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take the day off

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We all look forward to the weekend or taking a day off. Most of us think of this time as days off from work. But what if we change the preposition? What if it's not so much a day off FROM something but TO something?

Exodus says, "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy. For six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set is apart as holy." In Deuteronomy 5, we find the same first section, but instead of mentioning creation, it says the following, "Recall that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there by strength and power. That is why the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." (New English Translation).

In ancient times, the weekly day of rest was a novel concept. Leisure was for the wealthy and ruling classes, there was no rest for slaves and laborers. To have a holy-day for the common people every week was seen by those in charge as unnecessary, impractical, and a sign of laziness. But Hebrew literature shows a different attitude: Shabbat is referred to as a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week. While we may think of a day off (or the weekend) as time to unwind, the Jewish Shabbat is more like a celebration: it begins with preparation on Friday afternoon, the official beginning is marked by the lighting of candles Friday at sunset, then there is an evening service, a festive meal, prayers and rituals, sleep, a service Saturday morning followed by another festive meal, leisure time, another light meal, and then prayers are said over candles, spice, and wine at sunset to mark the end of Shabbat.

There are two main ideas included in the Hebrew Shabbat. The first is to remember (remember the Sabbath day...). What are we to remember? That God is the Creator of all things in heaven and earth, and that he is still upholding everything. We follow his example in enjoying the goodness of creation by taking a day of rest. The second thing to remember is that we are no longer slaves to task masters (the rat race, the daily grind, our debts, etc.), we are free because God has delivered us. The second element is to observe (keep the Sabbath, set it apart as holy). The Hebrew word for work is melachah which does not primarily mean physical labour or employment but work that exercises control or dominion over our environment. The word melachah is thought to be related to the word for king (melekh). So keeping the Sabbath means that we step back from trying to control our circumstances, from ruling, from managing. It is a day to let God be the boss instead of us. An excellent story which illustrates the principle of Sabbath-keeping (recorded in Exodus 16, placing it before the giving of the ten commandments) is when God provided manna (heavenly bread) for the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. Every morning they would go out and gather it from the ground, but on the sixth day they were to gather twice as much because there would be none on the seventh day. It was to be a day of rest. Anyone who tried to stockpile manna found the excess rotten and full of worms. Anyone who neglected to prepare for the Sabbath by collecting more on day six went hungry. This story illustrates the beautiful harmony between divine provision and human labour.

I grew up on a farm in rural Manitoba. Harvest season meant that everyone worked long hours to get the crops off the fields. Sometimes, due to weather conditions, there was a very short window of time to get the job done before a thunderstorm passed through or an early frost hit. Most of the farmers in our area were devout Mennonites, so no matter how the harvest was going or what the weather was like, the machinery all stopped on Saturday night and preparations were made for Sunday, a day of worship and rest. That weekly pause during harvest time required a lot of trust; it said volumes about how much the farmers were willing to trust God when their families' livelihoods for the coming year were at stake. A Sunday might be the only sunny day in a string of rainy ones, but the farmers' commitment to observe a day of rest meant that ultimately, they trusted God instead of their own efforts. It was as much a day off TO God as a day off FROM work.

God's invitation to do what he did and rest from our labour one day a week is an invitation to remember our Creator still has the whole world in his hands and to remember that we are not slaves but children of God. It is an invitation to practice joy and not worry, to live in trust and not fear, to exercise restraint instead of self-indulgence, the celebrate instead of complain, and to change our internal posture from trying to get ahead or controlling outcomes to trusting that God is enough.

The above post is a summary of a talk I gave at our faith community yesterday. We also sang this song together.It seemed particularly apropos.


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