Monday, February 11, 2013

The importance of the Sabbath


What I'd like to talk to you about today is the Crown of Creation. Typically, the Crown of Creation has been thought of as human beings. Not only were we created last but we were created in the image of God. Therefore, everything that comes before the creation of human beings was seen as something of a lead-up to that event.

So, if we think of the Creation story as a movie, the typical way of looking at it was that the creation of human beings was the final scene. All the other days of creation were just scenes leading up to that climax. And in our anthropocentric view of the Creation story, sometimes these earlier scenes were thought meaningless by themselves. Their only purpose was to provide an environment in which the grand climax, the Creation of humans, could occur.

Of course, the Creation story has seven days in it, not six, the seventh day being the day that God rested. The Message Bible says:

By the seventh day 
      God had finished his work. 
   On the seventh day 
      he rested from all his work. 
   God blessed the seventh day. 
      He made it a Holy Day 
   Because on that day he rested from his work, 
      all the creating God had done. 

But if we thought about that rest at all, it was a bit like the credits at the end of the movie. Sure, it was part of the movie. We could pay attention to it if we wanted to. But it didn't add anything to the story. If we walked out of the movie theatre at that point, we didn't really miss much.

Jurgen Moltmann, who has a completely different view of the Sabbath and whose work I'll be drawing from a lot in this talk, puts it like this:

The seventh day of the Sabbath was often overlooked. Consequently, God was presented throughout merely as the creative God. The resting God, the celebrating God, the God who rejoices over his creation receded into the background. [1]

Of course, seeing humans as the Crown of Creation, rather than the Sabbath, gives us a completely different view of ourselves, of nature, and of how humans can treat nature. It's led to the kind of thinking where we believe the earth was created solely for humans. It's also led to us treating the earth as though its only purpose was to benefit humankind. While it may not be explicitly stated this way, we have seen and treated the earth as though it belonged to us, not God.   

When we ignored the Sabbath rest at the end of the Creation story, we were focused on a God that was doing something. To be in God's image then therefore meant doing something too. It meant that we saw purpose and meaning in activity, and anything that wasn't useful wasn't seen as all that important. While people may not relate it back to how they view the Creation story, this is still the predominant view today. We tend now to see busyness as important and rest as meaningless. We must be doing something, achieving goals, striving for something.

We must also always be plugged in. I saw an article the other day about a patent by Nokia for a tattoo that vibrates when a person's phone is ringing. Now I'm not sure who this kind of tattoo would appeal to, but the fact that Nokia think there are people who are so scared of missing a call that they want their body to vibrate when it rings, says something about our priorities and our idea of what's important. Not only are there people who don't want to tune out of all the communication technology we now have, but they're almost afraid to. A body that vibrates when a phone rings is not embracing the Sabbath rest that God wants for us.

So if we return to Moltmann again, this is how he views the Sabbath:

It is the Sabbath which manifests the world's identity as Creation, sanctifies it and blesses it.[2]

So the Sabbath isn't the unimportant bit at the end of Creation. The Sabbath is the most important part of Creation. Moltmann says the whole work of Creation (including the Creation of human beings) was performed for the sake of the Sabbath. This is the time when God delights in his Creation. Furthermore, it's the time when Creation simply exists in God's presence and God completes his Creation by being present within it.

While Jesus did say that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, this was in the context of the Pharisees complaining about Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. What he was addressing was the way the Pharisees turned the Sabbath into a whole heap of rules that had to be obeyed, regardless of whether they were beneficial or not. Sabbath observance had become more important than human beings. While the Sabbath is meant to benefit the whole of Creation, Sabbath observance must never result in putting rules before the very people, and the Creation, it is meant to benefit. 

But the Sabbath, according to Moltmann, is also a foretaste of what's to come. It's celebrated in anticipation. It points towards a future when Creation and God's revelation will be one. It points towards the redemption of Creation.   

To return to our movie analogy, instead of the Sabbath being the credits at the end of the movie, it's the bit where the good guy triumphs, the bad guy gets stopped and everyone that was in danger gets saved.

Moltmann says the Sabbath commandment was the longest of the ten commandments and therefore the most important. I'll just read the Sabbath commandment now as it is in the Message Bible.

Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work—not you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your animals, not even the foreign guest visiting in your town. For in six days God made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he rested on the seventh day. Therefore God blessed the Sabbath day; he set it apart as a holy day.

One of the interesting things about this commandment is that even the animals have to rest. In Exodus 23:12, it says:

Work for six days and rest the seventh so your ox and donkey may rest and your servant and migrant workers may have time to get their needed rest.

And just before that, in verses 10-11, God says:

Sow your land for six years and gather in its crops, but in the seventh year leave it alone and give it a rest so that your poor may eat from it. What they leave, let the wildlife have. Do the same with your vineyards and olive groves.

So we see then that the Sabbath is not just for humans. Not only the slaves and the foreigners are required to rest, but even the animals get a break. And on the Sabbath year, the land itself rests. The food that it produces goes to the poor and the wildlife. Can you see any of the big corporate farms doing that nowadays? Imagine trying to explain that to their shareholders. To celebrate the Sabbath is not a good way to maximise profit.

The Sabbath then is a time of rest that all Creation enjoys. It is also a time for all of Creation to rejoice in Creation and in God. It is a time to simply be.

So what might it mean for us today if we recovered the importance of the Sabbath?

Firstly, it would mean that we take the time to appreciate nature and God's presence in nature. That we stop seeing nature as something to be used, and start seeing it as having intrinsic value in its own right. That we recognise the beauty of nature, and not just its utilitarian value. And that we take the time to enjoy nature, to simply be in nature, rather than doing something in or to nature.

