Taking Time Off
When I was growing up, I was blessed with a dad who understood in a meaningful way that time with me was more important than just about anything else. As a small business owner, he worked a lot of hours, and yet, I can’t remember big events he missed. I remember him taking time to come to lunch with me on occasion in grade school which for him meant driving the equivalent of back and forth to Colonial Heights for a twenty minute lunch that consisted of grade school cafeteria food. Every Saturday morning the two of us would go get breakfast at a little diner where they knew our order when we walked in the door and go to his office for him to work while I entertained myself for a couple of hours. He never said it directly, but one of the reasons he did this was because of a song by Harry Chapin that had struck a chord in him that had never stopped vibrating. Many of you perhaps know this song, but I’d like to play it for you in place of our normal choir special.
In part because of those words resonating in his heart and mind I have a dad who gave me an incredible gift of time that has had a profound impact on shaping me into who I am today. Time is truly one of our most precious commodities. Think about it. When you go to get your car fixed what are the two major line items on the final bill? Parts and labor. Which line item is usually bigger and often by a lot? Labor, of course. Depending on the complexity of the job, labor could run you exponentially more than the parts. But in paying for the labor portion of the ticket, what are you really paying for? Time. You’re paying for the time it took your mechanic to learn the requisite skills to do the job and then to put that particular set of skills to work on your vehicle. Yes, you have something physical as a result of the job, but you were really paying for the time it took to do it. Or think more broadly than this. When you purchase anything, the price is a reflection primarily of two things: the physical resources necessary to produce whatever it is, and the time of the various people who played a role in your being able to purchase it including the worker who harvested the natural resources to make it, the factory worker who put it together, the person who transported it to the store, and the employees who stocked and sold it to you.
Thinking about time, the average American today has more disposable time on his hands than any person has ever had in the history of the world. Modern technology has rendered more things than it is worth our time to count accomplishable in an amount of time that would have seemed utterly ridiculous to our forebears. We are so spoiled by our near-unfettered ability to have everything at the blink of an eye that doing things the “old-fashioned way” is an idea that to many folks today—particularly young ones—seems almost sinful in its quaintness. Consider a cake. Making a cake used to be a lengthy process. You had to find all the ingredients, measure them out carefully, mix them together, and bake. Then they invented box mixes to which all you needed to add was eggs, oil, and water. Recently Lisa discovered a recipe for making a little individualized cake in the microwave in 60 seconds. Her grandmother would have laughed out loud at the idea of having a moist, gooey cake in 60 seconds. We have an abundance of time that was once thought to belong only to the super wealthy. Most of the rest of the world for most of the rest of human history hasn’t known the concept of extra time, let alone the wonder of a regular day off. Now, there were a few days a year during which no one worked, but the idea of being able to go two days out of seven back to back without working on a regular basis and still being able to eat on the other five would have seemed silly. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat, plain and simple.
But, culturally, idleness is not a virtue we celebrate. Our Puritan roots with their accompanying work ethic have resulted in our not using all this extra time to loaf around like bumps on a log (although as we drift further and further from our roots even that’s starting to change). Instead, we have sought ways to fill it. And yet, given the amount of extra time we have compared to our ancestors, it hasn’t been possible to fill all of it with meaningful activities. Thus we have introduced a new concept to the world: wasted time. This is time spent pursuing any one of a number of leisure activities which on the whole add next to nothing of value to the world. This seems like it should be a cultural pariah, but boy are we good at it. In fact, we’re so good at it that when you combine the extra time we waste with the extra time we seek to fill with what seem to us to be meaningful activities, we may have more disposable time than any other generation, but we are also busier than any other generation. We run around like chickens without our heads hoping against hope we can keep up against the swelling tide of life—a tide, by the way, that only grows as much as we let it because there’s always time for everything we most want to do. Now, we may have more wants than time allows—a problem we’ll come back to in a bit—but we are doing all the things we are because we want to do them. The flip side of this is equally true, by the way. We’re not doing any of the things we aren’t because we don’t really want to do them. If we did, we would. (That’s why with a few exceptions I always laugh to myself when people tell me—guiltily since I’m a preacher—that while they’d really like to they just can’t get to church. I appreciate the lie, but the truth is always fine with me: getting to church simply didn’t rank high enough on their list of things they most wanted to do that week.)
