I’d like to wander away from the readings from the Lectionary today and reflect on a subject that I often wrestle with. The message that often comes to us from the world and the way it operates is that rest seems like a waste of time. Most of us have a difficult time imagining a day devoted to rest. We admire people who work hard and play hard. We have weekend or day off projects, maintaining home or yard or garden. We travel or watch television. We have ball games and family obligations and hobbies. There is too much to do and too little time, and anyway, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right?
As the old saying goes, there’s no rest for the wicked, and the righteous don’t need any. So to many of us, rest seems like a waste of time. Sure, sometimes we feel the stress of busyness. We know we need a break, and we say that we should stop and smell the roses. But there never seems to be enough time for rest. We try to budget our time, stuffing time into envelopes and rationing it the way we budget money. We make distinctions between regular time and “quality time.”
We know the consequences of such stress: high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes and broken relationships, sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and so on. Yet, even knowing these things, hearing that we “ought” or “should” try to take a break simply gives us one more thing to squeeze into our calendars between the doctor’s appointment and the deadline. Unfortunately, church doesn’t help much, with our programs and studies and mission projects, all of which are so important to our spiritual growth. How can we rest? We’re doing the Lord’s work! So although we may know we need a break, we don’t feel that we have time to rest.
We fear death. That’s really the problem, isn’t it? We fear squandering the little time we have. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” we say, and we cling to our finite number of seconds the way a miser pinches pennies. Rest bears too much resemblance to that final rest below the soil, so that we fear rest and the passage of time because it makes us conscious of our own mortality.
Yet God rested. How strange! A God who never sleeps, who is all powerful and ever-present, decides to take the day off. We can hardly imagine it. What does God do on God’s off day? Bake cookies? Do a little gardening? And because God rested, God directs God’s people to rest. The word Sabbath actually comes from the Hebrew verb for “he rested.” God instructs his people to keep the Sabbath holy as a perpetual sign of the covenant between God and Israel. In fact, God takes the day of rest so seriously that the community should put to death “everyone who profanes” the Sabbath.
While it is unlikely this happened often, apparently rest is a serious business! Serious enough that God rested. The truth is we all die, regardless of how we spend our time. When we die we will leave behind unfolded laundry, unchecked items on our to-do lists, and unkept appointments on our calendars. Our business will not be finished. Staring at our datebooks, we realise our entire schedules should be written in pencil, because it all depends on the second-by-second beating of our hearts, tentative, subject to change at a moment’s notice.
A Sabbath rest gives us a chance to become conscious of the eternity in our time, to live mindful of the presence of God. Our time here is too precious not to take a Sabbath rest. Keeping the Sabbath is like tithing our time to God. We give to God the first moments of the day, or the first day of our week. Because we are made in the image of God, we imitate God’s rest after a busy week of doing and creating. Doing so reminds us that all time is God’s time. We make time for a little slice of eternity, and give that time as an offering to God in the same way that we put money into the offering plate.
People who keep a sabbath, whether it is Saturday, Sunday, or some other regular day of rest and reflection, often say that it helps them value their time during the week even more. There’s a paradox at work in the spiritual discipline of keeping a Sabbath. Just as people who give generously never seem to run out of money, people who make a habit of carving out time for sabbath rest never seem to run out of time. Actually, we have more than enough time. Although time is finite, God somehow gives us minutes as fast as we spend them. Look! You’ve just received another one.
God is generous with God’s time. We have more than enough time, so we are called to tithe that time back to God. Imagine your life with a regular Sabbath rest. What do you do with those twenty-four hours if God forbids work? Nap in a hammock. Swing on a porch swing, sipping lemonade. Talk with friends. The Bible tells us that the Sabbath is a foretaste of the kingdom of God, where children play in the streets and everyone sits in the shade of their own vineyard. Imagine: God wants such a life for us! An endless summer afternoon, spent in the company of people we love. God says, why wait for heaven? Start doing it now.