21 Days of Focus: Restoring Rhythm
4. Restoring Sabbath Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor
29 January 2023
One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest. The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break. The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day. At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow 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."
"But you didn't notice," said the winning woodsman, "that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest."
Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up…
For the last 3 weeks we’ve been talking about Restoring Rhythm – finding balance in a busy world. The idea is to take this first month of the year to focus our hearts and minds on Christ, and how we plan to grow in faith in the coming year.
We’ve thought about busyness, and the relationship of busyness to work and our identity. And last week we started to get practical about how to create pockets of rest in the busyness. Today I want to talk about how to build bigger periods of rest into our regular rhythms, so that we can be sustained for the long haul.
So why don’t we pray that God would teach us today:
Our heavenly Father, you know the best way for us to live in the world, because you created us and you love us. Will you speak to us today, and teach us how to find rest and balance and relationship with you. Help us to restore rhythms of lifegiving rest and worship in our lives. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
The older I get, the more I realise the years pass quickly. I find myself asking: Have I done everything I wanted to do? Did I take the time I needed with my kids? Have I made the most of life, or has life pulled me along like a riptide pulls you out into the ocean?
Henry David Thoreau (American poet and philosopher) decided that he didn’t want to be pulled along with the tide. He wanted to live deliberately.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
No matter what stage of life we are in, we can choose to live deliberately. And the talk today is all about being deliberate in how we live our lives towards God.
[Recap: last week we started working our way through 4 spiritual disciplines that we can learn from Jesus. First was Silence and Solitude – withdrawing to find time with God.]
The second spiritual discipline is Sabbath.
What is sabbath?
The idea of Sabbath comes from the very first chapter of the Bible, from the creation story. You’ll remember that in the first 5 days God created all the heavens and earth and filled them with all kinds of life. Then on the 6th day, God created humans, and they are the pinnacle of creation. Created in God’s image, and tasked with ruling over creation.
But creation doesn’t end on Day 6. God balances his working with a day of rest, a day that he declares to be holy, set apart, consecrated…
Look at Genesis 2:2-3
2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen 2:2-3)
That day of rest becomes a powerful symbol that teaches us two things. It teaches us first about the pattern of work and rest that God has woven into the fabric of creation. Second it teaches us about the ultimate destiny of creation…
So on that first idea: God works, then he rests. He weaves that pattern of work and rest into the fabric of creation. And as the OT progresses, he commands his people to weave that pattern into their own lives. He commands his people to keep the Sabbath. (Exodus 20:8-11)
And it’s to be a sabbath for everybody who lives under God’s blessing and provision: for servants, and slaves and foreign workers, even for the animals. God would also teach his people to let the fields lie fallow every 7 years, in order to be replenished. (Exodus 23; Leviticus 25)
This pattern of 6 and 1 is woven into the fabric of creation for our good.
When Jesus came along, he made a point about restoring the goodness of the sabbath, instead of the legalistic thing it had become. Jesus brought healing and wholeness to the sick on the sabbath, pointing forward to the New Creation when this sabbath ‘rest’ will be made complete.
The writer of Hebrews says:
9 There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. (Hebrews 4:9-10)
Theologian R.C. Sproul explains this idea of the sabbath rest that is still to come.
God extends His holiness to a day; sanctifies, consecrates, a Sabbath day. Why? If we trace that concept throughout all of the Bible, we see that the goal of the Christian life is to enter finally into His rest, to enter into the perpetual Sabbath. The goal of creation is Sabbath rest and holiness.
If the goal of creation is for us to rest in God, then the Sabbath reminds us on a weekly basis to return to our created purpose. It reminds us that we are more than our work. It’s a weekly invitation to rest in God, and to trust in his provision.
(Now I know that some of us will be having a reaction now against the idea of sabbath, because of the legalism around sabbath in the New Testament, and the legalism that many churches and denominations have put around the sabbath. And I get that in Christ we are freed from the OT Law, and so the weekly command to sabbath is no longer a binding commandment.)
But here’s the thing. God built sabbath into the fabric of creation. And he built it into the weekly pattern of his people because it is for our good. The sabbath is wisdom, as much as it is law, because we need to be reminded to stop!
Jesus said: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
God has instituted this weekly rest for us! It is a gift, not a curse. It’s a blessing that perhaps we’ve ignored as a reaction against legalism. And to our detriment.
