The house is quiet today and I am contemplating my need to find rest.
At 11:15 AM, Ronnie pulled away from our home with a UHaul and his good friend, Brad, in the passenger seat. He's headed to Liberty Township, Ohio, to begin our new life and ministry there, while I finish up graduate school here. Although I've shed many tears anticipating our separation, I find myself surprisingly calm today. I am grateful for God's mercy in that regard. I would have hated to see Ronnie off with a puffy-faced, runny-nosed good-bye.
With fifteen hours of graduate work ahead of me this semester, as well as a household to relocate a thousand miles away, I am looking at very full "to do" list. Reading, writing, preaching, visiting, teaching, packing, planning--all these things occupy my mind and time every day. I wake with my schedule set for me already and I go to sleep at night contemplating tomorrow's tasks.
I'm sure that you are no less busy with the demands and concerns of life. For Americans, especially American Christians, busy-ness has become a way of life. Yet, in the midst of all my activity, I hear the tender voice of our Father inviting us to rest.
The first giving of the Decalogue is recorded in Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment, the command to keep the Sabbath, is explained in the following way: "Remember the Sabbath day, to 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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."
I notice a few things about this first appearance of Sabbath law in the Scripture. First, the basis for the command to rest is the truth that God rested on the seventh day of creation. It is because God found rest after creation that human beings must rest every week. Second, by blessing the Sabbath day and making it holy, the Lord set apart this day as unique among all other days. This ordained cessation of "work" was tremendously counter-cultural in the Ancient Near East and it remains so to this day. Although the Israelite teachers developed complex interpretations about what Sabbath-keeping should look like, the basic point of the command is "to desist, cease, or rest" from usual activity.
The Decalogue is given again in Deuteronomy, a book that makes up the stylized sermon Moses delivers to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. The description of the fourth commandment is slightly different in Deuteronomy: "Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."
What stands out to me in this re-telling of the fourth commandement is that the reason for the keeping of the Sabbath day has shifted. Whereas in Exodus 19, rest is commanded as a means of imitating God, who rested on the seventh day, in Deuteronomy, rest is commanded for two reasons: (1) to ensure that rest is provided for the servants of Israel; and, (2) to provide a constant reminder to Israel that God brought them out of slavery from Egypt.
I think we learn something important in the change of focus from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Although the higher purpose of God's ordained day for weekly rest is in order to imitate God, there is a "lower," more earthy reason, as well. Human beings have a natural tendency to forgoe rest in order to drown themselves in a sea of busy-ness. As I see it, this is comparable to the slavery Israel experienced in Egypt. Unable to determine their own lives, activities, and wages, the children of Israel labored ceaselessly under the yoke of Egyptian bondage.
Yet, not only are human beings inclined to submit to the slavery of busy-ness in their own lives, but they drag others into it as well. This is understandable, of course. When one demands constant activity from oneself, one must demand the same from everyone else. So, when Moses explains the Sabbath day to the Israelites headed into the holy land, he emphasizes the need to provide rest for those who serve them. At one time, they lived in a constant state of labor and toil, so God instructs that they must not force this tortuous existence upon other human beings.
So, what is the point of my little meditation on Sabbath-keeping in the OT? Notice that a commonality between the Decalogue described in Exodus and Deuteronomy is that the fourth commandment comes on the heels of three commandments intended to preserve Israel's devotion to Yahweh alone. Because Yahweh is God, who brough them out of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are to have no other gods before him, make no images of other gods, and claim not the name or power of God in thoughtless, disrespectful ways (Exod. 20:2-7; Deut. 5:6-11).
From this context, I notice something very important to the matter of Sabbath-keeping and finding rest. Preserving weekly restfulness is intimately connected to honoring God as God. That is to say, the first result of recognizing God's unique status in our lives is our decision to seek regular times of rest. Betty Talbert, the director of the spiritual formation program at Truett Seminary puts it in stark and convicting terms: "When you refuse to rest, you are proclaiming that you are God. When you say, 'I am so important that I cannot take the time to rest,' you are saying that you are more vital than the Creator and the world cannot go on without your activity."
Our Lord Jesus Christ modeled the truth of Dr. Talbert's statement. Despite the fact that he was often accused of breaking Sabbath laws, the truth is that he kept the Sabbath better than any person who ever lived. I encourage you to search the Gospels and observe how many times Jesus withdrew from the crowd to rest and pray. Sometimes he sought solace alone on a hillside, communing all night with his Father and arising refreshed from the fellowship. Sometimes he reclined at the table of good friends, teaching and sharing as they fed him a tasty meal and nourished him with spiritual food. Sometimes he stole time alone with his circle of learners, leaving behind hundreds of needy, sick, and dying people in order to rest with them.
No matter the details, the reality is the same: Jesus of Nazareth, whose ministry lasted only three years, whose touch could cure sickness, cast out demons, and raise the dead, whose leadership and teaching turned the ancient world up-side-down, chose to rest from his work regularly--so regularly, in fact, that it is a hallmark of his life in the Gospel narratives.
Perhaps you are a busy student like me. Perhaps you are a minister of the Gospel, whether professionally or on a "lay" level. Perhaps you are a teacher, doctor, lawyer, soldier, insurance salesman, retiree, or football coach. No matter our vocations or situations in life, our inherent need for rest is the same. Permit me to exhort you this evening: To escape slavery to the hurried tasks of life, you must seek rest and find regular times of solitude and silence. To honor God as he is, to recognize yourself as creature and him as Creator, you must keep Sabbath. You are not God. The world will go on without you.