Lord of the Sabbath and Sabbath Rest

Hebrews 4 talks about the place of “rest” within the community of believers.  It begins by pointing out that the community of Israelites that had been redeemed from Egypt were also the same people that did not enter into God’s rest.  “For indeed the good news came to us just as to them; but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.  For we who have believed enter that rest…” (Heb. 4:2).

The author of Hebrews connects Sabbath rest with faith.  If we were to stop here we might assume that faith is something we must strive for, which does not sound restful at all.  If faith is something that we must build and construct, then salvation is not dependent upon God.  Yet, Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is the “author and perfector” of our faith.  God “gifts” us faith.

It is the message that we have heard and are simply called to respond in obedience to.  If we are “working” to earn our salvation then we have not truly entered into the rest which God gives.  Furthermore, we have not submitted our lives to the sovereignty of the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).  If faith and salvation are really by God and from God, then it is not dependent upon us to establish our own faith or salvation.

Rather, we are simply called to respond in thanksgiving and obedience to the good news we have received.  There is an assurance and confidence that accompanies this type of faith.  God is faithful and we can depend upon God’s character and nature to see both the initiation and the completion of our faith.

Hebrews sets up the importance of Sabbath for us by reminding us of David’s words: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (4:7).  Sabbath rest is about giving ear to hear what God is saying.  It is about giving space for God to speak into our lives.

But, it cannot be left at that alone.  The author of Hebrews understands “hearing” as something more than just “listening.”  Rather, “to hear is to obey.”  Our obedience is a sign that we have truly “heard” God speaking.  That is to say, Sabbath is primarily about orienting our lives entirely to God’s w(W)ord to us.  God’s word “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (4:12b-13).

Sabbath opens up space in our busy, hectic, self-centered lives in order to center our lives on the One who shows us who we truly are.  But, God doesn’t leave us there if we are willing to “hear.”  Rather, God transforms us through faith to be “a great cloud of witnesses” whose testimony points to our light and life: Christ Jesus – Lord of the Sabbath.

Sabbath and Surgery

Recently, my wife needed to have surgery.  It was not a very invasive procedure.  It was an outpatient ordeal.  The surgery went fantastic.  I was very thankful to hear.  Upon release my wife received instructions about caring for herself while she recovered.  The main requirement was rest and not to over-exert herself.  Rest does not come naturally to my wife.  Sitting around, for her, makes her thinks she is being lazy.  Her natural inclination is to make herself busy with things to do and accomplish.  But, if she really would like to recover quickly and totally she had to rest and allow the body to restore itself in time.

Sabbath, I am learning, is more than just resting. It’s healing. Rest is an important factor because of what it leads to: wholeness. Perhaps continuing to push ourselves without allowing proper rest and healing is akin to straining the body too much after a surgery. It can only lead to more complications, weariness, and pain. Healing cannot happen without rest. I am reminded of Jesus’ words, “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Jesus came to heal and make whole. We are restored to new life as Sabbath becomes an entering into the wonderful rest of a Savior that brings healing to our hurts.

Sabbath and Carpentry

For the past month I have been working with a friend doing various carpentry jobs around the OKC metro area.  I have done such work before on a limited basis.  So, most of this has been learning new skills and getting to know my friend better.  This has been a wonderful new experience.  On the days that I have worked, I have generally woken up very early and worked long hours (up to 15) those days.  It can be strenuous work physically and it can definitely test your patience when things are not cooperating as you might hope.

However, with that said, working this job and getting to know my friend better has been a wonderful Sabbath.  My primary occupation is a youth pastor and a Master’s student.  This is who I am.  It can become very difficult to live out each of these “jobs.”  Learning a new skill and spending time with a friend that I can discuss difficult issues has allowed me to pause, reflect, and learn.  It has broken my regular rhythms and has become a means of grace.

Odd that I should say something like that about carpentry and working long, hard hours.  As I reflect upon why this is Sabbath-like, I can only come to one conclusion.  Working carpentry with my friend allows me to rest from my typical concerns.  It is therapeutic.  I can rest my mind and find enjoyment in what my hands have made.  It’s not about how much money I can make, but it really has become a way to deepen a relationship that I value and learn new skills that I find interesting.

