Christian tradition is cluttered with ancient practices whose meanings have been forgotten. Yet some traditions offer a bold voice of challenge – a reminder to not blindly submit to modern culture.
The practice of Sabbath, a day of rest, is one of these – it exists in stark contrast to the dominant narrative of busyness in our society.
On a daily basis, we unknowingly consume spam emails and adverts telling us to do more in order to be more. At the start of a new year, this is especially true:
“For many of us,” one spam writer begins his sermon, “what we achieve each year is connected with our confidence and how we feel about ourselves. Confidence, feeling good, and putting your best foot forward – that’s how you kick start an amazing year.”
An old wolf in a fresh fleece; an ancient lie retold:
“Get out and do – and a positive, self-made identity will follow.” “Get fit, get a good career, and find self-acceptance.”
Do good in order to be good and feel good.
But at the heart of the Gospel message, we are given this story in reverse. Christ first gives us our identity as children of God, and then commissions us in a way that flows naturally out of who we are.
Of course, getting to grips with our identity in Christ is a lifetime’s work, and demands an impressive exercise of trust in the redeeming power of the Cross. It is a trust that I, even I, ‘foremost of sinners’, am accepted by God.
The practice of Sabbath – a day of rest – offers us a chance to practice and exercise our trust in God, and strengthen our understanding of our own identity in Christ.
It echoes the heart of the gospel: stop doing – and see that you are so much more than the sum of all you do.
“no working on the sabbath; keep it Holy just as god, your God, commanded you. Work six days, doing everything you have to do, but the seventh day is a sabbath, a rest day”
It’s clear that we have lost some of the poignancy of this weekly rest day. This is not because few of us take a full day of rest each week, but because, even if we do, not working has less impact on our weekly lives.
For most of us, our day-to-day work is not survival work. Yet, when Moses came back down the mountain to the Hebrews camped out in the desert with the Sabbath commandment, the implication was huge.
The people knew that giving up a day a week truly meant putting their lives in God’s hands, believing He would provide the food and shelter that they could not provide for themselves during this rest day.
In a world where you either worked or you died, this command to rest demanded the Hebrews forget their struggle for survival for one day and turn their full attention to God.
This sacrificial exercise of trust reaffirmed human identity and purpose – that the holiest day of the week is the one committed to rest gave proof that we don’t exist to work; we don’t even exist to survive.
We need to work but we don’t exist to work; our identity isn’t found in what we do but in who God made us to be.
“And Jesus said to them, “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
Today we often use our ‘work’ to give us the identity we desire in a world that defines who we are by what we do. But when we recognise that our security is tied up with our work, that’s when need to return to the Sabbath call.
The Sabbath day begins with a renewal of trust, not just that God will provide the food and shelter we need to survive the day, but that regardless of our strained efforts, our identity in God is secure.