We wrap up our sermon series “Ordering Your Private World” today with perhaps the most important of the five principles we’ve been exploring. The other four: examining our motivation, taking control of our time, and renewing our minds and developing spiritual strength all are the real results of engaging the fifth discipline: Sabbath rest and renewal.
Sabbath, of course, was one of the first creations of God, who spent six days laboring to create the world and then ordained a seventh day to be fully set aside for rest. We read earlier that keeping the Sabbath was one of the original ten commandments given to Moses and the Israelites by God. It’s also probably the one commandment that is most broken. We’re a culture of driven people whose schedules are out of control, leaving us with the feeling that we have no time for things like reading and renewing our minds or developing spiritual disciplines. The cycle of busyness takes us to the very brink of burnout and exhaustion on the one hand and depression on the other.
Somehow we have forgotten that we weren’t made to be this way. God gave himself a break after creation—teaching us that we ought to do the same.
Some of you have told me that you’ve been able to get a copy of Gordon MacDonald’s book “Ordering Your Private World” and I borrow heavily from that book today because MacDonald has been speaking right to where I live on the issue of Sabbath. Truth be told, I’m a chronic Sabbath-breaker, which seems a bit inconsistent with the fact that the Sabbath is the day that my week always moves toward. Preachers can be the worst offenders.
It’s like the little boy who was reading in the bulletin that the pastor was going on vacation. "Mommy," said the little boy. "Why does the pastor get a month's vacation in the summer when Daddy only gets three weeks?" "Well, son," answered Mommy, "if he's a good minister, he needs it. If he isn't, the congregation needs it!"
Truth is that we all need the Sabbath, but the reality is that we don’t know how to observe it in a way that is not simply another activity to which we feel obligated.
The recent movie Amazing Grace looked at the life of William Wilberforce, who was a member of the English Parliament at the turn of the 19th century. Wilberforce was instrumental in leading England to abolish the practice of slavery throughout the Empire, which testifies to his own spiritual strength and moral courage. It all could have been derailed, however, if Wilberforce hadn’t been a regular practitioner of Sabbath.
In 1801, some years before the anti-slavery measure was passed, Wilberforce’s political party came into power and the new prime minister was forming a cabinet. It was a critical time in England’s history—Napoleon was raging across Europe and the key issue was peace. Wilberforce was rumored to be among the candidates the prime minister was seeking for an important post and Wilberforce was anxious to have it. MacDonald quotes one of Wilberforce’s biographers at this point:
“It did not take long for Wilberforce to become preoccupied with the possibility of the appointment. For days it grabbed at his conscious mind, forcing aside everything else. By his own admission, he had ‘risings of ambition’ and it was crippling his soul.”
But Wilberforce, being a devout Christian, kept the Sabbath as a weekly routine. Wilberforce’s journal during this time reveals the power of that discipline. As his biographer, Garth Lean, said, “Sunday brought the cure” to Wilberforce’s tortured ambition. In his journal, the politician wrote:
“Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.”
When we take a Sabbath, “earthly things assume their true size.”
Jesus certainly understood this. If anyone had the opportunity to ascend to the heights of earthly glory it was him. Often the crowds pressed in on him, wanting him to be the popular Messiah who would change their world according to their expectations. It was usually at that point, though, that Jesus would retreat into the wilderness—getting away to get perspective. For Jesus, Sabbath wasn’t just the prescribed day of rest but a way of life—taking time to rest with a purpose. His words in Matthew, then, do not come from a sense of exhaustion but of deep purpose.
Because Jesus himself was well-rested in body and spirit, he was able to say “Come to me, all you who are burdened and I will give you rest.”
Perhaps even more, Jesus would show people how to rest! For Jesus, Sabbath was about setting aside intentional time to order his private world. Only after he had done that could he engage others. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t choose to rest after the work was completed—but before it could be done.
What does Sabbath rest really look like? Most people put Sunday in the category of “weekend” which is usually crammed with activity. Even if you have Sunday off, many people try to cram as much “leisure” in as possible trying to get in as much recreation as possible before heading back to work on Monday. For those in ministry, Sunday is a big workday. The truth is that we’ve all kind of bought into that Protestant work ethic that keeps us from recognizing the need for real rest and renewal. Perhaps you subscribe to the maxim that was popularized in a book title a few years ago. Remember the title? When I Relax I Feel Guilty.
Sabbath is not so much about relaxation, though, as it is about renewal. I like how MacDonald defines it in his book—that Sabbath has three very distinct purposes:
1. Closing the Loop
After God finished the six days of creation, God took the seventh day off and looked back on his work, calling it good. God gave his work meaning and acknowledged its completion.
High tech people often talk about “closing the loop” on a project, meaning that the circuits have all been closed up, the project completed, and every person informed. In a real sense, the Sabbath day was the day God “closed the loop” on creation, which enabled God (and us) to look back on the work. Sabbath in this sense was a time of reflection, celebration, and completion.
