I just wrapped up a week long vacation with my family. We rented a house near the beach in Santa Cruz and spent the week hanging out, eating, playing games, going to the beach and seeing other sights around the Santa Cruz area. Leading up to the vacation, I was really looking forward to this time off with my family in one of my favorite places on earth. Things have generally been busy between work, church, home, fatherhood and trying to squeeze in time for friends when I can. I could not wait to enjoy the break from work by spending non-rushed, quality time with my family and soaking in the sights and sounds of the beach. Thinking about rest and not working drew my mind to the idea of Sabbath and what the Bible tells us about rest.
The idea of Sabbath comes from the story of Creation in Genesis. On the seventh day, the account ends with God “resting”.
On the sixth day God completed all the work that he had done, and on the seventh day God rested from all the work that he had done. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation.
Genesis 2:2-3 (CEB)
The Hebrew word behind “rested” is where we get the word Sabbath. Later, in the book of Exodus the Ten Commandments instructs the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath supported by the idea that God rested on the seventh day and blessed it.
Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Exodus 20:8-11 (CEB)
Growing up in my church tradition, Sabbath meant “not working” on Sunday. But, this non-work was far from what my Jewish friends might understand as not working on Saturday when they celebrate the Sabbath. Sure we didn’t go to work or to school on Sunday, but there was often work to be done around the house. Cleaning, cooking and yard work could often fill up a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes naps were squeezed in, but more often than not we did some kind of work. When I became a youth pastor, it technically became my job to work on the Sabbath. The slight irony of serving others who had gathered for worship and “rest” was not lost on me. As I read and learned about Jewish traditions I discovered that Jews would do almost nothing on the Sabbath. Any preparations necessary would be done the day BEFORE so that there would not be any work to actually do once the Jewish Sabbath arrived at sundown, Friday night. They created and prepared for an environment of rest. I went to Israel and saw this first hand as practically everything was closed on Saturdays. Even the elevators were automated, stopping on every floor, so that your wouldn’t even have to work by pushing a button.
All these ideas of work and rest never really gave me a firm idea of what a Sabbath rest really looked like. Even the rest on my vacation was filled with what many would consider work. We drove, we went to an aquarium, we bought lunch, we pushed a few elevator buttons and we caused many other people to work. Some of this even happened on Sunday and Saturday. Yet, I felt rested. I enjoyed the whole vacation, shouldn’t there be some element of Sabbath in what we did?
In a recent post, I mentioned I had been reading The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton, and he brings up the idea of what he thinks the Sabbath rest means especially in light of the Creation story. He writes,
“When we ‘rest’ on the sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control. Most importantly this calls on us to step back from our workaday world–those means by which we try to provide for ourselves and gain control of our circumstances. Sabbath is for recognizing that it is God who provides for us and who is the master of our lives and our world. We are not imitating him in sabbath observance, we are acknowledging him in tangible ways….Sabbath isn’t the sort of thing that should have to be regulated by rules…If the sabbath has its total focus in recognition of God, it would detract considerably if he had to tell us what to do. Be creative! Do whatever will reflect your love, appreciation, respect and awe of the God of all the cosmos. Worship is a great idea, but it can be mechanical, and it may only be the beginning. It is up to the individual to determine his or her personal response to give the honor that is due.”
The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 146-147
For Walton, “resting” on the Sabbath is all about recognizing that God is the author of creation and is in control of the whole of the cosmos. By recognizing that, we admit that we are not in control and it is God who ultimately provides our work and the means to live our lives. Sabbath calls us to live into the understanding that we should not be defined by our relationship to work, but by our relationship to the purpose and function giving God.
The Sabbath rest gives us the chance to acknowledge God as it control, to not be defined by our work, and to offer thanks to God for those blessings. The Sabbath law is later restated in Deuteronomy but instead of creation, the support for keeping the Sabbath is remembering that the Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. They are called to remember the time that they were slaves, when their purpose came only from their work. Now, that they are not slaves, the Sabbath is a time to remember that God is in control and they should not be defined by, or slaves to, their work. While I totally understand the reason our Jewish brothers and sisters try to eliminate all work from the Sabbath, what I think Walton is getting at is that those rules and regulations could become another way we can fool ourselves into thinking we are in control. Rather, a Sabbath rest ought to be a time when we free ourselves from the constraints of work and engage freely with the world that God has blessed us with. Freedom from our work, freedom from “slavery”, allows us to open up to the whole world around us and not just the little corner we are stuck trying to control. With this focus, like Walton says, we are free to “rest” however we see fit. Not because you are forced to, but because God is in control and God has freed you to live life. That might include mowing the lawn, going to a museum, worshiping with a community, going on a hike, gardening, cooking, or whatever things you might do that allow you to be free from work and engage with people and the world around you unhindered.
For me, that was a day at the beach with my family. Watching my wife and 18 month old daughter play in the surf. Another day it was grilling some ribs and whipping up some mashed potatoes. Another day it was going to a friend’s church to join that community in worship.
Every day of rest was different, every experience of Sabbath was unique. None of them involved the constraints of my work and all of them were soaked in experiencing the vast, yet sometimes hidden, goodness of God’s creation. In that, the Sabbath becomes a quiet resistance against the temptation to always be in control. It is rebellion against the world’s push to work harder and faster in hopes of finding an always elusive level of happiness.
God through the Sabbath has invited us into the freedom of rest.