The Beginning of the Story of God
Part 4 – Holy Foursquare
And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me…
…Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
One morning, not too many years ago, Harvard President Neil Rudenstine did something he had never done before. He overslept. For this perfectionist in the midst of a major fund-raising campaign, it was a cause for personal alarm. After years of non-stop toil in an atmosphere that, as we might imagine, rewarded frantic overwork, Rudenstine collapsed. Later he told reporters, “My sense was that I was totally exhausted.” His doctor agreed, and it was only after a three-month sabbatical in the Caribbean (we all should be so lucky!) that he was able to return to his work at Harvard. The very week he returned, his picture was on the cover of Newsweek magazine beside a one-word banner headline which read, “Exhausted!”
Author Wayne Muller, who has done a lot of writing and reflecting on the busyness of modern life, wrote this a few years back. “As a founder of a public charity, I visit the offices of wealthy donors, crowded social-service agencies and the small homes of the poorest families. Remarkably,” he writes, “within this mosaic there is a universal refrain: ‘I am busy.’”
Many of us in this room this morning, I’m certain of it, would join in that refrain. You don’t have to be the president of an Ivy League university to agree: “I am busy. I am stressed out. I am running to catch up. My life, too much of the time, is crazy!” How many Sunday nights do you find yourself saying, “I just don’t know how everything is going to get done this week.”
And all this frantic rushing around and multi-tasking and over-commitment is killing us – sometimes literally, it’s killing us. I bet you couldn’t find a credible doctor, or psychologist, or pastor out there who wouldn’t attest to the fact that the faster we race through life the more stressed out we get. The worse our health gets. The more frazzled our relationships become. The less we rest. The less we play. The less we savor. The less we experience real joy, real peace, real beauty. We miss so much of it as we rush past, totally unaware.
My wife, Esther, and I have recently had these conversations again. Reflecting on the pace of our lives, we are certain of it – this is not the way it’s supposed to be. Do you ever find yourself saying that - This is not the way I want to live. Are you happy with the pace you’re moving, and level of stress you’re feeling, and the amount of time you’re getting to rest and savor life these days? If not, how did it get this way? How have we let things get so out of control?
This morning I want to suggest to you that it is, in part, because we have forgotten, or at least we have neglected, the Sabbath.
Now, as soon as I say that I know that there are a whole bunch of you who are ready to tune me out. I can hear it now. “The Sabbath,” you say, “was a nice idea. And 2000 years ago, I’m sure it worked well. But the ancient Israelites didn’t have mortgages to pay off, and college tuition to worry about, and homework, and soccer practice, and deadlines at work…” And the list goes on. Well, for those of you tempted to tune me out because you suspect I’m about to try to sell you an ancient home remedy to cure cancer, let me ask you to at least remain open to considering what it is God’s Word has to say along these lines.
We’re told that in the very beginning of creation, God worked at creating the heavens and the earth for the first six days of the week. And then, when Friday was over, God stopped. In the words of Genesis, “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” God then, we’re told, blessed that day and made it holy. In other words, he set it apart from the other days, that Saturday would look different from Sunday through Friday. Very different.
The word Sabbath is taken from the Hebrew word for rest. It literally means “to cease” or “to stop.” When you take a Sabbath, you cool it. You knock it off. You shut it down. You stop.
Now understand that God chose to stop. He didn’t have to stop. God wasn’t tired. God doesn’t get tired. God didn’t create by exertion. Remember, God simply spoke and creation came into being.
So why, then, did God rest? I want to suggest to you that God rested not for his sake, but for our sake. God rested so that a pattern would be set in the very fabric of creation, from the very start of it all, that work is to happen six days and then rest is to happen for one day. Six days work, one day rest. According to scripture, this is, and always has been, the rhythm of creation.
Just like everything else that was created that first week, this Sabbath rhythm also was created for our benefit. Just like light, and water, and mountains, and trees and animals, God made the Sabbath for us. It was a gift. Jesus himself, at one point, made it clear when he said to us, “[People] were not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for [people].” It’s a gift.
The Sabbath, I believe, continues to be a gift for us today.
