Sunday, October 4, 2020

Sermon: “Why We Rest", Exodus 20:8-11/Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (October 4, 2020)


If I were the betting type, I’d bet that every single one of you already knew that the Ten Commandments come from the Bible. I even suspect that many of you already knew that you can find them in the book of Exodus (or if you didn’t know, you could figure it out based on context clues). But how many of you knew that these laws could be found in TWO different places in the Bible? Raise your hand if you knew. I’m not talking one full list and one quick recap; I mean that the Ten Commandments are recounted, in full, both in Exodus AND again in Deuteronomy. In Exodus, they’re given directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai; in Deuteronomy, Moses is passing them along to the people.

While most of the commandments are virtually identical in both versions—after all, how many ways can you say, “Don’t murder”?—the commandment to keep Sabbath is a notable exception. Granted, both God AND Moses are unusually verbose in giving this commandment: it’s the longest in both versions, with 4 verses each and clocking in at 55 (Hebrew) words in Exodus and a whopping 64 words in Deuteronomy. (As an aside: for someone who tried to get out of ministry by claiming to be a terrible public speaker, Moses sure does have a lot to say). With so much that apparently needs to be explained, it’s little wonder that there’s variation between the two versions. But the differences aren’t just things like word order or vocabulary choices. No, in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God and Moses say that the people should keep the Sabbath for completely different reasons.

Moses’ reason isn’t particularly surprising; after all, the people had already dropped the ball with the golden calf, so “God saved us from slavery practically yesterday, so we really owe ‘em this,” is certainly a compelling argument. And of course, God’s entitled to God’s own reasoning. But this got me thinking: unlike the other commandments, many of which don’t have any explanation at all, we’re given TWO different but equally valid reasons for keeping the Sabbath, and yet it seems to be one of the commandments that we have the most trouble following.

See, Sabbath isn’t just about taking an hour out of your week to worship God; it’s about setting time aside exclusively for the radical act of RESTING. Preferably a whole day. Like, every week. I KNOW. Crazy, right? And yet, it makes the top ten of God’s most important rules. And in this age of 24-hour news coverage and 50- to 60-hour workweeks, it’s more important than ever for us to remember how important rest is.

Now, I know that it can be difficult to follow a rule if you don’t understand the reasoning behind it, especially if the alternative seems to be so much more important (for example, it IS imperative for us to stay informed, and we have to keep up with the cost of living). So I want to devote this week’s sermon to this important question: why do we rest?

Let’s start with the easy ones: the reasons given along with the commandment itself. God says that we’re to keep the Sabbath because God created the heavens and the earth, the sea and the sky, absolutely everything in existence, in six days, but EVEN GOD RESTED on the seventh day. If we think we’re so important that we can’t possibly take a break, then what does that say about how we perceive ourselves in comparison to God? I’ll spell it out for you: it implies that our continuous involvement in the world is more important than God’s. GOD’S! Is that REALLY what you believe? It may sometimes feel that way, but I assure you it’s not the case.

One of the reasons we rest is to prevent ourselves from engaging in idolatry: of ourselves, of productivity, of achievement, of perfection. We’re not more essential to the universe than God, and we should never pretend to be. If God can take a full day of rest after creation, if Jesus can pull away from the crowds to pray and to nap, then surely the world will survive if we take one day out of seven to rest.

Moses’ reason for observing Sabbath is valid, too. As someone who knew the lengths God had gone to in order to liberate the Israelites, he knew exactly how significant a gift their freedom really was. And as someone who’d been tormented by the Israelites’ complaints from the moment they’d stepped out of the Red Sea, he also knew just how little they appreciated it. He knew that if the Israelites were to reject this commandment, to refuse rest on Sabbath, then they would be spitting in the face of God’s deliverance. They’d be choosing to remain enslaved, not to the Egyptians, but to the idea of work. Observing Sabbath is literally a matter of choosing to accept one of God’s most extravagant gifts.

Resting on the Sabbath isn’t just a celebration of our freedom from slavery, though. It’s also a way for us to honor many of God’s other incredible gifts to us. Consider Genesis’ creation account again. God created human beings in God’s own image, and then immediately after our creation, God rested. The very first lesson we were ever taught about what it means to be created in imago dei was rest. When we reject Sabbath, we also reject the profound gift that it is to reflect God’s image.

But perhaps the most important function of rest is one that would require more than four verses to properly explain. We rest not only to prevent idolatry and to practice stewardship of God’s gifts, but we rest in order to create space. Moses touched on one aspect of this in Deuteronomy—the end of verse 14 says that the people must rest “so that your male and female servants can rest just like you.” Rest is not only for ourselves, but to create space for others to be able to rest, too. Think about the people for whom you’re responsible: if you never rest, how will your children learn self-care? If you never rest, how will your employees or mentees be able to justify a desperately-needed break? When you DO rest, it normalizes the behavior. It creates space for others to say, “You know what? I’m tired, too. I need some time to recuperate. And that’s okay.” Rest is an act of compassion.

It doesn’t just create space for others. Rest can also create space for a healthy personal faith. It creates space for fostering relationships, with our family, with our faith community, and with God. It creates space for self-awareness, slowing us down enough to reflect both on our sins as well as God’s extravagant love for us. It creates space for us to recognize and meet our emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. It creates space for righteous discernment, preventing us from acting in haste and allowing us time to process and plan how to best follow God’s will. Rest also allows us space to pause and sense the Spirit’s movement in our lives—something we all too often miss when we refuse to slow down.

Most of all, though, rest creates space for our bodies, minds, and spirits to heal. Friends, we’re in a season of extreme stress, extreme anxiety, and extreme trauma. It feels like depression, burnout, and compassion fatigue are constantly pursuing us these days, with no chance to recover. Beloved—MAKE the time to recover. Give yourself some space to talk to a therapist (or your pastor), to take a break from the news, to do something that brings you joy. God created our bodies, minds, and spirits to require rest and rejuvenation. It’s a built-in part of being human. As much as it may feel like there’s no time, there’s nothing more important than taking care of yourself.

It’s impossible for any human being to ignore their physical, mental, and spiritual needs indefinitely. Those of us doing the work of God’s kingdom are like members of a choir. Some of us may be able to hold a note for a long time without taking a breath, but inevitably, our physical need to breathe wins out. If you wait until you’re about to pass out from a lack of oxygen, the best-case scenario is that the song is spoiled by the sound of you gasping for air. The worst-case is that everything grinds to a halt as the paramedics are called, and all of the choir’s hard work to prepare the piece is thrown out the window. But if all of the singers stagger their breathing, taking turns, planning ahead to make sure their lungs get the rest they need, the result is a seamless performance that could conceivably go on forever. Giving our bodies, minds, and spirits a chance to “breathe” is what allows us mortals to continue the work of heaven as an unbroken offering to God.

Yes, there is much work ahead still to be done. Justice and mercy, kindness and compassion don’t tend to just happen on their own. We can’t afford to stop working towards the kingdom of God. But we are finite, and if we empty ourselves completely, we have nothing left to give. We MUST allow others to take the reins sometimes; we MUST press pause on our labor once in a while; we MUST trust that God will keep the world turning when we step back. As Christ tells us, “The Sabbath was made for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.”[1] Resting is a gift from God. Don’t take God’s gifts for granted. Don’t idolize your own fortitude. Don’t live a life without space to breathe, to reflect, to heal. It’s not what God desires for us.

Why do we rest, kindred in Christ? Because God has ordained it so. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Mark 2:27, CEB.

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