“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:13-14 ESV
The other morning while I was sitting on my front porch during the Sabbath, I noticed a finch perched in the tree a few feet away. It was bright yellow with jet black accents along its wings, chirping a beautiful melody from its blazing orange beak. This tiny bird drew me into its performance; I couldn’t help but to just sit and watch and listen.
In my listening, I began to notice that the finch wasn’t alone in its song, but was joined by an entire choir of hundreds of other birds from nearby trees, creating a kind of invisible symphony that touched every inch of the atmosphere around me. The trees swayed to their song, rhythmically bending and bowing in an act of worship. The sun flickered off of the leaves, dancing to the psalms being sung. I was witnessing the hymn of nature, a song of effortless gratitude.
I realized in that moment that the world around me was completely suspended in grace, myself included.
It is no coincidence that I remembered God’s grace during my practice of the Sabbath, which is a weekly time set aside to slow down and turn my heart and mind and body towards God in thanksgiving. It is not an accident that as I participated in God’s rest—a rest that He has prescribed and promised to His people from the beginning (Genesis 2:3)—His perfect economy of grace was revealed to me. Exodus 20:11 tells us that “the LORD has blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” This means that Sabbath rest is charged with God’s presence in a special way and in that presence we find that blessing and sanctification are offered for us, His creation.
Many Greek thinkers in the time of the early church worshipped, along with other pagan gods, an “unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Some believed this “unknown god” to be a far-off deity who created the cosmos but was distant and indifferent towards his creation. In Acts 17, Paul addresses these very thinkers. He tells the philosophers that God is not distant or “unknown;” in reality, it is in this God that “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28) and this God “gives to all mankind life and breath” (v.25).
I wonder how many of us today worship an “unknown god.” Sure, we may not say that the God we worship is “unknown,” but that doesn’t mean that we don’t live like He is distant from our lives. Many of us, including myself, have a habit of keeping God at a distance with our actions. We function as if His grace is not the reality that sustains us and instead live each day by the power of our own individual pursuits and strivings and reputations and creations. The cultural message that many of us have adopted is that we can be “self-made,” and it is only when we focus on working to fulfill our individual desires that we can experience rest and freedom. This contemporary mindset has kept us from living, moving, and having our very being grounded in the sustaining love and grace of God. We say we worship the God of abundance, but act as if we serve the gods of scarcity. The result of this is that we, like the first century Greeks, make God “unknown” in our own hearts and minds.
Fortunately for us, God and His grace are made known to us during the Sabbath.
Sabbath is a powerful space where we are reminded that God’s grace, His very presence, is what sustains us continually. In our individualized, consumerist, materialistic, and technological culture, our imaginations are inundated with the idea that we own our lives, that the sustaining of our existence is solely predicated on our own ceaseless work and productivity. Even as Christians, whether we realize it or not, our hearts and minds have been trained to look primarily to ourselves for fulfillment. We find ourselves swimming in the waters of our culture—waters that often flow contrary to what God’s word says about rest, freedom, peace, contentment, and joy. Sabbath-keeping is a weekly resistance against this way of life.
When we cease from our to-do lists and anxieties and production, we are confronted with the reality that the world keeps on spinning. We creatures are not the ones that rotate the world on its axis or push it around the Sun, nor are we the ones that provide our next meal. Everything is the Father’s and Sabbath teaches us that the Father is generous. In other words, isn’t just that the practice of Sabbath provides us with rest from our labor throughout the week (though it does); it reminds us of our limits and insufficiency in light of God’s sovereignty and providence. During the Sabbath we come to terms with our “creatureliness” and God’s sovereignty. This is the starting point for true freedom.
The psalmist says, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times…and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts” (Psalm 119:20,45 ESV). Talk about counter-cultural! The psalmist here is saying that freedom comes from recovering our God-given limitations. In an age where we are told that it is our right to go beyond established and natural boundaries, that we need to keep pushing and climbing the social ladder at all costs, that we have little value outside of how much we produce, the Church would do well to heed the psalmists’ words. It is through practicing the Sabbath that we come to know these limits – and consequently this freedom – in a deep way. In the Sabbath, we are carried to the “wide space” where we can walk freely with Jesus Christ, who is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark: 2:28 ESV).
Jesus was not against keeping the law, particularly the Sabbath. What he was against, however, was using the law to create barriers between us and God. He was against using the law to make God “unknown.” This is why Jesus boldly reminded the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27 ESV).
Sabbath-keeping gives us a kind of “holy pause” in our lives. This “pause” isn’t passive or empty, however. Instead, this “pause” is filled with God’s presence, reminding us that our work, our toils, and our striving are totally derivative of a work that is already complete. It is through the rhythm of Sabbath-keeping that we come to know the One who finished the work on our behalf, and from this we can move into a life where our work (and play!) is not independent of and distant from the grace of God, but participates fully in it. In keeping the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps us.
As I sat on my front porch that Sunday morning watching and listening to the finch and the surrounding symphony of gratitude, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26 ESV). I couldn’t help but wonder where Jesus got this imagery of the birds and the grace they displayed. I imagined Jesus himself, weary from a week of labor, retreating into nature one morning and sitting under a tree, watching and listening to this same hymn of nature. I imagine that as he sat and observed the birds singing while they fluttered from branch to branch, he too was reminded of his Father’s grace that sustains him as he goes into the world to accomplish His will.
It is in these moments of Sabbath rest, of a retreat back into the finished work of God, that we remember who we are and who God is. In this remembering we are given the freedom and grace to go out to do the Father’s will, which is to ultimately invite all of creation into the song of the golden finch, into the hymn of effortless gratitude and praise to the only One who can and will sustain us.
Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor