September 12, 2021
*You can listen to a preached version of this sermon on Podbean.
In a podcast I listened to this week, Dr. Amy Levinson, who is Jewish, shared a note from her Jewish commentary reminding us that the division of the Torah (which includes Genesis) into chapters is “a late development by non-Jewish authorities.” Jewish people, she pointed out, would never separate the first six days of creation from the seventh; in Jewish understanding, the seventh day is every bit as much a part of creation as the first six.
On the seventh day, God rested.
If you do some googling about rest, you can find articles such as: “How Resting More Can Boost Your Productivity;” “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime;” “Resting Properly—Key to Your Productivity;” and “Why Rest Days Are Important for Higher Efficiency at Work.”
And I have no doubt that rest is good for us on many levels. But in scripture, our call to Sabbath rest is not a means to the end of being more productive. Our call to Sabbath rest is an invitation into the Divine rhythm.
The Jewish theologian and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, notes that right here, in Genesis 2:3, is the first use of the significant Hebrew word kadosh—holy—in Jewish and Christian scripture. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Heschel finds it notable that holiness is first ascribed not to a place or even humanity, but to time. “The Sabbaths,” Heschel writes, “are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.”
I invite you to think about the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD. To consider the atrocities of the Holocaust. And hear Heschel’s words again. “The Sabbath . . . is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn.”
Sabbath is holy. Holy time. It is rightfully the climax of creation, not an afterthought.
In general, Christians do not take Sabbath nearly as seriously as our Jewish siblings. I’ve heard it said that the fourth commandment (about honoring Sabbath) is the only one you hear Christians actually brag about breaking. (You think you have a busy life with a lot of work, listen to how much I did this week!)
Christians like to look at Jesus arguing over Sabbath regulations with the religious authorities and quote him saying, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” A lot of us use these passages as a kind of “get out of Sabbath free” card. But in these teachings, Jesus is striving to help people better understand how to honor the holiness of Sabbath, not dismissing it.
I wanted us to hear the resurrection story at the beginning of worship this morning because, in thinking about Sabbath this week, it struck me for the first time—I’ve preached Easter for a dozen years, mind you—it struck me for the first time how seriously Jesus’ followers took the Sabbath.
After Jesus has been killed, when they are traumatized and grieving, the women go home to prepare spices and ointments for Jesus’ body. It is the day of Preparation—the day they make the preparations that will allow them to rest the following day. And then, then, with their beloved friend and teacher lying in his grave and the spices they need to anoint his body with sitting there, ready to go . . . “On the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment.”
That would have made me crazy. Can you imagine? And the women probably were a little restless, because as soon as Sabbath is over, “at early dawn,” they show up with their spices. Because anointing Jesus’ body was important. But even that was not so important that it couldn’t wait until after Sabbath.
What would it take for you to follow God’s example in creation, to honor the fourth commandment, to build what Heschel calls “a sanctuary in time”? What would it take for us to practice Sabbath in our lives? This is important for each of us to consider. I would hope that for many of you worship would be part of your Sabbath. For me, our worship together on Sunday mornings, as much as I love it, is not Sabbath, because it’s my job. So I try to take 24 hours of rest starting whenever I get home on Sunday afternoons. I’m still working out what exactly Sabbath is for me, what I do, what I don’t do. These are questions worth considering: When can you practice Sabbath? And what does Sabbath mean in the context of your life? What is renewing and restful for you?
Here’s the other thing we must keep in mind, though. This encouragement for Sabbath wasn’t given to a few individuals who were burning out and really needed it. Sabbath is an example set by God for all creation. Sabbath is a commandment given to an entire people—people who had been slaves in Egypt; people who were, most likely, in exile in Babylon when the first creation story and Exodus’ version of the ten commandments were written. People who were members of an oppressed class forced to work for others.
Sabbath is an agent of God’s justice in the world. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Sabbath is resistance.” Brueggemann writes that Sabbath is part of the rhythms of creation that cannot be safely violated. Indeed, we just have to look around to see how our Sabbath violations, our refusal to participate in the rhythm of creation, harms creation—including the people who are part of that creation.
So the Biblical call is not only to practice Sabbath ourselves, but also to work toward a world where all people canhave life rhythms that include rest.
- Justice work is part of this—supporting fair wages, generous leave policies . . . there’s a lot in our US systems that prevent people from being able to rest well.
- Thoughtfulness, openness, and conversations are part of this—we need to change our personal and cultural attitudes about what success looks like, about what it means to live a good life. About work and rest and time.
- Service is part of this. Because no matter how carefully and faithfully we try to order our lives, there will be times when we are overwhelmed. There’s a new baby or a medical crisis or a loved one needing care. And if you are not in that overwhelmed place right now, there may be something you can do to help someone who is overwhelmed get a little bit of rest. Things I know many of you do: making meals, visiting.
The Biblical call to Sabbath is not so that we can, individually, be more efficient and productive. It is so that we, as community, can live in a healthy rhythm and honor the rhythms of creation. I encourage you this week to find a way that works for you to honor the sacredness of time. And to also take a step toward ensuring that all people can experience sacred rest.