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

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“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.” (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-war 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.

the jetsons

Fifty years removed from The Jetsons 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 and indulging in new hobbies and ventures.

The 4th command of God’s Ten Commandments is needed today more than ever.  It is time to come back to this basic instruction of the Lord, and engraft its wise counsel into our lives.

“Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded:  Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Common English Bible)

The point of God’s command to his people is neither to squash commerce, nor to be a curmudgeon about fencing one day a week of doing nothing; instead, the command for Sabbath 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 his creation a rhythm of rest and work.  God Himself rested, not because he was tired, but because he ceased working long enough to enjoy 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.  Even machinery needs a break.  Sometimes 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 4th command.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me at this point.  Some of you may have had a background filled with legalistic embraces of Sabbath.  No this, and no that, no nothing on Sundays, as if God were some divine curmudgeon who frowns at anything happy on the Sabbath.  To rest means to have a change of pace from 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 wisely placed loving boundaries around us.  But like Adam and Eve who could not be 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.  When work and all that comes with it consumes our attention, we are on a one-way road to nowhere.  I’ve heard more than one deathbed confession from dying persons, and I’ve yet to hear anyone wish they had worked more.  Nope, it’s usually 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.

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.

It’s just one day out of seven.  Just 1/7th of your life is needed to change the pace and 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 weekend to be one day where you get stuff done, and another day to truly rest.

This is not easy.  Right now I work six days a week.  And, sometimes, I work a few hours on my “day off.”  I’m speaking to myself as much as I’m speaking to you.  Yet, no one bats an eye at my constant working (well, except maybe my wife!).  In fact, people seem impressed when we work all the time.  We don’t want others thinking us lazy.  We want others to think well of us, and give us accolades for our hard work.  What gets lost in it all is God’s grace to us through rest.

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God desires us to enjoy Him, and not avoid Him.  He wants us to be still and know that He is God.  He longs for us to connect with Him.  This will only happen if we plan and prepare for it.  Sabbath doesn’t just happen; we must engage it.  Maybe we need to put God on our calendars.  Make an appointment with Him like we would anyone else.  Put the same kind of effort into making a date with God that you would with the people you care most about.  Perhaps the best thing you could do is go play a round of golf (if golf isn’t your idol!); go to the beach; or, take a nap.

The thing about Sabbath is that, when we get down to actually practicing it, we find that the world didn’t stop.  When we return to work, the earth is still spinning on its axis.  The company didn’t burn down in our absence.  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 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 aren’t holding down a job.  Work doesn’t define us – God’s image within us does.

It isn’t likely 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.

Rest

 
 
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 5:12).
 
“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14).
 
“My soul finds rest in God alone” (Psalm 62:1).
 
“Since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (Hebrews 4:1).
 
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
 
            These few Bible texts ought to make it plain that Scriptural rest is not just a luxury; a biblical Sabbath rest is a vital necessity which is both lovingly encouraged and divinely commanded.  My wife and I just spent a week at a pastors and wives retreat.  I need to say from the outset that this was not a vacation – some sort of filling up the time with the busywork of sightseeing and/or doing a variety of activities – but a God-given and God-ordained opportunity of rest. 
 
            Perhaps the best way to illustrate what God was thinking when he ordained his people for intentional times of rest comes from my time in a prayer chapel.  One morning I set aside a four-hour block to get away and pray.  I’ll be honest that I came into it with a personal agenda of what I wanted God to do.  I had my list of prayer items and my thoughts of how I believed God should work.  Silly me.
 
            It did not take long into my forceful striving toward God for Him to reveal to me that I was on a misguided adventure in missing the point.  Somehow in my desire to see all kinds of prayer requests answered I lost sight of why I was really there:  to simply be in the presence of God and enjoy Jesus, that’s it.  You see, in our daily work-a-day world we poke and prod, we push, cajole, and finagle to move forward and get our way on all kinds of things.  To separate ourselves from our typical routine takes something of a withdrawal, and it isn’t really easy.  Maybe this is why so many of us are so stinking tired, cranky, and negative all the time – we find all kinds of reasons to not rest, and even when we do we’re still trying to impose our will on God.  Silly us.
 
            What we need most is simply Jesus – to know Him, be with Him, and to experience the depths of our wondrous and gracious union with Him.  And that cannot happen, at least not fully, unless we obey the command given by God to rest.  To rest means to relinquish all our plans and agendas to God for a time and just come into His presence and enjoy one another.
 
            Our compulsions for performance and perfection are the real culprits to rest.  We want to do everything right.  We long to pray right, talk right, be right and live right instead of just coming to Jesus like a little child who needs Him.  Perhaps we are so profoundly discontent with so many things because we are not really content in Christ.  Just maybe the best or right prayer to pray is that we all may be content together no matter the circumstances.  Only then might we find that our burdens are light and our life easy.
 
            Jesus modeled the life of rest for us.  If there was anyone who did not need to pull away and rest it would have been Jesus, and yet he continually did so.  If Jesus needed a sacred space and place to commune and enjoy the Father, then how much more do we need a Sabbath rest and a place to do it?  When Jesus rested and prayed He did not perform a duty; He rested in order to connect with his heavenly Father.  There was no multi-tasking or juggling other responsibilities.  There was simply the radical pursuit of intimate rest.
 
            If we do not rest and intentionally practice occasional times of Sabbath, then we are expressing our confidence that money, hard work, and individual talent are really all we need rather than God.  Rest is only secondarily about refueling our depleted resources; it is primarily about connecting intimately with Jesus and a good gracious Father.  Just as we need a special room and a certain bed for sleep, so we need a particular place and a certain time set aside just to pray and enjoy God.  Proper spiritual hygiene, just like proper sleep and health hygiene must include setting aside a place to daily rest, pray, and be with God.
 