It is a life-giving endeavor.  It is a way for me to pray and play, yet oddly gives me rest in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life.  Who would have thought that Sabbath can be found in building closets, putting in doors, or trimming out houses.  It’s not primarily about the activities we perform, but rendering our lives open to a fresh touch from God in the midst of the places we find ourselves.

Sabbath and the Contemplative Pastor

I really enjoyed reading this book.  More than that though, it was challening reading Peterson’s understanding of pastoral ministry.  I found myself wrestling with the tensions that he describes.  How do we fulfill our vocational calling while treating those we minister to with Gospel dignity.  That is a difficult tightrope to walk at times.

I especially like the distinction that Peterson makes in outlining pastoral vocation as unbusy, subversive, and apocalyptic.  Unbusy indicates that pastors are not bogged down by “running” a church.  Although administration is part and parcel of our “job” as pastors, that is not what we are called to “be.”  Being unbusy means that we are unrushed.  It is not a “works-based” righteousness.  It is important that we embody that in our ministry.

It is about being saturated in prayer and Scripture.  The Spirit, not the calendar, directs our lives.  We are not called to be important (we usually show our importance by how much stuff we do).  It is a vanity that says the Church cannot survive without my effort.  Being unbusy is a resting in God’s work in the Church and that we are called to “be” not “do.”

Furthermore, we are called to be subversive.  We oppose the culture and what it deems we are to be as pastors and as people.  It means that the kingdom of self is replaced by the Kingdom of God in our lives and in the lives of our congregations.  It is looking for the Kingdom that is even now burgeoning in our lives.  And, it is allowing our wills to be subsumed by that Kingdom so that we are partners with God’s re-creational work in the world.

Finally, pastors are apocalyptic.  This is not end-of-the-world proclamations aimed at our people.  Rather, the apocalyptic pastor is one who prays, perseveres, and uses language poetically (as a “maker”).  We are truth tellers that are shaped by the Word and employ words to shape the world.  It is a confidence that God’s work in the world is already happening and will come to fruition and completion in the fullness of time.  Sabbath helps us “cease” so that we are fully present, able to listen, and focused upon what God is doing rather than on what we are doing to bring God’s Kingdom about.

For me, it has been a struggle to stop.  I don’t do it very well.  This has been especially true with finishing school, keeping up with ministry, and finishing wedding and honeymoon plans.  There’s so much to be accomplished and it seems there is so little time to accomplish it in.  Plus, I feel important when I have responsibilities that I am able to juggle.  It shows competence and skill.

But, too often it denigrates into building my kingdom rather than seeking to build God’s Kingdom.  It is an exercise in ego.  And, although I cannot neglect all of these activities and goals, it is important that I realize what is truly valuable and important in this life.  It is vital that I remember that I am valued because of who I am in Christ, not what I accomplish in life.  It doesn’t eliminate all of the tasks that must be finished, but it does prioritize them.  Sabbath is helping me remember this and re-evaluate my life in light of those facts.

Sabbath and Sickness

I have been sick the past week.  It has been rather inconvenient and miserable.  The misery was compounded by the fact that I became ill during Holy Week.  Of all weeks to be sick during the year, this is by far the most inconvenient.  I had parts in the Seder meal, was designing and setting up the service for Good Friday, needed to participate in our church’s Holy Saturday work-day, and I looked forward to Easter service!  There was so much to do and so little time to do it.

To complicate matters, schoolwork and helping to plan our wedding consumed my energies.  I was staying up late writing papers, getting up early to complete tasks, going to class, attending meetings, and reading books.  To say the least, rest was the last thing I could afford at the moment.  It was an inconvenient thing I pushed to the side so that I could accomplish all that needed to be accomplished.

But, the body has a funny way of reacting to all work and no rest.  There comes a point where it eventually forces you to rest.  Exhaustion takes its toll.  The immune system runs like a beat up Ford Pinto.  Finally, Sabbath is forced upon you.  Many of the tasks that I had planned to accomplish or the things I planned to attend were put on hold.  They did not get accomplished.  Work became secondary.

My body, which God designed, had re-oriented my world.  At first, I was not at all pleased with this situation.  I worried about all of the “dropped” responsibilities I had neglected.  I resented my body’s lack of stamina.  Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the “Sabbath” I had been forced to observe.  The world continued without me, the church did not fail, my work eventually was completed.