Pasto A.J. Swoboda wrote:
[The Sabbath] has been largely forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West. The result? Our road-weary, exhausted churches have largely failed to integrate Sabbath into their lives as vital elements of Christian discipleship. It is not as though we do not love God – we love God deeply. We just do not know how to sit with God anymore.
[The result] We have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history.
I think Swoboda has a point. Our lives so often mimick the rhythms of the society we live in. We may not look much different to our non-Christian neighbors, with the exception that we fit God into the spare moments of our weekly rhythms. Our days off look just like theirs, our aspirations look just like theirs. And our burdens weigh us down, just like theirs.
But Jesus wants us to find rest from that exhausting treadmill.
So what does the Sabbath rest teach us?
God’s pattern of 6/1 helps us trust that we will have enough, even if we stop working.
It should be easy enough to trust God in this for one day (although there are weeks when I find that hard… There seems to be so much to do that it feels irresponsible to stop. And there might be short seasons of life when that’s true, but what if that’s every week? How long do you think you can last like that? If that’s your life, you are headed for burnout…)
So there is something about this weekly rest, this one day per week where we down tools and say, I can trust that God’s got it. I can rest and trust that he will help me get this done when I go back on Monday, or whenever you go back.
But that takes trust, right? A little bit of trust that God asks us to have every week. Because in the end, we need to trust God for something much bigger. We need to trust him in the face of our death. We need to trust him when it comes to our sin. We need to trust him with our eternity. So what are we saying to God if we can’t trust him for just one day?
God’s pattern of 6/1 helps us to trust that we will have enough, even if we stop working for a day.
But God would test his people to trust him for a lot longer than a day… God would ask his people to take an entire Sabbath year once every seven years… (Leviticus 25)
The sabbath year meant relying entirely on God to feed you for 2 years out of every 7…
The Sabbath year was to teach God’s people that our livelihood is not something we make from our hard work.
We don’t eat because we’ve earned.
We eat because God feeds us.
OUR MISTAKE: We equate work with wages – the harder we work the more we deserve.
But the Sabbath year shows us that everything we have comes from God as a gift.
And our work contributes to the good of all God’s creatures – the poor, the alien, and the person who can’t work.
And it makes sense, as followers of Jesus, doesn’t it? When we think about salvation, we know that work is not linked with reward. We trust that our salvation is through nothing that we have done, only because of what Jesus has done. We are like the poor in the year of Sabbath – we eat what we could never afford to buy, and we’re fed but not because we deserve it. We live only because God is good to us, because of God’s gracious provision.
And so when we think about our work, and the crazy patterns we sometimes keep, it’s worth asking yourself:
Where do you place your hope and trust for day-to-day life? Can you trust God enough to stop working and take the rest that God has given for your refreshment?
Equipment for Rest
Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word shabbat which means literally to stop or to cease.
The OT command was that God’s people would stop and rest for one day every week, just like God stopped and rested after the six days of creation.
And so I want us to reconsider the idea of doing just that. Stopping for a day to rest from our work, to enjoy God, and to enjoy the good gifts he has given us – our family, our relationships, the possessions that we already have.
Have you ever noticed the pull of Home Depot on your day off? I often think: I’ll go down there and buy this thing that will make my life more complete. Or we’ll walk into Acres and it’s the same desire. Do you ever feel the same pull?
One of the blessings of the Sabbath is to
- stop working
- stop worrying,
- and to stop wanting.
- Sabbath is about resting body, mind and spirit, and delighting in everything God has given you, and worshiping him.
What might that look like in practice?
For some people it’s a literal 24 hour period. A decision to stop, and to focus on what really matters.
Author and podcaster Jeff Bethke says for his family, Sabbath is the high point of the week. He says it’s like Christmas – the same excitement, the same priority, the same sense of something special. It’s part of their family life where they build traditions, it’s communal and it’s celebratory.
He’s a pastor and he works Sundays, so his family have chosen Friday night to Saturday night for their sabbath.
That’s modelled after the Jewish idea that the day starts at sundown. In practice it means they start their family sabbath with a meal together. They light a candle, say a prayer, they eat and read a Bible passage together. The next day they sleep in, they enjoy time together, they eat, and they rest. They choose not to do household chores or run errands. They leave them for later.
A key part of their day is building worship into their schedule – time to read Scripture, time to read Christian books, time to pray alone and with one another. Time to listen to music that fills them up. Time to talk about their life and faith. That’s discipling one another, right?
