Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Lost Day of the Week

I think it's fair to say that here in the west, we “live for the weekend.”  The one prayer everybody knows at the office is, “Thank God it’s Friday!” But though it was Henry Ford who instituted the five day work week in 1926, it was God who commanded us to keep the sabbath day; and it was Jesus who said, “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6: 31) -- more about that verse next week. 

The word sabbath derives from the Hebrew word shabbat meaning “to cease or rest.”  A typical Jewish greeting at the start of the Sabbath is "Shabbat Shalom!" (“peaceful Sabbath!”)  The word “shabbat” does not technically refer to a specific day, but to a particular way, a way of being.  For millennia the Jewish people have honored the seventh day as the day of rest; while there is evidence that from its earliest days, the followers of Y'shua (Jesus) set apart Sunday as “the Lord’s Day” to honor his resurrection from the dead on “the first day of the week” (see Matt. 28: 1; Acts 2:46, 13:13-14, 20:7).  The fact that most of Jesus' original followers were Jews is evidence of the tremendous impact that the resurrection "event" had on their personal lives and patterns of worship. But what I submit to you is that regardless of what day people think of as their day of rest, it has become the lost day of the week.  

We’ve all seen articles and books on the affect of work related stress and chronic busyness; but did you know that we actually have more time off than any generation in recent history.  Between 1830 and 1995 the length of the average work week fell from 70 hours to 40 hours and leisure time has tripled. Now the question is, with all this discretionary time, why are we still so tired?  Gordon MacDonald, in his book, Ordering Your Private World, suggests that our fatigue may be evidence that we have forgotten how to honor the sabbath.  I want to begin this six week series -- "A Time for Rest-oration" -- by sharing with you three reasons why we need to recover the lost day, the day of sabbath rest.

First, we need to recover the Sabbath because God blessed it.  “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth…but rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it” (Exodus 20: 11).  When the Bible says that God “created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) we immediately see in our minds the vastness of “space” -- light, planets, stars etc.  What we don’t see is “time.”   All light is composed of massless particles of electro-magnetic radiation flowing over time. When God created light and space, he also created time.  In other words, if time wasn’t the first thing God created, it was at least in a tie with space; because you can’t have one without the other.  My point is that God created time, that time is good, and to remind us of that fact, God blessed and set apart a certain part of time, “the seventh day,” so that we might be reminded that all of time, each and every day, is holy and a gift from God.

It’s so easy to live without appreciating what a gift each day is, what a gift time is…and what a responsibility we have to live each day to the glory of God. If Harold Camping's end-of-the-world predictions accomplished anything, it was to get a lot of people thinking about time and the limited amount of it that each of us has been given on this earth.  I heard a talk show host say this to his radio listeners on Friday:  “I know you all are too smart to believe Harold Camping’s prediction, but what if this was the last day of your life?  What if you knew the world was going to end today?  How would you live it?”  Let me say that I do take seriously the promise of Y'shua's return (as well as the mystery of the "how" and "when").  In the meantime, I am reminded that each day is to be lived with anticipation, gratitude, and glory to God. When we stop, when we Shabbat with God, we receive this day, and therefore every day, as a blessing and a gift to be lived to the fullest.  

Secondly, we need to recover the Sabbath because God commanded it.  Remember the Sabbath day, and 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….”  God always blesses before he commands.  Before God told man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply" he blessed them (Genesis 1: 28).  Before God gave Israel his commands at Sinai he blessed them with his saving hand (Exodus 20: 1-2).  The foundation of God's mitzvot (his commands) is his hesed (his steadfast love; what the New Testament calls his charis -- his grace.  Before God says, "You shall..." he says, "I AM... I am your God...I am your deliverer."  God's hesed, his grace and undeserved favor are the engine of his commands.  And the command which is given the most attention by sheer number of words, is the sabbath command.  For mnemonic reasons, I'll divide the command up into three parts: 
        1. Remember it.  That is, it will be your tendency to forget to do this.  You will be tempted to live without it.  Do whatever you need to do to remember to set apart this time.  We calendar appointments with the doctor, with our clients, with your gym.  Surely, we can schedule time each week for sabbath worship and rest. 
        2. Keep it.  We’ll be looking at what this means in the coming week, but the word "holy" here means both “pure” and “separate.”  When we hear the command to keep something “holy” we tend to think of moral purity, but holiness also means “separate.”  Think about the activities that might help you to separate from your ordinary life in a way that would be extra-ordinary. One of the major problems we have is treating all days in a uniformly “ordinary” way.  God wants us to break this cycle, by setting apart one day in particular for extraordinary living, extraordinary loving, extraordinary serving, extraordinary praying, extraordinary reflecting, extraordinary blessing.
        3. Count on it.  Six days you shall labor…but the seventh day is a Sabbath. In other words, do the math: Six + One.  If you are reading this today, I want to strongly encourage you… especially over this next six weeks, to make worship your top priority each Sunday morning.  One out of seven days this week I challenge you to step aside from your daily work; and if you volunteer, to rest from your usual volunteer work. One of out of seven days this week, I challenge you to study the Bible with others, preferably in a close knit fellowship of three to twelve people. One out of seven days this week I challenge you to do something loving or unexpected for your spouse, welcome a friend or bless a neighbor.  One out of seven days this week I challenge you to unplug from at least one form of technology…cell phone, television, ipod etc. One out of seven days this week I challenge you to take a nap, get an extra hour of sleep; or read one chapter of an inspiring book. One out of seven days this week I challenge you to laugh and play.  

