Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
I think if we reflect honestly during this pandemic we will view this “safer at home” time as a gift of liberation from lives held captive by schedules, work, and hyperactivity. Specifically, we should allow ourselves to be called back to observance of the Sabbath. That is, establishing a rhythm of work and refreshment in imitation of God.
That God intended for human beings to work two-thirds of their waking hours and rest for the remaining hours of the day was expressed by his pattern at creation. In the creation account, God marks his “days” as a workman would—the workday begins in the morning and ends at evening. “Evening and morning” bracket the rest occurring in between workdays.1 At the end of the Lord’s workweek, he “rested,” establishing the Sabbath by his example also. The verbs Moses uses to describe God’s inauguration of the Sabbath are instructive: God finished his work and rested; he blessed the day and made it holy (2:1-3). These are not dour words or concepts. Finishing, resting, blessing, sacramentalizing are words conveying satisfaction, enjoyment, approbation, and an intentional desire to make a day delightful.2
God calls us to return to the pattern he created for our flourishing—an arrangement designed to bring us joy. In Exodus 16, we catch another glimpse of this principle at work, as God would daily provide the Israelites' needs through their work, but he would always supply more than they worked. They could lay down their tools at the end of the day, and their life-sustaining needs would be supplied for the rest of the evening until the next workday. And after working by that pattern for six days, he would supply all of their life-sustaining needs for a whole day of physical rest and uninterrupted opportunity to thank God for all his blessings. There was nothing that should have felt restrictive or oppressive about this any more than it should today. This was truly liberating and dignifying.
Our Sabbath observance, however, would be empty without making corporate worship an integral part of it. Every other commitment we have adds something to our to-do list, but when we retell the gospel in corporate worship, we experience the reality that "It is finished!" One writer insightfully sums it up like this:
…not even our group leisure activities can do for us what Sabbath rituals could once be counted on to do. Religious rituals do not exist simply to promote togetherness. They're theater. They are designed to convey to us a certain story about who we are without our even quite noticing that they are doing so. (One defining feature of religious rituals, in fact, is that we often perform them for years before we come to understand what they mean; this is why ministers and rabbis are famously unsympathetic when congregants complain that worship services or holiday rites feel meaningless.) The story told by the Sabbath is that of creation: we rest because God rested on the seventh day. What leads from God to humankind is the notion of imitatio Dei: the imitation of God. In other words, we rest in order to honor the divine in us, to remind ourselves that there is more to us than just what we do during the week…We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember.3
Working and educating from home have made our need for the Sabbath even more acute, because our normal rhythms that are ordinarily broken up by place now all bleed into every part of the day, meaning we are often “on” all the time.
Of all the changes this pandemic has forced on us, let us be a people who return to the Sabbath principle God wove into creation by stopping our work, engaging in corporate worship, and receiving the rest Jesus freely offers us in the gospel.
- On this see C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 77.
- Collins, Genesis, 70-71.
- Judith Shulevitz, “Bring Back the Sabbath,” The New York Times Magazine (2 March 2003).