My family has been working on this. Jeff Bethke has little children, mine are young adults. Your family situation might be something completely different again, but here is what we’ve come up with in my family.
We reflected back on our church experience during COVID, and it was actually a really great time of fellowship and discipleship for our family. We would all sit down and watch church online together, and then we’d share what we learned from the sermon and we’d pray about it. It was really great!
As a ministry family, we don’t get to go to church together in that same way. Charlotte and Jamie run our Kids program here at church, and I preach. But we wanted to bring that discipleship back into our sabbath, and so now most weeks we get home from church here and we watch a church in Texas. We sing along with their worship, we listen to the sermon, we discuss what we’ve learned and we pray. It’s been great!
We don’t get to it every week, but it’s a pattern that we are building into our family life.
What’s a pattern you could build into your family life that brings the best of sabbath into your week?
Again, this is not about being legalistic. This is about learning to cultivate and carve out significant time for God, learning to say no to the busyness, and yes to nurturing your most vital relationships.
I have seven suggestions, in no particular order, that might help you find sabbath.
1. Prioritize coming along to church each week, if that’s not currently a priority. Why? Because God has saved us into his family, the church, and we are meant to be part of a community that disciples one another. There’s no such thing as a solo Christian. Coming to church helps us to remind ourselves that we have put our faith in Jesus as our number one priority. And it’s an encouragement to everyone else who is trying to do the same.
2. Make a decision to slow down. We spend so much of the week driven by schedules, and appointments and deadlines. Part of the joy of sabbath is to say no to busyness, and to make time for relationships. That might mean lingering over coffee after church, rather than rushing off to the next appointment. It might mean having a long lunch as a family, or with church friends. If you don’t have time to cook beforehand, cook together and eat later. We have friends who’ve never had a dishwasher, because they believe the best conversations happen when you’re washing up together. It’s a family affair.
3. Enjoy what you already have. In John Mark Comer’s book, he looks at the life of Jesus and he notices the simplicity in the way that Jesus lived. For his 3 years of public ministry, Jesus lived a very simple life, sharing meals with others, unweighed down by material possessions. What could we learn from that simple way of life? As I already mentioned, one way is to enjoy the possessions we already have. Read a book that is on your shelf. Cook with ingredients that are in your cupboard. Enjoy the simple pleasure of tending the garden, or going for a walk. At least for one day a week, reject the culture of consumption and embrace contentment.
4. Rest. Give yourself permission to rest, even if it’s just for this one day a week. This is one I need to listen to. All week long I work with to-do lists and tasks and projects and deadlines, and it’s so easy to bring that same thinking into my sabbath. I have a day off so I want to get lots of things done! But the sabbath reminds us that it isn’t good for us to keep up that frenetic pace seven days a week. God made sabbath for us, to teach us that we need rest. And it’s ok to rest. So perhaps rest looks like leaving some chores undone. Perhaps it looks like taking an afternoon nap, or going to bed early. Perhaps it looks like enjoying an afternoon at the cinema or on the couch. And giving yourself permission to believe that it’s not wasted time.
5. Unplug from technology. This is the idea of taking a digital sabbath. Technology, especially our phones, can be incredibly distracting, and we find our attention regularly being drawn towards them, thousands of times a day according to one statistic. That means on a day when our attention should be with our family, and spent in worship, instead our attention is drawn away towards our email, or our work, or the news, or whatever your particular digital distraction is. But unplugging means we deliberately put that distraction away. We decide to be present with our family, and present in worship. We decide not to react to every notification that comes. Instead we make a choice to live deliberately, in the moment, distracted only by the people in front of us and their needs and concerns.
6. Make it holy. God blessed the seventh day and he made it holy. How can you make your sabbath more than just a day off? How can you make it holy? How will you bring an element of worship and discipleship into this day of rest? I know it will be different for each of you, but how can you add just a little bit more? How will you go just a little bit deeper with Jesus? How will you find a little bit more vulnerability in your prayer life? A little bit more heart in your worship? How will you let the Sunday message influence you beyond this hour? How will you make this day holy?
7. Start where you are, not where you feel you should be. The idea of taking 24 hours of sabbath might be a long way from where your life is right now. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start small, and build up. What would it look like to turn this hour in church into a half day of rest? What might it look like to find a regular time with your family to share a meal and to remember God’s goodness? Start small and see where God takes you. Because he made the sabbath for you. It’s all about restoring life-giving rhythm into your life. It’s part of how Jesus brings you rest…
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-29)
Shall we pray?