In the Sabbath, we have been given the gift of freedom. Think about it. We are set free, by God’ example itself, to take a day every week and simply stop and rest. We are not slaves to work. And when we work, we can work hard, and give ourselves to it fully, because we know that soon there will be time to rest, and to play, and to enjoy. Don’t you love it when your boss, or your husband or wife, or your parents say to you, “Listen, you have worked hard this week. Today, I just want you to rest and enjoy yourself. Do whatever it is that fills your tank back up.” Don’t you love it when somebody says that to you? Well, God says that to you every single week. What a gift of freedom!
In the Sabbath, we have also been given the gift of perspective. When we follow the rhythm of creation and step away for a day each week to rest, we are guarded from our inclination to justify ourselves with our work. Our work, you see, whether it is our careers, our work as parents, or as students, or even as volunteers, can easily become an idol and a great source of pride. It can become the source of our value and meaning. That’s why so many of us love to tell people how busy we are. Even though it’s killing us, we want them to know we are busy because it makes us feel worthwhile.
But the gift of the Sabbath reminds us that we do not derive our value and worth from how productive we have been in our waking hours, but, rather, our value comes from the fact that we are children of a God who has created us in his image, a God who loves us passionately even when we are unproductive, and useless and broken. The Sabbath gives us this gift of perspective. We don’t have to prove our value by our work.
In the Sabbath we have also been given the gift of renewal. Consider this. Can you keep up the pace you are living for the next 30 years? How about even the next 10 years?
The story is told of a man who challenged his friend to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man, however, had a leisurely lunch and took several other breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that his friend had chopped substantially more wood than he had. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did." "Well, what you didn't notice,” his friend replied, “was that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.”
We are deceived when we tell ourselves that we will not be as productive if we take a whole day every week to rest? In reality, the opposite is true. Because as we keep to the rhythm of creation and take a Sabbath day once a week, God gives us the gift of renewal which then makes us even more productive in our work than we would have been had we just kept our noses to the grindstone. The Sabbath gives us this gift of renewal.
Lastly, in the Sabbath we have been given the gift of relationship. As Quinn reminded us last week, we were created in the image of a God who is, by nature, in relationship as Father, Son and Spirit. Part of God’s image in us, then, is our response-ability, our capacity to be in relationship with our creator and with the rest of creation. The Sabbath gives us the time to slow down long enough to nurture those relationships.
I know parents, for instance, who get this all backwards. They are always working. Seven days a week they are working. But they justify it, saying that they are working to provide for their kids. They want them to have the best. But the problem is, while it’s good that parents work hard to provide for their children, it’s not just a roof over their heads and stuff to fill up their closets which children need. Those kids also need mom and dad to stop working sometimes and just be together with them, to rest, and to listen, and to play, and to enjoy.
God, in the same way, wants us to work hard for Him. But God also wants us to stop sometimes and just be with Him, and enjoy Him, and listen to His voice, and worship Him. Psalm 46:10 says it as well as any verse in scripture. God says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Sabbath gives us that gift of relationship, relationship with one another, but also relationship with God.
So the Sabbath is a gift, a gift of freedom, perspective, renewal and relationship, a gift from a loving God who always wants the best for us.
But the question is, is it a gift that is still relevant today? We might agree that God wanted the Israelites to rest one day out of seven, but does God still expect us to keep up that rhythm.
I believe he does. For three reasons, I am convinced that time has not changed God’s perspective on humanity’s desperate need for Sabbath.
First, as I already mentioned, the Sabbath has its roots in the foundations of the world. God didn’t look down one day and say, “Whoa! Those people are working way too hard. I better give them some time off.” No. The rhythm of rest is woven into the fabric of creation. And this rhythm is reflected everywhere. Certain plant species must lie dormant during winter months or else they will die off. The sun follows a rhythm of day and night. The moon follows a rhythm of 28 day cycles, marked by four 7-day phases. Our bodies follow a rhythm of sleep and time awake. And we are to follow a rhythm of work and rest. Six days work. One day rest. The Sabbath is woven into the fabric of creation.
