Bridgetown just about killed me a few years back.
I was twenty-three when we started the church. Who knows anything about anything at twenty-three? But from day one God was up to something unique. Lots of people were coming to Jesus, even more people were getting turned inside out by Jesus’ way, and the growth was explosive.
Church planting is a cross between a Silicon Valley start-up and D-Day. Let’s just say it takes a lot out of you.
The first year was exhausting but exhilarating. I had never been a part of anything like it.
The second year was exhausting but good.
The third year was exhausting. That’s it. Just exhausting.
By the fourth year I was dying — twenty-seven and on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Stressed out. At the doctor, sick all the time. On edge with my wife. Mad at the world. The campfire was down to a tiny flame and a whole lot of smoke. My heart was just about to give out.
T and I didn’t have any kids yet, so I would just work all the time. I would wake up at six every morning, read and pray for a bit, and then work until about ten p.m. Six days a week. By the time I got to my day off, there wasn’t much left of me. We called it my recovery day. I would sleep through half the morning, and when I got up, I was usually in a foul mood. I spent the day playing catch-up — running errands, paying the bills, to-dos around our loft apartment. Basically I was doing all the work I didn’t get paid for. And then we would go shopping and buy stuff. Isn’t that what you do after you work for a paycheck? Sometimes we would see a movie, usually we would get in a fight, and then we would go back to sleep. My day off was the worst day of my week, without fail.
You can only live like that for so long until it does something to your soul. You erode away a part of your humanness.
Part of the problem was that I love my job. I can blame it on the nature of church work — which is basically a to-do list stretching to infinity and back again, but the reality is I’m a workaholic. I love my job too much. I, like a lot of people, was erecting my own Babel, looking to my job for my identity and self-worth. And that road goes straight into the dark and then off a cliff.
So there I was, in my late twenties, starting to burn out, thinking about quitting the job I used to love but didn’t anymore, miserable, and then I found a little book by a Jewish mystic on the Sabbath. I read it. Then I read it again. Then I read it again. I hate to say, “This book changed my life!” but, well, this book changed my life. For the first time I started to practice the art form of Sabbath, an art form as ancient as creation itself.
In Genesis 2, at the end of the creation story, we read, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”2
As I said earlier in the book, the creation story starts with God working and ends with God resting. After six “days” of world making, it’s done. The universe is “completed.”
And you think your week was productive?
Then we read that God rested.
Make sure you catch that.
God, who doesn’t need sleep or a day off or a vacation, who doesn’t get tired or worn down or grouchy, who is without parallel to any other being in the universe, rested.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want you to remember that we are made in his image. We are made to mirror and mimic what God is like to the world.
God works, so we work.
God rests, so we rest.
Work and rest live in a symbiotic relationship. If you don’t learn how to rest well, you will never learn how to work well (and vice versa). After all, the opposite of work isn’t rest — it’s sleep. Work and rest are friends, not enemies. They are a bride and groom who come together to make a full, well-rounded life.
Sabbath isn’t just a day to not work; it’s a day to delight in what one Hebrew poet called “the work of our hands.” To delight in the life you’ve carved out in partnership with God, to delight in the world around you, and to delight in God himself. Sabbath is a day to pull up a chair, sink into it, look back over the work of the last six days, and just enjoy.
The word rested in Genesis 2 is shabat in Hebrew, where we get the word Sabbath. It essentially means “to stop” or “cease” or “be complete,” but it can also be translated “to celebrate.”
Jews have been practicing the art of Sabbath for millennia. We have a lot we can learn from them. They talk a lot about menuha — another Hebrew word that’s translated “rest,” but it’s a very specific kind of rest. It’s not just a nap on the couch. It’s a restfulness that’s also a celebration. It’s often translated “happiness.” And to the Jews, menuha is something you create. It’s not just that you stop working and sit on the couch for a day every week. It’s about cultivating an environment, an atmosphere to enjoy your life, your world, and your God. It’s more of a mode of being than a twenty-four-hour time slot.
We all need a little menuha once in a while. And that’s what the Sabbath is for.
The Sabbath is a day when God has my rapt attention.
It’s a day when I’m fully available to my family and friends.
The Sabbath is a day with no to-do list.
It’s a day when I don’t accomplish anything, and I don’t feel guilty.
It’s a day when my phone is off, my email is closed, and you can’t get ahold of me.
The Sabbath isn’t a day to buy or sell — to get more. It’s a day to enjoy what I already have.
It isn’t a day to be sad.
Because the Sabbath is a day for menuha — for the celebra- tion of life in God’s very good world.
After six “days” of universe-sculpting work, God rested. And in doing so, he built a rhythm into creation itself. We work for six days, and then we rest for one. And this cadence of work and rest is just as vital to our humanness as food or water or sleep or oxygen. It’s mandatory for survival, to say nothing of flourishing. I’m not a machine. I can’t work seven days a week. I’m a human. All I can do is work for six days and then rest for one, just like the God whose image I bear.
After God rested, we read, “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”
There are two fascinating words here that we need to drill down on: blessed and holy.
The word bless is barak in Hebrew, pronounced like the presi- dent. A barak, or a blessing, in the creation story is a life-giving ability to procreate — to make more life.
