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed.” 

So what we are seeing here is a change of subject: last week God’s main focus was on justice, especially in the law-courts, while here he is suddenly talking about Israel’s calendar. But God’s underlying purpose is still the same: he is concerned about “the poor among your people,” “the slave born in your household and the foreigner.” The point of God’s focus on law-courts last week was care for the poor, the powerless, the refugee. In the same way, his change of focus to the calendar here is still about care for the poor, the powerless, the refugee. 

But now, when we look at the details here…we have some questions! Especially about the first part. 

We understand the second part about working six days and resting on the seventh day, because that was also covered by the fourth commandment. But the first part is new and a bit strange. It looks like God is saying that the whole country is supposed to work for six years and then take a holiday on the seventh year. Is that what God is saying? 

No. At least, not in this passage. If God was telling everybody to cultivate all their lands for six years, and then leave them all uncultivated every seventh year so that the poor among them could eat whatever grew wild in those fields…well, then we would have to wonder: what are the poor supposed to eat during the other six years? It is not really helpful to give charity to the poor only once every seven years. 

What God is describing here is a rotating system where, for instance, if a family owned seven fields — one for wheat, one for barley, one for grapes, one for olives, all the different crops — then every year one of those fields would be uncultivated. That way, every year on every farm in the nation, there would have been at least one field left to grow wild. This would have provided regular food for the poor, and would also have the additional benefit of letting the soil rest. 

God is basically saying, “This is what socially responsible farming looks like.” So that is interesting. 

But reading on now: [13] “Be careful to do everything I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.” 

This is also interesting. First God says, “This is what socially responsible farming looks like.” Then he says, “Be careful to do everything I have said to you.” Then he says, “Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips.” 

Which suggests that rejecting socially responsible farming practices equals invoking the names of other gods. Or we could say it like this: practicing social injustice in farming equals practicing false worship. The two are linked: false worship and false farming. 

That sounds a bit strong, a bit shocking perhaps. But it does fit in with the theme of the larger Social Justice sandwich, doesn’t it? Last week God started making the point that false worship leads to social injustice in the courtroom. Here he is making that point that false worship also leads to social injustice in business. 

And all this is confirming for us that section five — last week — and section six — today — are really Part 1 and Part 2 of God’s larger concern for how true worship is related to Social Justice. The thing section six adds to section five is that social justice is not just for the courtoom, it also applies to business. And section six has also added this fact: social responsibility does not just mean caring for people, it also means caring for animals — and even for the soil itself! 

So all that is really interesting! 

But God is not done speaking to Moses: [14] “Three times a year you are to celebrate a festival to me.” 

And the first feast of the year is [15] “the Festival of Unleavened Bread; for seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt. No one is to appear before me empty-handed.” 

This feast happens in the spring, during the planting season. It is also known as the feast of Passover: a yearly celebration of the night God saved his people from slavery and judgement and death in Egypt. 

And just like God required during the very first Passover, no one is to appear before him empty-handed: every family is supposed to bring a lamb to the feast as a sign of their faith, a sacrificial meal that they will eat with God as well as with one another. 

Second feast of the year: [16] “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field.” 

So right after the early summer wheat harvest, the people were supposed to use a tithe of that  first harvest to celebrate how God had provided food for his people in the wilderness after he saved them from Egypt. 

But ancient Jewish tradition also saw the Festival of Harvest as a celebration of how God descended on Mount Sinai 50 days after the first Passover, and gave his people the 10 Commandments. That is why this feast later came to be known as the Feast of Pentecost, because it happened 50 days after the Feast of Passover. 

And now the third and final feast of the year: “Celebrate the Festival of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field.” 

So this was the autumn feast, after the final harvest of the year, just before winter. This was the time of year when everyone was gathering all their wheat into barns, all their grapes, olives, and other crops. Later on it was also called the Feast of Booths, when every family in Israel would go camping for a week in order to celebrate how they did not have to live in tents anymore. So the point of the Feast of Ingathering was to celebrate how God had brought his people safely home. 

