Lesson 2: Is Sabbath rest realistic?
Is Sabbath Rest Realistic?
By Nathan T. Stucky
In my previous post on dealing with busy young people, we explored some of the societal forces that have led us to a place where we tend to associate busyness with importance and prestige. Contrary to life at the turn of the 20th century, the upper class is now the busy class. This means that the easiest way for the sum of society to imitate the upper class is to be, look, or act busy.
While this description oversimplifies things, it also sheds light on the way our society has tended to value busyness as a good unto itself. In too many cases, the church has simply reinforced or even tried to outdo the esteeming of busyness and the belittling of rest (think youth group lock-in). These circumstances can make Sabbath rest feel like an impossibility. The pressure toward ceaseless activity and the sense of value that goes along with it are simply too great.
Where might we go for another perspective?
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
The biblical creation account that runs from Genesis 1:1-2:3 provides a fascinating perspective on the interrelationship of God’s work, God’s rest, human work, human rest, and the relationship that God initiates with all creation and humankind, in particular.
The story neither begins nor ends with humans. It begins and ends with God.
Swiss theologian Karl Barth spends well over a hundred pages in his tome, the Church Dogmatics, unpacking the thirty-four verses that comprise this creation account. As he does, he looks very closely for what the account tells us about who God is, who we are as humans, and what the relationship between God and humans looks like according to this story. One doesn’t have to look very closely at this creation account to realize that humans don’t enter the scene until close to the end. Light, sky, earth, sea, plants, trees, sun, moon, stars, birds, water creatures, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals all appear before God creates humankind. When God does create the first humans, they are both similar to and different from the rest of creation. On one hand, humans are simply part of the created order, brought forth by the creative force of God just like light and lemurs. On the other hand, only humans are created in the image of God. Only humans are charged with responsibility for caring for creation.
Day six concludes with God giving the first humans something like a divinely drafted job description: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” It would seem at this point in the story that these first humans are ready to get to work; it looks like humankind might be the climax of creation.
Yet the creation account is not complete; the pinnacle of the story has not yet been reached; and the first full day for the first humans (the seventh day of creation) does not tell the story of humankind getting to work, but rather of the Sabbath rest of God. Barth makes a big deal of this scenario. He argues that God’s rest on the seventh day involves God resting with all creation, not separate from creation. We can infer, then, that all creation joins in this Sabbath rest which stands as the crown of creation.
Shifting the Spotlight from Us to God
If this reading of the story holds water, then it brings with it some radical implications for our understanding of God, ourselves, and the relationship between the two.
First of all, it means that we humans are not the point of creation. The point of creation is the glory of God made manifest in creation and the relationship between God and creation that begins on the seventh day. We are not the center of the story. God’s glory and God’s relationship with human and non-human creation are the point of the story.
Second, it turns one popular conception of the Sabbath on its head. One line of thought regarding the Sabbath follows the logic of a capitalist, consumerist, hard-working society. “Get enough work done; and then rest.” Maybe that’s what God did in this story, but it is most certainly not what the first humans did. The first full day for the first humans is a day of rest, not a day of work. At this point in the story, there is no way humankind can think that it has earned Sabbath rest; the only body of work they have to look back on is God’s. Human participation in Sabbath rest can only be conceived as a gift of radical and sheer grace from a loving and gracious God.
For these first humans, Sabbath rest comes as a gift from God. Sabbath rest begins with God’s activity and grace, not with human achievement or accomplishment. According to this account, Sabbath rest is the first divine act that the first humans witness. Sabbath rest initiates the relationship between God and humankind, and it establishes the priority of grace within the divine-human covenant relationship. From the dawn of time, the relationship between God and humans has been marked by grace. We might try ceaselessly to earn God’s love and care, but those efforts will always be too late. Before we can lift a finger, God has already decided to be gracious and loving toward us, and the first Sabbath signals this powerfully to us. If our participation in Sabbath rest is going to be “realistic,” it will require a foundation in God’s activity, not ours.
Maybe Unrealistic is the Point
Part of the point here is that Sabbath rest – rooted in God’s provision, action, and grace – is completely unrealistic when considered from the perspective of American consumerist, capitalist values and structures. If our goals are ceaseless activity, endless consumption, maximum productivity, and greatest efficiency, Sabbath rest will always appear utterly unrealistic. On the other hand, if we seek a means of resisting the gods of efficiency, productivity, consumerism, and ceaseless activity, and we do so by joining God in God’s own rest, then the rest we experience in and through the Sabbath may be more real than anything the ceaselessness of our society can afford.
In ceasing our labors, we take an enormous risk. The more we have trusted busyness as a prop for our identity, the more disoriented we will feel when we stop. And as soon as we feel that disorientation, we will be tempted to go right back to the stuff that helps us feel busy and numbs us from the discomfort of disorientation: email, texts, tasks, Candy Crush…anything to distract and numb.
We must recognize, however, that ceaseless activity knows nothing of grace. It might numb, but it can never name us for who we are as God’s beloved children, chosen and invited to rest in God before we could do or accomplish anything. The disorientation of Sabbath ceasing provides only part of the Sabbath story. The rest of the story has to do with us discovering and rediscovering God’s lavish and identity-transforming grace. Though the uprooting of the lesser identities of busyness and consumption involves pain and even death, the new life that we discover in the rest and life of God promises a vitality that mere busyness can only ever fake.
The good news is that we can die to identities that are caught up merely in what we can produce, achieve, or consume. This doesn’t mean the end of production, consumption, and achievement, it means all these things are put in perspective and can actually become meaningful in light of God’s identity-rooting grace. Our work becomes meaningful when it is offered in response to and in gratitude for God’s provision and grace rather than as an anxious attempt at securing God’s love.
Nate Stucky hails from Kansas but lives in Princeton, NJ, where he works closely with youth leadership education initiatives offered by the Mennonite Church. Nate is finishing a PhD in practical theology, and he has a special interest in the role of community formation, Sabbath, and agrarianism in the education of church leaders, pastors, youth ministers, parents, and teenagers.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- Watch Video
- Do you think Sabbath practice is realistic? Why or why not?
- Whether or not it’s realistic, is it necessary?
- Let’s read Genesis 1:1-2:3. How does this inform our understanding of what a Sabbath is?
- Nate says Sabbath is a gift of grace. How should that change our views of Sabbath?
- How can we come to know God more fully by participating in Sabbath?
- How would our practice of Sabbath impact the young people around us?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- What practical ideas do you have for incorporating Sabbath into your personal life? Into your ministry?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)