Wednesday, 2 November 2016
Writer Melody Murton
We were not made to go all the time. Quite the opposite actually: we were made to live in a rhythm of work and rest. Built into our design is a pattern for flourishing that is jeopardised by overwork as much as underwork. And to complement that design, God has given us a gift to ensure that we keep in step with our created rhythms: the Sabbath.
I say ‘gift’ because Sabbath is something lavish and precious in our frenetic society, but perhaps we push the gift metaphor a bit too far and pop Sabbath on the shelf with the other gifts that we don’t use much but keep on display because, while they’re kind of ugly, they’re sentimental.
Yet one of the most critical things to understand about Sabbath is that it isn’t simply a gift that suits some people and not others, it is a command for anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ. And, like all the other commands that God gives his people, following it leads to life.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” is number four in the ten commandments outlined in Exodus 20. When I was a kid, “keeping it holy” meant not being allowed to buy lollies from the servo after church, but a closer look at those verses in Exodus reveal that there’s more to Sabbath than a veto on Sunday trading.
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour 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… 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.” (Exodus 20:8-11 NIV)
God rested from his creative work, and as beings made in his image, we’re to do the same. Sabbath is a celebration of our design and part of our created nature, as Tim Keller puts it in Every Good Endeavour, and violation of that nature is a slippery road to chaos. Therefore, central to a proper understanding of Sabbath is a proper understanding of work, too. When we see our work not as a necessary evil, but as a continuation of the creation and cultivation that God orchestrated at the beginning, we can see our rest as a continuation of the rest that God wove into his rhythm: a rest that enjoys and honours the goodness of creative effort.
A few pages on in Exodus 23, the command of Sabbath extends from a daily rhythm to a yearly one. The Israelites are told to sow and harvest their land for six years, but to let the land lie on the seventh (v10-11). Not only would future harvests be better for it, but whatever grew in the unworked fields during the Sabbath year belonged to the poor. Later, in Leviticus, Sabbath broadens again to a societal level as God outlines his commands for the Year of Jubilee: after seven Sabbath years, the fiftieth year was to be set apart as one of freedom (25:8-54). Land was to be rested, property returned to its original owners, slaves released, debts cancelled.
The Year of Jubilee is a pretty revolutionary idea, in many ways impractical, and there is question over whether the Israelites ever actually observed it, let alone if Christians should today. But what this macro version of Sabbath shows us is a pattern of rest, beginning with individuals and moving through entire nations that would essentially mean that there would be no ingrained poverty. God desires his people to be free from any kind of slavery, and Sabbath is a regular bond-breaker.
A lot of logistical limitations accompanying the Sabbath are outlined throughout the Pentateuch, but how literally are we to take them on this side of the cross? Can’t we throw Sabbath in with those other weird Levitical laws that we like to play the Jesus card on? If we look for Sabbath references in the New Testament, we mostly find Jesus bucking the Pharisaic trend, which, in my imagination, was basically a full day of that ‘sleeping lions’ game they make you play in Sunday School. Don’t move a muscle or you’re out. The Pharisees would watch Jesus’ Sabbath movements closely, pulling him up as soon as he bent the rules: ‘Whoops, saw you healing that guy’s shrivelled hand, Jesus. Do you even know the rules of this game?’ And I just love Jesus’ responses to their fastidiousness, this one summing up his perspective: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27-68) Jesus affirms what we read about the Sabbath in the Old Testament: the Sabbath is for bringing life, not enslaving.
Ken Shigematsu, who wrote a wonderful book on creating a Rule of Life, of which Sabbath observance is essential, says this: “Jesus chose life on the Sabbath: he healed people; he fed them; he supported rescuing animals that fell into wells on the Sabbath… Sabbath is about ceasing what is necessary and embracing what gives life.”¹ This gives us a helpful starting point for what Sabbath rest can look like for us today.
Firstly, participate in what gives life. I often imagine Sabbath as a deep inhale, the kind you take after being dumped by an ocean wave, a breath that steers you in the direction of life. This is a day that the Lord blessed and made holy, and we are to treat it as such: it is a day set apart from the others. Think of it not as an excuse to tune out and embrace your inner sloth, but rather a chance to tune in to the Lord who beckons you to come and learn from him. What feeds your soul, what draws you towards your Creator? The holiness of Sabbath urges us to carve out time for it before everything else, too. In fitting the rest of our time around a non-negotiable Sabbath, and not the other way around, we honour God as our foundation and not an interruption.
Ideally, this means setting aside a full day to Sabbath. It’ll look different for each person—for many of us in ministry, Sundays lean on the side of work rather than rest, so another day is a better choice; for others, two half days make more sense than a 24-hour period. But we can all look to God’s work/rest rhythm—work six, rest one—as the blueprint for ours. Sabbath observance in time with this rhythm honours our design and arguably leads to sustainability and flourishing for us, and blessed communion with our Maker.
Secondly, cease what is necessary. Don’t do anything because you ‘have to’. It’s natural to think of rest as something you get to enjoy when all your work is done, but by this logic we would never get to truly rest. One of the many blessings of Sabbath is that in stopping our work, even when there is more to do, we are forced to trust God. We’re reminded that we are not the ones in control. In Exodus 16 we read of the Lord providing Israel with manna in the desert: enough for each day, with double on the sixth to last them the following Sabbath day. This was as much an exercise in trust as it was in rest. Observing Sabbath in this way almost inevitably means, at some point, loss—whether of productivity, finance, opportunity. But freedom trumps loss, and in the long run a deeply rested person is far more productive.
William Wilberforce once journaled, “Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein Earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.”2 His commitment to a weekly Sabbath day of rest meant, at certain points, the forgoing of significant political gain. But his rested heart was rich and ready soil for God to nurture things of far more eternal significance. In Sabbath, the Earthly makes way for the eternal; it is a sacred space where God can breathe on us and bring to life what may be lost to us on any other day.
I’ll be the first to admit that I baulk at the idea of taking a full day of Sabbath rest each week. Yet I can’t shake the thought that the difficulty we anticipate in committing to this is a good indication of just how enslaved we are. We work hard. We’re unceasingly accessible. Even outside of work we’re under apparent demand with brunches and birthdays and back-to-back Netflix. In ministry especially we are at the disposal of a community, made up of people that both fill us and drain us, but who all lay claim to our availability and energy.
But there is a depth of rest available to us in the midst of our always-on world. True rest is not just the stuff of dreams. Imagine a church of deeply rested people, serving in step with the rhythm of the breath of God. The Lord of the Sabbath says, come. I’ll show you how it’s done. Flat out? Burnt out? There’s a better way.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-30) ●
¹Shigematsu, Ken (2013) God in My Everything: How an Ancient Rhythm Helps Busy People Enjoy God, Harper Collins.
²Cited in MacDonald, Gordon (2003) Ordering Your Private World, Thomas Nelson, p 191.
Originally published in YVQ13: RNR.
Writer Melody Murton. Melody loves words. She loves speaking them publicly, crafting them into articles, editing the ones other people write, or drawing them. She loves communicating in ways that bring light and life, echoing the Big Story of who God is and what he is doing in the world. Melody is the communications and resources coordinator at Red Church in Blackburn, Victoria.
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