So, to summarise the overall point of these three feasts: the first one celebrates the redemption of God’s people, the beginning of their journey home. The second one celebrates the sustaining of God’s people during their journey home. And the third one celebrates the end of their journey home, the great ingathering harvest at the end of time. 

And God’s conclusion: [17] “Three times a year all the men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord.” 

In other words, these three festivals are points at which the whole nation will come together in one place. Three times a year the whole nation is to travel to a single central point to celebrate God’s redemption, God’s provision, and God’s fulfillment of all his promises. No one is to be left out! 

But now someone is going to object and say, “Hang on, that’s not quite right. These three festivals are not actually for the whole nation, the text says they are just for the men!” And that strikes us, in these modern times, as a bit sexist. No? 

But that is an incorrect reading of this command. God is not saying only men can come, he is saying all the men must come. Women and children may attend if they can, but they are not required to. 

This command is not sexist, it is actually gracious. Because, remember, in those days most women would have been pregnant, nursing, caring for small children or grandchildren. Travelling under those conditions in those days was not just very uncomfortable, it was dangerous. So it would have been unfair of God to say “three times a year all the people are to appear before me.” It was okay for each family to be represented by those who were best suited to make the journey. So: 

This command is actually just one more proof of God’s great concern for how true worship leads to Social Justice among his people. 

See, in other cultures, in other religions, women are often seen as second-class citizens: because they are physically unable to attend all the aspects of worship. They are too busy menstruating, incubating, nursing, keeping children alive. And because they cannot participate so easily it is much, much harder for a woman to please the gods or go to paradise than it is for a man. 

Now that is sexist! That is social injustice. 

Ironic, isn’t it, that if God had required every individual in the nation to attend three times a year, he would have ended up creating an unjust, sexist system, just like every other unjust, sexist religion in the world. 

False systems of worship tend to focus too much on an individual’s ability to participate; if the individual cannot participate, well: so sorry for you! But God’s system is different. True worship is representative and collective. 

Basically, God is saying here, “Ladies, daughters, it’s okay. I know that your lives are hard enough without me adding on a whole new religious burden on top of everything else you have to do! So relax. Stay back. Rest. Join if you are able! but if you cannot, do not worry. I will accept your father’s sacrifice, your husband’s, your brother’s, your son’s sacrifices on behalf of the whole family.” 

So overall here we are finding that false worship leads to social injustice at every level of society: from the courtroom, to business, to the home. But true worship leads to social justice at every level of society. In God’s nation, everyone gets a share of salvation: not just men, not just adults who are old enough to understand what is going on, but women and children also. 

What a profound mercy! 

And now, as we read on, we come to the bread on the other side of our giant Social Justice sandwich: 

[18] “Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast. 

The fat of my festival offerings must not be kept until morning. 

[19] “Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the Lord your God. 

Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” 

Last week our passage began with what appeared to be a random grab-bag of rules. They only made sense after Tim explained that the things forbidden there were actually false religious practices, things that false worshipers would do in their attempt to manipulate the gods. 

Now this whole two part section ends the same way: with a random grab-bag of rules. And I am going to explain that the things forbidden here are actually false religious practices, things that false worshipers did in their attempts to manipulate the gods. 

First: ancient people noticed that blood is a source of life, blood contains the spirit of a creature. So one way to get stronger was to drink the blood of an animal. But drinking blood is pretty gross. Better to bake it into a loaf of bread — something containing yeast — and then eat it. But even better than that is to offer that loaf of bread to your god, that way the god eats some, the worshiper eats some, everybody gets spiritually stronger, and hopefully the god blesses the worshiper in return. 

God says, “Don’t you dare offer me blood baked in bread. You do not need to feed me, and I cannot be bribed into blessing you. When I bless you, I do so freely, because I love you.” 

Second: ancient people considered the fat of an animal to be especially nourishing. And it is. So when pagans sacrificed an animal, they might burn some of the fat, but keep quite a bit back for themselves. Because what if the gods do not respond with enough blessings? It’s good to have some fat stored away in the bank just in case. 

God says, “Do not try to cut corners in your worship as if I might fail to feed you somehow. I am the Covenant-Keeping God. I have promised to provide for you as my beloved children. So give me all the fat and I will give you more than you could ever ask or imagine.” 

