The Lost Art of Rest

The Lost Art of Rest

You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy. Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. — Exodus 31:13b, 14a

Rest is medically, mentally, and spiritually vital for human health. But it is also rejected by an overbooked, overscheduled, and overconnected culture. In both the modern workforce and entertainment/sports pursuits there is seldom a quiet moment for reflection. When is the last time you were quiet and in a quiet room? To illustrate how completely we reject rest, just think about your first reaction when someone calls and wakes you up from sleep. The first thing out of our mouth is a denial that we were sleeping, as if that were some kind of drug addiction we were trying to hide from all our family and friend.

Moses, the great lawgiver, was instructed by God about Sabbaths. In some churches it is common to talk about Sabbaths. In Churches of Christ, not so much. It is often regarded as a component of the Old Law that Jesus never commanded for New Covenant believers. In addition, the Hebrew writer suggests that our Sabbath will be fulfilled when we enter into eternity. So, I grew up basically hearing about the Sabbath only as it related to the Jews and more often than not, the Pharisees.

In college, however, I preached for a small country church. I still have fond memories of the fine folks there, but in my young and sometimes arrogant perspective I scoffed at their Sabbath keeping. Now, granted, it was a kind of personalized Sabbath practice. Playing cards, going fishing, or working on your car were all frowned upon. Sitting back in a recliner after eating too much at a Southern country dinner table and watching wrestling on the television, however, was perfectly acceptable. Anyhow, I did encounter a kind of Sabbath keeping in my younger preaching years. I seldom see that any more.

Sabbath observance was a command of the Lord and one of great consequence. Before Moses was born, the Sabbath was established on the seventh day of creation when God rested. So it predates the Law and it is connected to the identity and reality of God.

The Sabbath was a sign. God tells Moses in our text that the Sabbath was a sign for the generations to come, so it was to last a long time. The Sabbath is a signal that we understand that God is the most important person in our lives and we dedicate time to growing closer to Him… not by working harder or studying deeper or praying better. Just by being with Him.

The Sabbath was so that the Israelites would know that God is God. He gets to make the rules about how we live our life. But more than just rule keeping…

The Sabbath was to remind us that God makes us holy. So it’s not Sabbath keeping that makes us holy, it is our identity with a God who rested. It is our trust that He will provide even if we do not exhaust ourselves in work and play on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was not to be ignored, at the penalty of death. Ok, we might just say at this point that God takes rejection of his word and will seriously. This might be a good place to revert to the idea that the LAW of Sabbath is an Old Covenant law, but the practice of Sabbath is an eternal principle. I know, that’s convenient. 

The Sabbath was to be regarded as holy. It’s all about holiness. More on that later.

The Sabbath command was written by the finger of God. It wasn’t Moses’ invention, but a Divine principle from our Creator. 

I think it is fair to say that if we fail to keep the Sabbath we do not expect to be stoned or for God to strike us down. In the Covenant of Grace in which we live we are not going to rely on precision obedience as a savior. But there is a deeper lesson beyond the law. God’s command to observe the Sabbath was not capricious. It had depth and significance… and I think we can see the result of the loss of Sabbath in our world.

It would be a sad rejection of grace to try to do what the Pharisees did – to establish what movements constitute ‘work’ and then try to do everything but those items. But to celebrate the Sabbath, there might be some ways…

*Reserve a day to rest or at least half a day once a week. I know, trying to schedule rest seems like an oxymoron but if we do not do it intentionally, then the cries of a thousand things that “have to be done” will drown out our purposeful Sabbath.

*Talk to God about your inability to sit still in His presence without making mental lists of the things you’re going to do once this forced Sabbath has come to an end.

*Holiness is the theme of Sabbath. God’s holiness is to become our holiness. What are we doing to become a more holy people? Trusting in our Abba is important. Do you think that He would ‘rest’ on the seventh day, declare that day holy, require all of Israel to stop working on that day, if it were not beneficial? Do you think if we just worked harder at it we could be a holier people … or is it that by putting down our tasks we can focus instead on renewal and faith? Charles Swindoll wrote, “To enter our Sabbath rest, we must put an end to self-reliance – trusting in our own abilities to overcome difficulties, rise above challenges, escape tragedies, or achieve personal greatness.”

*Talk about Sabbath. It’s a weird message. No one is talking about taking a weekly respite from the flurry of the world’s call. It will bless others to know there is a practice that can bring them peace and holiness, even just for a short time.

*Be kind to others. If you will embark upon the Sabbath practice, you can be assured that others will not. Even devoted Christians will often fail to heed the call to purposeful rest. It’s not our job to look down upon them or to judge them. No one obeys any command or practice perfectly.

*Don’t say “I can’t”. I know there are some reading this who are saying to themselves that the commitments and obligations of life make Sabbath keeping impossible. I can relate. Again, no one does it perfectly. But let’s be honest. Many of the things that are filling up our frantic days are put there by ourselves.

*A word to parents and families. Our inability to say ‘no’ to our children and the many activities available to them, and the fear that we/they might miss out on something great if we withdraw for a bit, is killing our families. How many of us are teaching our children to forget Sabbath because we allow them to fill up almost impossible to keep schedules? Has family time disappeared? What are the greatest values of our lives? If we value holiness, closeness to God, mental clarity, and bodily strength then we should value Sabbath.

*Be kind to yourself. That might mean not beating yourself up on not being a very good Sabbath observer. Remember, we’re not trying to perfectly keep a law, we are trying to live in rhythm with a principle. It might take some practice. Your Sabbath practice might start with an hour and grow from there. It might not be on the ‘seventh day’ but might be another time when you can devote yourself to quiet and peace. I know I continue to struggle with this.

Sabbath is out of fashion, a relic of a time and pace of life that can’t compete with our connected and conflicted world. Our calling is not to live up to the call of the world, but the call of God. Rest, friend. Unashamedly and in connection with God, seek Sabbath.

“Be faithful to your secret place, and it will become your closest friend and bring you much comfort. In silence and stillness a devout person grows spiritually and learns the hidden things of the Bible. Tears shed there bring cleansing. God draws near to the one who withdraws for a while. It is better for you to look after yourself this way in private than to perform wonders in public while neglecting your soul.” ― Thomas à Kempis

Thanks for reading. JD

Photo Credit:
Aaron Burden

A Promise and a Procedure

This week’s text in the International Sunday School Lesson is Genesis 17:1-14.  Ninety year old Abram received from God a promise and a procedure. The promise was first expressed from the time of his calling in Genesis 12.

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great,  and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Over and over God affirmed that he was going to keep his promise, no matter how unpromising the situation became. All of this was to come through a son. Not the son of the Egyptian slave Hagar, though Abram loved Ishmael and God blessed him in his own way. No, he was not the son of promise. Through it all Abram believed God. Even though his own devices and plans to try to help God failed miserably. Perhaps that’s at the core of the procedure.

God reminded Abram that he would the “the father of many nations”. He changed his name to Abraham (a footnote in the NIV says this “probably means father of many nations”). After affirming the land promise and the peoples promise, God gave Abraham a sign of the covenant he made with him.  It was a sign that would be a national symbol, every male would carry with him.

“As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.”

I will admit that most Bible class teachers are going to squirm a bit to be talking about such a personal procedure. It is one that would affect Abraham in a personal way also. He’s trying to procreate, and this is going to take some time to heal. It’s one more delay in producing a son with Sarah. This is quite a request for an almost-100-year-old-man and for all the males in his nomadic tribe. So Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on the same day. 

The term ‘circumcise’ means ‘cutting around’. In the last verse of our text, God uses that terminology to demonstrate his intention.

“Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

So a refusal to be circumcised was equal to being cut off from the promises of the covenant. We all know Abraham was the father of the faithful and he did act in faithful response to this command from God. In Israel’s history they kept this command, mostly.

During the journey through the wilderness, the practice of circumcision fell into disuse, probably because the Israelites were under God’s judgment during that time, but was resumed by Joshua’s command before they entered the Promised Land (Joshua 5:2–9). It was observed always afterwards among the tribes of Israel, although it’s not expressly mentioned from the time of the settlement in Canaan until the time of Christ, about 1,450 years later. (Freeman, J. M., & Chadwick, H. J. (1998). Manners & Customs of the Bible (pp. 23–24). North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers.)

By the New Testament times a question arose among the Apostles. The Gentiles were flooding into the church … they were an uncircumcised people … what is supposed to be done about this? At the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) it was decided that they could be allowed into the church without this procedure.

Later Apostle Paul would use the idea of circumcision in a spiritual way.

For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh… (Philippians 3:3)

 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ,  having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Paul also played down the role of circumcision for today when he concluded, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Circumcision  has been released from faith practices today except among Jews and Muslims. It remains a common practice among the general population. Neonatal circumcision has been the most common surgery in America for over a century. Nearly six out of ten newborns are released from hospitals foreskin-free in the United States, but it is rare everywhere else in the world. (LINK)

So how to apply this passage without demanding circumcision of all Christian males today? Some questions to ponder…

Are We Willing to do Difficult Things for God?

Observe the faithfulness of Abraham when he was asked to do a difficult thing. To institute this painful procedure he would have to put off for a while the desire of his heart, procreation with Sarah as promised by God. He could cut off the foreskin in obedient faith, or he could be cut off from the people of God. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ also calls us to demonstrate obedience, sometimes in difficult situations. A read-through of the beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount can demonstrate this.

Are We Willing to Obey God When the Path Ahead is Unclear?

Abraham’s obedience was not only difficult, it seemed arbitrary. Abraham demonstrates an obedience that is stunning in it’s borderless following. Even later when Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac, we are amazed at his faith demonstrated in obedience. Do we have enough faith to obey when we can’t see the significance of our actions? When we are obedient to God’s Word without having to understand all the details we are walking in fields of faith.

Do We Really Believe God?

We’re all given a choice in whether or not we choose to follow God, or take the path of being cut off from Him forever. But I think there’s a deeper issue at work here. Do we believe God when everything we see and experience is opposite of what He has promised? Who hasn’t looked up at the sky and with all we have within us shouted, “WHY?” Ultimately when we choose to follow God there are things that we do that may or may not make a lot of sense to us. Who can explain why baptism washes away sin? The Bible clearly states that it does, and I believe it. But the mechanics of that escape me. How does prayer ‘work’? Can we sense the Holy Spirit as He lives within us?  Do we need to know the answers to those questions before we can believe Him?

At first the circumcision of Abraham, and the nation, seems like an ancient ritual with nothing to do with our modern times. But in actuality it teaches us a lot about faith. That’s a discipline in which I always need to grow.

Thanks for reading, JD.


Photo by Colin Carey on Unsplash