Thursday, December 13, 2012

To rest is holy

Last Sunday I spoke about the fourth of the Ten Commandments:  ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’ Here’s a summary.

What do we make of the command to rest, to take time out – in this case one day in seven – to stop working?

Some find obedience to this command easier than others. Garfield for instance.

The fact that God has to command rest indicates we can become work-addicted. More on this later. First to explore a couple of ‘whys’ behind the command.

‘Why’ number one. The Exodus version of the commandment says the reason for Sabbath is: 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.

So why did God rest? Was he tired out? (Theologically problematic given omnipotence.) Had he got ahead of schedule? (Ditto omniscience.) Pop back to heaven? (Ditto omnipresence.) In fact, the reason God ‘rested’ is hinted at in these word: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

God rested to celebrate, to enjoy creation because it was very good. It was not only of value for what it could do or produce (utility), nor was it meaningless (futility). It was fruitful and abundant, but its meaning was not limited to this. Ultimately it was a work of beauty that both glorified its maker and brought joy to its maker.

Sabbath reminded Israel: creation was made for more than utility (what it can do) and futility (having no meaning).

‘Why’ number 2. The Deuteronomy version of the commandment says: You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty outstretched hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Sabbath reminded Israel they were no longer slaves. Not only was creation not made for utility or futility, but nor were they. They had been delivered from Pharaoh’s back-breaking brick-making and soul-destroying quotas.

And we should note a further revolutionary fact: the commandment was not only for adult Israelites but for ‘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’. Sabbath was egalitarian: for all creation – even animals.

Sabbath points back to creation’s original purpose – joy, celebration and glory – and forward to the day when creation would cast of its slavery to utility and futility.

For, as Paul puts it, creation has been ‘subjected to futility’. As Genesis has it:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Sin has made work hard, unyielding, relentless. Utility. It has made the human destiny ‘dust’. Futility.

Work, work, work, work, work. Die.

It is a Christian commonplace (though no less glorious for that) that Jesus’ death and resurrection have undone the effects of sin and overcome the fall. He brought old creation to its end – he literally bore the thorns of Genesis on his head as he died, the ‘last Adam’ – and took it to the grave. On the Sabbath he rested.

And ‘on the first day of the week’ (as it carefully points out in all four gospels) creation began again. That is Jesus was raised imperishable. If old creation began with the heaven and the earth and finished with a ruling man, new creation began with a ruling man and will finish with a new heaven and earth.

And in the meantime? After all, looking around the world today there’s plenty of evidence of utility and futility – but what of new creation?

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. ‘God and make disciples’ says Jesus, echoing the ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ of Genesis. And he doesn’t just mean converts. He means spread new life. Baptise people into new creation. Make new people (including yourself). And live like he commanded.

Which includes Sabbath.

The New Testament is ambivalent about actually having a one-day-a-week Sabbath. Paul ranges from tolerance to trenchant prohibition.

The latter almost certainly had its roots in Jesus’ own strong condemnation of a Jewish Sabbath-keeping which had become so divorced from its raison d’être that it enslaved people rather than freeing them. (To love God is to love people. Put another way: obedience to God will always emerge as love for people – otherwise we haven’t understood what God is commanding us.)

Sabbath for new creation people is not a day off a week (though if it works for you, feel free).

Sabbath is a way of life. As the letter to the Hebrews says: There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God... Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.

Sabbath is an end to futile labour. Our work in the Lord is not in vain. It’s an end to seeing people as worth only what they produce. All are valued. It’s an end to stressy striving. It’s an end to manic measuring.

It means hard work, but it also means valuing play. It means tears, but joy follows after. It means human beings, not human doings. It means saying no to drivenness, but yes to servanthood. It means sprinkling some Calvinism in our Arminianism. It means work is good, but rest is ‘holy’.

It means, for some, and in order to obey the Lord of the Sabbath – being a little more like Garfield.

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