Pace Domnului! The Lord’s peace to you! This, in Romanian, is close to our greeting of “Happy Sabbath”. Today of all days, I think it’s quite appropriate and possibly conveys the true sentiment of this holy day. The Lord’s peace is something that we cannot get from this world. Christ said as much in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Could it be, that yet another aspect of the Sabbath is the presence of God’s mysterious peace (a peace that “passeth all understanding” Philippians 4:7)? Here’s a short list of what the Sabbath “means” or represents (as I have understood it):
1. Memorial of God’s 6-day creation
2. The fourth commandment in the Ten Commandments
3. A day of rest in which we acknowledge that God will provide all of our needs
4. A day of celebration and remembrance
5. A day/time that will be perpetuated for eternity
6. A day in which Christ attended the synagogues
7. A day on which Christ rested after His crucifixio
So, item 8 could now be: A day in which the Lord’s peace is prominent.
On this, my last Sabbath in Italy, my expectations have been exceeded once again. It rained last night and so the temperature dropped again. I was so worn out from the week that I was feeling less and less enthusiastic about going to church today. Maybe I’ll just take a break, a “true Sabbath rest” and just chill out in my hotel room. After all, I could still read the Bible and pray (and even watch Walter Veith through Google Videos). Why did I have to go to church? I certainly didn’t feel like taking the bus ride up to Careggi to go to Villa Aurora again. During the week, as I scuttled to and from the conference, God had opened my eyes to a modest building on the corner of a busy street. I saw the logo for the SDA church on a sign in the widow and stopped to investigate. I was surprised to find an SDA church in Florence proper since every website I had looked up only mentioned the church at Villa Aurora. I feared it was just a historical site, but upon closer inspection, I saw that it was a functioning church with a current congregation. Then, I realized that the sign was in two languages: Romanian and Italian. The church was also called “Christian Adventist” (Chiesa Cristiana Avventista). Confused, I thought that I would pop in anyway on Sabbath morning and check it out. If it wasn’t what I was looking for, I’d just leave. Besides, it was only a ten minute walk from my hotel.
As the rationalizations for not going to church piled up last night, a strange “fear of the unknown” gripped my heart. For some reason, I thought that visiting a Romanian church (as I had surmised from the sign) would be uncomfortably foreign, something akin to me visiting a Spanish church in Texas. Seeing that I didn’t understand Italian, either, the fear seemed crazy. I would just be in a room with other believers, humming familiar hymns, and praying that by some miracle, some of the unintelligible sermon would sprinkle on me like fairy dust. I wouldn’t set my alarm clock – I’d just go to sleep and if God wanted me to go to church, I’d wake up in time. With that, I passed out for the night.
The gray sky this morning and the constant noise of the tourists and marketplace were further discouragement for me. My eyes cracked open and let in spears of bright morning light filtered by a cottony sky. I felt around for my watch and read its face – 10:05 am. Oh well, I didn’t want to go to Sabbath School anyway to stick out like a sore thumb. Rolling out of bed, I thanked God for waking me up for church and prayed for a blessing that I might receive through the service. Still not entirely optimistic, I took my time getting ready for church. Grabbing my Bible and camera, I left and began the 10 minute hike that would take me past the Piazza del Duomo (which contains the HUGE marble church that is capped off by Brunelleschi’s dome). Arriving “fashionably late” on Adventist-time (11:15 for the 11 am service), I was greeted by two men in the back of the church. The entrance basically opened up into the sanctuary and the service that was in full swing. I gestured that I would like to sit down and one of the men nodded and indicated a seat close by. He asked if I understood Romanian and I said, “No, but I don’t mind. It’s fine.” He looked concerned and I thought for a split second that he would kick me out for being an outsider. However, he gestured to the seat and I sat down. The lady next to me smiled, and at that moment I knew everything would be ok.
Looking around, I noticed that people looked…normal. The same as the people I’ve been seeing all week. I don’t know what I was expecting, but as I settled in and watched the kids up at the front listening to the children’s story, it was clear that I was basically at home with family. The warmth in the church was more than the stifling heat in the sanctuary – it was the smiles of people who were happy to worship God. I bowed my head in a silent prayer of thanks and just got ready for whatever would happen next. It was then that I heard whispering behind me (“English” was the only word I caught). Next, a young man sat down next to me and said that he would translate. After some introductions (his name is Michael), he proceeded to translate the sermon for me. Impressed again by the way the pastor told the sermon rather than recited it, I was soon immersed in the message.
The sermon was about not knowing the day, the time, or the hour of Christ’s return but always being ready. Isaiah 21:11,12 served as the cornerstone for the message:
The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.
He spoke of how a sect of Christianity had started setting dates for Christ’s return a few hundred years after Christ’s ascension and how ever since, people have been predicting when Jesus would come back. Certainly, it is an even that we all are desperate for since it will mean then end of sin, pain, death, and disaster. To be mindful of the destruction and abuse that occur every moment of the day should move us deeply and make us anxious for His coming.
The pastor told the story of an unruly school boy who had a messy desk. One day, a school official said that a prize would be given to the student with the cleanest desk. However, the date of the judging was not announced. The boy wanted that prize so he made the decision to clean up his desk and keep it clean so that he would be ready when the judging occurred. His classmates mocked him for his continual upkeep of his desk, but he did not mind because he already knew that he wanted the prize. In the same way, we know that Christ is coming soon because He said so. We don’t know the time or the day, but our duty as Christians is to watch and to pray (to “behold”, as was translated to me) continually so that we are not caught by surprise.
The sermon ended and the choir sang a gorgeous hymn, a capella, from the rear balcony of the church. The building had originally been an Episcopalian church, and in those churches, the choir loft is often located in the back. The result is music reflecting on the high ceilings and washing over the congregation. Magnificent. Following the choir, the congregation sang “We Know Not The Hour” (#604 in our hymnal). The lady next to me shared her hymn book with me and proceeded to sing with gusto. I had never seen Romanian in my life, much less read it, but that didn’t prevent me from trying it out. Afterwards, she gave me another big smile and said, “Bravo!” We sat down, had prayer, and then listened as the choir sang “Lord I Want to Be a Christian (in My Heart)” (in Romanian). It struck me that an American folk hymn could resonate with anyone on the planet. At least in my limited experience, folk songs and spirituals are songs of experience – experience that everyone, without exception to geography or race, can identify with.
After the service, I headed back out onto the street. The man who greeted me when I came in asked if I spoke Italian. When I shook my head, he just waved and smiled. I stepped out onto the sidewalk and inhaled the mist that was falling down from heaven. My apprehension totally gone now, I rejoiced in my heart that God had indeed blessed me today. Even though I knew I would have probably dragged myself to church since my parents instilled in my sister and I that church attendance was mandatory unless we were critically injured or sick, it helped that the Lord had exceeded my expectations once again. Little by little, the Lord is making progress on this reluctant child.