At my ordination interview, I didn’t give the best answer when the committee asked me about my practices of self-care. “One day each week I take a sabbath rest,” I said brightly. And then for good measure I added, “I don’t pray or read the Bible or anything on that day.”
At the time, I thought it made sense: If my work was to traffic in the things of God, then surely my rest would mean taking a break from those things — maybe even from God. No doubt that room full of elders was less than impressed with my answer, though in the end, they had enough patience (Lord, have mercy) to ordain me in spite of it.
I’ve grown a little since that interview, learning along the way that Sabbath is not so much about taking a break from life as about being reoriented to God, the source of life.
When God gave his people the covenants and the law, Sabbath was part of the package. Sabbath is a generous gift, a sign between God and his people that patterns life as God intends it (Ex. 31:17). Sabbath is rooted in God’s fundamental acts of creation and salvation, modeled on the way that God rested on the seventh day and simply was, as well as on God’s liberating act of rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:11; Deut. 5:15).
God’s people were not to work on the Sabbath, but rather to worship and be refreshed. The beloved medieval rabbi Rashi writes: “The idea is that one calms his soul and takes breath when one reposes” after ceasing one’s labor.
There’s more than a passing connection between taking a breath and being refreshed on the Sabbath. The Hebrew word used in Ex. 31:17 for “refresh” contains within it the word nephesh, which literally means “that which breathes” and is usually translated as “soul,” “life” or “living being.” Sabbath refreshment is about taking a breath and tuning in to what is real and life-giving.
This is why the Sabbath prescribes not merely rest, but “solemn rest” — and why Sabbath is guarded with such deadly seriousness (Ex. 31:14-15). The stakes are high: the very shape of life itself. The risk in failing to observe the Sabbath is enslavement to the world’s production-line values. Sabbath points toward God’s renewed vision of creation and nudgingly reorients those who keep it toward God’s will and ways.
Jesus and the early church reaffirmed Sabbath observance, though without the elaborate set of rules governing it that later rabbis would develop. The church followed a different track, seeing Sabbath as a sign of God’s creative and redemptive acts brought to completion in Jesus’ resurrection.
This conviction explains why early on the church transferred the sundown-Friday-to-sundown-Saturday Sabbath to the first day of the week, the “day of the Lord” (see Acts 20:7 and Rev. 1:10). Sabbath became a sign of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus’ resurrection.
That new creation was foreshadowed by the prophet Ezekiel. God said he would sprinkle his people clean and transplant their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:26). This inward spiritual renewal would lead to the outward qualities of abundant life (Ezek. 36:27-30).
In our day, the problem may be less hearts of stone than hearts of aluminum and silica, hearts etched with the jittery circuitry of modern life. Those beguiling screens keep us too busy to observe anything resembling a Sabbath.
Or so we say.
Our problem, it seems to me, is not so much that we have so many things to do. Keeping busy is neutral, and can even be positive. The real problem is that the frenetic sort of life that we label “busy” is in fact a life disoriented from what matters most — not least God. What we need is Sabbath.
Brad Roth is pastor of West Zion Mennonite Church in Moundridge, Kan. He blogs on encountering God in the everyday at doxologyproject.com. His book, God’s Country: Faith, Hope, and the Future of the Rural Church, will be released Sept. 19 by Herald Press.