Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Monday, December 5, 2011

Recovering Rest: A Christian Exploration of the Sabbath

We are busy year round in our fast-paced Western culture, despite all our “time-saving” technologies. But we’re particularly rushed during the Christmas season; the short days are filled with Christmas parties, shopping, church activities, and fun family traditions. Many of these are great things, but the frenzy and stress tend to crowd out opportunities to cease and celebrate our Savior’s coming. So it seems an appropriate time to consider God’s vision for the Sabbath (which simply means, “to cease”). God sets apart this day for sacred rest right at the beginning of the story, on day seven of creation:

The heavens and the earth were completed with everything that was in them.  2 By the seventh day God finished the work that he had been doing, and he ceased on the seventh day all the work that he had been doing.  3 God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he ceased all the work that he had been doing in creation (Genesis 2:1-3  NET).

God’s rhythm of work and rest is built into creation and covenant. He commands his people:

Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  9 You have six days each week for your ordinary work,  10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work (Exodus 20:8-10  NLT).

To observe the Sabbath is not just to cease all activity and reflect on God. It is to follow God’s example and live in God’s creation pattern of work and rest.

But how do we keep a day holy? First, we must consider the concept of holiness. To be holy is to be unique or set apart, like God. In the Old Testament, a variety of things are holy:
  • Places: tabernacle and sanctuary – places for worship and fellowship with God
  • Objects: sacred items used in the service of the tabernacle
  • People: priests and Levites who serve in the tabernacle
Each of these is set apart, or “consecrated,” for unique tasks. They are holy for the purpose of worship, service and fellowship with God. Holy time is no different. It is set aside for worship, service and fellowship with God. Like all consecrated things, holy time can be desecrated, profaned, made common. How?
  • By ignoring its sacredness, treating it like any other day, continuing regular work (Nehemiah 13:15-22)
  • By ignoring God, giving no time to worship and no gratitude for God’s gifts
  • By making it part of a false show of holiness to hide a life of injustice (Isaiah 1:10-15)
  • By cutting rest short out of a greedy desire to make profit (Amos 8:4-5)
So, how do we keep the Sabbath holy? God commands us to rest and remember

We must cease from normal work. In resting, we imitate God, who rested from his work of Creation (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:11)

We rest to remember God’s deliverance. “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the LORD your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Failing to rest is like returning to Egypt, where the Israelites were enslaved to unceasing toilsome labor (Exodus 5:5). God saved them from that. The Sabbath prevents re-enslavement to relentless work and gives the gift of refreshing rest to the whole community, including slaves and animals.

Rest involves trusting God to meet our needs even if we don’t run ourselves ragged. We must acknowledge our human limitations and realize that we cannot go non-stop for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. Such a pace is unsustainable.

Rest reminds us that we worship God, not the wealth we acquire through our work (Matthew 6:24). Sabbath gives us time to refocus our priorities and remember that God is the only reward worth pursuing.

We rest so that our work can be properly directed. Sabbath offers a chance to remember Who we work for and the kingdom purpose and goal of our work; we rediscover that our work in the world, if it is to be worthwhile, must participate in his work in the world (as Jesus’ work did; John 5:17). We join God’s rest so we can join God’s work!

Eugene Peterson expresses this truth well in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (117-18):
If there is no Sabbath – no regular and commanded not-working, not-talking – we soon become totally absorbed in what we are doing and saying, and God’s work is either forgotten or marginalized. Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection…

This is a most difficult command to keep, a most difficult practice to cultivate. It is one of the most abused and distorted practices of the Christian life…

But I don’t see any way out of it: if we are going to live appropriately in the creation, we must keep the Sabbath. We must stop running around long enough to see what God has done and is doing. We must shut up long enough to hear what God has said and is saying. All our ancestors agree that without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, no God-attentive, God-responsive life. . .

If we are not to simply contribute a religious dimension to the disintegration of our world, join company with the mobs who are desecrating the creation with their hurry and hype in frenzy and noise, we must attend to what we have been given and the One who gives it to us. One large step in the renewal of creation today, this field upon which the resurrection Christ plays plays with such exuberance, is to not take the next step: stand where we are, listen to our Lord: attend . . . adore.

Rest gives us time to delight in God and his work. When God stopped working, he sat back and looked over his work; he enjoyed its beauty and appreciated its order and function; he pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 1:31-2:3). We, too, should stop and stand in awe of God’s world. We should pause our technology and virtual reality and praise God for his creation reality.

Maltbie D. Babcock beautifully expresses the benefits of this creation awareness in his famous hymn, This Is My Father's World:

This is my Father's world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and round me rings
The music of the spheres
This is my Father's world
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees of skies and seas
His hand the wonders wrought

This is my Father's world
The birds their carols raise
The morning light the lily white
Declare their Maker's praise
This is my Father's world
He shines in all that's fair
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass
He speaks to me everywhere

This is my Father's world
O let me ne'er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet
This is my Father's world
The battle is not done
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one

As appealing and life-giving as all this sounds, we must guard against missing the point. Jesus’ response to Sabbath-observance in his own day warns us against extremism.

First, rest does not mean ceasing to do good. Sabbath observance should not keep us from blessing others and giving life, healing and wholeness. Human needs are more important than strict Sabbath observance (Matthew 12:10-13). The law is not meant to prevent the hungry from eating (Matthew 12:3-5). Nor is it meant to restrict God’s work.

Second, Sabbath is not about a big “not-to-do list.” To focus on forbidden activities is to see only the rule and miss the gift. “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It was given to keep our lives in a healthy rhythm, not to bury us under burdensome restrictions. When we follow the Lord of the Sabbath, we need not be burdened by a heavy yoke of rules, for his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30).

The Sabbath, then, is holy time set apart to remember who we are and who God is. We remember that he is Creator and we are Creature (Exodus 20:11), he is Redeemer and we are redeemed (Deuteronomy 5:15). In rest, we join God’s creation rhythm. In rest, we stop and adore God. In rest, we refocus our lives so we spend them in his service for the sake of his kingdom.

So as you go through this Advent season, when will you pause to wonder at the glory of Emmanuel? How could you rest in God’s creative and redemptive blessings? When could you stop to savor the peace and joy Messiah brings and share them with a world that needs his rest?

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