This morning, we continue in our series entitled “Our Journey with Jesus”. We’re talking about things that we can practice in our day-to-day lives that will move us in the direction of being more like Jesus.
The first week, we looked at the discipline of “letting go” and we talked about the need to let go of anything in our lives that may be hindering our relationship with God. Because, before we can fill our lives with God, we’ve got to create some empty space.
And then the second week, we added “welcoming” or showing hospitality, as we talked about the importance of taking the kindness that you normally reserve for your friends or your family, and showing that same sort of kindness to those who are in need, especially to strangers.
Last week, we looked at “friending”, because we all need a friend, an anamchara, whom we can be honest with and open up to, and who will be honest with us and help us to be shaped into the image of Jesus Christ.
This morning, get your pillows out. We’re going to be talking about the spiritual discipline of “resting”. And some of you are saying to yourself, “Finally! A discipline that I can get excited about!”
Before we get started, though, I need to confess to you that I’m tired. For several years, I’ve been blaming it on old age, iron-poor blood, lack of vitamins, air pollution, water pollution, aspartame, obesity, dieting, cell phone radiation and a dozen other things.
But now, I find out, that’s not it at all. I’m tired because I’m overworked. The population of this country aged 18 and over is 230 million. But 50 million people are retired, and 50 million more are unemployed. That leaves 130 million people to do the work. There are 80 million people in school, so that leaves 50 million to do the work. Of this total, there are 30 million employed by the federal government. That only leaves 20 million to actually do the work.
Take from that total the 19.7 million people who work for the state and city governments, and that leaves 300,000 people to do all the work. But there are 188,000 people in hospitals, so that leaves 112,000 people to do the work. But there are 111,998 people in prison. That leaves just 2 people to do the work — you and me. And you’re just sitting there listening to me talk. So, it’s no wonder I’m tired.
Now I’m only joking, of course, but the truth is that many of us do feel tired much of the time because we are so very busy. Many of us feel guilty if we’re not constantly doing something. And I include myself in that number. About 15 years, Sueanne and I went on our first cruise. Before we left, a friend had told us how much he enjoyed going on a cruise with his wife. He said, “It was a great time to just get away and read a book.”
When he said that, I thought to myself, “Why in the world would I pay a lot of money to go out on a boat and read a book? I can do that at home!” So, when we got on the ship, we were given a list of all the activities, and immediately I made my list. “I want to do this and this and this, and I sure don’t want to miss out on this!” And after a couple of days, I was worn out. Fortunately, I got some sense back and by the end of the week, guess what I was doing? I was lying around on deck just reading and taking a nap. And I have to say that was the first vacation I ever took where I came back feeling rested. Let me ask you a question — Why is it so hard for us to rest?
The fourth commandment that God gave to the Jews was this: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11).
God commanded that this day of rest be observed by the Jews on the seventh day of every week. And God was very serious about this commandment – “You Jews need to take a break, prop your feet up, and rest for a while. I don’t want you doing anything strenuous on the Sabbath.”
Now, in terms of seriousness, where would you rank that commandment? And let’s be honest. Surely it doesn’t sound as serious as “Thou shalt not commit adultery” or “Thou shalt not murder.” But, in the midst of all these other serious commands, God said, “I want you Jews to take it easy for a while. I want you to take an afternoon nap, play some checkers, go for a walk.” What do you suppose should be the penalty for breaking that command?
God said that the penalty for breaking his commandment to rest was death (Exodus 31:15). If you don’t stop and rest one day a week, you get the death penalty. Folks, you can’t get any more serious than that!
And we know that God meant what he said because, in Numbers 15, there was a Jewish man who went out into the wilderness to gather some sticks for a fire. Which would not have been a problem except that he did it on the Sabbath. God said that the man was to be punished, and so the community took him out and stoned him to death (Numbers 15:32-26). And you thought your Mom’s punishment for not laying down and taking a nap was severe!
Now why in the world would God be so harsh about this particular commandment? I can only speculate, but I can think of several possible reasons.