Our personal challenge in finding ourselves mired in this busyness is that we have to speed up our pace of life in order to keep up. When we have scheduled twelve things over a time period that really only had six slots, we have to move so quickly from one thing to the next that we can neither enjoy any of the activities to the extent we’d like, nor can we be fully present in any of them. And, if any of these involve our kids, guess who doesn’t get from us what they most want and we would claim to be trying to give them? The problem in all of this is that for folks who would count themselves followers of Christ (and if you don’t, this next piece may not apply, but the principle still does), we serve a God who is infinite. This means that while time does mean something to Him in light of His having entered our situation in the person of Jesus, it’s not a limited resource for Him. Time is something He has plenty of and indeed He moves as if this were the case. With this in mind, when we are moving through life so quickly that we meet ourselves coming and going, we run the risk of passing Him by and traveling for much of our journeys without Him—even when we are caught up in ostensibly seeking to do things for Him! Just like the father did in the song Cat’s in the Cradle, we run the risk of getting so caught up in our own stuff—even if it’s stuff we think we are doing for God (like He really needs us to help Him out)—that we completely miss out on God’s plans and the thing He desires most with us: time.
Fortunately, we serve a God who in addition to being infinite, is all-wise. He knew this would be a problem for us. And so, when He was laying down the boundaries within which Israel was to seek to remain if they were going to follow Him well, He set in place a practice aimed at avoiding this trap before it could even be sprung. The idea here is centered on giving us some encouragement to slow down and spend time with Him. This practice is called a Sabbath, and as we continue on our journey of seeking to understand the kinds of practices which will enable us to live out the power of Easter every day—spiritual disciplines—this is the next practice I want to examine with you. Let’s start, as with last week, by taking a look at the practice when it was first instituted. Then we’ll take a look at what Jesus had to say about it. Finally, I want to get really practical with you as we see how we can institute this practice in our lives in a meaningful way.
If we are going to seek to understand the concept of Sabbath and how it applies for us, we cannot but start with God’s first commanding a Sabbath for His people in the Ten Commandments. If you would open your Bible, or if you have a smart phone with a Bible app, thumb your way there, to Exodus 20 I’ll read this for us. After establishing His identity, uniqueness, and holiness in the first three commandments, God offered the people a way to connect with Him in the fourth. Starting at v. 8 God says: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
From this command, the people of Israel began a practice still followed today of having six days for work and one day to not work. The Sabbath was and is observed on Saturdays because Sunday was considered the first day of the week. The big idea here is that God wanted His people to demonstrate the wisdom of following in His own pattern of establishing a regular interval of work and rest. Now, don’t miss the significance of this culturally for ancient people. This was a day before refrigeration meant food could be safely preserved. People had to buy food every single day then. This meant they had to have money every single day. Most people only made enough money, though, to buy that day’s food. If you skipped a day of work, you were probably going to have to skip a day of food. Living with such a pattern of work, work, work, and work, though, necessarily puts one in the framework of thinking that their effort and provision gets the job done. It engenders a sense of self-reliance. This is not what God wanted for His people, though, because it’s not an accurate reflection of reality. God is our provider. Everything we have comes from Him. Period. If you think you have something that didn’t come from Him, you’re wrong. If we start thinking our effort is all that’s necessary to do the job, we’ll start thinking that we don’t really need Him. Thus, God wanted the people to learn to rely on Him. Relying on God is a learned skill. It is not natural for us. So He told them to take a regular day off (what a great God, am I right?) and He’d make sure they had what they needed on that day. This wasn’t all, though. When Moses restated the Ten Commandments for the people in his farewell speech which we have as the book of Deuteronomy, he added a little something to the command. From Deuteronomy 5:15: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” The people weren’t simply to take a day off and loaf around. They were to take a day off to reflect on the great things their God had done for them. This ideally was to foster a sense of gratitude and dependence and worship in their hearts so that they could remain faithful to His words for the rest of the week.
Well as nice as this sounds, it was all a little vague for the people. I mean, when they heard some of the penalties for breaking the law (and when they finally really experienced those penalties a few hundred years later), they weren’t content simply with “don’t work.” They wanted to make sure they knew exactly what was work and what wasn’t. And so they started to get specific. In fact, they got really specific. No, you don’t understand: they got really, really, really specific. They developed a religion instead of relying on a relationship. God said, “Don’t work.” They asked: “what counts as work?” Then they carefully defined 39 categories of work. On the Sabbath one was not to plant, plow, reap, gather, thresh, winnow, sort, grind, sift, knead, cook (or bake), shear, do laundry, comb wool, dye, spin thread, wrap, make more than one loop, weave, separate two threads, tie, untie, sew, tear, trap, slaughter, skin, cure, smooth, scour, cut anything to a specific size, write, erase, build, demolish, extinguish a fire, light a fire (because if you can’t extinguish a fire, you’d better not light any), do finishing work, or take something from one place to another. But, that wasn’t specific enough. For example, consider the category sorting. Is there any kind of sorting that might not count as work? As a matter of fact, there is. Say you have a bowl of peanuts and raisins, but you don’t like peanuts (in fact you don’t even want peanuts touching the raisins you eat), but it’s the Sabbath. What is one to do? Well, don’t take the peanuts out. That would be sorting with the intent to purify. That’s work. But alas! You still have a bowl of mixed snacks that you don’t want mixed. Must you simply bite the bullet and let the peanuts poison your raisins? No! Take the raisins out. Then you aren’t trying to purify the mixture and thus aren’t working. As you can probably imagine, while their heart was in the right place at one point, the purpose of the Sabbath was a bit lost in all of this. It became more about external displays of righteousness rather than taking any real time with God. It became about a religion, and not a relationship.
This was all the case when Jesus and His disciples were traveling around Judea stirring up the religion pot. There were a number of different times in which Jesus very intentionally challenged the understanding of the Sabbath popular among the religious leaders of the people. They were heavily focused on the externals of the Sabbath. Indeed, there have been times in the not so distant past of the church in this country when we were more concerned with things like passing Blue Laws, going to church, and taking it easy, than really taking time with God. While we aren’t going to take the time now to look closely at all of the interactions Jesus had with the Pharisees about the Sabbath, some of His comments are worth noting. The reason for this is wrapped up in understanding Jesus’ relationship to the Law and ours as a consequence of that. If we view Jesus as having fulfilled the demands of the Law (and He acknowledged He did this in the Sermon on the Mount), then the Law only applies to us as it is understood through the lens of His teachings. What this means is that we are not commandment-bound to have Sunday set aside for going to church. In fact, we’re not commandment-bound to have a regular Sabbath like the Jews did at all. Before I get myself in trouble, let me explain that a bit further. God’s command to the people of Israel to take one day out of six to rest and reflect has been fulfilled by Christ. This means we are no longer responsible for observing this command…as it was originally stated. It is beside the fact that we weren’t really doing that anyway. Most of us worked only five days out of seven. Additionally, the worship we do on Sundays is work—especially for folks like me who are often thought of as most responsible for faithfully keeping the Sabbath. In the understanding of the Sabbath common among believers in this country, preachers break the Sabbath each week in the very act of leading others to keep it. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we are basically doing what the Israelites were doing, but on Sundays instead of Saturdays, because we aren’t. For followers of Jesus, that’s not what keeping the Sabbath really means anymore. The Sabbath is about taking time with God and we can do that anytime.
So then, what does keeping the Sabbath look like for Jesus followers today? Well, let’s look quickly at Jesus’ two major thoughts and then we’ll see if we can sketch out an answer. Both of them came out of circumstances in which Jesus was accused of breaking the Sabbath law by working. In the first, in Mark 2:27, Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for people, not the other way around. The basic idea here is that the technical law is not the most important part about the Sabbath. We were not designed specifically to need a day off after working for six. Rather, God created the Sabbath because we were designed with the need both for resting at regular intervals and for connecting with Him on a regular basis so we can be reminded of our need for Him. The practice of a Sabbath meets both of these needs at the same time. In calling us to rest, God calls us to cease from our futile labors and set our minds on the pursuits which are the most meaningful: His. When we’re running a million miles an hour trying to keep up with life we can’t give our relationship with God the time it deserves…just as the father in our song discovered about his own son (and by the way, while God won’t be affected by our lack of taking time with Him, we will pass such patterns on to our kids decreasing their likelihood of doing it). Indeed, our Lord Himself called all those who are weary and heavy laden to take up His yoke and receive His rest. Are you heavy laden at all? For you perhaps taking a Sabbath does not primarily mean being in church once a week. Perhaps instead it means pausing regularly to stop the busyness and take time with your heavenly Father. Indeed, taking a Sabbath means taking time with God.
Jesus’ other thought was presented in the form of a question. In Luke 14:3 and 5, again as He was consciously breaking the Pharisaic Law regarding the Sabbath, Jesus posed these questions to His critics: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” And again, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” This question laid bare the duplicitous nature of Sabbath keeping among the religious elite of His day and also serves to once again take our minds off of the idea that the Sabbath is primarily about not working. As long as we think in those terms, we’ll fall into the same trap of legalism as the Pharisees and many of the believers who have come before us. Okay, fine, we get it! The Sabbath is not about not working. Check. What is it about? Isn’t it obvious by now? The Sabbath is about time. Taking a Sabbath means taking time with God. Taking a Sabbath means pausing at regular intervals to spend time with your heavenly Father. Now, one of the ways we spend time with God is through worship and so gathering with the body of Christ to worship together regularly is absolutely a part of incorporating the practice of a Sabbath in our lives (some of you were either worried or excited that I might have been saying that coming to church wasn’t necessary for Jesus followers), but it is not the whole thing. At its core, taking a Sabbath means, very simply, taking time with God.
