Living the Story: Rediscovering Sabbath Rest
by Mike Elmer
I have learned in recent years to pay attention when the same subject comes at me from multiple sources. Often this means that God is showing me something important. Now less than a year into a ministry role at Trinity Wellsprings Church, the subject of Sabbath has come at me from many different places. And it answers one of the primary questions I’ve been wrestling with.
In our Parents’ Gathering at the church, we have been examining environments for discipling children in our homes and in our lives. The first environment we’ve been thinking about is storytelling, and we’ve framed the discussion with a quote by John Westerhoff, that “unless the story [of God’s redemptive work in the world] is known, understood, owned, and lived, we and our children will not have Christian faith.” We are now coming to the part of this understanding of story where we want to look at how we can lead our children (and ourselves) to live the Christian faith.
Sabbath has been the Lord’s answer to a pressing question that has presented itself to me and my wife in these months since we joined a church staff. That question is: “how can we persevere in ministry in the long term and still maintain the health and well-being of our family?” The thing is, we had a wonderful rhythm to life that incorporated rest on the Sabbath day before entering full-time ministry. And then work and life shifted to center on Sunday, and the Sabbath was thrown into question. When would we take our day of rest? Was it important or necessary? Would it really matter?
One of those places that drew me into reflection on the topic of Sabbath was a brief “retreat” of sorts with just a few other guys. The three of us were eager to think through middle-aged life together and gain wisdom for doing it better. We set aside two days to explore various topics, one of which was Sabbath. The conversation for that topic started by examining the benefits and biblical rationale for the Sabbath as a way of considering the usefulness or importance of the Fourth Commandment in our lives – as if to think through whether or not, and if so to what degree, practicing the Sabbath might lead to greater flourishing in our lives. Then the conversation turned and we looked at it from a different view altogether.
Someone among us asked: “is Sabbath something that Jesus Christ, the Lord of all Creation, is commanding us to do? We’ve been talking about this as if to figure out if the Sabbath is beneficial; maybe we need to consider if the Sabbath is mandatory.” It didn’t take us long to establish that since the Sabbath was given rationale in the Creation account and in the Exodus narrative, and since Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath and practiced it with his disciples, it remained as one of the ten commandments that Jesus fulfills in us. What Jesus did in taking our curse for our sins frees us to live according to the Law of God and fulfill the good commandments that God has laid down in his Word. And the Sabbath is so good for us.
So we began to take it for granted that we are commanded by Jesus Christ to practice the Sabbath. The entire tone and tenor of the conversation changed, but not in a way that my inadequate telling of this dialogue might suggest. There was nothing of drudgery or a burden to carry in anything that followed. Quite the contrary: there was something more like elation at the prospect of something glorious and fruitful being rediscovered, and with it an unassailable basis to make it a part of our lives whether we felt like it or not. We had been freed from the emotional pendulum of the shoulda-woulda mediocrity of an unrooted life, and being given the gift of a rooted reality and rhythm in God. Sabbath came to us like a blank canvas that could cover an entire wall, or the boundaries of a national park, or the challenges of outer space waiting to be explored. It felt expansive and delightful and full, like the Hebrew concept of shalom.
We set some guidelines to help us envision and establish the Sabbath according to what God commanded. In this effort, we wanted to make sure that Sabbath didn’t become the absence of certain things, like work, but rather the fullness of the presence of God, as when Jesus healed the lame and sick on the Sabbath. Our hope was to help each other implement something restful in the sense of being life-giving, restorative, God-centered and honoring, and ultimately something that would be the starting point for the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in our lives. Here’s what we came up with:
- the Sabbath should be a 24-hour period (Genesis 2:2)
- the Sabbath should be free from tasks related to livelihood and “productivity” (Exodus 20:8-11)
- on the Sabbath we will enjoy the fellowship of other believers by participating in an in-person service of worship (Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:25)
- on the Sabbath we would seek to invite others to participate with us in the rest we have in the LORD, gathering others around a table and invoking the Word of God by way of a Sabbath liturgy (Acts 2:44-47)
- on the Sabbath we would sideline technology and focus our attention on God and one another so that our relationships are nurtured and deepened (Mark 12:28-31)
- the practice of Sabbath would be like a feast, not a fast; enjoying the riches of God’s love and his blessings (Deuteronomy 14:24-27)
- on the Sabbath we would remember that we are not defined by what we achieve, or our reputations, or our material possessions, or our accomplishments, or anything other than this: we belong to God – He is ours and we are His – He redeemed us and brought us into His family to live with Him forever (Psalm 100, 1 Peter 2:9-10)
That last point is particularly significant. The Sabbath intrudes on our cultural context and on our way of life as a disruptive force. It calls into question the competing aims of our existence, it fells the idols that entice our hearts, it is the manifestation of God’s grace in real-time, concrete reality. Consider: in our culture that pushes us to achieve and accomplish more all the time, Sabbath demands that we content ourselves in God’s provision. In our culture that puts forward the ideal that more is always better, Sabbath declares less is better (and less is more, because we take time to enjoy what God has given). In the face of any competing obligations, interests, even good pursuits, Sabbath requires us to acknowledge God as more important than any other thing, even the good things, and to honor Him no matter what it costs us. And the Sabbath is a powerful expression of God’s grace, because it communicates to our souls this life-changing truth: that God says to us apart from our striving and achieving, come, enjoy the rest I have prepared for you, come and feast with me and my people, come and taste the kingdom way now. Sabbath shatters the myth of the American Dream, that heaven can be brought down to earth if only you achieve such-and-such and move into such a house and attain so much and all the rest. Instead, Sabbath leads to a realization that the kingdom of heaven is already in our midst.
