This past weekend I preached on Sabbath rest from Mark 2:23-3:6 at Christ Presbyterian Church in Mansfield TX. I was unable to finish everything I had on it, and decided to follow it up with a blog post, especially talking about and addressing some practicalities of observing Sabbath rest in light of the gospel.
The highlight of the sermon could be summed up in saying that far beyond the mere absence of work, Sabbath is more about the presence of true rest. The gospel is that the rest we need and crave is given to us by Jesus and His finished work on our behalf, and once we rest in His unchanging, unending love for us, we can in turn reach out to those with not only withered hands, but also withered hearts, and join Him in His mission to redeem, restore and renew all nouns – peoples, places and things – back to life in Him.
To listen to the sermon, go here. Would love to hear your thoughts so share a comment here, or there!
That was the title of a 2003 article in the New York Times by Judith Shulevitz in which she poignantly observed the desperate need we have as a society to once again observe the practice of taking designated time to rest. One of the priceless observations she makes in that article is that the need for Sabbath – a structured and socially practiced period of time for rest – goes far beyond the mere cessation of work or activity. She writes:
“Most people mistakenly believe that all you have to do to stop working is not work. The inventors of the Sabbath understood that it was a much more complicated undertaking. You cannot downshift casually and easily, the way you might slip into bed at the end of of a long day….That is why the Puritan and Jewish Sabbaths were so exactingly intentional, requiring extensive advance preparation…The rules did not exist to torture the faithful. They were meant to communicate the insight that interrupting the ceaseless round of striving requires a surprisingly strenuous act of will, one that has to be bolstered by habit as by social sanction.” (“Bring Back the Sabbath”, NY Times, March 2003)
She goes on to address why this is so.
“[When] Sunday was still sacred….not only did drudgery give way to festivity, family gatherings and occasionally worship, but the machinery of self-sesnorship shut down…stilling the eternal inner murmur of self-reproach.”
The “eternal inner murmur of self-reproach” – the ceaseless striving we all have – is a part of who we are as human beings. And it is the work beneath the work of our days and weeks that make us truly weary.
This is the main point Jesus teaching on the Sabbath. If one were to go to Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament on what is allowable and what is prohibited to do on the Sabbath, you will be woefully disappointed because he does not say much. And even when He is asked questions to this end, He simply changes the subject; or perhaps more accurately, He reorients the question and questioner to see that such lists and regulations are of lesser importance than the true meaning of Sabbath rest and the implications of Jesus life.
The true rest we need is not the mere cessation or absence of activity; it is to stop our ceaseless striving to earn approval and achieve significance through what we do and instead rest in the completed, finished and satisfactory work of Christ on our behalf! When God Himself rested from His work of Creation in Genesis 1-2, it was not because He was tired, or He needed to recharge His batteries; nor was it because He had to observe a sacred rhythm and ritual of working and resting. He did so because He was completely satisfied with His finished work. It was a time for joy, celebration, and no longer tinkering, building or improving. He looked at all He had done and declared, “It was very good.”
Jesus on the cross declares again, “It is finished” and because of His perfect life and sinless, substitutionary death, the full Godhead (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) are once again satisfied. Our ceaseless striving not only can, but must cease, as we find our true rest in Him alone. It was because he suffered under the weight of our ceaseless striving, experiencing the “no rest for the wicked” what we deserve (cf. Isaiah 57), that we can receive, experience and rest in the rest He deserved!
Jesus heals shriveled humanity on the Sabbath – both those with shriveled hands as well as shriveled hearts! Far from being turned in on ourselves, true Sabbath rest moves us beyond ourselves and our activity to rest in Him and reach out to others.
This is all well and good, but what does this mean practically for you and me on Monday? Or Tuesday? Or when we go home, or to church, or though the rest of our days and weeks?
I want to offer a few hopefully helpful and practical thoughts for what it means for us to practice Sabbath rest (not an oxymoron) in light of the gospel. Because the gospel does not only produce profound, true, deep rest that we crave, but also movement and motivation to reach out to others – to God in worship and celebration, to our fellow family members of the faith in community and remembrance, as well as to a weary and tired world around us.
Here are Three Inner Disciplines and Four Outer Disciplines to help us practice Sabbath rest in light of the gospel.
1. Practice Liberty
Sabbath is a time for freedom and joy, not slavery and drudgery. One of the principle reasons for Israel’s freedom from bondage and captivity in Egypt was to experience freedom to worship God alone. This included the Sabbath, a single day of rest from their heavy burdens and labors under Pharaoh’s rule. Let’s not make our Sabbath day then about more rules, restrictions and regulations. Use it as one day among many that we learn to live out our freedom as sons and daughters of God. This is not just freedom from paid work and income producing activities. Perhaps, you need to practice liberty and freedom from your tendency toward busyness, or laziness? Maybe you need to practice liberty in terms of saying Yes because you always say No; or vice versa. Maybe you need to practice liberty from your smart phone, computer, or even your good books or favorite eateries and restaurants (or maybe you need to go out to eat!).
What would freedom look like for you? Given your situation and station in life? Given your temperament and personality?
2. Active Trust
To take one day out of seven to not do any work, any income producing activity, can be daunting, especially given our current cultural climate. There will always be pressure to keep pushing, striving, and improving your self, let alone get ahead in your job. To take a period of time and declare that you will not actively trust in your self and what you can produce, you are at the exact same time actively trusting in God to meet and perhaps even exceed your needs and expectations.
This is no small thing. By failing to take time off, you are declaring that you got this; but by doing so, you entrust yourself to One who has your best interests at stake and is far more interested in your life and situation that you probably are. Trust Him.
3. Respond in Grace
We all have certain levels or threshold for giving grace to others, or even ourselves for that matter. Our default inclination is to relate to other people based on merit – how well did they (or I) perform? Did I measure up? Etc. But Sabbath rest is about receiving and resting in grace – what someone else has produced, procured and secured on my behalf. We should then have a tendency to make grace our knee-jerk, first movement and reaction. And if we can’t or we’re not quite there yet, make it the second movement, if not the first.
One example. When you go out to eat (whether it’s lunch on Sunday or some other time and place), try leaving the tip out of grace, and not merit. Don’t start at 10% and make the serve earn extra; decide in your mind that you will give at least 20%, and perhaps a little more if the service is extra good! Be counter-intuitive to not only the way the world works, but the way your temperament or track record might lead you to be. You have received grace; extend it to others.
4. Take more time for Sabbath
This is simple, but not easy. If we are going to practice Sabbath rest, we actually have to make time for it. Put it in your calendar. When will you block out time to practice Sabbath rest? When will you purposefully make time to practice liberty from producing, actively trust in God to provide, and respond in grace?
If you are in a profession that mandates you work on certain days of the week – whether Saturday or Sunday – when can you carve out time to engage in the discipline of resting in Christ? Maybe it can’t be a full day for you given your station and circumstances in life, but there’s some time in your week I’m sure. Block it off and make it happen. It will do your body and your soul good.
5. Inject Sabbath time into regular time
I am thankful for the increasing body of research that gets at this one. Where and when can you inject some of this Sabbath time into your normal time, or a regular day? I’m talking about the new trend of looking favorably upon the afternoon “power nap” (not the 2 hour kind, but the 15-20 minute kind). Or, if you are stuck at a desk for most of your day, but you get a few minutes of break here and there, maybe you can take a walk around your building. Maybe you can schedule a lunch with someone else to help you refuel and energize you (one key component of Sabbath rest is that it is not merely private, but communal as well – more on that below).
Our days have a rhythm just like our weeks. Where can we inject time to rest, reflect and re-engage with what God has done for us in the gospel both personally and with others throughout our day?
6. Balance Sabbath time
Tim Keller in his sermon on Sabbath from Luke 6 helpfully lists out three areas, or buckets, of Sabbath time that are helpful and necessary. He divides it up as avocational, leisure and contemplative spheres.
Avocational – what you enjoy doing, that’s not work related (Example: Professional fishermen might not actually find fishing restful). What can you make time for that your regular job and hours during the week don’t make time for? You might enjoy writing, but if that’s what you spend 90% of your time doing during your job, are there other areas of interest that you might miss out on, and now, you finally have the time to explore or experience? What are some of those avocational areas of life that could be restful and energizing, but the tyranny of the urgent or the important during the week, make no time for?
Leisure – Sabbath is a time for joy. What are those things you love doing, that refuel you, and that are just fun? Incorporate this aspect into your times of Sabbath rest.
Contemplative – There is a time and a place for reading, thinking and even journaling. Take some time to read your Bible, or some good book of doctrine and christian living. Journal your thoughts out too, and engage in prayer. With the constant onslaught of distractions and drivenness during our week, carve out some time to do the hard, heart work that pays so much more than it costs. But it’s important to take the time to do so.
7. Be Engaged in Community and Accountability for Sabbath time
This is by far, I think, the most significant lever we can pull personally to get the most out of true Sabbath rest. We are created by community, for community, and we will not experience true rest outside of it. Here’s what I mean. God created you to image Him, and He is One God in Three Persons (or Trinity). He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each unique and differentiated persons, but still one God. To image Him then, we must not only be unique and differentiated persons, but we must find and situate ourselves within a community.
This is where being involved in a local church is so important. It is our opportunity to find ourselves by being committed to others. And it is as we are part of a community that we can in turn remind each other not only who we are, but Whose we are, and so continually rest in His love for us.
Who are you engaged with in terms of community? Who is holding you accountable for not only believing, but living, out of the rest the gospel provides? Who can you reach out to with that same rest?