Sabbath: God’s Day Off

Scripture: Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:10-11

A couple years ago I was invited to lead a workshop on self-care for newer pastors in our conference.  It’s a funny thing, realizing that the part of your job you are apparently known for among your colleagues is your ability to not do it sometimes.  I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it, but I do actually care about this topic, so off I went to Richmond to lead this workshop.

Self-care is a pretty big buzzword these days, not just in the ministry world, but also in the secular one, perhaps especially in the world of things targeted at women.  It may conjure up images of bubble baths adorned with candles, getting a pedicure or a massage, or a day spent at a winery with friends.  Nothing wrong with any of those things in moderation, of course, but those things are not what we talked about in this workshop.  Instead, what we talked about was setting boundaries around our time.  Saying no when no needed to be said.  Not checking your email on your day off.  Committing to being at home to eat dinner with your family at least most nights a week.  Leaving the office early to get some exercise when you have to be back in the evening for a meeting.  These are the kinds of things my colleagues were struggling with, and while some of the details may be particular to pastoral ministry, I think the struggles themselves are not.

This sermon series we are beginning today is, likewise, not about whether your nails are done or you’ve had the chance to take a nice bubble bath lately.  But it is about learning to set some boundaries around our time.  And it’s particularly about this one boundary that God seems to explicitly expect of us: this idea that one day a week, we are supposed to just stop our work, say no to all the crucial things that demand our time and energy, and simply rest.  This is the idea we call Sabbath, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to stop.”  The practice of Sabbath is a form of self-care, though it is not the only form, and it may even seem like a strange form, this day that forces us to slow down and get even further behind in our work and lives.

If you were Jewish (depending heavily, of course, on what kind of Jewish you were) you might have a strict set of rules to follow in order to set and keep this boundary in time.  Don’t walk more than a certain distance.  Don’t turn the lights on and off, if you are orthodox.  Set aside your electronic devices, for some Reform Jews.[1]  That’s the funny thing about Sabbath, is that rest can actually end up taking a lot of effort.  It’s not just about doing whatever we want.  It’s fundamentally restrictive, because it rests on this idea that we need to actually be stopped, that we’re not just going to do it on our own.

Often Christians seem to think that when Jesus came he did away with all these silly rules, but that’s not really true.  Jesus certainly pushed back on multiple occasions against a legalistic interpretation of the Sabbath, one that lifted following the rules over and above responding to urgent human need.  “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he said (Mark 2:27), but we do tend to conveniently ignore the first part of that, the fact that Sabbath is still something God has made for us.  I think we ignore it less because of our Christian theology and more because it’s not our natural inclination to want to stop.  We are more inclined, at least in our culture as I experience it, to push the limits, to squeeze thing in, to produce, produce, produce.  Here in America, we’re good capitalists that way, right?  I mean this for myself, too, despite that fact that I was the one teaching that workshop.  Life simply gives us so much to do; people simply expect so much from us, whether they are our boss or our family or our friends; honestly, sometimes we just expect so much from ourselves.

I don’t assume that anything about this series over the next few weeks is going to make it magically easier for you to set this boundary that God expects us to.  But maybe what it will do is give you some idea of why it might be a good idea to try; why the practice of Sabbath might in fact be not just a rule but a gift.

Historically, we don’t know a lot about the origins of this thing called Sabbath, whether it was a uniquely Jewish practice or one they held in common with other surrounding cultures in the Ancient Near East.  What we know is what we read starting in Genesis, that God created the world in six days.  God created the light and the darkness, the water and the dry land, the sun and the moon, the fish and the birds and the animals and human beings.

And on the seventh day, God rested.  Though the Bible doesn’t say, we might imagine this as a time when God got to sit back and simply enjoy what God had created.  It does say in Genesis that because God rested, God “blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”

We read throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, those first five books of the Bible, that it’s precisely because God did this that we are supposed to do likewise.  The verse we heard earlier from Exodus 20 comes from the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy…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.”

