Biblical Messages

“God’s Gift of Rest”: the full printed version

I don’t normally produce full manuscripts of my messages, but this one seemed so important to me that I thought I would transcribe it, and publish it for you to read.  Feel free to comment with your thoughts.

GOD’S TOP TEN LIST:  4.  GOD’S GIFT OF REST

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, by Dr. Jeff Loach

Based on Mark 2.23-28

                 When I was a student in a small Baptist church in northern Ontario many years ago, living with the pastor’s family, Sunday afternoons were not easy times.  The family’s Sunday afternoon ritual involved – well, it involved a great deal of nothing at all.  That was what was expected, in that home:  you rested on the day of rest.

                In those days, when the Lord’s Day Act was still enforced, in a sleepy northern Ontario town, there was nothing to do.  And one Sunday afternoon, when I was rather dissatisfied with doing nothing, I went down to the corner store, which was allowed to be open, and bought a copy of the previous day’s Globe and Mail.  If I couldn’t do anything else, I surmised, I might as well read a newspaper.  It wasn’t exactly up-to-the-minute news, but at least it was something.

                When I returned to the manse, I sat down on the living room floor and opened up the paper.  When the pastor came into the room, presumably bored himself from doing nothing, he looked at me, scowled, and said, “I see you’ve been shopping.”

                For him, going to the corner store to get a newspaper on the Lord’s Day was shopping.  And in his eyes, I had thereby broken the fourth commandment.

                The fourth commandment says, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  You have six days each week for your ordinary work, 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.  This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you.  For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.  That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (Exodus 20.8-11, NLT).

                The word ‘Sabbath’ is a Hebrew word that just means ‘rest’.  Sabbath observance has been a point of controversy for a long time, especially among Christians.  In my wife’s home, for example, when she was young, it was about appearances:  laundry could be washed on Sunday, but it couldn’t be dried in the machine on Sunday, because someone going by may have noticed the exhaust from the dryer vent, and assumed the minister’s family was not keeping the Sabbath.  So what often happened was that clothes that needed cleaning were washed, and then hung to dry in the basement, thereby keeping the letter of the law – as far as the neighbours were concerned, anyway.

                Sabbath observance has tended to be rather a dour event for many Christians, and this is not just a 20th century phenomenon:  I read that in 17th century Scotland, a man was hauled off to prison for smiling on the Sabbath!  Given the state of the nation in those days, perhaps he should have been congratulated for being able to smile, but instead, he was jailed.  “O be joyful in the Lord,” indeed!

                When it is suggested that the Ten Commandments are laws given in love, many people find it singularly difficult to see the fourth commandment as something God gave us because he loves us.  Why, we surmise, would a loving God make us sit around all day and do nothing?

                That is a reasonable question to ask.  Simply put, God would not give us a law which required us to sit around all day and do nothing.  That must mean that Sabbath-keeping is not really about sitting around all day and doing nothing.

                Still, when the law about Sabbath was given to the people of Israel wandering in the desert under Moses’ leadership, they took it seriously.  Moses told the people in Exodus 35.2, “You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord.  Anyone who works on that day must be put to death” (NLT). It’s a good thing they were wandering a in a desert and not the arctic, because the next verse says that they weren’t even allowed to light a fire in their homes on the Sabbath.  Pretty serious stuff!

                So it may come as a surprise, then, to find the prophet Isaiah waxing eloquent over the Sabbath; in Isaiah 58.13-14a, we read, “Keep the Sabbath day holy.  Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day.  Honour the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly.  Then the Lord will be your delight” (NLT).

                That seems a bit incongruous, doesn’t it?  The idea that the people should delight in a day which, if they violated it, could find them put to death?  How could people enjoy a day when they were instructed to do nothing interesting to them?

                Culturally, however, that is exactly what developed among God-fearing Jews.  One Jewish writer (cited in Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, 136) said, “Shabbat is like nothing else.  Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away.  A feeling of joy appears.  The smallest object, a leaf or a spoon, shimmers in a soft light, and the heart opens.  Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty.”  That is how a faithful Jew, if she is honest with herself, sees the Sabbath.  Seems a long way from the fellow who ended up in the clink for smiling on Sunday, doesn’t it?  Abraham Heschel has said of Jews and the Sabbath that “It was as if a whole people were in love with the seventh day.”

                What has happened to the Christian view of Sabbath, if faithful Jews see it as a day of delight, when we tend to see it as a day of drudgery?

                There were these folks called the Pharisees who rained on the Sabbath parade.  Listen to this short discourse from Mark 2.23-28 (NLT):  One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat.  But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.”   Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

                “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.”  Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath did not exist for its own sake.  People were not born for the purpose of keeping the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was given for the benefit of the people.  It was meant to be a day of joy and rest, but the Pharisees had turned it into a lifeless law of oppression.

                From this we can conclude, then, that (1) Sabbath keeping is not about legalism.  The pastor with whose family I lived for a long, hot summer, seemed more interested in the law than in the joy that comes from its observance.

                Does that mean, then, that Jesus had come to abolish the fourth commandment?  Do Christians really only have to observe nine of the ten commandments?  No; like the rest of the law, Jesus came to be its fulfillment, not to abolish it.  Jesus is why Christians do not celebrate Sabbath on Saturday.  The Christian Sabbath became Sunday very early in the history of the church, so that believers and their children could mark the weekly celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

                This fact is often missed, isn’t it?  Many of us tend to think that the celebration of the resurrection occurs once a year, when all the lilies show up.  But in reality, every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection.  Even as the Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the resurrection, each Sunday worship gathering is a celebration of the resurrection, a joyful gathering of God’s people who owe their present and their future to Jesus’ triumph over the grave.  Sabbath observance should be a joy for us, because it marks Jesus’ resurrection, and our victory over sin and death.

                This doesn’t mean, however, that we should just hold our noses and do our best to learn to enjoy sitting around and doing nothing.  Of course, if we celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, then it should involve corporate worship.  For the Jews, Sabbath is very much a communal celebration, and so it should be for Christ-followers as well.  Sabbath keeping should involve us joining with others to worship God.  This week, on Facebook, I asked my friends if they had any traditions for Sabbath-keeping that they would be willing to share with me.  Between 15 and 20 people shared their traditions, ranging from ‘family’ to ‘napping’ to ‘watching movies with friends’.  Several mentioned the importance of corporate worship; a few even noted that they turn off their smart phones for the day.

                For Christ-followers, Sunday is often fraught with busyness.  If we’re involved to any extent in the life of the church, we may need to be there early to put coffee on, or stay late to lead a small group, or any number of other commitments.  We may be committed to cooking a big meal for the family or for guests, or we may be taxiing children to this event or that game.  Doesn’t feel like much of a day of rest when it gets described this way, does it?

                By the way, here’s an idea I once learned:  you can prepare for the Sabbath on the day before.  If you’ve got a family to get dressed for church and a lunch to have ready when worship is finished, plan and prepare as much of it as you can on Saturday evening.  For example, kids’ clothes can be chosen and laid out before bedtime on Saturday.  The meal can be sitting in the crock pot ready to be turned on.  Any necessary work that needs to be done to make Sabbath all it can be can be done ahead of time, if it is scheduled and anticipated.

                I think we miss the point when we view Sabbath as just another day.  That is, (2) Sabbath keeping is not only about a day off.  It should be about not engaging in our regular work, but it can’t stop there.

                God designed his creation to have a regular rhythm about it.  Among the people who best understand this are astronomers and farmers.  Astronomers look at time based on rotations of the earth on its axis, and revolutions of the earth around the sun.  One friend of mine greeted another on his birthday by saying, “Congratulations on another successful orbit of the sun.”  (The birthday boy, in that case, happens to be an amateur astronomer.)

                Farmers also understand the rhythm of time.  When you see a vacant farmer’s field one season, it’s probably not a mistake:  the concept of letting a field lay fallow once every seven years, give or take, is good for the soil, and therefore good for whatever is planted in the soil.

                God designed his people to have a regular rhythm about us, too, and he modelled it in the creation of the world:  in Genesis 2.1-3, we read, “So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed.  On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation” (NLT).  That our calendar has a seven-day week is no coincidence.  That the seventh day of the week is the Jewish Sabbath is no coincidence, either.  Neither is the fact that the first day of the week is the Christian day of worship and rest.

