Rediscovering Sabbath - Blueprint for a life well lived!
One morning, last summer, while sipping my first cup of preferred 'survival juice' and pondering what else I could squash onto my 'To Do' list, I was listening to a live podcast of the morning Bible Study from New Wine, a national gathering of Christians in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the speaker, John Mark Comer, say "Most people don’t practice Sabbath, at least on any kind of a regular basis. This means most people are missing out on one of the most life-giving practices of 'the way' of Jesus"
Having spent over 10 years living in Israel, where the weekly Sabbath day is still a reality for most people, I experienced first-hand the benefits of having one day a week when everything stops, and your soul has space to rest. But I think for many people, the idea of keeping the Sabbath holy, brings to mind a list of 'do not's'. I remember my Grandmother's horror at the thought of hanging out laundry on a Sunday as if it would bring down fire and brimstone! So I was intrigued to know how a hipster, '30 something', Pastor to a church of Millennials in one of America's most secular cities (read more about John Mark Comer), was celebrating the keeping of the Sabbath and envisioning his generation with the benefits of this special gift.
Comer highlighted that modern culture has put a label of 'virtue' on workaholism and being busy. With technology designed to make our lives easier, we carry the office in our back pockets. We are always available. Always connected. Never at rest. The theologian, Dallas Willard, defined hurry as, "The great enemy of the spiritual life." Our 'go, go, go, culture' gets in the way of truly 'abiding' with Jesus and leads into to all manner of social breakdowns: stress, depression, burn-out, divorce, alienation and addiction.
"Is there a practice from 'The Way of Jesus', is there a Spiritual Discipline," continued John Mark, "is there a time tested, ancient art form based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, that is a tool to tap into what Jesus called, 'life to the full'? And the answer to that is a definitive, yes! It's the Practice of Sabbath."
What is the Practice of Sabbath? To break through all of our pre-conceived notions of what keeping the Sabbath might mean, we need to go back to the beginning - to the first chapter of Genesis, to the first Sabbath. After six days of intensely creative work, God takes a look at all he has made and declares it is "very good!" (Genesis 1:31) Chapter 2 begins, "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. 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." After finishing his work, God rested. Now, obviously God doesn't get tired - resting for God wasn't about weary limbs! It is as if God sat down, looked around, took a moment to enjoy what he had created and thought - I did a great job this week!
From that very first week, God set up a natural rhythm of life that he offered to his creation as a gift. God chose to separate one day from the other six. It would be a day with no work, no striving - a day to rest. The original Hebrew word used for rest in these verses is SHABBAT. The literal meaning of SHABBAT is 'to cease, to end, to rest' and is the root of our English word Sabbath. Let that sink in for a minute, Sabbath means 'rest'. It goes deeper than just a cessation of work. God set apart a whole day for us to put down the stress and burdens of life, to end our usual weekly routine and to simply rest in His presence. The intent of God's Shabbat couldn't have been further from the strict, religious interpretation some traditions dictate. Jesus was quick to remind his disciples that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. In fact, even today among the Jewish community, the phrase 'delight in the Shabbat' is used. The Sabbath wasn't designed to be a solemn, morbid day of deprivation - it was designed to be a delight to our soul. A day to marvel at all God has created. To have space and time for our hearts and minds to come back into alignment - to re-centre on God. To tune-in to the creator. To re-calibrate our life compass.
In the podcast I was listening to, Comer referred to 'practising Sabbath' as 'restful partying' - a joyful, relaxing celebration of all that is good in the world and in our lives. It is a time to stop and proclaim, 'It is well with my soul!'
It is not the same as a day off - when we cease paid employment but rush to complete all the other tasks vying for our attention or hurry to acquire the next best thing that retail therapy has to offer. Sabbath is so much more than another day off. It is a day without a 'to do' list, without the need to achieve, without the need to accumulate - no agenda except God's invitation to rest and worship him. Scientists are becoming aware of the affects of phone addiction to our health and well being. How may times a day do most of us check our phones? Would it benefit our health to unplug for one day a week? To be really present with the people we are with, without distractions? When we practice the Sabbath, every day of our week reaps the benefit. After practising Sabbath, our physical, emotional and spiritual tanks are refilled and we start the new week energised, ready and prepared.