(1) God knows how important it is that humans rest.
Jesus demonstrated this in his own life. In Mark 6:30-31, after Jesus had sent the apostles out into the community to preach and to heal people, it says, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”
This was an exciting time! The apostles had been out in villages talking to people and I’m sure they had a lot of stories to share with each other about who they had talked with, and who was willing to listen to them. And they had cast out demons, and healed people! And then Jesus said, “Come away by yourselves….and rest a while.”
I’m sure there had to be at least one apostle who said, “But Jesus, we can’t stop now. Lots of good things are happening. We need to keep the momentum going. Let’s keep on doing what we’ve been doing.” But Jesus knew they needed to rest. He wasn’t telling them to stop working. But, he knew that before they continued to do any more work, they needed a break.
I read somewhere about a study that was done several years ago by the Army in which they observed soldiers in various conditions to determine at what stage these soldiers achieved the maximum level of output. The Army discovered that after seven consecutive days of hard work, each soldier’s performance dropped.
But the most interesting thing they learned was this – that even though the soldiers’ performance level dropped at that point, the soldiers themselves didn’t realize it. They thought they were still operating at maximum level.
And maybe that’s why so many of us think we don’t need to rest….that it’s somehow lazy to take a break every now and then. We feel like we don’t need the rest, that we can continue to operate at maximum level for weeks at a time.
But we can’t. God knows the importance of rest. And he didn’t need an Army study to tell him. God made us. He knows how much this body can handle. And he knows that if we don’t take time to recharge our batteries, then we will very quickly wear ourselves out.
(2) God knows how much humans don’t want to rest.
Those of you who parents fully understand this, because we see the same resistance with our children. Have you ever watched young children fight sleep? They’ll whine and cry; they’ll keep themselves busy, running and playing just to avoid falling asleep.
But, whatever they’re doing, no matter how frenzied their efforts to stay awake, they will insist they’re not tired. I’ve known our kids’ eyes to lose their focus, and their heads look like they’re going to bob right off their neck in the middle of telling me, “Daddy, I’m not sleepy.” There are times when a mother or a father simply has to make a child rest.
God knew that man needed rest from his labor, and he also knew that man would resist it. And if God had simply told the Jews, “You know, you guys really ought to take a break every now and then,” there’s not a single one of them that would have taken God seriously. But when God said, “Either you stop and rest for a while or the punishment is death,” folks, you tend to listen to instructions like that.
(3) The Sabbath was a reminder of the Israelites’ freedom
In the account of the Ten Commandments given in Deuteronomy 5:15, these words are added to the instruction about the Sabbath. God said, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Now, in 21st century America, we take the five-day work-week so much for granted that we forget what a radical concept a day of rest was in ancient times. There was nothing similar to the Jewish Sabbath rest in any other ancient civilization. In fact, the Greeks thought the Jews were lazy because they insisted on having a “holiday” every seventh day. In ancient times, leisure was for the wealthy and the ruling classes, never for the servants.
And so, the Sabbath was designed to remind the Jews of their freedom. Slaves didn’t get days off, so every time the Jews observed the Sabbath, they remembered that they were no longer slaves. As one modern Jewish writer puts it, “in a more general sense, [Sabbath] frees us from our weekday concerns, from our deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, we are slaves to our jobs, to our creditors, to our need to provide for ourselves; on [Sabbath], we are freed from these concerns, much as our ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.”
(4) The Sabbath was a test of the Israelites’ faith in God
When other people living around the Israelites noticed that the Jews didn’t do any work on the Sabbath, it provoked them to ask questions. Everyone else worked seven days a week. You had to if you were going to survive, or at least that’s what they thought. “Why do you Jews only work six days a week and refuse to do any work on the seventh day?” To which, they could respond that they did this as a testimony to the fact that they belonged to Almighty God and that they were trusting in him to provide for their needs.
Now I’m not a farmer, and I’ve never lived on a farm. So, for the longest time, I missed something very important in the Sabbath commandment. As I understand it, there is a certain timing for everything you do as a farmer. You plant your crops at a certain time of the year according to what the climate is and how that crop deals with the climate, and then you know pretty much what time of the year your crop is going to be ready for harvesting.
But, timing is crucial. If you wait too long and you don’t get all your crops planted before the heavy rains come, then you’ve got real problems. And if you allow your crops to stay too long in the field, you’ve got problems, too. Everything will rot and be of no value. Timing is everything.
So, you would think that God, who knows how crucial timing was to a farming culture, would surely make an exception during those times of the year when the crops were being planted and harvested. Surely God would allow them to work on the Sabbath and then make up for it later on in the summer when they were just sitting there watching the crops grow. But in Exodus 34:21, God said, “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
I want you to notice this. God was testing their faith. He wanted to know, was the Jews’ faith in their own ability to get that crop in the ground and then harvest it in the fall, or was their faith in God, the one who made the crops grow in the first place? Don’t you know there were plenty of times when Jewish farmers looked up at the storm clouds on the Sabbath day and were tempted to say, “I don’t care what God says, I have to work today, or I can’t make ends meet”? God wanted to know, “Do you trust me?”
The problem with the Israelites and with us, is that we sometimes don’t have enough faith in God to really believe that he is going to meet our needs. If we don’t work those extra hours, then we’re just not going to be provided for. So, we work and we work and we work and we wear ourselves out because we just don’t believe that God can take care of us if we don’t.
Now, of course, we understand that the Sabbath law was for the Jews and not for us. We don’t observe the Sabbath today. And despite what you may have heard or been taught, Sunday is never referred to in the Bible as “the Christian Sabbath”.
Now, it’s often been treated that way. It used to be widely accepted in our society that you shouldn’t work on Sunday. I can remember a time when you didn’t dare mow your lawn on Sunday. And most stores were closed on Sundays (not just Hobby Lobby and Chik-Fil-A!).
While I appreciate those business owners who provide a day for their employees to worship God and spend time with their families, and I do think there’s tremendous value in Christians using Sunday in a way that indicates our devotion to God, I don’t believe that we can take all the Jewish laws regarding the Sabbath and apply them to Sunday.
However, I do believe there are some lessons that we need to learn from the fact that God commanded the Jews to rest.
Understand, God is not against work. From the time that Adam was in the Garden of Eden, work was a part of God’s plan for our lives. God told Adam, “Don’t just sit around twiddling your thumbs, working Sudoku puzzles. No, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15). In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, God says that those who aren’t willing to work shouldn’t be allowed to eat.
God is not against work. But he is against work consuming our lives. He is against us finding our significance and self-worth in our work. He is against us filling our lives so full of work that we don’t have time for him or for other people. He is against us working so hard and so long that we wear ourselves out – physically, emotionally and spiritually. And so, he told the Israelites that they needed to stop from their work on a regular basis, and rest.
And I think it’s worth noting that God didn’t just say, “Don’t work on the Sabbath.” He said to “rest” on the Sabbath. Now, you might think that’s the same thing, but it’s not the same thing at all. You can take a day of the week and not go to work, and still not rest. We can have our minds so filled with all the stresses of the week and all the problems that the new week is going to hold and receive absolutely no rest from a day away from the job.
And there many of us who need to learn the importance of rest. Busyness has become the hallmark of American lifestyle. We keep telling ourselves, “If I could just do a little more”, the job would be back on schedule, or the bills would be up-to-date, or I’d be a cinch to get this promotion.
And bit by bit we lose perspective, and we sacrifice relationships with our families, the very people we claim we’re trying to provide for, in order to reach our goals. We neglect our mental and physical health all in the name of getting more done. But, we will never accomplish enough or accumulate enough to feel satisfied. We will only become more tired.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to work hard, or that’s it’s wrong to achieve great things. But it’s wrong to allow our work to enslave us. What God wanted the Jews to understand, and what we need to understand today is that work must not become our god. We must not allow ourselves to become enslaved to our work.
