One of the most life-changing books that I’ve ever read is Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. In it, she explains how Sabbath-keeping isn’t so much a matter of obligation, but of invitation. It’s an invitation into a grace-shaped life, a life free of obligations, a life restored to relationships and play and prayer.
Sabbath is time to cease.
We say a firm No! to all obligations for one day a week (generally Sunday). No chores. No running to the store for one last thing. No homework. No bill-paying. None of the items on the to-do list. God saves his people from slavery and never wants us to return to it. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).
Sabbath is a time to rest.
God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3) is an invitation to us to join in that rest (Ex. 20:8-11). God didn’t rest because he was tired. He rested because he wanted to set apart a time for us to join him in resting — a time to pray and to play.
Think about that: God wants you to play, to be leisurely, to rest. We do not worship a task-master.
And when Christians gather each Sunday, he wants our worshiping/praying together to come out of this restfulness, this playfulness. That means the way we approach Sunday mornings is so important. We can turn it into work, spending time and energy herding kids, getting, dressed, and acting our best, but what fun is that?
Our Lord wants our worship to arise from a restful, playful, joyful exuberance.
Sabbath is a time to embracing.
Not only do we say No to some things, we say Yes to other things, especially people. The purpose for the No is to get to this Yes to relationships. If we’re constantly running around, we don’t have time for others — too many unimportant Yeses keep us from our most important Yeses.
The same goes with our minds. If we are thinking about our obligations, our bodies may be in the same room with others, but our minds are somewhere far away. This is why many of us say No to our screens on Sundays in an effort to preserve a window in time that is relationally rich if technologically poor.
We need this Sabbath time to embrace. There can be no rush to our laughing, our game playing, our immersion in the great outdoors, our lovemaking, our soaking in excellent books. The best things in life take time, take an embrace.
Sabbath is a time to feast.
In our culture, we grab a soda here and a sweet there, but we rarely do our eating of pleasure foods right. Poor but Sabbath-keeping Jews, on the other hand, will eat meager meals all week with joy, knowing that on Sabbath they will have great food served on china, with silver, candles, wine, and laughter. (The preparation done the day before and the clean-up saved for later.)
We can go without a lot if we know we will get to something great like a feast in the near future. This is the essence of hope. At the same time, the delayed gratification this teaches is so important to learn in our consumerist culture of indulgence and debt. Not only that, it trains us as Christians to look hopefully toward the future for not just our weekly Sabbath, but for the Great Sabbath to come when Jesus returns (see Heb. 4:1-11, especially v. 9).
Along with weekly Sabbath-keeping, one of the things the Law of Moses spoke of is sabbatical years. A time of rest for fields and farmers after six years of hard work. I find it interesting that 2 Chronicles 36:21 tells us that part of the reason for the Jewish exile to Babylon was that the land hadn’t been given its mandated Sabbaths. God gave the land the Sabbaths that had been withheld.
One way or another, we will get our Sabbaths. May we take them as God intended — joyfully, leisurely, playfully, prayerfully — and not because our relationships, our jobs, our emotions, our minds, our souls have been broken down by the incessant go-go-go of our culture’s self-important pace.
The goal of Sabbath-keeping is wholeness, health, the put-together life of shalom. Unforced and unrushed. Holy and whole.