God baraked three times in Genesis.
First, God blessed the “living creatures” (the animal kingdom) and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth.”
Then he blessed human and said the exact same thing, “Be fruitful and increase in number. Fill the earth.”
And then he “blessed the seventh day.” So he blesses the living creatures.
Then he blesses human.
Then he blesses, a day? How does that work?
The Sabbath has a life-giving ability to procreate — to fill the world up with life.
No matter how much you love your job or fine-tune your work/ life balance, by the end of the week, you’re tired. Your fuel cells are on empty. But rest refills us — with energy, creativity, vision, strength, optimism, buoyancy, clarity, and hope. Rest is life-giving.
Because God baraked the Sabbath day.
So that’s the first word. One more. Next we read that God made the Sabbath holy. In Hebrew, it’s this weighty, serious word — qadosh. Usually this word is used for God.
God is qadosh. He’s holy.
The rabbis make a big deal about the “principle of first mention,” which, put simply, means the first time you read a word in the Scriptures it’s kind of like a definition. It sets the stage for how you read the word all the way through.
Did you know that the first time you read the word qadosh in the Bible is right here? And what does God make holy?
This is intriguing. You would think that after creating the world, God would make a holy space — a mountain or a temple or a shrine. After all, every other religion has a holy space. Islam has Mecca. Hinduism has the Ganges River. Paganism has Stonehenge. Baseball has Wrigley Field.
But this God doesn’t have a holy space; he has a holy time — the Sabbath. This God isn’t found in the world of space — in a temple, on top of a mountain, at a spring, around a statue or a monument. He’s found in the world of time.
Heschel said, “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals.”5 There is a hierarchy to time. Not all moments are created equal.
Some moments are much, much better than others.
For six days we wrestle with the world of space — the hard work of building civilization. But on the Sabbath, we savor the world of time. We slow down, take a deep breath, and drink it all in.
We push the Slow-Mo button.
Yesterday was the first warm, sunny day of the year — it hit 70. When that happens in Portland, it’s like a de facto citywide party. I had a busy day, but there was a brief moment where I was at my house and I had ten minutes to spare before I needed to head out. So I sat on my patio, in the sun, took my shirt off, and just slowed everything down. My goal was to make those ten minutes feel like ten hours.
The Sabbath is like that. It’s a day where your goal is to savor every second. Because it’s holy.
Is this how you think of holiness?
Sadly, a lot of us think of holiness in the negative — about what we don’t do. We don’t get drunk or we don’t sleep around or we don’t watch R-rated movies (unless they are about Jesus or have Russell Crowe in them). And that’s not all bad, but it’s one-sided. Holiness also has a positive side. It’s about what we do.
Later, in Exodus, there’s a gripping story about Moses and Israel out in the wilderness. They are starving to death, and so God sends this strange new food called manna. It literally falls from the sky every morning, and all they have to do is go out and pick it up. With one exception. On the sixth day twice as much falls from the sky. And on the seventh day — the Sabbath — nothing. The sky is empty.
The people are confused when they wake up on day six and there’s an extra bag of groceries, so Moses says, “Tomorrow is to be a day of Sabbath rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil.
Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.”
A holy Sabbath to the Lord.
This language of holy to the Lord is used all through the Scrip- tures. It can also be translated “dedicated to the Lord.” So the Sabbath is an entire day that is holy, set aside, dedicated to the Lord.
It’s a day for rest, and it’s a day for worship.
When I Sabbath, I run everything through this grid — is this rest? Is this worship? If the answer to both questions is yes, then I delight in it; if the answer is no, then I hold off until the next day.
Because the Sabbath is not the same thing as a day off.
Make sure you get the difference.
On a day off you don’t work for your employer, but you still work. You grocery shop, go to the bank, mow the lawn, work on the remodel project, chip away at that sci-fi novel you’re writing . . .
On the Sabbath, you rest, and you worship. That’s it.
That’s why Moses was teaching the Israelites to get ready for the Sabbath. To bake and boil and gear up for the day of rest.
Think of the Sabbath like a weekly holiday. You don’t just wake up on Christmas morning and think, What should we do today? No, you get ready for it. The same is true for Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July or your birthday or anniversary — you plan and prep and shop and look forward to it for days at a time. In my family, we Sabbath from Friday at sundown through Saturday, so Friday afternoons are always a flurry of activity. We clean the house and finish the to-do list and stop by the market and plan out the day ahead, and then finally, it comes.
Blessed and holy.
Here’s what I’m saying: there is a rhythm to this world. For six days we rule and subdue and work and draw out and labor and bleed and wrestle and fight with the ground. But then we take a step back, and for twenty-four hours, we sabbath, we enjoy the fruit of our labor, we delight in God and his world, we celebrate life, we rest, and we worship.
The Creator God is inviting us to join him in this rhythm, this interplay of work and rest. And when we don’t accept his invi tation, we reap the consequences. Fatigue. Burnout. Anxiety. Depression. Busyness. Starved relationships. Worn-down
immune systems. Low energy levels. Anger. Tension. Confu- sion. Emptiness. These are the signs of a life without rest.