God ordered the Sabbath for humans so that they might do the same. Sabbath rest enables us to look back on our week and interpret our labors, to give some meaning to them, and dedicate that work to the God who created us and our abilities. Sabbath, then, is a time to ask questions: What does my work mean? For whom did I do this work? How well was the work done? Why do I do this?
Surveys consistently show that the number one question people ask is, “What is the meaning of my life?” Regular Sabbath rest gives us the opportunity to ponder that question intentionally. Says MacDonald, “A restless work style produces a restless person. Work that goes on month after month without a genuine pause to inquire of its meaning and purpose may swell the bank account and enhance the professional reputation. But it will drain the private world of vitality and joy. How important it is to close loops on our activity.”
Sabbath, in other words, gives us permission to be “done.” Finished. In a world where there’s always something more to do, being done seems a bit foreign. But God gives us permission, indeed commands us, to be “done” for awhile. If we close the loop on our work week, we can better face the new demands that are surely waiting for us on Monday.
2. Returning to Eternal Truths
Remember Wilberforce’s words: Sabbath is where “earthly things assume their true size.” Every day we are pushed and pulled by temporal demands on our time and energy. Everybody seems to want something from us. We are asked to make a thousand decisions a day. Sabbath asks, “By what standard of truth do we make those decisions?” God commanded his people to set aside a day dedicated to reorienting themselves to that question. Sabbath was to be a recalibration of the spirit.
We had a deck on the back of our house in Colorado Springs which was the only shady part of the house. It was an old deck but we enjoyed being out on it in the summer. Every summer, though, I would go through a ritual of taking a hammer and repounding all the nails that had worked loose as the wood expanded and contracted in the weather. Once I did that, everything was snug and good again.
MacDonald says that this “repounding” is what happens in our lives when we engage in worshipping God. Our spirits and our thought processes tend to get worked loose by the extreme forces around us every day. Sabbath helps us to become solid again, focusing on the truths of God in scripture, worship, and fellowship with others in a community of faith. When we gather together to pray, to say the creeds, to sing songs of the faith and hear God’s Word preached and read we are hammering back the nails of our convictions and commitments.
There are a lot of people who say to me that they don’t need to be in worship on Sunday because they can worship God anywhere. That may be true, but carpentry of this nature is a lot more solid when you have help! The Book of Proverbs uses a similar building metaphor to hammer this point home: “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” (27:17) Worshipping together sharpens our focus on God as we sharpen each other.
3. Defining our Mission
Military leaders are taught a simple maxim very early on in their training which sets the order of priority in everything. That priority is Mission, Men, Myself. Knowing the mission was always first, caring for your people second, and taking care of yourself third. Every soldier needed to know the mission by heart, so it was always the first priority. As a drill, I used to ask my troopers “What is your mission” when we were preparing to go to the field. Everything we would be doing was based on that simple sentence. Failure to understand the mission meant failure in general.
Sabbath asks us that question, too. What is our mission in life? Indeed, what is my mission today? Do you know your purpose? Have you prepared yourself to accomplish the mission you’ve been given?
I like the story I heard once about a monk who was heading into a walled city when he was confronted by a guard at the gate. “Who are you and why are you here?” confronted the guard. The monk said to him, “If I could, I would pay you to ask me those questions every day!”
Jesus clearly took time every day to evaluate his mission. He withdrew to seek times of solitude and reflection on his mission. These were times of rest, but not the rest of sleep (like the disciples). Indeed, Jesus’ own rest was a form of preparation for engaging the next phase of his mission. It’s no wonder that he met every new challenge with fresh wisdom, courage, and energy. Jesus knew who he was and why he was here and he knew this because he was always rested and ready.
In this sense, Sabbath isn’t optional for us. Without it, we are prone to live lives that are strained, directionless, and disordered.
How does one begin to practice Sabbath? Well, it doesn’t happen by accident. God calls us to set aside a day where we cease the routine of our labor and intentionally work on reordering our lives. Sunday is a great day for this—beginning with the rhythm of worship at the start of the day. What would happen if this afternoon instead of hurrying out to some activity you spent a few hours reflecting on the past week, “closing the loop” on it? What would happen if you spent some time “repounding the nails” of your spiritual life and pondering your mission as you prepare for a new week? Sure, you may want to work a nap in there, too…but Sabbath is way more than a simple “day off.” Use that time to really work on your private world. If God did it, and Jesus did it, it means we probably should, too, don’t you think?
But Sunday is not the only opportunity for Sabbath. There are times each day where we can partake of a mini-Sabbath—even a few minutes to let our souls catch up with our bodies and check in. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning before you start the day. Maybe it’s just before bedtime when you have a chance to “close the loop” on the day. Maybe you take a lunch break by yourself and do a little reading and reflecting. Whatever it is for you, taking a Sabbath is not optional if you want your private world to be ordered and at peace.
If you’re facing some serious challenges in your life right now, you don’t need another piece of advice. You need a Sabbath—a place and time where “earthly things assume their true size.” Don’t wait for the “right time.” There’s no better time than the present.