Sabbath is like holding a newborn for the first time for many of us. We don’t really know what to do with it. It confuses us.
The ideas that we inherit associated with the Sabbath are those of a required gathering for worship, a day of pious practices or a strict mandate to stay indoors where we are relegated to watch TV or take a nap. Honestly, it all sounds rather boring. It’s time that could be spent on the thousand other important tasks we weren’t able to touch during the busy workweek. Sabbath, as we understand it, is another obligation tugging at our over-committed schedules. All we really know is that we’re supposed to not do anything and that doesn’t sit well with the prevailing cultural need to be productive. Not only do we not have the time, we’re not convinced it’s a priority.
I mean really, who are we hurting if we choose not to rest?
Which is a decent enough justification to placate our conscious until we hear how serious God is about Sabbath: “Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people.” (Exodus 31:14) Or begin questioning what God was really up to on that seventh day: Why did God rest? Was He weary from His work? Was His rest a withdrawal from the world? What’s so holy about a nap? And then we read the Gospels and see a sea of instances where Jesus capitalized on the fact that it was the Sabbath, almost as if He wanted to reclaim the essence of its beauty, depth and sacredness.
Maybe we’re missing something here?
That something is the loaded Hebrew word menuha. It’s the word we translate as “rest” when we’re talking about God’s action on day seven of creation. In Hebrew, menuha carries with it ideas of harmony, peace and delight. Instead of separating Himself from the world, God reveled in it; He couldn’t take his eyes off it. He delighted. Celebrated. Enjoyed. Menuha is the crown of God’s creative act. Without menuha, creation is incomplete, lacking its raison d’être.
What if that is what it means to observe Sabbath? Suppose we are to pursue delight in God’s goodness, in creation’s beauty, in the passions that well up in our souls? It would mean we’d have to rethink the common depictions of Sabbath as something strict and hyper-religious. We’d need a deeper understanding of this weekly rhythm, one where divine and human come together in intimacy to affirm the goodness of both.
This helps us make sense of the Sinai story. The picture painted in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is one of a marriage ceremony, where God is the groom and Israel His bride. As the ten vows are shared, the first three speak of how the bride is to relate to God, her husband; the last six convey how the collective bride is to act toward one another. And the bridge, commandment number four, the one given most ink, sets aside a weekly date day between husband and wife. Is it any wonder God cherishes this get together? If God’s bride fails to observe the Sabbath, she breaks the covenant, devalues the relationship and dishonors her husband.
It would be saying “thanks, but no thanks” to the God whose love gives us life and meaning to life.
What the Sabbath actually means
For Israel, and as it now stands, the Church, Sabbath is a distinguishing mark of what it means to be a people blessed in order to bless others. It is and always will be a choice to stop in the midst of the chaos and pain and suffering and heartache of our lives and enter into God’s loving embrace, to revel in his beauty, to play in his goodness. But let’s be honest: We’re not practiced in receiving such utter, unabashed delight. It’s much easier to work than play; to go than stop; to do than be. We’re practiced at having control, at making ourselves indispensable, at being busy. Even if God still desires Sabbath intimacy with his creation, we don’t have the categories to understand what that means. What does one day a week characterized by delight actually look like?
Which is precisely why Sabbath is in desperate need of reclamation.
Sabbath is a day to celebrate the things that bring you joy
What then would you do if you had 24 hours to pursue the joy residing deep in your soul? Maybe your joy drives you out into nature where you can hike, fish, build a campfire and look at the stars. Maybe you devote that time to a hobby—painting, needlepoint, building a sailboat, scrapbooking. Maybe you curl up in a favorite nook with a neglected book and a decidedly English pot of tea. Maybe you learn magic. Can you remember the last time your energy was solely focused on what brings delight to your heart? Do that. Do that with eyes open to the God who desires it for you and with thanks dancing on your lips as you do.
Sabbath is a communal practice
Sabbath justice in the biblical narrative includes everyone, the whole household. One shouldn’t be left to work while others revel in their joy. Sabbath is realized in community: spouses, children, employees, neighbors, friends, strangers. All are invited. Sabbath becomes a way to dream together about how to love one another better, how to enjoy one another’s company and how to bring joy to the lives of those around us. This means that one Sabbath will probably look different from another, but each will be intentional decisions to join God in looking around at life and proclaiming it very good.
So pick a day for delight. Take seriously God’s command to enter into his joy, his rest, his love. Covet the time and let it be something you anticipate, practice and remember in an endless cycle. The thing about newborns is if you hold them for long, confusion will submit to awe and your heart will be captivated in a way that will forever change how you see the world. Forget the prevailing notions that Sabbath is antiquated or legalistic and learn to see it with new eyes. See that we serve a God who desires unimaginable joy and delight for His creation on a weekly basis.