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