Leviticus 23:1-8 – There’s More to Life Than Work

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: These are my appointed times, the Lord’s appointed times, which you will declare to be holy occasions: Work can be done for six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of special rest, a holy occasion. You must not do any work on it; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord. These are the Lord’s appointed times, holy occasions, which you will celebrate at their appointed times:

The Lord’s Passover is on the fourteenth day of the first month at twilight. The Lord’s Festival of Unleavened Bread is on the fifteenth day of the same month. You must eat unleavened bread for seven days. On the first day you will hold a holy occasion and must not do any job-related work. You will offer food gifts to the Lord for seven days. The seventh day will be a holy occasion; you must not do any job-related work. (Common English Bible)

When I was kid, watching the cartoon The Jetsons was a Saturday morning ritual. The futuristic family featured George the husband and father, an employee of Spacely Sprockets. 

In one episode, George comes home and is met by his dog, Astro, and wife, Jane, looking tired and haggard from a day’s work. George’s comment when he entered on the treadmill through the door was, “Jane, these 3-hour work-days are killing me!”

Indeed, the technological progress of post-World War II America had led to the common belief among many that with so many advancements, workdays would become smaller, with leisure time growing. In the 1960’s, it seemed a foregone conclusion that technology would provide the masses with unprecedented amounts of discretionary time for whatever they would want to do.

Sixty years removed from The Jetsons, and we now know what Americans and people across the world would do with time-saving devices: We simply work a lot more. 

Just the opposite has occurred from having loads of leisure time. People discovered that greater efficiency with technology has brought an equal competition for business and making more money. Time saved has translated into accomplishing more work, and not in taking vacations or indulging in new hobbies and ventures.

The fourth command of God’s Ten Commandments is needed today more than ever. It is high time that we come back to this basic instruction of the Lord and engraft its wise counsel into our lives. 

The point of God’s command for a Sabbath-rest is neither to squash commerce, nor to be a curmudgeon about fencing one day a week of doing nothing. Instead, the Sabbath command is designed to be a life-giving day where we discover that: There is more to life than work.

The word “Sabbath” literally means “to rest.” God built into creation a rhythm of rest and work. God rested, not because of being tired but so that there was enjoyment of the earth and everything in it. 

Everything in life is done in rhythm. We walk in rhythm, talk in rhythm, and our hearts beat in a rhythm. The earth cycles in rhythmic seasons of the year, and the animal kingdom mates and lives in annual rhythms. All creation is rhythmic.

Whenever we keep going and do not live according to the rhythm laid out for all of God’s creatures, we break. Therefore: Rest from work is needed.

Even machinery needs a break. I find it more than ironic that we treat our cars and vehicles with the regular maintenance and care that we don’t even extend to ourselves. We care for our cars because we don’t want to experience a breakdown on the highway. Yet, much more important is the care of our souls and our bodies. 

Without regular intervals of work and rest, in a consistent rhythmic pattern, we breakdown, burnout, and, like little children who have missed a nap, we have epic meltdowns of anger, frustration, and passive-aggressive behavior because we simply ignored God’s fourth command.

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”

Maya Angelou

Legalistic observances of the Sabbath miss the point through a continual, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, can’t do anything fun on Sunday,” as if God were some divine curmudgeon who frowns with a deeply furrowed brow at anything happy on the Sabbath. (Mark 2:23-3:6) 

To rest means to have a change of pace from the regular weekday activity of work. To rest and enjoy the difference of a Sabbath’s day is avoided by so many people because it brings this question to the forefront of our minds: Who am I if I’m not working?

Our identities can be so tied to our jobs that we compulsively check our multiple e-mail accounts on a day off; tie ourselves to our smart phones and iPhones on vacation; and allow work to bleed into our time away from the job. 

God has wisely placed loving boundaries around us. But like Adam and Eve, who were not content with enjoying the entire garden, we obsessively pluck the forbidden fruit from the one tree that is off limits.

Work brings money, influence, power, relationships, industry, and a host of good things. The problem is not work; the problem is that we humans can create an idol of it.

Whenever work and all that comes with it, consumes our attention, we are on a one-way road to nowhere. I have heard many deathbed confessions. I’ve yet to hear anyone wish they had worked more.

No, the confessions typically involve something out of rhythm and out of whack – that they let their jobs and their ambitions surrounding work call the shots in life, without stopping to enjoy the vast creation, the gifts of God, and the emotional wealth that can come from relationships.

“If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop, because our work is never completely done… Sabbath… liberates us from the need to be finished.”

Wayne Muller

Because we aren’t sure who we are if we’re not working, we just keep working. If we feel bad, we work harder.  If things are tough at home, we just put more hours in at work. If we need more money, we pick up a part-time job. 

When work becomes the catch-all answer to our many problems, it has become our god and we will worship at the altar of money and activity… until we can learn to stop and rest. 

One day out of seven. Just one-seventh of your life is needed to allow a divine rhythm into your existence. 

The temptation, however, is to take a day off from work so that you can do other work at home. So, the challenge, for many people, is to allow the one day of the weekend to be the time you get stuff done, and another day to truly rest.

This is not easy. For me, it is terribly hard. I can easily slide into working seven days a week for weeks, even months, at a time. Few people bat an eye at my constant working, except my wife and a few friends. In fact, many people seem impressed when I work all the time. But what gets lost in all this is God’s grace to us through rest.

God wants enjoyment, not avoidance – for us to be still and know God. The Lord longs for us to connect with the Divine. This means we must plan and prepare for it. Maybe we need to put God on our calendars, to make an appointment with God like we would anyone else. That will often involve being out in God’s big creation.

Whenever we get down to practicing the Sabbath, we find that the world didn’t stop. Then, when we return to work, we discover that the earth is still spinning on its axis. 

Life doesn’t cease when we submit to a Sabbath rest; it’s just that we cease from participating in it for a short time. Our delusions of grandeur dissipate and disappear when we finally come around to consistently obeying a good old Sabbath rest.

Work is noble. But there is nothing noble about working without rest. 

We are still human beings when we aren’t making money, and still valuable when we don’t have jobs. Folks in healthcare facilities aren’t any less important because they no longer hold a job. Work doesn’t define us – God’s image within us does. 

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a George Jetson 3-hour workday, and that’s probably a good thing. Work’s inherent goodness can only be truly appreciated when we plan and prepare to live and enjoy a Sabbath’s day rest. 

Because I belong to you, God, and not to myself,
I will rest from worrying about the future
and rest in your never-ending divine presence;
I will rest from frustration at things not working out as I want them to;
I will rest from fear
and rest in my experience of courage when days are hard.
I will rest from complaining
and rest in the beauty and pleasure all around me.
For the Lord’s yoke is easy and his burden is light,
and I will find rest for my soul. Amen.

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