                God designed our bodies to spend six days in labour, and one day in rest.  On the surface, it might seem like we belong to the wrong union to be engaging in six-day work weeks, but that’s not the point of it. Most of us, in healthy working environments, tend to have five-day work weeks, with two days off somewhere in there.  Ideally, one of those is a day off our regular work, which allows us the opportunity to catch up on the work that needs to be done around the house.  The other day should be a Sabbath.

                Even people who don’t follow Jesus were made with a need for Sabbath.  They may not realize it, but we all have the same innate need for that seven-day rhythm.  For the Christ-follower, however, it is more than just a day off:  Sabbath keeping is a way of ordering our lives, prioritizing our lives around the rhythms of work and rest, fruitfulness and dormancy, giving and receiving, being and doing, activism and surrender (Barton).  In other words, we should live the rest of our week so that Sabbath is possible.  This means, for many of us, having to make courageous decisions about work, sports, as well as church and community involvement.

                I want to give you an example of one of these courageous decisions.  One of my Facebook friends who responded to my query about Sabbath traditions is a realtor in the Greater Toronto Area; he belongs to another congregation.  Real Estate, as many of you will appreciate, can be a 24-7 kind of business.  But one time, when my friend had an offer to put in on a home on a Friday evening, he called the other realtor who said, “Thanks; I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

                The other realtor was Jewish, and he was observing Shabbat.  He did no work from Friday at sunset until Saturday at sunset.  The deal was closed on the Saturday after sunset; the buyers were happy, the sellers were happy, and the realtors got paid.  That was when my friend decided that he deserved a Sabbath, too, and stopped all work from Saturday night to Monday morning.  His clients all know this up front, so there are no surprises, and he has not lost a deal over it yet.  Let me play you his Sunday voicemail, with his permission, so you can get a sense of what a courageous decision my friend has made:  Hello, this is Len Chapman, and you’ve reached my cellular voicemail.  Today is Sunday, and I will be spending the day as a day of rest with my family.  I won’t be returning calls or checking for messages until Monday morning, so please leave me a detailed message, the best time of day to call you, and I’ll call you at that time on Monday.  If you’re calling to register an offer on one of my listings, I thank you very much, and your call will be my first priority on Monday. Thanks for calling, and have a great weekend.

                Most of his clients respect him for his decision, and support it.  Who could begrudge someone a day off in a week?  Especially when it is a Sabbath.

                Well, if Sabbath keeping is more than a day off, what can we say it is?  Here are three things to avoid, and three things to engage in.  (3)  Sabbath keeping is a discipline to avoid work, and technology associated with it.  Faithful Muslims stop five times a day to pray, and many people who are not Muslims wonder why they do it.  Many of us can barely slow down to pray once a week!  But what do we do at least five times a day?  Check our email.  Find out what our friends are doing on Facebook.  Take a picture of our lunch and tweet it for the world to see.  If we’re going to avoid work as part of our Sabbath keeping, then we’d better avoid the technology that goes with it.  A truly good Sabbath should probably avoid the overstimulation that goes with our addiction to technology in general.

                One of the things I want to try as part of my own reform of Sabbath keeping is to see how well I can do at steering clear of technology.  This will not be easy, but I want to try it!

                Sabbath keeping is also a discipline to avoid consumerism.  When the Sunday shopping laws were repealed in Ontario, people rejoiced, as if having one more day to shop in each week meant that they were going to have more money to do their shopping.  I remember saying when the NDP government repealed the Retail Business Holidays Act in Ontario that people would have the same amount of money to spend, regardless of how many days on which they had to spend it – but the way people abuse credit nowadays, I suppose I may have been wrong about that.

                Some seek to avoid any kind of commercial transaction on Sunday as a means of avoiding contributing to another person having to work on Sunday, but in this multicultural society, that seems less of a concern than the personal discipline of keeping the rhythm of rest from the things we tend to do on the other six days of the week.