Second, I am convinced that the Sabbath is still meant for us because it is, as we read earlier, found at the heart of God’s Law, the 10 Commandments. And let me ask you, which of the other ten do you think has become obsolete and out-dated? Which of the other ten would we even dare argue should be regularly disregarded today? Murder? Adultery? Worshipping other gods? Lying? Stealing? Now, granted, there are some Old Testament laws which to not apply to our context – many of us, for example, enjoy a good ham sandwich from time to time. But the Ten Commandments and, in particular, this 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath , do not fall into that category. They are the heart of God’s law for his people, then and now.
Lastly, I’m convinced the Sabbath is still a gift God wants to give us today because in the New Testament, Jesus, himself, both practiced and upheld God’s command to keep the Sabbath. If you examine instances where Jesus speaks about the Sabbath, you will find that, while he did condemn many of the Jews for the way they went about practicing the Sabbath (e.g. turning it into a way for one to prove one’s piety), he never did suggest that the Sabbath itself should be set aside. Luke 4:16 is representative of many other verses I could share with you this morning. It reads, “On the Sabbath day Jesus went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” Jesus confirms it for us. The Sabbath is a gift God still expects us to receive, today as much as ever. If we fail, therefore, to honor the Sabbath rhythm in our lives, we not only break one of God’s most central commandments, we also fail to receive one of the greatest gifts we have been given.
Before I wrap up this morning, I do want to spend a few minutes talking about how this ancient rhythm of creation might play out in our lives today.
Personally, I was convinced many years ago that it was essential in my life that I learn to honor the Sabbath. Now, to be honest, Esther and I don’t always honor it like we should. Some weeks we disregard it as much as anybody. And yet, we are committed, and have been for some time now, to continue working to make this the rhythm of our family. Along the way, here are a couple things I have learned as we have tried to practice the Sabbath in our lives.
A couple of Saturdays ago our family did a particularly good job of receiving the gift of the Sabbath. The four of us woke up late and spent quite a long time in bed reading good books to each other. Eventually we wandered downstairs for a leisurely breakfast of apple waffles and bacon. Then, late in the morning, we went out to our driveway. And we took a fat piece of sidewalk chalk and we drew a giant square in the pavement and then divided that square into four smaller squares. We brought out our red and yellow rubber ball and I put just enough air in it to make it bounce just right. Then we began what turned out to be a pretty serious game of foursquare. You should know, that it’s been many years since my foursquare days on the elementary school playground. But in case you’re wondering, I’ve still got it. The cherry bomb is as deadly as it ever was.
Now I can see how an outside observer might conclude that there wasn’t a whole lot accomplished around our house during those few hours that Saturday afternoon. One might even say that, in the end, most of the day was a waste of time. When Saturday night rolled around, what did we have to show for ourselves?
But I wouldn’t trade a day like that for anything. It was probably the greatest gift I received all week. You see, there was something holy about that game of foursquare, something right, something that just fit into the rhythm of creation.
The crazy thing is, God commands me to do that, or something like that, every week. And frankly, I’ve come to realize that I’m a fool when I don’t obey. Amen.
The Next Step:
Or at least the part of the story we’re privy to.
Muller, Wayne, Sabbath: Remembering the Sacred Rhythm of Rest and Delight, (Bantam Books, c. 1999).
The Hebrew word “holy” literally means “set apart.”
Why six and one? Why not 10 and 1? Or 5 and 2? Nobody knows. But that’s just the way God does things sometimes. Look at the seasons. Why four seasons every year and not five? Sometimes God, in his wisdom and sovereignty, designs thing for purposes we simply can’t understand.
See Exodus 20:8-11.
See also Mark 2:23-27, Matthew 12:1-14, Luke 6:1-11.
See Paul’s words in Romans 14:L5-6, giving us freedom to celebrate the Sabbath on whichever day works best for us.
I’m indebted, in part, to David Gill for these thoughts in Doing Right: Practicing Ethical Principles, (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, c. 2004), p. 141-160.
Understand that keeping the Sabbath is ultimately a matter of justice. God deserves our time and attention on the Sabbath. If we don’t give it to God, we snub him and say that we do not believe he is worth our time. Yes, we love God by working hard for and with Him six days a week. But we also love God by one day a week stopping our work and just taking time to be with him, and to be with the ones around us he has given us to love.
In addition to the resources already footnoted, I would suggest the following as further reading in your quest to make the Sabbath a regular rhythm and gift in your life.