We can guess that God rested on that seventh day of creation not because God needed a break, but because God knew we would: by resting a consecrating that day, God provides a model for us to imitate.  And in fact the orthodox Jewish understanding of Sabbath, with all its rules about turning lights on and off and transporting an object and threshing and baking, is fundamentally an understanding that forbids acts of creation on the Sabbath.[2]  I’ve found this a useful way to think about what I do or don’t do on the day I call my Sabbath.  My ideal rule of thumb is that I shouldn’t be doing anything productive.  Not checking my work email, not cleaning the house, not checking things off my to-do list, even my personal one.  Now, am I practicing this perfectly?  Far from it, especially now that I have a kid, and I honestly don’t know when else some of this stuff is going to get done.  But thinking about that rule of thumb does at least give me something to check myself against when I feel myself straying too far from it.

But recently I came across another understanding of Sabbath and why it should be part of our lives.  It comes from a story in Exodus, the first place in the Bible that Sabbath is mentioned.  It’s the story of the manna, how the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and found themselves in the wilderness with nothing to eat, and in response God rains down bread from heaven.

God tells the Israelites to collect the bread each morning for six days, just enough for the day.  But on the sixth day, God says, what they gather will be double.  On that sixth day Moses tells them that the next day is to be a day of rest, and they will not find manna on the ground, because “the seventh day is a holy sabbath to the Lord” (16:23).

Or, depending on how you translate the Hebrew, “the seventh day is a holy sabbath FOR the Lord.”  In other words, it may not just be that God once upon a time created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  It may in fact be that this is actually God’s ongoing rhythm of life: work, create, provide for six days, and rest for one.  Maybe the Sabbath is actually God’s weekly day off.[3]

Maybe that idea makes you a little bit jittery.  In a way, it makes me nervous too.  The idea that God is on call 24-7 is pretty well ingrained in me from childhood, and who knows what is going to happen to us if God takes a break from working and creating and providing manna?  Maybe it’s even an idea that makes you mad.  After all, there’s plenty going on down here on earth we need God to take care of – maybe even that God needs us to be taking care of.

But this idea of God continually resting on the Sabbath is one that shows up in Jewish tradition, not just one person’s obscure translation.  And even if I don’t necessarily take it literally, there is something appealing about it for me.  The thing is that if we think of the Sabbath this way, it’s not just that we’re being expected to imitate a model laid out for us once.  Instead, we’re being invited to live life according to a divine rhythm, one that provides for work and rest and labor and enjoyment.[4]  It’s a rhythm we were made for, since we were created in the image of God.  It’s a rhythm that invites us to trust in God’s abundance even when we’re not out there frantically gathering our manna.

If even God isn’t too important to take a day off, then who are we?  If God spends God’s seventh days doing nothing but enjoying what God has created, then why not us?  What makes us think that we don’t have the time to do that?  What makes us think that every last space on the calendar exists to be filled?  What makes us think that the world will fall apart without us?

I’ve seen a meme going around recently that says, “I knew a pastor who said he never takes a day off, because Satan doesn’t.’  I said to him, ‘I think you need a better role model.’”  And again, it’s a message that’s not just for pastors.

I said before that Sabbath can feel restrictive, just another set of rules to follow, a burden Jesus supposedly freed us from.  But I think maybe we consider ourselves “free” from this burden at our own peril.  The Sabbath is meant to be received as a gift, a time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our own labor as well as what God has given us.  That’s why our observant Jewish siblings welcome the Sabbath like a bride and queen, by lighting candles and singing songs.  And in fact, it the day is meant to be experienced as a foretaste of the messianic age, the world as it was created to be, what we Christians might call the Kingdom of God.

And the Kingdom of God isn’t a rat race.  It’s not a to-do list.  No one is measured by output or billable hours or how well they’re keeping up with the Joneses.  The Kingdom of God is trust, and delight, and manna in abundance, and each person valued simply for being God’s good creation.

And maybe we have to stop – physically stop – to remember that.  In Sabbath, that’s what God invites us into: in this burden that is really a gift.





[3] David Frankel, “The Priestly Conception of Sabbath in Exodus 16.” Biblische Zeitschrift, vol. 59, no. 2, 2015, pp. 225.

[4] Frankel, p. 229.

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