Rest and the Mission of God

“The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living,” writes rabbi Abraham Heschel (The Sabbath, p. 14). Oftentimes when we talk about the mission of God or we talk about church planting, we talk about the activity of God, the ever-advancing Kingdom of God. After all, we see Jesus  say, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). And the psalmist writes, “Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).

So what does rest have to do with the mission of God? When we consider the story of God in the Bible, a whole lot. The word “mission” is a word we use to talk about what God wants with the world and what God is actively doing to accomplish it. And when we pay attention to God’s story, we see God actively pursuing a world at rest.

Sabbath in the story of creation

In the beginning, God made everything. And it culminates in Sabbath. The first chapter of Genesis (bleeding into the first couple verses of chapter 2, as well) provides a poetic prologue, not only to the book of Genesis, but to the Pentateuch as a whole, as well as the rest of Scripture. For this reason, we should pay special attention to what the author communicates in these opening images.

On days 1 through 3, God separates things, making empty spaces. I like to imagine God clearing blank canvases on which to put things. On days 4 through 6, God makes things to inhabit each of these empty spaces. The sun and moon will inhabit the light and darkness. Birds and fish will inhabit the “waters above” and the “waters beneath.” Animals and humans will inhabit the dry land.

On day 7, God does something entirely different. This is the grand finale. The finish line. The big red bow. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2, 3). The climax of creation isn’t human beings. It’s not a “what” but a “when.” It’s Sabbath rest, and it’s the one thing in all of creation called “holy.” This is everything in its right place.

Sabbath in the story of Jesus in Matthew

The writer of Matthew gives us one Sabbath story with Jesus, and it’s a big one. It begins at 11:28—”Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” It culminates in 12:21—”In his name the nations will put their hope.”

The closing verses of chapter 11 provide a compelling invitation from Jesus to rest. When he says, “You will find rest for your souls,” there is an explicit callback to Jeremiah 6:16. This is clear Sabbath language. And as if to explain what Jesus means by this invitation, the Gospel writer then provides two stories of what Jesus does on the Sabbath followed by a quote from Isaiah as the punchline.

Chapter 12 begins with a story of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath because they’re hungry. The Pharisees protest. Jesus responds with a story about David from 1 Samuel 21 and wraps it up with a quote from Hosea 6:6.

He then goes into a synagogue to teach. Again the Pharisees antagonize Jesus by pointing out a man with a withered hand. They quiz Jesus about whether it’s lawful to heal on the Sabbath. Jesus refuses to directly answer the question but heals the man. And then, to rub it all in to the Pharisees, we’re told that he leaves that place, a crowd follows him, “and he healed all who were ill.” How’s that for a mic drop moment?

As we witness the mission of Jesus in Matthew, the rest of the Sabbath is meant to feed the hungry, heal the broken, and restore the dignity of human beings. Rest is central to the story. The rest of Jesus culminates in the restoration of all creation. Everything in its right place.

Rest in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John, likewise, shows us a rhythm of work and rest. Two key words in John are “remain” and “sent.” They are like breathing in and breathing out. They are the work of cultivating God’s good kingdom on earth and the rest in the loving presence of God.

The author sets this up early in the narrative when a disciple asks, “Where are you staying?” (John 1:38). In Greek, this same language is repeated when Jesus says, “Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4). Where Jesus stays, he remains. The invitation is to be with Jesus. Consequently, when the risen Jesus first reveals himself to the disciples after the resurrection, he tells them, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Disciples of Jesus remain and they are sent. Like a spiral that ever draws inward but also ever expands outward, so we experience the inner rest of Jesus and the outer participation in Jesus’ mission in the world.

Embracing a practice of rest

What should this have to do with the daily life of ministry? Everything, if we let it. I remember being in seminary and having the default conversation: “How are you?” “I’m so busy.” And what would follow would be a litany of activities with the implication being busyness made me important. There came a point where I started to get a hunch there could be something deeply wrong with this competitive busyness. We never see Jesus in a hurry or out of time or frazzled by his never-ending to-do list. Jesus is always rightly oriented with Time.

A practice of weekly Sabbath rest is necessary for healthy ministry. It rightly reorients us with Time. The work-rest rhythm of six-plus-one is the design of human beings. We are made to work six days and then spend a day enjoying the work of our hands. We are not made to spend ourselves until we crash.

A weekly Sabbath ritual can look and feel like “Opposite Day.” In all the ways we say “yes” to the world—the emails, the phone calls, the constant availability, the productivity, the hustle—on Sabbath we say “no.” In all the ways we say “no”—to relationships, to ourselves emotionally and physically, to enjoying life—on Sabbath we say “yes.”

In addition to a weekly Sabbath practice, a regular rhythm of retreat, whether quarterly or bi-annually, is another way to re-tune our souls. I used to play the guitar a lot, and a part of learning to play the guitar is learning to hear when it was out of tune. Sometimes I had a device to tune the strings. Other times I didn’t have it with me and needed to use my own ears. It was a skill to develop over time. It wasn’t a defect of the guitar or strings. It’s just what happens when you play the guitar.

Ministry is similar. The work exercises our bodies, minds, and emotions in ways that deplete us, and that’s normal. We need regular rhythms to engage silence and stillness and solitude that “tune the strings” of our soul.

Our work for God’s kingdom isn’t meant to be an endless race. We don’t have to run until we burn out or crash. Daily, weekly, quarterly, yearly rhythms of Sabbath and rest and retreat are necessary because they remind us that God’s kingdom doesn’t depend on us. It is God who works.

____________________

Rev. Dr. Peter White is a spiritual director and curator of The Sabbath Life and The Abbey, a retreat space of contemplation and rest for those on the journey. He holds a D.Min from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL in Contextual Theology where he explored race, culture, church, and mission in a gentrifying neighborhood. Peter, his wife Jackie, and their two grade-school kids live in a historic neighborhood north of downtown Tulsa, OK, one of the city’s most diverse communities, where they are discerning a church plant.

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