There is a prohibition in the Torah stipulating that "You shall kindle no fire in all your dwellings on the sabbath day" (Exodus 35: 3).  Over the centuries this command has been variously interpreted by the rabbis; but it need not always refer to a physical flame.  I've read that some rabbis interpret this command to include the fire of anger. "Arguments and angry shouts are as much a disruption of shabbat as working and spending money" (Etz Hayim Humash).  In that spirit of interpretation, I challenge you to take a sabbath vacation from jealousy, envy, anger, and from whatever is worrying or troubling you; to say, “Not today.  Today is the Lord’s Day.  Today I am trusting Him with my problems, my jealousies, my anger or my disappointments, and I’m going to focus on what is good and true and noble and worthy of praise.”  That attitude will begin to transform not just the sabbath day…but the other six as well.

Finally, we need to recover the Sabbath because we need it, now more than ever.  “You shall not do any work,” says the Lord, “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slaves, your livestock, or the alien in your towns.”  This command implies that everyone and everything needs and deserves rest.  A thoughtful reading of this command can also tell us who and what God cares about: the powerful as well as the powerless, men and women alike, humans and animals, locals and aliens – all alike need food, rest, compassion. All living things, people, animals, plants, must store up energy to expend energy, and rest to work.  God submitted the creation to this cycle and then observed it himself as an example to follow! Yet despite this example, we think that we can be fruitful, that we can be productive and life-giving…without sabbath rest.

What's more, for human beings, without this time to rest…there is also little time for reflection.  The reason God rested on the seventh day is not that He was tired.  After all, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).  Could it be that the reason God “rested” was to reflect on and rejoice in what he had made; the creation that was “so very good”?  And in doing so, to give us another example to follow?  I remember as a boy spending hours working on model planes and cars and ships, building a go-cart, or a model train display; and when I was done, I would stand there looking at it in my garage with a deep sense of satisfaction.  Here's another confession.  Sometimes, after I’ve finished mowing my lawn… I will actually go out on the street and admire my work for a few moments.  Perhaps, in a much more profound way, you have seen that same sense of satisfaction on the face of a great artist, or on the face of parents at the birth of their child as if to say, “This is so good!” God commands us to stop and to reflect on the glory of what he has done, and on the value of what we have done… but more about that in the coming weeks. 

One of the tragedies of modern life is not that we forget to reflect on the last six days, but that we go to sleep and wake to find that the last six months, or the last six years,  have gone by without truly reflecting on why or what it was all about…. but it’s not too late.  For the secret of renewal and restoration in our daily lives can begin today as we shabbat, as we slow down, stop, and turn toward Him with humility and gratitude.

I’ve shared with my congregation that I believe God is calling us into a new season of renewal, a time of restoration and rebuilding; but it is sabbath that makes such renewal possible. While I was on a pastors' retreat in Santa Cruz, I took several walks through the Henry Cowell Redwoods that surround Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center. There is nothing more impressive than these huge coastal redwoods rising as much as three hundred feet in the air; growing tall in the rich soil and damp atmosphere of the Santa Cruz coastal zone. They survive terrible fires and grow to this immense height not by growing deep roots, but by fusing their roots together in clusters of three or more for stability. In the quiet of the forest, these giants -- some of which are more than two thousand years old -- remind me, to cite Wilfred Peterson, that “the race is not always to the swift; but to those who grow strong because they grow slowly and well”   -- and I would add, "slowly and well, together." 

Keeping a discipline of sabbath rest is sometimes difficult for me as a pastor.  My day of worship is not necessarily a day of rest; and sometimes I need to choose another day for ceasing.  That's why I said this to my congregation last Sunday: "Friends, I want to personally recover the lost day of the week and I’m hoping that you do too.  Because I can only grow strong as I grow slowly and well with you…our roots fused together in the soil of this gracious community, this church."  The sabbath day is the day God blessed, the day God commanded, and yes, the day that each of us deeply needs (including pastors like me).  Shabbat Shalom!  Have a peaceful Sabbath!

Lord of the Sabbath, I thank you for subjecting the universe to a rhythm of work and rest which you yourself observed at its creation.  For all living things grow weary and tired…and require rest, renewal, and replenishment.  As the crown of your creation, I thank you for calling humankind away from harried busyness to pause and reflect upon your goodness, the meaning of our work, and the truth of your Word that feeds our souls.  Please renew my weary body, mind, and spirit, as I am re-centered in your will, and given new strength to joyfully serve you in the weekday world. Let the rhythm of work and sabbath in my life be an eternal monument to your all-sufficient grace and power, eternal rest and resurrection hope.  Amen! 

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