The third point is really quite similar: pagans believed they could bribe their gods; they also believed they could fool the gods. So they would keep the best of their harvest for themselves and sacrifice the leftovers. 

God says, “Hello! I can see you, you know! Don’t do that! Trust me. Give me your firstfruits as an act of faith in my continuing provision.” 

And fourth, ancient people had noticed that milk, like blood, is a fluid that contains life. A baby animal drinks from its mother’s spirit and it grows stronger. So, what better way to double the power of a sacrifice than by combining the death-blood of a young animal with the life-milk of its mother? Surely the gods would take an interest in such a powerful combination of magics! 

God says, “Do not do that. Do not borrow ‘magic tricks’ from other nations, those tricks do not work on me.” 

So we find that this section of The Book of the Covenant ends where it began. It opened last week with “Do not allow a sorceress to live” — in other words: do not practice manipulative magic, that is an insult to your Heavenly Father. It closes here with “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” — in other words: do not practice manipulative magic, that is an insult to your Heavenly Father. 


So now we have to ask ourselves: what does all this have to do with us? 

Well, the overall theme in these last two sections is the relationship between true worship and Social Justice: the one leads inevitably to the other — in the courtroom, in business, and in the home; for people, for animals, even for the earth itself. 

So if we are looking for a practical application, if we are asking what we are supposed to do in response to God’s commands in this passage, the simplest application would be: let us make sure we are practicing true worship, so that we might also end up practicing true social justice amongst ourselves and in the world. 

But this leads us to a necessary question: what does true worship look like, so that we can know we are practicing it? 

Well, the good news is that, in this section, God has double-clicked further on the concept of worship. 

A few weeks ago, when God started The Book of the Covenant by double-clicking on the worship concept, it opened a new page that talked about how God’s people are to build altars for sacrifice out of dirt, and how God had promised to be present whenever his people worshiped at one of these altars. And we realized that, today, we — our churches, the gathered congregations of God that are found all over the earth — we are the altars of earth that we are called to build. So, whenever God’s people gather in worship around the altar that is the Church, and around the sacrifice that is Jesus Christ, then God will come to us and bless us. 

So we learned that true worship is defined by the altar of blood sacrifice and by the presence of God. 

Well, now, as we near the end of The Book of the Covenant, God has double-clicked deeper into that basic definition and expanded it even more, revealing that true worship is further defined by these three concepts: God’s redemption, God’s provision, and God’s fulfillment of all his promises. Redemption, provision, and fulfillment lie at the heart of true worship. 

We could describe these three concepts in these three words: regeneration, transformation, resurrection. 

Or we could use the proper theological terms: Justification, Sanctification, Glorification. 

These three concepts are so central that God structured Israel’s calendar around them. Three times a year, God’s people were to each bring a sacrifice into God’s presence to celebrate these three realities: that they had been saved from slavery and death, that they were God’s growing children, and that one day they would inherit a new heavens and a new earth. 

Further, these three concepts are so complete, so sufficient, that God told Israel not to add anything to them. He told them not to borrow or try to adapt any outside worship practices into these three central concepts. Those outside systems are actually incompatible with God’s system, because false worship is based on manipulation, while true worship is based on covenantal trust. 

So our particular application today is to examine our worship to make sure our worship is defined by these elements described in The Book of the Covenant, and to make sure we are not bringing in false manipulative worship practices from outside. 

After we have done that, we will examine our concepts of social justice to make sure our worship is resulting in the proper effects. 

Okay. So what are the elements of true worship that we have covered so far? 

First, true worship is centered around the altar, and the sacrifice upon it. God reinforced this concept today by saying “no one is to appear before me empty-handed.” We must bring a sacrifice with us whenever we enter his presence. 

So, is our worship centered around the altar and the sacrifice? 

The altar is Christ’s Church. So as long as we are gathering together in corporate worship in a congregation of Jesus’ people, then: yes, we can say that our worship is truly centered around the altar. 