Maybe that’s why later the Sabbath is commanded. When Israel is at the base of Mount Sinai, God comes down on top of the mountain in a cloud of fire and smoke and lightning. And then with a voice like a California earthquake, God speaks the Ten Commandments over his people. His vision for human- ness is shrunk down to ten commands — so few a child can count them on their fingers.
And guess what the longest, most in-depth command is?
The Sabbath. It gets more real estate than any of the others.
God starts off by saying, “Remember the Sabbath day.”
So the Sabbath is something that’s easy to forget. It’s easy to get sucked into this 24/7, go-go-go, hamster wheel that we call the modern world. We’re to remember the Sabbath.
How? By “keeping it holy.”
So the Sabbath is holy, but it’s also something we have to keep holy. It’s easy to profane, to desecrate. It’s easy for it to just become another day in the rat race. Another day to fall into the pattern — work, buy, sell, repeat. We’re to keep it holy — to guard it, watch over it, treat it like a delicate flower in a New York subway.
If you’re thinking, Why should I go to all this trouble? God ends his longest commandment with the answer, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
So, for God, his Sabbath commandment is grounded in the creation story itself.
Lots of people argue that we’re “free” from the Sabbath because it was a part of the Torah, or Law. As if it was a legalistic rule we were stuck with until Jesus. What a tragic misunderstanding.
It is true that we’re no longer under the Torah, and it’s also true that the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament.9 But even so, the Sabbath still stands as wisdom.
There isn’t a command in the New Testament to eat food or drink water or sleep eight hours a night. That’s just wisdom, how the Creator set up the human body and the world itself.
You can skip the Sabbath — it’s not sin. It’s just stupid. You can eat concrete — it’s not sin. It’s just dumb.
You can stay awake for days at a time like Josh Lyman in The West Wing. Go ahead. God’s not mad at you. But if you do that long enough, you’ll die.
At one point, Moses calls the Sabbath a gift.10 That’s exactly what it is.
I cringe when I hear people argue about whether or not we have to keep the Sabbath, and if so, on what day. Some say Saturday like the Jews, others say Sunday because of Jesus’ resurrection, others think any day is fine. But all this arguing is an exercise in missing the point. The point is that there is a way the Creator set the creation up to thrive. A way that God set you up to thrive. And when we Sabbath, we tap into God’s rhythm for human flourishing.
Technically, the Sabbath is from twenty minutes before sun- down on Friday evening to Saturday late afternoon (the Jewish day is measured from sunset to sunset). But most followers of Jesus Sabbath on Sunday, as it’s the day of Messiah’s resurrection, as well as the day we come together for worship. For me Sunday is a workday. And it’s exhausting. I’m up early, gearing up for a marathon day. My last teaching is at eight p.m.! So by the time I get home around eleven o’clock, I’m crawling along the floor.
Not literally. That was a metaphor.
So we follow the tradition of Friday night to Saturday late afternoon, but only because it works for our life. I don’t think what day you take is important. Genesis doesn’t say Friday or Saturday; it just says the seventh. And the writer Paul said, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”11 I guess people have been arguing about this for a while. For us, Friday night to Saturday just works great.
And for us, the Sabbath is by far the highlight of the week. My two youngest children, Moses and Sunday, are both five, so they honestly have no clue how to tell time. Tomorrow and three days from now and next week all blend into one. So every morning they ask me, Is it Sabbath? with a big, hopeful, childlike grin. Jude is nine and pretty snappy with his new watch, so he counts down all week long. Three days until Sabbath. Two days left. Tomorrow! Which comes as no surprise. In Genesis, Sabbath is the climax of the seven-day cycle. It’s on day seven, not three or four. It’s not a pause so we can recoup and then “get back to work.” If anything, it’s the other way around. It’s the end goal, what the entire week is moving toward. The climax is an entire day set aside to worship.
Just like work, when it’s done right, is an act of worship, the same is true with rest. You can rest as an act of worship to God.
You can even rest to the glory of God. When you enjoy the world as God intended — with a cup of coffee, a nap in a ham- mock, a good meal, time with friends, it glorifies God — it calls attention to the Creator’s presence and beauty all around us. And when you do all that in a spirit of gratitude, letting the goodness of your world and life conjure up an awareness of God and a love for him, then rest becomes worship.
Even though the Sabbath is about imitation of the God who works and then rests, it’s also a day to remember that we’re not God. We take a day off, and the world gets along just fine without us.
We’re not as important as we think.
The Sabbath is a day to embrace this reality, to let it sink in, to own it, to celebrate it. To celebrate our weakness, our mortal- ity, our limits. To celebrate our God of strength and immortality and limitless power. To rest with him and to rest in him.
That’s why Sabbath is an expression of faith. Faith that there is a Creator and he’s good. We are his creation. This is his world. We live under his roof, drink his water, eat his food, breathe his oxygen. So on the Sabbath, we don’t just take a day off from work; we take a day off from toil. We give him all our fear and anxiety and stress and worry. We let go. We stop ruling and subduing, and we just be. We “remember” our place in the universe. So that we never forget . . .
There is a God, and I’m not him.