My lack of productivity was directly linked to my lack of rest.  But, more than that, the lack of rest atrophied my ability to enjoy life at the moment.  Sickness usually does not come at convenient moments, neither does Sabbath.  There’s always something pulling for our attention.  There’s always something needing to be accomplished.  But, finding the value of rest can make all of the difference in how we truly live, not just exist.

John 9: Light of the World

In John 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth.  It is a miracle that is performed on a Sabbath.  Of course, the religious leaders condemn Jesus for working of the Sabbath.  God does not give us the Sabbath simply to make us stop working.  Rather, the stopping of work on Sabbath directs our attention back to the redemptive work God is doing in and among us.  Getting caught up in the “demands” of the Sabbath without being aware of God’s presence and work leaves the Sabbath as a dead ritual.  It ceases to be life-giving.  Like Jesus, we are to “pause” and see the opportunities for God’s life-giving activity.

I am reminded through this passage that my own routine, even when I am not working, often is not Sabbath.  I am caught up in the theological questions and enigmas as were the disciples.  I discredit those that claim God’s work in their life with this-world explanations, as did the Pharisees and neighbors.  I worry and fear about how other perceive me rather than how I am perceived by God, as were the man’s parents.  I am confronted with my own blindness but have the audacity to question back, “What now?  Am I blind, too?”  I have all of my theological categories, presuppositions, and beliefs pulled together.  If it doesn’t fit in my theological box, I am quick to dismiss it as something other than God.

But what happens when God does something that doesn’t fit in my theological box?  What happens when my blindness is exposed?  Do I clamor back to the comfort of my darkness or am I willing for sight to be given by the Light of the World?  Sabbath, for me, must become much more about stepping into the Light.  It must become about putting down my guard, putting aside my box, and presenting myself before a God whose light exposes my deepest shadows.  Sabbath may be about ceasing so that we may rest… but it must also be a ceasing from striving to control, constrain, and categorize God’s work.  It is a rest in which our attention is drawn back to the One “sent” from God so that we may “see” and be saved.

Sabbath and Silent Salvation

The silence is deafening.  No mighty wind, no earthquake, no fire… just silence.  Sabbath and silence.  “Be still, and know that I AM God.”  Why is it that I find the silence so difficult to dwell in?  It could be that the culture around me saturates itself with busyness and sound and activity.  But, I am coming more to realize that this is not even the issue.

The difficulty with Sabbath and silence is that I have to come to terms with myself.  I come face-to-face with myself, with my finitude, with my creature-ness.  My world is re-oriented… but not around me.  I find that I am lacking, insufficient, and inadequate.  In short, I’m not God.  I have come to the end of myself and have entered fully into the silence.  It is in this silence that I hear the still small voice.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”

In the fire of that silence, I am changed, purified, and humbled.  I am creature, fully human.  It is not because of what I do but because of who God is.  Like Moses, I find myself on holy ground in the middle of the mundane desert of life..  Like Isaiah, I find myself a sinful man in the midst of a sinful world needing God’s transformative work in my life.  And, all too often, I find myself like the disciples sleeping while I should be praying.

To be honest, silence is difficult to enter into fully because there is always the probability that God will reveal Himself and may change us.  We drown out the still small voice, hoping to muffle the call of the Holy One.  Change is rarely something we chase after and accept willingly.  We inundate ourselves with noise and activity because to enter in Sabbath silence means we might meet God and be called to a new life.

But, we are comfortable with the old way.  We want to be God.  We want to call the shots.  We want to be in control.  But, it is only when we recognize our created-ness and center our lives upon our Creator that we become fully human and fully present.  It is only in this that we become truly free.  Sabbath re-orients us, reminding us of who we are and Whose we are.  We leave the noisy productivity of Egypt and walk into a desert dependence upon God.

Sabbath as Kairos: A Salvation Event

Robert Webber reminds us of the importance of time in worship.  Chronos is ordinary time.  The regular moments of every day that sequentially move us from minute to minute, day to day, and year to year.  Kairos is a different measure of time.  “Kairos is time that marks a crisis or a turning point in history” (Worship is a Verb 156).  These moments of time are the interjections of God’s work in the world.  Scripture speaks of various moments in time that have been Kairos moments for God’s people.  The God-moments forever transform God’s people and mark their journey.

