Man as Machine. The True Purpose of Sabbath.

There can be a danger in writing about sabbath. In the religious world it quickly turns toward “when” and then to “how” and then to dissension. You’ll find many various arguments if you search the interweb. Have at it if you like, you’re a mouse click away. But what I want to address isn’t the “when” or the “how” but the “why”. I promise, this will be far more personally productive for you than a search of the www. Let’s dive in!

It was a hot summer’s day not too long ago in a yard not unlike yours. The bronzed neck of a man glistens with sweat as he labors in the August, midday sun. An engine rumbles and diesel fumes fill the air as man and machine move earth and stones into form. A tall glass of what-used-to-be iced tea sets on a nearby table, untouched. It’s glisten mimicking the sweat of the man. Minute after minute click by as the seemingly endless rhythm of flesh and steal forms something out of nearly nothing. “He’s building a patio”, says a voice inside the house. Through a screened window a young woman can be heard talking to an unseen face on the phone. “He started it two months ago and he’s almost done. He only has Sundays to work on it, but it’s his way of unwinding”, she says again. There’s a long pause as the grumble of the diesel engine continues to fill the air. “Yes, I know it’s Sunday, but he seems to relax and...” The voice fades as the woman meanders into another room to escape the exhaust billowing from the backhoe’s steel stack.

For many people, this is what sabbath or “rest” is. It’s really work but it’s different than the work a person normally does in their nine-to-five. For many years this is what I was taught and what I came to believe “resting” was. I would substitute work I liked for work I didn’t like on my “day of rest”, and justify the swap. I bristled at the religious demands for sabbath because I believed them to be counter to what Jesus seemed so vigorously against. They just didn’t seem to match the heartbeat of God. However, I’ve recently learned that my substitution was wrong – dead, flat wrong – and not for religious reasons. Let me tell you why.

Although the command to “honor the sabbath” didn’t come until the time of Moses (somewhere around 1250 B.C.), the Hebrew word “shabath”, which means to “cease” or “rest”, does appear in the first chapter of Genesis.

Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
— Genesis 2:3

What an amazing view this was, 30,000 feet above West Virginia. When I see this image it speaks to my eyes and my soul. I find it invigorating and refreshing, just as I'm finding  resting in God to be.

Honestly, did God really need to rest? I don’t think so. That’s one of the perks of being deity, of being all-powerful, you can just keep on going! You’re kind of like Iron Man but much better, no suit needed! I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, I just want to be sure that we understand what being all-powerful entails. Omnipotence doesn’t incorporate sitting down and taking a break. So, if God didn’t need to rest, what was the purpose of His “shabath”?

I truly believe that He was setting the example for us! And in setting the example, God was really trying to direct us towards someTHING and someONE. The “thing” is intimacy. The “one” is Himself. Sabbath isn’t about a set day, time or event to uphold. It isn’t about what to do or not to do. It is about stopping, ceasing, resting and being in the presence of God. God, in His ceasing of His creation work, beautifully exemplified the life we are to live. I think that’s pretty amazing love.

When Jesus healed or allowed His followers to pick grain on the Sabbath, He was flagrantly breaking the law of His religion. In doing so He was clarifying the purpose of sabbath – it was for the healing and nourishing of mankind (And may I suggest that this is holistic, incorporating the emotional, spiritual and physical healing and nurturing of humanity)! That’s why He said, “The sabbath is for Man.” I hope you’re getting the vision of why resting in God is so important.

Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’
— Mark 2:27

Snap! Hydraulic fluid spews from a cracked cable. Expletives emanate from the heart and then the mouth of the sun-baked man. The ignition key is angrily twisted and the monster machine chugs to a slow, hunched halt. Wiping dirt, oil and sweat across his chest, the man makes yet another shirt into a rag. Anger and exasperation all leak from him as he slumps onto the cool grass. His face to the clouds and his back to the ground, he lays motionless with exhausted frustration.

This idea of resting, ceasing, is now very important to me. I haven’t changed my faith but I have decided to guard it more closely. Sabbath is supposed to be about reorienting ourselves toward God. It’s not just about getting a break from our daily grind. It’s supposed to be about God ministering to us, Him pouring life and vision into us. And I have come to embrace that this is best accomplished when we cease from our work. All work. Even, “building-a-patio” work! Especially, “different-than-my-nine-to-five” work! But we’ve missed it and missed out on the blessings that come through God by substituting excuses for our lack of sabbath observance. I know I missed it and I want it back!

Another part of sabbath is for us to delight in God and creation. We do this because He delights in us. If the Creator of the universe relishes spending time with His creation in deep and personal ways, is that not worth taking at least a day each week to soak up?

The sun twinkles as it sneaks behind tall, swaying hemlock trees. The man is now dappled in light and shadow as he lies on the grass. Eleven hours have passed since he first stepped into his plot of creation only to be shut down by a failed machine. He breathes heavily as a sigh of resolve pushes from his lungs. “This will have to wait until next week”, he thinks to himself. “I’ll order the cable and install it early next Sunday morning and get this project done.” He groans as he shoves himself skyward, standing to his worn out feet. His filthy shirt saturated and stained with the days work. “I’d better get some sleep, I have to be up early for work”, he says aloud. The screen door creaks and then clicks shut behind him as another Sunday fades into history.

And just like the machine, we’ll crash if we do not take seriously God’s passion for us to rest. Whether it’s Tuesday or Sunday doesn’t matter much to me, nor to God, I believe. That’s getting caught up in the “when”. The “how” we’ll address in a later post. For now, the “what” is enough for us to think about.

So, what will it be? Will you continue to make excuses for your days of labor masquerading as rest or will you boldly proclaim, “I am not a machine”, and plunge into the recuperative blessings of God that are only found in sabbath?

For an excellent explanation of why the “when” doesn’t matter so much, take a look at Romans 14:5-9.