As in Jesus' day, people get hung up about setting apart the Sabbath. One group will argue there is no command today to do so - the Sabbath was part of the Law and therefore it would be legalistic to keep it now we are set free from the Law. Others will say that it is one of the Ten Commandments so why wouldn't we expect to keep it the other nine. Besides, it was established in Genesis 1 and 2 which pre-dates the Torah laws. Others will argue about which is the correct day and what you can and can't do. But, all of these arguments miss the point. It is not about if I have to or not, or how to or which day - God has given us Shabbat/Sabbath as a gift to enjoy! How awesome - a whole day to rest and worship with no guilt about all things I think I should be doing! Why wouldn't we want to receive a gift like that?
While living in Israel, I came to love the weekly focus on Shabbat. The day before was a crazy preparation day - getting all the shopping and cleaning completed so everything would be ready for Shabbat, the next day. I lived for several years on Allenby Street, one of Tel Aviv's busiest shopping streets and close to the food market. Friday was especially loud and chaotic as everyone hurried to finish their chores before the start of Shabbat that evening. In the Hebrew calendar, the day starts at sunset the evening before so, late Friday afternoon as the shadows grew longer, the noise level of the street would begin to quieten until suddenly you would be aware of the silence. The contrast between busy afternoon and quiet evening was so great, it was a real physical reminder that this day was different from the other six. We would always mark the beginning of the Sabbath with a special meal, and I often joined different Jewish families who were followers of Yeshua (Jesus), as they honoured this one day to focus on God and family. Every family celebrated Sabbath differently, their own personal way to receive this gift from God.
Our Western culture doesn't do Shabbat. How can we make it matter when nothing changes around us? I would suggest that you look for ways to make one day count. Don't get hung up on which day - choose one that you will be able keep and that will work with your schedule and lifestyle. If possible, make the day before a preparation day when you do all the chores you need to complete - then, your mind will be at rest while you celebrate the Sabbath. Remember Sabbath is a gift from God to his creation. It is the climax of our week. It is when we get to go back to the garden of Eden, to 'walk in the garden' with God. It is a space to breathe. More than ever, we need to rediscover the Practise of Sabbath - it is the antidote to this ever faster, busier, stress-filled world we live in. As Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."
As a full-time Pastor, Comer found that the traditional Friday night to Saturday night Sabbath worked for him. Here is how he spends his day:
John Mark Comer explains what his Sabbath looks like:
"A Sabbath is an entire day set aside for rest and worship – a whole day dedicated to Yahweh. But that doesn’t mean the sober kind of over serious, fasting all day and memorising Leviticus. For us that means asking what draws us into deeper connection with God, with each other, with our own soul.
"We start on Friday night; we power off all of our phones – there’s no technology in the house for 24 hours. We gather round the table, light a candle, read a psalm, pour a bottle of wine, invite the Holy Spirit and open our time in prayer. And then we just feast – we have this massive dinner for about two hours. We go around the table and each share our highlight of the week and have this great time. There’s no TV, we read and then collapse into bed.
"Saturday there’s Bible reading, prayer and lots of good coffee. I make a huge brunch for all the kids. We’ll go on a nice, long walk and in the afternoon I normally read and journal. My wife is extroverted; she’ll ride her bike and go get coffee with her best friend. And then we come back together Saturday evening to mark the end of Sabbath.
"Nine times out of ten it’s the best day of the week, for all of us, and we love it and we savour it and we’re always sad when it’s over. But we have another one to look forward in six days!"
SHABBAT SHALOM! - the traditional Hebrew greeting on the Sabbath which literally means rest peacefully.