Webber writes, “Like the Hebrews, Christians also have a kairos moment which informs and gives meaning to historical sequence.  It is the Christ-event – the birth, life, death, resurretion, ascension, and promised return of the Savior.  As Christians, we confess that all time has a center.  And that center is Jesus Christ himself who has redeemed all things… From this center, this kairos event in history, the meaning and significance of all time radiates.  It is through the remembrance of the Christ-event in worship that we are able to sanctify all time.  Therefore, time in worship now becomes a means through which we can enter into the service of the King… by recapitulating the kairos event, [we] can mystically and symbolically represent time as redeemed and proclaim the birth, life, death, resurrection, coming of the Holy Spirit, and return of Christ” (156).

Sabbath is not chronos but kairos time.  It is a crisis moment or turning point in our lives, a place for God’s interjection into our normal time and routine.  Sabbath provides space for those God-moments that form us as God’s people.  It is an opportunity for our lives to be transformed from the pharaoh-driven world to the Exodus rest of God’s salvation.  Kairos time still impacts and orders our chronos time.  It charts a course and directs our path.  Sabbath centers our lives upon Christ, who is the Lord of the Sabbath.  In so doing, we are directed to enter the chronos of life as holy people made in the image of God.  Sabbath, especially in our commercial and commodity laden culture, may well be a salvific event for us and for the Church as we recognize our value is found in Christ not commercialism.

Verbal and Symbolic Communication in Worship

Robert Webber’s book Worship is a Verb describes the communication that occurs in worship.  Webber believes that there are two forms of communication: verbal and symbolic.  Both of these modes of communication are well represented within Scripture.  This two-fold process of communication is also noted in scientific studies.  Webber writes, “I have been surprised to discover that recent studies in neuropsychology and communication theory affirm these two forms of communication as valid and significant means of passing information, values, and perspectives” (89).  If Sabbath living is about passing information, values, and perspectives to ourselves and others, then we may need to incorporate both verbal and symbolic communication.  Doing this will allow us to worship holistically.

“We now know that the left hemisphere the brain specializes in verbal skills, while the right side of the brain centers on nonverbal and inductive skills such as the spatial and poetic impluses of the person.  The left side of the brain is more word oriented and orderly while the right side of the brain is more symbolic and creative.  Now, we function from both the left and right sides of the brain, but some of us function more from one side than the other.  This is why for some people the communication of words is more effective while for others the communication of symbols is more powerful… since all people are capable of communication through both methods, improvement of both the verbal and the symbolic methods of communicating Christ in our worship experience is desirable.  It is also important for us to remember that communication in words and symbols is two-way.  While God communicates to us through words and symbols, we also respond and communicate with him through words and symbols.  Worship as an act of communication contains the ingredients of speech, symbol, dialogue, interaction, and relationship” (89-90).

The primary distinction between verbal and symbolic communication lies in the terms transmission communication and cultural communication.  Transmission deals with verbal communication.  It is about transmitting information from one source to another.  Information is passed along, analyzed, and learned.  Cultural communication deals with symbols.  It is worship that is done and acted out.  These can be nonverbal ways of communication (i.e. kneeling, communion, creating art).  Together, both forms of communication can impact the mind, will, and heart of the individual.  I say this because what we fill our minds with becomes what we act out and what we act out becomes our very character.  Worship when approached through both verbal and symbolic communication not only informs us but transforms us.  As such, there is a need for us to incorporate both into our worship.

This is undoubtedly true for Sabbath practice and living as well.  Sabbath is about communication with God.  It is opening up space for God to speak to us and for us to respond.  As with all relationships, we communicate on both levels.  We transmit information about ourselves to the other party.  But, we also use nonverbal, symbolic language to communicate: we hug to show affection, we nod to show we are listening, we smile, we clap, we fold our arms.  Objects can even take on special significance in representing our relationship (i.e. a gift, keepsake, or event).  Why should Sabbath be any different?  What sorts of practices can emerge out of both verbal and symbolic communication as a way of relating to God and growing in Him?  Moreover, what practices can we institute in our families that will also engage them in Sabbath together as was the custom in Jewish and early Christian homes?  As mentioned in other posts, worship cannot remain simply an intellectual affair if it is to be character shaping, both personally and socially.

