This post originally appeared on A Rocha International’s Planetwise blog on March 31, 2017.
By Dave Bookless
Sabbath has an image problem. For some it conveys Victorian strictness: starched uncomfortable clothes, ‘improving’ books, and long church services. Others may remember last-ditch campaigns to ‘Keep Sunday Special’ by preventing supermarkets opening. My wife spent childhood holidays in the Outer Hebrides where ultra-sabbatarianism meant that playing football or throwing a Frisbee on a Sunday were strictly taboo. Today, Sabbath often conveys overwhelmingly negative ideas: ‘Don’t do that … especially if it’s enjoyable!’
How far this is from God’s plans for Sabbath! It is meant to be a joyful celebration of the ‘very-goodness’ of all creation. I’ve recently been struck anew by the richness and relevance of the Sabbath for hectic and hurried humanity, for our oppressed fellow creatures, and for the exploited environment we all depend upon. After all, this is no marginal theme in the Bible. Sabbath is:
- instituted in creation – part of how God created the universe to be
- codified in covenant – it’s one of the Ten Commandments, at the heart of Israel’s life
- transformed in Christ – Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8), not replacing it, but reinterpreting it
- a foretaste of eternity – it is a pointer to the ‘eternal rest’ of all creation in Christ.
So, here I offer three positive Sabbath values that link God, humanity and the rest of creation. One important thing I’ve realized is that these Sabbath values are not only for one day per week, just as prayer isn’t only an activity to be performed at set times. They are meant to infuse the whole of our lives, bringing perspective, balance and shalom-peace into everyday life.
Rhythm: we’re immersed in a nonstop culture. Where I live in Southall there are 24-hour shops and traffic, and Robins sing at 3 am under streetlamps. More than 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, often alienated from the natural rhythms of day and night, tides and seasons. Is this how God means it to be? In Genesis 2:1–3 we read that God finished his work on the seventh day, blessed it and made it holy. Most English translations say ‘God rested’, but God never tires, and the Hebrew term means ‘ceased from work’ rather than ‘took a rest’. God had no need to prepare for another working week: Earth 2.0! Rather, (highlighted by the fact that Day 7 alone is not completed with ‘there was morning and there was evening …’) God’s cessation from work is connected to being released from the tyranny of time. Time is something God made good as part of creation. Yet – like anything in creation − time can become an idol. It can control and master us. Perhaps you know the description of westerners as those with ‘God on their wrist’ … or smartphone? Sabbath celebrates kairos time rather than chronos time. It’s about pausing from our own timetables and connecting again with the God-given rhythms at the heart of creation. For me it means a regular rhythm of getting outdoors to walk, observe, listen and connect with God’s voice through creation.
Roots: Sabbath dethrones human beings from the arrogant assumption that we’re all God cares about. The Sabbath, not humanity, is the crown and culmination of God’s creation. We share Day 6 with baboons and bison and boa constrictors, but Day 7 is the day of blessing – the holy day – that completes and sanctifies creation. Sabbath celebrates physical creation, and roots us, as physical / spiritual unities, in the places God has planted us. As created beings we are related to and reliant upon the rest of creation. Sabbath helps us to know our place, and puts limits on our use of the earth, reminding us that we are dependent on God and earth for everything: manna and quail in the desert, a Sabbath rest each week and 7th year for land and creatures, a Jubilee for the Sabbath of Sabbaths (7×7+1) to help us respect the land and let it breathe. To farm over-intensively, to pour chemical insecticides and oil-based fertilizers into the living community of the soil is a form of idolatry, because it proclaims short-term profit is more important than long-term sustainability. Restraint is therefore a primary virtue for farmers, scientists and technologists. We are dealing with our, and earth’s, life-support system.
Renewal: Jesus rose from death on a Sunday, the first day of a new week, thereby initiating a new creation and renewing Sabbath as an anticipation of creation’s ultimate destiny, when all things will be made new. Those wonderful Old Testament visions of shalom, where wild animals and humans live in peaceable harmony and know God’s presence, are Sabbath visions. As one of my daughters used to say as a child, after a wonderful family experience: ‘This is how life is meant to be!’ Sabbath is a rediscovery of how God intends life to be, in all its beauty, diversity and fullness. It reorients us away from everyday priorities and lifts our hearts to God’s bigger vision when ‘the earth will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14).
So, let’s reclaim a Sabbath for all creation. Let’s reconnect with the rhythms of God’s world – even in the city – and put down roots in the places we’re planted, living with restraint in good relationship with our fellow creatures. And let us rejoice in Sabbath as ‘a type of that eternal rest’ (John Ray, 1691) when all creation will be made new in Christ.
Dave Bookless has worked with A Rocha since 1997, first as an International Trustee, then from 2001 with A Rocha UK as co-founder (with his wife Anne), National Director, and then Director for Theology, Churches & Sustainable Communities. He joined the A Rocha International team in September 2011. His role as Advisor for Theology and Churches includes providing advice and resources for ARI’s Trustees, Team and national A Rocha organisations, and coordinating liaison with international theological and mission networks and organisations. He is also studying for a part-time PhD at Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation.