Most of us will never wrestle lions, burn at a stake, dodge blow darts, wade a swamp, or endure a shipwreck for our faith. We might ask you to sit through some seemingly endless committee meetings, suffer through more than their fair share of long dull sermons. But it likely won’t get much harder than that. But every night, you and I commit a huge act of undaunted faith. Every 24 hours, you and I demonstrate our utter and unquestioned confidence in the sovereignty of God. We attest with our whole being to our unshakable conviction in God’s provision and protection.
Every night, we go to sleep. You think I’m kidding. I’m not.
We sleep, of course, out of necessity. We can’t help ourselves. But the Bible portrays sleep as more than that. King David had some harrowing days, but maybe his worse was the day his own son Absalom marched on Jerusalem, bent on usurping his own father. David abandons his throne and flees for his life. It gets worse. As David leaves Jerusalem, a man named Shimei, an old Saul loyalist who’s been nursing a grudge against David for years, follows the king and, from a bank above him, hurls down dirt and stones and abuse. Everything that that can go wrong does. Let me ask this: how do you think he slept that night? How might you? Listen to the Psalm David wrote in the midst of this grief and mayhem: “I lie down to sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me” (Psalm 3:5). Sleep, in biblical terms, is an act of trust in the God who sustains, a profound testimony of confidence in the watch care of the Lord. How dare you sleep when all this trouble rages about you? Well, why not? There is a God, and He loves me and, whether I live or die, He looks after me. Jesus lived that way. One day Jesus got into a boat with some of his disciples. These men were seafarers, seasoned fisherman, wise, wily old sailors. But a squall so violent came up that even they were afraid. Where is Jesus? They asked. They find him…asleep.
I lie down to sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
The Sabbath is a day of rest, but not just because we need that to survive. It is a day of rest also because, at least once a week, it’s important that we commit a daring act of faith – by basically doing nothing. On Sabbath, we lie down. We sleep. We play. No matter how many enemies surround me, how violent is the storm bearing down on me – Sabbath is where I lay me down, and renew my faith in the God who sustains me.
The genius of the Jewish Sabbath is that it begins at night. The Sabbath, in other words, starts when we get ready for bed. In fact, God inscribed this into his very act of creating. In the creation story in Genesis, the rhythm of God’s creative work is not day then night, but the other way around. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of that: “This Hebrew evening and morning sequence conditions us to the rhythms of grace. We go to sleep, and God begins his work. As we sleep he develops his covenant. We wake and are called to participate in God’s creative action. We respond in faith, in work. But always grace is previous and primary. We wake into a world we didn’t make, into a salvation we didn’t earn. Evening: God begins, without our help, his creative day. Morning: God calls us to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated.”
What God does matters most. Sabbath is a primary reminder of that. Sabbath is observing anew an ancient rhythm we have forgotten: evening, morning; God’s work, our response. It’s interesting that almost all of our measures for clock and calendar are based on cycles and patterns in nature: the 24-hour day follows the cycle of the earth’s rotation on its axis, the 365-day year mirrors the earth’s rotation around the sun, the four seasons that same rotation. The 12 months trace the lunar cycle. Almost all our clock-watching and calendar keeping is rooted in inner workings of nature, except the seven-day week. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to that, nothing out there that explains it. The only explanation is that God worked on six days, but rested on the seventh, and told us to follow. In other words, the day, the month, the seasons, the years follow the creation. But the week follows the Creator. The other patterns are established in the natural realm. But the 7-day week is established by divine decree. In recent times, researchers have “discovered” that we have built into us a circadian clock: an inner, inborn rhythm of mind and body. Every seven days, according to our circadian clock, we need significant rest, or we begin to break down. God has so intimately and intricately made us in his image that he coded into us the rhythm of his own work and rest. There have been attempts to ignore this or defy it. During the French Revolution the government enacted and enforced a 10-day week. It wasn’t long before workers, horses, the land itself – was getting sick. Similar experiments were tried and failed under some communist regimes. In our own country, a lot of illness – whether mental or physical – is stress-related. Many accidents in the work place are stress-related. You have to wonder how our society and economy would look if we actually began to take the 7-day week, with one day for rest, seriously.
Our failure to keep Sabbath is a kind of idolatry. But it is also a kind of slavery. It’s a symptom of slave-mentality. Deuteronomy gives this reason for remembering the Sabbath: Read Deuteronomy 5:12-15. You were once a slave, but God delivered you. Sabbath keeping is shaped around that specific memory: “Remember what it was like before? Remember when you were human chattel, hard-pressed on every side, driven by goad and whip, taskmasters standing over you, Pharaoh on his throne laying heavier and heavier burdens? Did you enjoy that? Didn’t think so. Well, remember, I got you out of there. I set you free. I brought you here. Why are you going back to that? Why are you still living like a slave?”
In his book Out of My Mind, Joe Bayly tells about a pastor whose sons began to stutter. The pastor took them to a speech therapist that examined them, and then called the pastor in to office and gave him a sharp rebuke. “This is your problem,” the therapist said. “You have been so utterly neglectful of your family, that your boys are literally getting tongue-tied about it.” The pastor confessed it was true. He never stopped, never rested, never enjoyed freedom. He lived like a slave. The pastor said this: “I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I used to say quite proudly to people, ‘The devil never takes a vacation, so why should I?’ I never stopped to think that the devil wasn’t to be my example.” For six days the Lord worked, but on the seventh he rested. That’s our example. Only slaves don’t heed it.
There is a Hebrew word closely associated with the Sabbath. It is the word “nephesh,” or “napas.” It is usually translated “to be refreshed.” It’s the word used concerning Sabbath-keeping in Exodus 23:12, where the purpose of Sabbath rest is that we might be refreshed, nephesh. But it also refers to our inner most self, the deepest soul: our true identity. Nephesh is not what the world sees about me: it’s what God knows about me. Nephesh also means to breathe. To inhale deeply, and then let it go. The word breathe is itself rich. It is connected with, in Hebrew, the word ruah, and in Greek with the word pneuma. Ruah and pneuma mean breath or wind, but they also refer to Holy Spirit. Sabbath is for nephesh. It is to be refreshed in the deepest sense. Not just to take a break. Not just to collapse in utter weariness and misery. But to breathe God’s breath, His very Spirit, into the inner most places. To have God fill us afresh with His wind, and revive our true selves. That’s what happened to David the day Absalom forced him out of Jerusalem, and Shimei followed him cursing and abusing. We already saw that, despite our expectations, David slept well that night. He wrote Psalm 3 in response. Here is the actual scene: read 2 Samuel 16:13-14…“And there he refreshed himself.” Nephesh. And there, David breathed again the Spirit of God. He drew into himself again the ruah, the pneuma, the wind, the breath of God. He breathed God’s presence into his inner most self. He remembered who he was and whose he was.
“I lie down to sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
Well, you’re not a slave. Why don’t you do that too?