The sacrifice upon that altar is Jesus Christ himself. So as long as we are gathering together in the name of Jesus’ sacrifice, then: 

Yes, we can say that our worship is truly centered around the sacrifice. And as long as we call upon Jesus’ sacrifice to atone for our sins whenever we gather together, then: yes, we can be sure we have not appeared before God empty-handed. 

Second, true worship is systematically focused on these three elements: regeneration, transformation, resurrection. These concepts must permeate the structure of worship, they must inform the rhythm of our lives. On the other hand, true worship must also keep itself free from the polluted worship practices of the world. 

So, is our worship systematically focused on these three essential elements? Are we free from false, manipulative worship practices? 

Well, compared to some other churches in the Klang Valley, we practice a very structured form of worship. So structured that we can actually print a bulletin explaining each element. 

Now, some modern Christians believe that structured worship is not true worship, because it stifles free expression. But that is actually why congregations like ours deliberately practice structured worship: we understand from passages like this one that when human beings begin to practice free expression in worship, we will inevitably end up focusing on just one of these three element, the one that fits our personalities the best. 

For instance, some churches really focus on the first element: they love the idea of being Born Again, Filled with the Spirit, they love evangelism…but maybe they neglect discipleship, God’s call for transformation. 

Another churches really like the transformation bit. These churches are full of dedicated, hard-working, good people, and they like hearing sermons that say, “Come on! Work harder! Be holier!” They love that stuff, because their personal motto is, “with self-discipline, anything is possible.” They have no idea that they are only hearing one part of the Gospel. 

And then other churches are really focused on the resurrection, the return of Jesus Christ. They might neglect the need for evangelism and personal transformation, focusing instead on the need for Social Justice in the world, trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth by their own strategic efforts. 

In short, scripture teaches us that free expression in worship actually leads to limited expression in worship: we always end up limiting ourselves to what we like, what makes us feel good. 

Even worse, scripture teaches us that free expression in worship inevitably ends up bringing in manipulative worship practices from the outside world. 

No, modern churches are not usually engaged in trying to double the power of a blood sacrifice by adding milk. But we are all very strongly tempted to double the power of Jesus’ sacrifice by adding modern marketing techniques — modern manipulative marketing techniques. Our modern version of manipulative sorcery has nothing to do with witchdoctors or bestiality or eating bread baked with blood, our modern sorcery runs on tracking algorithms and neurologically triggered dopamine hits. 

All this is why, for the last 3500 years since Moses, churches like ours have deliberately practiced a structured form of worship: we do not trust ourselves to remain faithful to the big picture. So week after week we follow the same ancient liturgy because this liturgy is carefully structured to focus on all three of these essential elements in turn: first we gather about the altar, the Church of Jesus Christ. We lift up the sacrifice of Christ before the throne. We confess our sins and receive our assurance that we have been born again. We listen to God’s Word read and preached, praying that the Holy Spirit will provide the transformation we need so we can grow in practical holiness. We eat and drink. And we receive again the promise that one day we will cross the river, we will complete our pilgrimage to the Mountain of God. 

So, back to our self-examination: is our congregational worship systematically focused on these three foundational elements? 

As far as it is in our power to do so: yes. 

But are we wholly free from the polluted worship practices of the world? 

No. Our worship is never perfectly focused, perfectly pure. 

So what are we supposed to do about this reality? How can we dare to approach God every week knowing that our worship is corrupted? 

This is what we are supposed to do: we go back up to the top, and remember God’s promise that whenever and wherever his people gather around the true altar of sacrifice he will come to us and bless us. 

What does this mean? This means that, in Christ, we never approach God empty-handed: we carry with us into our corrupted worship the sacrifice that actually atones for our corrupted worship. And because our corrupted worship has been atoned for by Christ, our Father accepts it as true worship. And because our corrupted worship is true worship, God comes and blesses us just as he promised. 

Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is here, now, among us, within us, not because our worship is perfectly structured or perfectly pure, but simply because our Heavenly Father has promised to honour the perfect sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the source of our hope: not in the perfection of our worship, but in the perfection of his. 

But this does not mean that we ought to just relax now and do whatever feels good in worship. Our Father has defined true worship in these particular ways, he has structured true worship around these distinct concepts, not just because they are true but because they lead to true social justice among God’s people. We have been filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, but not so we can indulge in free expression — rather, so that we can serve one another humbly in love. 