Secularization of the Sabbath: Stony Soil

Robert Webber writes, “In these celebrations we rehearse our… identity and meaning, and we find the story of our lives in the larger story…  These times of celebration and festivity… bring a stop to my world, to my frantic scurrying around, and to the orderliness of my daily routine.  I am refeshed, restored, and renewed through laughter and play.  Friendships are renewed, relationships restored, and ties to friends and family are deepened…  For me, worship is in many ways like these festivities because it brings the past into the present by the telling and acting out the work of Christ.  It contains all the elements of festivity: coming together, story, symbol, memory, sharing, relationship, good will, giving, receiving… Worship connects me with the past, gives meaning to the present, and inspires hope for the future as my soul and spirit become blended again into the drama of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection” (Worship is a Verb 29).

Although Webber is describing worship, I do think there is a natural connection with Sabbath living.  For one, Sabbath is worship.  It is holy to the Lord.  But, it is not a ceasing of activity but a focusing of our energies upon God alone.  Sabbath is both personal and social.  It restores and renews our relationship with God, but it also deepens our relationships with one another by re-filling the well from which we draw, re-cultivating the soul to reap a harvest of love.  It is celebration and festivity, not merely dull lounging around without purpose.  Yes, it is rest, but it is a focused rest that helps us sort out and maintain what is of primary importance.  However, Webber realizes that worship in our culture is often typified by cold indifference.  Our secularization has in many ways impacted our ability to worship.

Webber notes, “Secularization must be understood as something more than violence, permissive sex, and political corruption.  It is a shift in the way we see and understand things.  There was a time when the idea of mystery was more a part of our thinking than it is now.  God was in his heavens – high, holy, and lifted up.  In worship there was a sense of awe and reverence in the presence of the One who was wholly Other.  But now we have either reasoned God out of existence or so reduced him to clichés and formulas that the mystery has disappeared.  Our approach to God is intellectual and scientific on one extreme and excessively “buddy-buddy” on the other; both are sorely lacking in imagination” (30).

This brings up similar issues from Walter Brueggemann’s book A Mandate to Difference and James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom.  Like Webber, they believe that a lack of imagination has seriously hampered the ability of Christians to fully, genuinely worship.  Sabbath restores our imagination by not merely removing us from reality, but by re-introducing us to true reality, God’s reality.  It re-orients us to God’s way in God’s world.  This requires imagination, the hope of a future.  Secularization, Webber claims, is the primary opponent to this goal.  “Liberals turned worship into a time for ethical reflection on the love of God, while conservatives concentrated on an intellectual defense of the gospel.  In both cases church leaders gave in to secularism and allowed it to defile worship.  Consequently, celebration through storytelling and symbolic action was put aside for a verbal approach to worship” (30-31).  The question we must ask is: What is true worship?

Webber continues, “Secularism has also affected worship through its distorted understanding of human personality.  Since secularism lacks a supernatural view of the person, it seeks to define personhood apart from the biblical concept that we are created in the image of God.  Instead, to the secularists, persons are defined in terms of economics, thought, or production… Worship that is principally geared toward dispensing intellectual information or pressing for results – massive church memberships or decisions – has already capitulated to the secular attitude.  It reduces human personality to a brain or a product, and worship deteriorates into nothing more than information for the mind or a product for the producer.  Secularization calls into question those elements that lie at the very heart of Hebrew and Christian worship.  Biblical worship is rooted in an event which is to be lived, not proven.  The purpose of worship is not to prove the Christ it celebrates, but to bring the worshiper so in tune with God’s reconciliation through Christ that his deathand resurrection become a lived experience… When our life story is brought up into the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, it then gains meaning and purpose” (31).

Sabbath cannot ultimately remain an intellectual construct and endeavor.  If it is to have real depth and genuine transformation follow, it must be a lived reality.  Sabbath is not merely a day but a lifestyle.  It is not a fad of culture, but a practice of the life of Christ in and through our own lives.  It is the restoration of human personhood.  Our value goes much farther than our intellectual capabilities, our jobs and positions, or our productivity capacity.  Sabbath can be just as prone to secularization and malpractice.  However, transformation happens when we keep the Sabbath to embody the Christ event in our lives and in our world.