It’s for Your Own Good

“No rest for the weary.” “If you rest, you rust.” “I’ll rest when I’m dead.” Afterall, as the late Gene Wilder’s character, Willie Wonka, said to Charlie in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “There’s so much time and so little to do. No, wait, reverse that.”

There always seems to be so much to do. To shabat, to cease, like God did seems impractical, unwise, and quite honestly a little anti-postmodernity. It isn’t a new problem, though. Throughout the centuries, God’s people have struggled to determine how to keep the Sabbath day holy.

As we approached our hotel in Bethlehem, our guide explained that there was one elevator in hotels in the Holy Land that doesn’t have buttons. It is a Shabbat elevator. It stops on every floor, so that you don’t have to work on the Sabbath by pushing buttons. I’ll admit, I thought it ridiculous. But then, on Thursday evening, the night before the beginning of Sabbath, Chris and I went out into the Jewish section of the Old City of Jerusalem. At 9 o’clock, it was bustling. The bakery, the cheese shop, the halva shop, the deli, all were open. Bistro tables lined the narrow pathways between the stalls. Children laughed and ran and played. People sat and visited. Laughter filled the air. They were preparing, preparing for the day they would do no work, preparing for the day when even turning on a light switch or pressing the elevator buttons will not be done. And I understood, this is a way of remembering. This is a way to set aside one day as God’s.

And I the words of the 42nd Psalm came to mind, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs for you, O God.”

And I was reminded of the prayer of Augustine, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless still, until they rest in you.” And I realized, the command to Sabbath is not about restriction, it is about freedom. The Israelites had slaved 7 days a week in Egypt, and now they were free to rest and worship, to pattern their lives after God instead of Pharoah. But then they wandered in the desert for 40 years, and their faith faltered.

The writer of Hebrews recalls their wandering and the promise of rest. He is writing to a congregation that is tired; they have given up on believing. They are tired of the struggle of being Christian, tired of facing persecution, tired of serving, tired of giving, tired of conflict, tired of this so-called joyful Christian life.
He responds to their weariness with memory and hope. Remember with thanksgiving, that the Lord of all creation rested on the seventh day. And anticipate with hope, for the One seated on the Throne is Alpha and Omega, first and last, the Lord of all; and pain and suffering, mourning and toil are no more. And be faithful in this middle time, enter into the Sanctuary to worship, singing confidently of God’s promises.

Like the congregation the writer of Hebrews is addressing, God’s people were tired when the prophet Jeremiah spoke God’s word to them. In the 8th Chapter of Jeremiah, the Lord says, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Listen, hear the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” The people are looking for God, and they are experiencing their struggles as the absence of God. And God hears their pain, in fact God is in pain alongside them and asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?”

Gilead was east of the Jordan River and was known for a particular kind of gum tree that produced a sap with healing properties. “Is there no physician there?” Is there no healing balm, no one to provide the salve? God has provided ways of healing. And God has given wisdom so that we are able to care for one another. And God is asking “Why?” “Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”

In his book titled Sabbath Wayne Muller writes, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath – our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.” Either we rest, or we will break.

Dr. Ruth Haley Barton suggests three things to give up on the Sabbath and three things to take on. First, she says, give up work, and she defines work as activities that feed “our need to be productive in order to feel worthwhile, or our feelings of indispensability,…” Work is anything that feels good to cross off our to-do list. Second, give up commerce; don’t buy or sell. The message of our culture is that we need just one more thing to be satisfied. Third, give up worry; stop trying to figure it all out and control it. Instead, rest– take a nap, a walk, eat your favorite foods, listen to music. Play; do what brings you joy! Talk with a friend, play a game as a family, invite friends over, read a book. And worship; participate in worship as part of the community of faith and set aside a time of quiet reflection. Light a candle and watch the flame, recall the things you are grateful for in your life.

It’s for your own good. Choose a day. Put it on your calendar. Plan and prepare for it. What will you do? What will you not do? One day to not be productive, to not be a consumer, to not worry. One day to rest, to play, and to worship. Your soul longs for God, may you find rest in the balm of Sabbath that God has provided. Amen.