So even though our Father continually accepts even our corrupted worship as true, we must not quench the Spirit by ignoring his calls to keep on testing and improving our patterns of worship, rejecting what comes in from outside, embracing what comes from the Spirit of God through the Word of God. 

But now we need to also examine our concepts of social justice to make sure they are in line with the commands of scripture. 

There is a lot that can be said about this topic, of course. But today we are going to limit ourselves to what God has said in this section of The Book of the Covenant. 

And the central focus here has been the relationship between worship and socially responsible business practices. Godly worship results in godly business. Godless worship results in godless business. Or we could say that in reverse: godless, self-centered business practices are the evidence of godless, self-centered worship. 

So, for instance, if a Christian businessman is known to be corrupt and manipulative, then God’s Book of the Covenant says such a man must be in some way involved in false manipulative worship. Such a man has lost faith in God’s promises of redemption, provision, and resurrection. He has turned aside to the sorcery of manipulative marketing techniques, skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals. 

If you are here today, and that describes you, then I am compelled by God’s Word to speak to you a word of warning and a word of hope. 

Friend, be warned: if your corruption in business is habitual — if you know that what you are doing is wrong but you do not even try to change — then it does not matter how often you attend church or how much money you give or how well-regarded you are, there is a high likelihood that you are not actually a Christian. In the New Testament the apostle Paul says it clearly: “Do not be deceived: neither thieves nor the greedy nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” 

But friend, here is your hope: if you repent, you will be saved. Join a church that tries to practice the patterns of true worship, a church that will faithfully remind you of the great truths of the Gospel: that in Christ, you have been born again; through the Holy Spirit you have been given everything you need for a godly life; through the Father’s covenant faithfulness you will be raised to eternal life at the end of the age. As you refocus your worship around these things, you will find yourself gradually healed of the self-centered shame and fear that motivates your godless business practices. You will be empowered to reorganise your business in a godly, socially responsible way. 

But what does a godly, socially responsible business look like here, today, in KL? Are we supposed to pause the different fields of our work-life in seven year cycles? 

No, not quite. That application of this passage would be a bit too mechanical. These patterns of six and seven that we find in scripture are deeply symbolic. The weekly rest-day that God set up in the Fourth Commandment is designed to be a weekly reminder of our ultimate destination. The cycle of rest-years that God set up in this passage is an expanded version of the weekly rest-day concept: it is designed to be a constant reminder to God’s people that redemption is a reality for us even now, even in the non-religious parts of our lives. 

So the general guideline we find in this passage is that socially responsible businesses need to build in short term and long term rhythms of rest, because rest points to our ultimate destination. We ought not to have everything running at 100% all the time. We need to make sure we have margins built in to our lives, just as the fourth commandment said. But not just so we can rest and be refreshed; the additional point God makes here is that our margins must also be motivated by the desire to be generous, to extend charity to the poor, the powerless, the refugee, to the animal kingdom and the earth itself. That is the kind of ordinary, everyday social justice our Father is looking for: the kind that points to our ulitmate redemption. 

Basically, as Christians, we must learn to work more slowly than we actually can. We could, perhaps, express this concept as a tithe on our time and energy. Just as we commit to living on only 90% — or less — of our income, we should also commit to living on only 90% — or less — of our work-lives, using that extra time to serve others who are less fortunate. 

And that is hard for us, I think, in this city during this age. There is tremendous pressure upon all of us here not to fall behind, not to waste any opportunity to get ahead, to gain some edge in competition. It is hard to deliberately choose sometimes to slow down and leave room in the fields of our lives for God to allow some wild crop to grow, some unplanned opportunity that we would never have received if we had not left room for God to provide the unexpected. But this is what we are called to do. 

So let us commit ourselves afresh to leaving room in our lives for our Father to work. And when the pressures mount to work harder, longer, 100% of the time, let us turn and return to true worship and be reminded that we do not need to worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink; or about our bodies, what we will wear, because we have already been redeemed, we are being transformed, we will be resurrected — 

Amen. May our Lord give us rest. 

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