                Sabbath keeping is also a discipline to avoid worry.  Christians should never worry, of course, because God has all things in hand, but by this sort of worry I mean the plague of the ‘to-do’ list.  There may be a list of chores as long as one’s arm awaiting completion, but that list will still be there on Monday if you ignore it on Sunday.  That list should be hidden in a drawer on your Sabbath so that it doesn’t disturb your Sabbath rhythm.

                Of course, if that ‘to-do’ list will still be around on Monday, that means there must be time carved out to accomplish its tasks.  This means having the discipline to structure our lives in such a manner that Sabbath can be taken and enjoyed.  When we can structure our week so that Sabbath becomes the pinnacle, instead of the option, we will find our lives altogether reoriented for the better.  Structuring our lives around Sabbath is an admission of our humanness.  It says, “I’m not God.  I can’t be in two places at once.  God can.  God is the one who never sleeps.”

                So if we are supposed to keep our hand out of the job jar on the Sabbath, what is its purpose?  Besides worship, (4) Sabbath keeping is a discipline to engage in rest for the body.

                If you’re going at it hard on the second to seventh days, your body needs rest on the first day.  Take it as a gift.  In my survey of Facebook friends, most of them included rest or sleep in their Sabbath traditions.  We were not made to go a hundred miles an hour constantly.  As one author (Wayne Muller in Barton, 131) has written, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath – our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.”  The body needs rest, and that’s part of the gift of Sabbath.

                Sabbath keeping is also a discipline to engage in refreshment of the spirit.  If you’re serious about your walk with God, you know that it’s a battle out there – so much of what we do day to day conspires to tear us apart spiritually, and Sabbath helps to refresh our spirits.  Worship, fellowship, personal devotion, trying to steer clear of what drains us – these bring refreshment to our spirits, which God knows we need.  He gives us these things through Sabbath.

                And Sabbath keeping is, finally, a discipline to engage in restoration of the soul.  I’ve quoted C.S. Lewis before when he said that we tend to get the order of things wrong:  we think we are bodies that have souls.  In fact, we are souls.  We have bodies.  We talk about the importance of staying in shape, and that is vitally important – but no less vitally important than the restoration of our souls, which happens not by taking a pilgrimage to some holy site, or by taking a canoe trip into the bush where there’s just you and a bazillion mosquitoes who only want to hang around you for your blood.  The restoration of the soul happens not as a one-off event, but by observing the rhythm God has set up for us in our keeping of Sabbath each week.  It is a gift from God.

                Sabbath keeping sounds like a weighty undertaking, but it shouldn’t be so.  What has me so excited about renovating my own Sabbath observance is that I know it will do me good.  I’m going into this not with sighing resignation.  I’m going to try to do what our Jewish friends do:  I’m going to try to fall in love with the Sabbath, and centre my week around it.  I’m not going to be legalistic about it with myself, and I’m not going to be legalistic about it with you, either.  It may take some time for us to adjust to God’s planned rhythm for our lives.  The Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath.  It’s a gift, not a yoke of oppression.

                Too often, though, our feeble attempts at Sabbath keeping look more like what Alistair Begg calls “McSabbath”, with little or no sacrifice required, like the pilgrimage or the canoe trip.  This may satisfy an immediate itch, but it cannot satisfy our souls.  Make no mistake:  given the kind of pace at which we live nowadays, and the manner in which we tend to structure our lives, keeping Sabbath will involve sacrifice.  It will be hard work.  But the benefits far outweigh the sacrifices.

                The gift of Sabbath is not an end in itself – it foreshadows the greatest Sabbath of all, the one that believers will experience around God’s heavenly throne.  This is why the writer to the Hebrews was able to say, “So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God” (Hebrews 4.9, NLT).  I don’t know about you, but I look forward to that time when there’s nothing to do but worship God and experience his grace flowing over us as we rest in the Lord.  Our own weekly Sabbath observance is really a rehearsal for that great heavenly Sabbath.         

                With that in mind, here are a couple of questions to consider as you look at renovating your own practice of Sabbath keeping (Barton 145):

  • What activities will I refuse to engage in so that it is truly a day of rest, worship and delight?
  • What activities bring me delight, and how will I incorporate them?

                 Put the date on your calendar, and pray that God will help you to honour this Sabbath and keep it holy.  Then just see where it starts to lead you!

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