Feb. 3, 2020, I started filling in for a pastor on sabbatical. Ironically, by mid-March, due to COVID-19 restrictions, startled citizens accommodated new directives in an unplanned sabbatical.
What’s it been like for you? For many, including church leaders, work has morphed into a new reality. Others have lost their jobs. The “new normal” has pushed “pause” from our habitual routines. Friend, is God drawing our attention to the Sabbath?
Remembering the weekly Sabbath
Very early in our Bibles, we find “Sabbath,” a Hebrew word meaning: “cease, desist from labor, rest.” It is used 71x in the Old Testament. After creating our world, God “sabbathed” (Genesis 2:2). Our omnipotent Creator needed no rest. But, by His own example and instruction, God instituted this “good” pattern at creation and in the Ten Commandments. God hardwired us for a day each week devoted to Him and rest. Even sin’s software virus foisted upon us doesn’t sabotage this permanently connected circuit.
Oddly, most cultures divide time into seven days. Why seven?
The French Revolution attempted 10-day increments, but failed. Back in the day, mining companies tried working mules seven days a week. They flopped.
But, consider this matchless Sabbath narrative.
The great Lord’s day experiment
Monday morning, late spring, about 1860, a wagon train set out from St. Joseph, Missouri, for Denver, Colorado – over 600 miles away.
The first week went well.
Early the first Sunday morning, some began breaking camp. A man who had served as an elder in his church protested the plan to travel on God's day. The majority resisted replying: "We're traveling. You do as you please. But, you’ll have trouble – especially Indian trouble."
Two other families also stayed, remaining in camp, studying the Bible, singing and resting while the main train moved westward. We’ll call these three families TRW (trusting/resting/working).
By the following Saturday night, the TRWs caught the main group. "Here come those fools driving hard to catch up. They must have learned their lesson."
The next morning, being Sunday, again the main group broke camp and traveled on as usual. But the TRWs rested and worshipped the Lord.
By the following Thursday evening(!), the TRWs overtook the main group again.
Friday morning, the TRWs were away first. God had protected them when they were behind the main group. He could care for them out ahead. They claimed the promise of Psalm 34:7: "The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and He delivers them."
Sunday, they rested again. Sunday evening, the main group moved in and spent the evening with them.
Monday morning, the TRWs were off first.
The TRWs never saw the main group on the plains after that Monday. They arrived in Denver two weeks ahead(!!) of those who left St. Joseph with them. Their oxen and equipment were in great shape and brought high prices on the Denver market.
Two weeks later, the rest dragged in -- sick, cursing, irritable -- their equipment broken down, their oxen worn out (“Growing up God's Way,” pp. 190-202, John A. Stormer, edited).
Driven, restless friend, I am often with you. Together, let’s humbly ponder this story. Although we could never replicate such an experiment, the results have tangible implications for us. Even our language bears witness: etymologically unrelated “rest” and “restorative” have a jovial fraternity.
More ancient history
Come back to Moses meeting with God on Mt. Sinai. God wrote instructions by his finger. Moses carried God’s monogrammed stone tablets.
To people enslaved 400 years, never a day off, Moses relayed: “God wants you to take a day off each week. And he’s giving you time off to celebrate annual festivals. And every seventh year – take that off too. Every forty-ninth year take that year off and the next – call it Jubilee.”
These former slaves began calculating. “So, if we live 50 years – God wants us to work an average of four days a week for life?” Thrilled, they asked: “Can this God be our God?!”
Remembering the Sabbath helps us remember God is a Father, not a slave driver. And, one of the ways He spells LOVE is TIME: moment-ous/epic/weekly bonding.
The Jews and the Sabbath
Nevertheless, sometimes Jews violated the Sabbath themselves and/or constrained others to. These implicit moral failures brought explicit divine judgments.
Then, at times, they attempted justifying themselves by over-legalizing/burdening the Sabbath.
Jesus corrected the latter in Mt 12:1 “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads [of grain] and eat. 2But when the Pharisees saw [this], they said to Him, "Look, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath." 3But He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? 5"Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?” Jesus opens the way for acts of necessity and mercy. Mercy, mercy.
Our need for a Sabbath
God still gives rest – especially for us who have been enslaved for a long time – maybe simply by neglecting God – or by indulging in self-righteousness - or by addiction to things, thoughts or practices that cut us off from God and each other – all powerful slave drivers.
Let’s remember Him! Christian, he fondly remembers you! Jesus invited: “Come to me all you weary and burdened. I will give you rest…You will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28,29).
Friend, getting to know Jesus, our souls cry out: “Let’s rest in Him/His work and show it by pausing our work for worship and renewal on the Lord’s Day. Trusting/loving God, let’s set parameters for our agenda-driven lives – getting to know the ‘rest’ of the story.”
Note: This is the fourth of six columns based on Scriptures where astonished Jesus asked elite leaders: “Did you never read?” Despite their high level of education, they remained in their own shallow comfort zones. He expected them to connect what they had read in Scripture with life.
Steve Bostrom is an ordained by the Presbyterian Church in America. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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