Because we live in a very busy society, we tend to always be doing something. It's hard to just do nothing. But when we spend time in nature, it seems easier to just stop or slow down. There is a type of peace that we find in nature that can't be found elsewhere. Our focus moves from the 'us' of individuals to the 'we' of every part of Creation. The worries and stresses of a busy life seem to fade away or at least grow less important for a while.  Nature almost seems to be telling us to stop doing and just be.

There is a poem by Wendell Berry that really captures that feeling of the peace that comes when we spend time in nature. Let me read it to you:

The Peace of Wild Things

BY wendell berry 
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I would love to make it compulsory for everyone to spend time in nature at least once a month. I think it's that beneficial. Turn your phone off. Or even better leave it at home. That way, even if you have vibrating tattoo on your body, you won't be interrupted.

Secondly, if we are to recover the importance of the Sabbath we need to ask questions about whether we are letting all of Creation rest and what steps we might take to give Creation more of a rest than we are currently giving it.

Once upon a time, not actually all that long ago, most things were closed on Sundays. Nowadays, most things are open. This first of all has implications for the opportunities humans have to rest. Not only does there need to be people working on Sundays, but it's harder for those of us who aren't working to rest too. When everything is open, it's too easy to go and do something. Shopping has become our Sunday leisure activity. But shopping is the complete opposite of what the Sabbath rest is meant to be. Shopping is not a time to simply be, and let Creation be. Shopping is not a time to rest in God's presence. Shopping is a definitely doing activity.

And this Sunday shopping also makes further demands on Creation. Every purchase we make is a drain on the earth's resources. Even buying locally grown vegetables uses up the earth's resources in some way. And using the earth's resources is not necessarily bad. We need to eat. We need to clothe ourselves. All of these involve using the earth's resources. But the purchases we make often make huge demands on the earth's resources - demands on the earth's resources that are not sustainable. And we never give the earth a break.

Perhaps Sunday ought to be a time when we try to avoid stores and purchases. And sometimes that's easier to say than do. Even though I would love to see stores start closing on Sundays again, because it's good for the earth and good for people, I also know that, in the past, I've sat in front of a bookstore at 9:30 on a Sunday morning, feeling hard done by because it wasn't opening until 10. Yes, I think stores should close on Sundays - except for when I want a book!

Another area we can look at is electricity. Now most of us won't be prepared (and in some cases can't) go a day without using electricity. But what if we just tried to limit it for a day? What if we recognised that the land needs a rest too and made a concerted effort to give it more rest than usual? Could we perhaps make Sundays a day of no TV, no mobile phones and no computers? And honestly this is another area I find difficult No matter how many times I tell myself I am leaving my computer off this Sunday, I usually find a good reason to switch it on. Or a not so good reason - like changing my Facebook status.

I've talked about Sundays here, because that's the traditional day of rest for Christians. But it doesn't have to be a Sunday. And it doesn't have to involve any of the activities I've listed here either. To recover the importance of the Sabbath, we don't need a whole heap of rules. What we do need is a recognition that the Sabbath is important, that it is a time for us to rest with Creation, enjoying God's presence. It is a time for us to rest ourselves and it is a time for us to think about resting the land in some way. The Sabbath is when we switch from doing to simply being. The Sabbath is when we, along with all of Creation, rest in God's presence, sharing God's delight with his Creation.

Now all of this may seem a little boring. And I can imagine saying this to my children and them replying with, 'Right, so Sunday is the day that we can't have any fun.' But the Sabbath is certainly not meant to be about not having fun. We don't just appreciate nature and rest in God's presence, we delight in God's presence and celebrate nature. After seven cycles of the Sabbath years, so after every 49 years - which kind of makes it the Sabbath of the Sabbaths - there was the Year of Jubilee. That doesn't sound too boring to me. That sounds like a party.

And rejoicing in God's creation should be a party. It is a time for celebrating. A time for feeling fantastic just to be alive. A time for saying, 'Woohoo, I'm so glad I'm here in this wonderful world that God has created.' It's not just a colon, end brackets. It's the biggest smiley face you can find.

My kids might think it's boring to go without TV or computers. But maybe it's only when we force ourselves to take a break from these things that we really learn how un-boring life can be. We delight in a sunset, smell the flowers, walk barefoot through the grass, stand in the rain, feel the waves against our legs as we walk along the beach, climb a tree, and jump in puddles. There's no agenda. No purpose. We are free to simply be. And I think we've forgotten just how fun that can be. Maybe we need to recover it again.

And maybe sometimes it doesn't seem like this earth has much to celebrate. Climate change, melting ice caps, mountaintop removal, islands of plastic in our oceans, extinction of species, dwindling water resources, destruction of rainforests. It can be all to easy to look at the earth and think we have reason to mourn, not rejoice.

But while these are all serious problems that need to be addressed, the Sabbath reminds us that we also have reason to hope. We celebrate not just what is happening, but what will happen. God's presence in the world reveals to us the time when God's presence will be completely manifest in the world. Moltmann says the God's creation and his revelation will be one.

To return to our movie analogy, not only is the Sabbath the climax of the movie, but it's the bit where we realise that there's going to be a sequel. And unlike most movie sequels, the sequel of the Sabbath won't be a pale imitation of the first movie. It's going to be much, much better. 

So if it's a celebration, it's a bit like an engagement party. Yes, we have reason to celebrate now. And we should celebrate and rejoice. But this celebration points towards a future celebration. The wedding feast is still to come.

Moltmann, J. (1985). God in Creation; The Gifford Lectures, 1984-1985, an ecological doctrine of creation: SCM Press Limited.

[1] (Moltmann, 1985)
[2] (Moltmann, 1985)

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