Sabbath is the starting point from which the story of the Christian faith is lived out by us in the modern world. The Jews practice Sabbath on Saturdays and re-enact God’s deliverance of his people by looking back. Those who follow Christ Jesus practice Sabbath on Sunday, the first day of the week, and rehearse our part in the great redemptive work of God now. From Sabbath flows the mindset, restfulness, radical acceptance (and hence confidence), and delight that energizes the remainder of the week. On the Sabbath day with Christ, we are reminded that we belong to God and recalibrate our lives to focus on Him and honor Him. From there, our work is given greater meaning and purpose, but not ultimate significance for us. Therefore we are able to do our best in seeking excellence without pressure or anxiety to carry the burden alone. Our lives become imbued with deep meaning in every area without any area becoming an unhealthy cancerous idol; the things of our lives fall into place behind worship of the Living God.
Much more could be said about this, but for now I want to pose one final question: how does the practice of Sabbath influence and impact our children? This is a question for broader discussion among us, but for now I’ll put forward just a few thoughts based on the framework proposed above:
- (24-hour period) practicing Sabbath communicates to our children that God matters most – more than the sporting events, school exercises, work tasks, and other obligations that typically take all of our time.
- (free from work obligations) Sabbath teaches us to rest in our identity in God, and not to seek our self-worth in any other pursuit or accomplishment. Children also are acknowledged to be worthy of rest and dignity in God – and our expectations as parents are put in subjection to their greater worth as children whom we love.
- (in-person service of worship) Sabbath teaches us to live in the context of a broader community – primarily a community of faith, but one that is outward-looking to extend the redemption of God’s rest into our broader community. Children learn that life is not about us ultimately; it is God’s story, and we have a part to play.
- (gather around a table with others) Sabbath teaches us to share the joys and delights of God’s abundant provision and blessing. Children learn that the Gospel is the center of our homes, and it is beautiful and attractive and glorious. Hungry souls can be nurtured in the joyous faith community, and it is God’s good pleasure to invite us to be co-hosts for the feast.
- (sidelining technology) Sabbath teaches us to slow down and to put aside the trappings of modern society so that our attention can rest where it should be centered: on God and his sovereignty. Children notice that their parents are calmer, less anxious, and more attentive and relish the opportunity they get to spend quality time with their parents. Hence the primary vessel through which God shares his love with small children, their parents, is strengthened and made more full and powerful.
- (like a feast, not a fast) Sabbath practiced in a way that recognizes the bounty of God’s love and blessing resonates with children as they observe the high points of the Lord’s Day, and begin to associate God not with stale and oppressive rules, but with delightful order and joyous purpose and intent. Parents can invite children into the preparations and practice of Sabbath so that everyone has a part in creating a warm and inviting rhythm that is life-giving and restorative.
- (remembering who we are primarily) Sabbath comes in the good weeks and the bad. When life has hit us hard with trial after trial, or when the boon-time hits a high mark, in either case, God remains enthroned and sovereign and worthy of our worship and attention. Children re-center their attention along with their parents and learn to trust in God whether in scarcity or abundance, remembering that we are his and he is ours in all seasons.
There are many other things that could be said about Sabbath, and they are all worth pondering. Practicing Sabbath has fallen somewhat by the wayside in our society, but that doesn’t mean we can’t return to a robust, intentional, and meaningful rhythm of Sabbath in our lives.
What do you think? Is there anything you are intrigued by or prompted to begin doing?