“Sacred Time, Sabbath and Such”

November 9, 2014


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Nov. 9, 2014


“Sacred Time, Sabbath & Such”

Exo. 30:8-11

Mark 2: 27


I often hear people speak about the times when they were young and Sunday was a different kind of experience.  The stores were closed.   No soccer or baseball leagues scheduled games.  Extended families enjoyed scrumptious meals together.  Everyone wore their best clothes to church.  It was a day to rest and rejuvenate.  Remember?


But what I hear beneath the nostalgia is something bigger – a yearning for simplicity and rest one day of our week…. one day a month, even.  A sense of peace and quiet, of restful attitudes and calming activities.  We all need Sabbath rest.  And it’s not an old-fashioned, days-gone-by idea.  It is a real NEED.  A requirement for human beings.  A spiritual rest and break from our hectic, chaotic lives.  As one theologian wrote: “The Sabbath is a most precious resource of life in a world of death.”


The Hebrew word, shabbath, literally means “cessation”.  And to fully understand it, we must understand the Hebrew way of thinking about days.  American days often begin with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness – and the day ends when we turn off the electric lights.  But when we read the introduction of a Sabbath rest in the creation story, the Hebrew phrase “evening and morning, one day” is used.  There is a different sense of rhythm to this kind of time-keeping.  Evening is the beginning of the day.  We go to sleep and God’s creative work begins.  We wake into a world we did not make and into a grace we did not earn.


Think about it this way:  Evening ~ God begins, without our help, God’s creative day.  Morning ~ God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work God initiated.  We prepare for sleep, not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished… but with expectancy.  The day is about to begin!


To observe Sabbath, according to Marva Dawn, is a four-dimensional process:  Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, and Feasting.  They may happen simultaneously, but to understand them, let’s take them separately.


To cease on the Sabbath is to cease work, productivity, and accomplishment.  It’s throwing away the job list and the honey-do’s and entering into an entirely different state of existence.  Exodus 20: 8-11 reads: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  For six days you shall labour and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”  We cease from the work of our week and are freed from society’s pressure to accomplish and achieve.

When we celebrate the Sabbath, we join the generations of believers who set aside a day to remember that we are precious and honored in God’s sight and loved – profoundly loved – not because of what we produce.


But there is more to this ceasing.  Besides ceasing work and the need to be productive, we also deliberately set aside all worries about our tasks.  We cease stressing out, being anxious, trying to hold onto all the things in our busy lives.  We cease all the ways we have fallen into the patterns of the world and away from God.  As Walter Brueggemann said, “Sabbath… is not about worship.  It is about work stoppage.  It is about withdrawal from the anxiety system of Pharaoh, the refusal to let one’s life be defined by production and consumption and the endless pursuit of private well-being.”


Many people run away for the weekend – they go to the lake, camp, or play golf.  They want to “get away from it all”.  The ironic thing is that these attempts usually cannot be successful because most of us trying to run away from the pressures of our lives aren’t doing anything to lessen the burden come Monday.  To celebrate the Sabbath, we actually cease letting the pressures have a hold on our lives.


The second element of Sabbath keeping is rest.  And while the rest we’re talking about may include a sacred Sunday afternoon nap, it also includes emotional, psychological and social rest.  Emotional healing is given in Sabbath rest because it is set apart for deepening our relationship with God.  The day gives us the silence to discover ourselves.  Jesus re-taught his disciples what the Sabbath was all about.  When he was criticized for working on the Sabbath, he reminded them that it wasn’t about legalism.  Rather, he said, “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)   In other words, God’s gift to us is time to rest and regenerate.


The ancient Mishnah teaches that the Sabbath law prohibited anyone from carrying a burden in the public places, including a weapon.  The Christian church in the Middle Ages established “the truce of God”, which prohibited fighting/ warring on festival days and Sabbath days.  Sabbath keeping for us increases personal gentleness and even dismantling our own power.  The prophet Isaiah wrote “in repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.”  (Isaiah 30:15)  Sabbath rest includes harmony with others, the absence of strife, fighting, fear, and distrust.


Sabbath-keeping often feels like an interruption.  But it is about ceasing our doing and simply being.  The Bible tells us a story of the Hebrews in Egypt going for four hundred years without a vacation.  Never a day off.  The consequence of this was that they were no longer considered persons, but slaves.

  • Hands and feet.
  • Work units.
  • Productive and purposeful.

Not persons created in the image of God, but equipment for making bricks and building pyramids.  Slaves.  Because they did not have time to cease activity and re-create.


The third element of Sabbath rest is embracing.  As we cease all the pressure of the world, we also embrace new things.  We embrace God’s values of generosity and shalom.  We embrace a new set of values:

  • Time instead of space
  • People instead of things
  • Giving instead of requiring
  • Rest instead of production

This embracing is a result of our ceasing.  When we cease productivity, we have a sense of wholeness, revived spirit, healthy bodies and minds.  We are much more able to be what God has called us to be the rest of the week when we embrace Sabbath values.


Sabbath is not a time of boredom or watching TV – it is embracing our spiritual side and giving ourselves spiritual renewal.  It is time to mend your life and restore your soul.  One of my personal Sabbath activities is cross-stitching.  I recently saw an advertisement for a T-shirt.  It said, “I cross-stitch so I don’t shoot people!”  I laughed out loud… because it is true.  While I stitch, I integrate the activities and frustrations of the day and I pull the needle in and out of fabric as I process and bless the day and its people.  It calms me.


The final element of Sabbath rest is feasting.  And while food is a vital element to a feast, Sabbath feasting also includes feasting on music, beauty, affection, and friendship.  During the Sabbath, we fill our lives with beauty and love.  Sabbath keeping involves intimacy with God in creation (nature), in music, food, dance, and even intimacy with others.  Sabbath keeping offers us time with loved ones, deepening our relationships.  It is a day to be intentional about building relationships and enjoyment of those relationships.  We feast in every aspect of our being – physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual – and we feast with music, beauty, food and affection.


Worship is the ultimate feast.  It is the time we come together to pray, meditate, confess, and be filled with God’s spirit.  If you miss worship, you may be hungry the rest of the week.  Isaac Pennington said that people who are gathered for genuine worship “are like a heap of fresh and burning coals warming one another as a great strength, freshness and vigor of life flows into all.”


These four elements – ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting – are what makes a Sabbath day a holy day.  Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future.  Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of God’s grace.  Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them to our values and lifestyles.  Feasting heightens our sense of hope and gives us a taste of God’s love.


Let me close with a simple prayer by Avery Brooke:  “O God of the Sabbath, I work too much.  Work is good and necessary and I thank you for it, but I need to play more.  I need to rest and relax, to walk and run, see friends and enjoy myself.  Remind me, God, to take time off, and help me not to feel guilty when I do.”