Because I suspect that more and more of us find ourselves in a place not all that different from the Egypt where the ancient Hebrews were enslaved. Except that our slavery is self-constructed, self-imposed, and therefore much more difficult to detect or overcome.
We are enslaved to our notions of success. We are enslaved to ideas about our children or grandchildren having every opportunity possible, and therefore feel the need to schedule an activity into their every waking minute.
We are enslaved to the belief that the only thing that will bring contentment is more — more money, more things to put on our resumes, more things to put in our closets, more….
And when we become enslaved to these beliefs, we will find that we don’t have much time for anything but work.
I love the story I heard once about a fisherman who was lying on a beautiful beach, with his fishing pole propped up in the sand and his line cast out into the water. He was enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun and the prospect of catching a fish.
About that time, a businessman came walking down the beach, trying to relieve some of his stress. He noticed the fisherman sitting there and decided to find out why this man was fishing instead of working harder to make a living for himself.
He said, “You aren’t going to catch many fish that way. You should be working rather than lying on the beach!”
The fisherman looked up at the businessman, and said, “And what will my reward be?” He said, “Well, you can get bigger nets and catch more fish!”
The fisherman smiled and he said, “And then what will my reward be?”
The businessman said, “You can make lots of money and you’ll be able to buy a boat, which will then result in larger catches of fish!”
“And then what will my reward be?” The businessman was beginning to get a little irritated with these questions. He said, “You can buy a bigger boat, and you can hire some people to work for you!”
The fisherman asked again, “And then what will my reward be?” By this time, the businessman was getting angry. He said, “Don’t you understand? You can build up a whole fleet of fishing boats, sail all over the world, and let all your employees catch fish for you!”
Once again, the fisherman asked, “And then what will my reward be?”
The businessman was so mad at this point that he shouted at the fisherman, “Don’t you understand that you can become rich so that you will never have to work for your living again! You can spend all the rest of your days sitting on this beach, looking at the sunset. You won’t have a care in the world!”
And the fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”
I’m not suggesting that you all move to the beach and set up your fishing pole. But, I do want you to see that sometimes we caught up in the slavery of thinking that we’ve constantly got to be working harder and harder to get more and more, and God wants us to remember that there are more important things than work.
Let me share something with you that Darryl Tippens points out in his book “Pilgrim Heart.” It’s something that I hadn’t noticed before. I’m sure you’re aware that, as Jews mark time, their day doesn’t start at midnight like ours does; rather, it starts at sunset. That’s why Sabbath actually begins on what we would call Friday night. Whenever the sun sets, the Sabbath begins.
We see this same kind of language used in the story of the creation. Several times, after the creation of something, we read, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:5). That’s not written the way we would say it. We would say, “There was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” But no, no. God said, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
Like many of you, I was aware of this, but I hadn’t considered the implication. What that means is that under Jewish time, the first thing that happens in your day is, you rest. You rest, and then you work. Which, of course, is the opposite of the way we see it. We work, and then we go home and rest. But, for the Jews, rest always came first.
Henri Nouwen often made the point that there are three movements to the spiritual life: first solitude, then community, and then service or ministry. He based this on Jesus’ practice in Luke chapter 6. In that chapter, in verse 12, Jesus first went up on the mountain to pray. Then after that, in verses 13-16, he formed a community of followers. And then, in verses 17-19, he went out into society to serve others.
Nouwen says that all three of these stages or movements need to appear in the life of a Christian, but in that same order. Jesus spent the night in solitude with God. In the morning, he gathered his apostles around him and formed community. In the afternoon, with his apostles, he went out and preached the Word and healed the sick. The night is for solitude; the morning for community; the afternoon for ministry.
I think this helps to put things in the proper perspective. American culture tends to glorify a 24/7 kind of life. Going and doing are what’s important; resting, not so much. But, the evening comes before the morning. The night is for solitude and rest; the morning for community; the afternoon for ministry.
And so we rest. Not to be lazy, not to avoid the work that God has called us to do, but to better prepare ourselves for that work. And, if we choose to neglect that rest, we will never be able to accomplish all that God intends for us to accomplish.