Okay, let’s wrap all this up by getting really practical. I want to challenge some of you very intentionally. On the whole, this is a busy group of people. Some of you are really busy. When you look at the life of Jesus, He was never busy. Busyness is antithetical to an Easter kind of life. Now, there are seasons when we have a lot going on. There’s no real question about this. Jesus experienced seasons in which He had a lot going on. But, some of you have had a lot going on for so many seasons in a row that you can’t remember the last time your life was moving at a healthy, sustainable pace. You’ve crossed the line from a full season to downright busyness. Here’s the problem: when you start running the rat race of busyness, you cease to have meaningful time to take with God. You begin to think that you bear more responsibility for the things in your life and in the lives of people around you than you actually do. You may use humble language and may even protest that you are busy for God, or perhaps for your family. Have you ever processed the thought that you’ll rest in Heaven? When was the last time you slowed long enough to take a meaningful time with God? Just own it: you’re too busy. So here’s what taking a Sabbath means for you: it means slowing down. Yes, but how do you do that? Well, for many of you it means being involved in fewer things. It means making fewer commitments. And I know what you’re thinking: “But I can’t drop _______!” Why? Are you absolutely essential to every one of the activities in which you are involved? You might be to some. That’s okay. Those are the ones you need to stick with. The point is not to eliminate all activities from your life. It is to eliminate things which are keeping you from taking time with God because you were designed to need just that. In all likelihood there are some of these in your schedule right now. Maybe more than you think. We want to think we’re essential to every activity, but we’re not. You need to drop some of these. You can’t maintain this pace for long. You are doing the same thing our government is doing with money, but with time. Eventually the cost for running yourself and your family so thin is going to come due. If you don’t trim back now and make some possibly difficult cuts, the crash is going to be exponentially more unpleasant. You need to drop some of these because they are keeping you from taking time with God. Taking a Sabbath means taking time with God.
For some others of you, and possibly because of your level of busyness, you need rest. You need to take the Sabbath element of not working fairly literally. You need time off. Now, yes, we were designed with a need for a healthy pattern of rest and work over the long term, but that need is present in the short term too. The human body needs 7-8 hours of sleep out of 24. Now again, there are seasons in which we can’t do this. I get that. I have young children. But, if on the whole, you are not getting enough rest, you’re not only hurting yourself, but everyone around you. There have been medical studies of the response of the body to sleep deprivation and the results demonstrated that when the human body is only allowed 5-6 hours of sleep a night for an extended period of time, our reaction time and ability to process information suffer greatly. Well, if your ability to focus and respond to stimuli is impaired, guess where you are going to invest the most energy? In the areas with the loudest demand for attention. For most of us, those are consumed by our time filler activities. Relationships, which though they require a great deal of time and attention to keep healthy, aren’t demanding about it most of the time, get put on the backburner, especially our relationship with our heavenly Father. When your car has overheated because you’ve been running it too hard, you don’t think much about the amount of fuel in the tank. You need to build in a Sabbath to get yourself healthy again so you can keep running over the long haul. Taking a Sabbath means taking time with God.
A final application here comes from Moses’ restatement of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy. God told the people to reflect on His action in their past. The idea here is that at least part of the heart of the Sabbath is being reminded of what God has done for us so that we can cultivate an attitude of gratefulness, glorify Him for His greatness, and share that greatness with others by pursuing good works. This is worship. The very word “worship” comes from an Old English word, “worthship” which meant to ascribe worth or value to something. In remembering gratefully what God has done we are able to assign Him the appropriate value. And when we properly understand His value, we do something about it: serve others. This can be done in a lot of different ways, but there is something really special and indeed important about the body coming together to do this as a group (something we’ll talk a whole lot more about in a couple of weeks). But, remembering what God has said and done in order to worship Him for it takes time. Or, if you’re not a Jesus follower, then perhaps for you this is taking time to reflect on your life and what it looks like. Is it falling in line with your vision? Do you even have a vision for your life? Or are you simply running in circles until someone presses the stop button? What if you built some margin into your life for doing good for others? But, the key point is that none of this happens unless without giving it time. It won’t happen unless we take time to make it happen. We can’t do that if all our time is consumed with busyness. In this place, we’ll miss out on the activity of God, but more importantly, the presence of God. Now, taking Sabbath times of worship can happen anytime, but the reality is that for most Jesus followers it only happens in a room like this one and that only when something else hasn’t be allowed to get in the way…because we’re so busy. Taking a Sabbath means taking time with God.
As you leave this morning, then, take these three challenges with you so that you can develop the spiritual discipline of taking a regular Sabbath in your life: figure out which activities you need to cut out so you have time, get some rest so that you are able to give your best to life, and take time to pause regularly in order to reflect on God’s goodness and worship Him for it. This all takes time, but taking a Sabbath means taking time. It means taking time with God.