            Real spiritual and biblical rest only “works” when we realize we don’t have it all together – that we are helpless and need Jesus.  Apart from Jesus, the blind man cannot see, Lazarus remains dead, and I am lost in my sin.  I cannot “do” life without Christ in me and with me.
 

 

            Maybe this old fallen world is not experiencing revival because God’s people have not yet learned the necessity of rest.  As long as we try and manufacture results instead of relying on the Lord for refreshment and renewal, revival will be elusive.  Instead, enjoy Jesus today, my friends, and leave the results up to God.  And see what the Lord can do.

Leviticus 25:1-19

            If we simply drive our cars with never an oil change, the engine will eventually seize and die.  And if we insist on driving our lives with constant work and never engage in Sabbath rest, we will inevitably burn-out and kill ourselves.  Yet, this is what far too many persons are doing today.  We are putting the pedal-to-the-metal in our lives with no thought to any kind of Sabbath rest.  We are slowly draining our souls, causing ourselves physical harm, and are on the precipice of spiritual death.
 
            Perhaps you think I am being too dramatic?  You might think so if you have never read biblical verses like today’s Old Testament lesson.  But if we take the Scripture seriously we will see that all of life is to be governed by a rhythm of life.  Yes, we are not under Israelite law.  However, every law in the Old Testament is grounded in the person of God himself.  This means we may not be obliged to hold to the detailed specifics of the seven years system and a year of Jubilee, but we are still beholden to observe a Sabbath rhythm of rest because God rested.  Just as God loves and God is holy, we are to love and be holy as he is holy.  The same holds true for Sabbath.  Just as God rested from all his work, we are to rest from our work.  If I haven’t been explicit enough, I will say it plainly:  we are commanded to rest!
 
            It is high time we begin building into our weekly planners, smartphone calendars, and long-range goals an inclusion of Sabbath rest.  That means not just doing it once-in-a-while if I can fit it in somewhere, but making it a real actual event on a regular basis in your life.  No excuses, no fudging of appointments, and no lame sighs about how we are so busy.  Set aside some time today to build Sabbath into your schedule for the rest of the year, and maybe beyond.  I’m not saying this is easy; in fact, it is terribly hard for me to get this practice into my own life.  But without it I am less of a husband, father, grandfather, and pastor.  The people in my life deserve better than that.
 

 

            Gracious God, you created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Help me not to put Sabbath on some wish list of things to do someday, but enable me to practice it with courage and without apology.  Through the name of Jesus, I live and pray.  Amen.

Observing the Sabbath


             At a conference many years ago I heard the late Dr. Howard Hendricks, who was a professor at Dallas Seminary, tell a story of being picked up from the airport for a speaking engagement by a local pastor.  This pastor, in the course of conversation in the car, droned on about how he worked hard for the Lord.  He bragged about laboring seven days a week because, as he put it, “the devil never takes a day off.”  Dr. Hendricks’ was known for his pithy comebacks, and so he calmly replied to the over-functioning pastor:  “Gee, I didn’t know Satan was your model for ministry!”
            Somehow pastors and committed church leaders and servants have gotten the wrong-headed idea that working long hours and doing ministry every day of the week with no break is godly.  Needless to say, burn-out among church leaders is common.  Every day pastors walk away from their churches never to enter vocational ministry again.  Loyal church members might put so much effort into their ministries that eventually they quit, unable to do any more due to sheer overwork.  The pressure of responsibility, fear of failure, perfectionist impulses, and the just plain stress of dealing with people and conflict can all contribute to crack-ups and breakdowns, both emotionally and physically.  Those in leadership find the shame of failure too unbearable to let up on the gas pedal, and so keep going day after day worried that they might be letting someone down.  But the irony is that the constant movement only leads to an eventual and abrupt stop. 
            There is, however, a very biblical answer:  observe the Sabbath.  And there is a clear theological reason for it:  God himself rested from all his work.  It sounds easy.  It is anything but easy.  Our society prizes hard work and self-sufficient behavior.  To need a day, an entire day of Sabbath rest is counter-intuitive to our current Western cultural sensibilities.  Some months back I asked my church to help me in keeping a Sabbath each and every week by contacting me and calling me, if at all possible, on the six days of the week that I am working.  To be honest, it wasn’t easy for me to say.  Furthermore, some of my parishioners didn’t like what I said.  They mistakenly thought I must not like my job.  People who don’t like their jobs have no problem staying away from work.  But most pastors, including me, love what they do and enjoy being ministers of the Word.  It is hard to stay away.  Yet, if we are to take the Scriptures seriously, all of us, whether preacher or parishioner, pastor or pew-sitter, will avoid loading up our Sabbath day with all kinds of work.  Instead, we will rest – really rest!  We will use the time to restfully connect with and worship God, take leisurely walks with family, enjoy good friends over a meal, and, of course, delight in a well-deserved nap.
            It is time to stop making excuses, engaging in ridiculous hermeneutical gymnastics, and offering crazy rationalizations for neglecting a very clear scriptural command:  obey the Sabbath.  For many a church leader, finding hope in the midst of darkness and seeing a light at the end of the tunnel begins with putting in the planner a weekly Sabbath to the Lord.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Wise and rightly ordered priorities come from well-rested Christians.  The Sabbath affords an opportunity to know God in ways that we cannot on the other six days.  So, may you rest well and know God better.