Coming out of COVID, Celebrating Sabbath

Your test is positive. It wasn’t a surprise – my wife was confirmed positive five days earlier and, although we had isolated from each other since her symptoms began, we knew people tend to be infectious for a few days before that. So, when I developed a fever, aches and a cough, I would have been amazed had I tested negative. As I write this, I am coming out of COVID and remain surprisingly fatigued and significantly reduced in my capacity. I’m easing back into small amounts of work, but feel like I’m carrying weights around, both physically and mentally. In the midst of the muddle, though, one idea is foremost in my mind – sabbath.

For Israel, there was a God-ordained pattern of weekly Sabbath days, but every seventh year was also intended to be a Sabbath year (see Leviticus 25:1-7). As the nation departed from God, they abandoned every aspect of His law, including the Sabbath years. In Leviticus 26, the Lord tells Israel what will happen if they are disobedient to the law, including their removal from the land into exile. In that context, God says to them (Leviticus 26:34-35):

Then the land will enjoy its sabbath years all the time that it lies desolate and you are in the country of your enemies; then the land will rest and enjoy its sabbaths. All the time that it lies desolate, the land will have the rest it did not have during the sabbaths you lived in it.

It’s not the only reason for the exile, and it probably isn’t the first one that comes to mind when we think of why God judged Israel, but it is important to Him that his people had not observed the sabbath years mandated in the law. The final verse in 2 Chronicles describing the pre-exilic history of Judah, before a brief comment on Cyrus’s declaration that ended the exile, comments on the fulfilment of this promise (2 Chronicles 36:21):

The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfilment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.

One of the things the exile accomplished was to allow the land to rest as it should have done in the Sabbath years Israel had failed to keep.

Now, I won’t claim to know exactly what the Lord is doing in His providence through this pandemic. I am certain on the basis of Scripture that He is moving over and through the nations, working out His purpose to redeem a people for Himself in Christ and to bring history to its proper conclusion when He reveals His children in the glorious likeness of His Son. I am also certain that within that overarching purpose He has lessons to teach us as individuals and collectively as the Church. It is in this second category that I place my thoughts in this post. So, to be clear, I am not saying that God caused or permitted coronavirus for this reason, but I have been aware that He is teaching me something about sabbath and perhaps this is one of the things He wants to teach you too.

So, let me ask you a question. How many sabbaths have you missed in your life? How many weeks have passed without a proper day of rest when you down tools and change your focus? How many of the ‘sabbaths’ you said you would take were not proper sabbaths? How often did work creep back in, perhaps in the guise of sermon preparation or urgent pastoral needs? I’m not trying to put a guilt trip on anyone here, but to help us appreciate how good a gift sabbath is. One of the interesting things about the Sabbath law given to Israel is that it has two different, but complementary justifications in the two accounts of the Ten Commandments. Both are important.

The first root of Sabbath is in creation (see Exodus 20:8-11). The principle of a day in seven to rest is woven into the rhythm of creation. God Himself established the pattern. That tells us something vital about Sabbath rest. It isn’t primarily about resting because we are tired but establishing a pattern in which we take time to slow down, reflect and reassess. Sabbath is not defined primarily by the absence of rest, but by the intentional presence of reflection. God rested on the seventh day so that He could enjoy the fruits of His labour, savouring the beauty of the universe and the order that He had brought from chaos. When we take sabbath rest we do the same. We slow down to notice what is always true but so easily passes us by. We look past the scars of sin on our world to delight in the goodness of God’s work in creation – thanking Him for the beauty of birds, the majesty of mountains, the fragrance of flowers. Sabbath calls us to receive creation as a gift from God.

The second root of Sabbath is in redemption (see Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Israel was to observe the Sabbath because God redeemed them from slavery. In the collective consciousness of the nation was the memory of what it was to work relentlessly without rest, driven by Egyptian slave-masters. Sabbath became possible for them because God delivered them by His mighty outstretched arm from that tyranny. Sabbath was an opportunity to pause and remember that they were a redeemed people. So, too, for us, Sabbath is a space to stop and reflect on God’s work of redemption for us – to give up our false belief that our salvation, or the salvation of others depends on us, and to acknowledge that God has done it all, that Christ is sufficient. We thank Him for the riches of His grace, the bounty of His mercy, the wonder of the cross. Sabbath calls us to receive redemption as a gift from God.

Taking these twin roots of the Sabbath together, we begin to see why sabbath breaking was such an issue in God’s relationship with Israel. The sins that caused the exile were covenant unfaithfulness in the oppression of others and idolatry along with religious hypocrisy. Sabbath breaking is an expression of all of these. The failure to observe Sabbath years had harmed the land and those who worked on it. More fundamentally, though, it was a form of idolatry. When we refuse to live as God designed us to live, we say that we know better than our Creator – that we could have done a better job than Him. And when we fail to practice Sabbath by cutting off one day a week from our labour, we say that we have some contribution to make to our own salvation or the salvation of the world – that Christ’s work is insufficient without us. Instead of approaching life with joy in the gifts of creation and redemption we begin to believe that someone will miss out on heaven if we don’t evangelise to them, or that what makes the difference in the lives of those we care for pastorally is our presence and words rather than the comfort and instruction of the Spirit and Word of God. Sabbath breaking is idolatry.

So, how is your practice of sabbath? I must confess that for many years I have played fast and loose with my need for this kind of rest. When I have thought of rest, my motivator has been exhaustion. I should, instead, have recognised the root of my exhaustion in the lack of good habits around Sabbath. I hope, by God’s grace, that I’m learning that now. Even before I caught the virus, the altered rhythm of lockdown was helping me to appreciate creation more – the goldfinches on my bird feeders were the prime means of this ‘creation grace’ to me. But I was aware in myself, and hearing it from other ministers, of the risk in working from home of failing to set boundaries around work time. Now that I cannot work at the level I normally expect to, I hope I will learn to rest properly and to establish a rhythm of weekly sabbath. I have been greatly helped by my colleagues – staff and trustees – in Living Leadership who have been ruthless in telling me to rest over the last week with the virus. I am thinking that we should be a lot more direct with each other about this in the normal course of events. Who challenges you about the need for sabbath in your life?

Let me encourage you as I close. Sabbath is a wonderful gift of God. A time to slow down and savour creation and redemption. To confess that you are not God and that God is. To admit that you neither created yourself nor can you save yourself. To glory in grace, to marvel at mercy, to revel in love. To pause and be who God created you to be and become who He is creating you as in Christ. The call to sabbath is not a burden, but a gift. As the Lord said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

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