Read Mark 2:23-3:12
Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27
Several years ago, I read an article in a popular magazine making the case that most Americans don’t know how to rest very well. The author asked readers to list ten things that they liked to do for refreshment. He then went on to say that most Americans could only name two or three. I found myself among most Americans.
That got me thinking. What is rest, Sabbath, all about?
It has been noted that the command to rest is likely the most broken commandment of all Ten. As one author pointed out, we not only fail to keep the command to Sabbath rest, we often break it deliberately. What would we think, he notes, if we told someone in our small group that we were going to commit murder or adultery next Tuesday? And yet we will tell someone in our small group that we can’t keep a Sabbath rest this week because we are so busy that we have already scheduled ourselves to work.
So what is Sabbath rest, why do we need it, and how do we keep it?
In Jesus’ day, the religious leaders built all kinds of rules about what could and couldn’t be done on a Sabbath. They defined what was and wasn’t work. How many steps can you take before it was work? What kind of food can you eat without doing work? Lots of rules and regulations. They wanted to be sure that they weren’t disobedient. But they missed the point.
In their effort to be legalistically obedient, they had decided, for example, that it was wrong to heal someone in need on a Sabbath. They kept the Sabbath in order to earn God’s favor and congratulate themselves on their accomplishments.
Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
It seems to me that as human beings, we are good at doing that. We are good at taking something God gives us for our own good, and turning it into something that we can control and manipulate to our own ends. We get things backwards.
We are not commanded to keep a Sabbath rest so that we can earn God’s favor or congratulate ourselves. We are commanded to keep a Sabbath rest because God knows what we need, and He knows that we need it so much that He has to make it a commandment in order for us to do it. So why does God give us the command to rest and how do we do it? Let me suggest three things.
First, God gives us the Sabbath in order to remind us that we are creatures. Left to our own devices, we typically try to be God. We like to live in the illusion that we are in control, that everything depends on us. Think about it. How often do we justify not resting because if we don’t work, everything will fall apart. Now, you might be thinking of legitimate situations where that would take place, but if you are, you are trying to escape the truth that in most situations, we aren’t that critical. Life and business don’t come to a screeching halt when we aren’t there. God gives us Sabbath to remind us that He is God and we are creatures.
That means, second, that we are designed to trust and depend upon God. When we rest, we are taking a step of faith. We are trusting that God will take care of what we aren’t doing when we rest. We are trusting that God will meet our needs by supplying what our work produces. We are trusting that our identity is more than just what we do for a living. We trust and depend upon God. Sabbath builds our faith and our identity.
Third, it means that Sabbath is meant to be a time of resting in God. It isn’t time to distract ourselves – that’s entertainment meant to mask our deep need for God. It is time to stop and recognize that we are creatures dearly loved by God, and whose identity is not rooted in what we do, but in belonging to God.
So how do we keep Sabbath? By intentionally “wasting time” with God in a way that forces us to recognize that we need Him for everything in life. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, and we don’t need to make a whole bunch of rules about what counts as Sabbath and what doesn’t.
Sabbath is a gift to us, not a burden. With that said, it is one of the hardest things for us to do in our culture, and, dare I say it, it is one of the hardest things to do in this holiday season. And yet it is absolutely critical for our spiritual growth and health, and for our readiness to stand face to face with Jesus.