Do you remember the movie Castaway, starring Tom Hanks? Tom plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive whose job is to make sure product is on time. He himself never has any time. A storm blows his plane hundreds of miles off course, and it crashes into the sea. Everyone but Chuck dies. He ends up marooned on a tiny desert island, for 4 years. The movie arouses all kinds of emotions. This one, though, you don’t expect is envy. But a world without clocks, deadlines, appointments, schedules, obligations, now that is truly enviable. For 4 years Chuck Noland got to stop. The irony of the movie is that only Chuck changes. The world he left moves on, but it doesn’t change. Chuck stops, and he’s transformed. The movie ends with Chuck standing at the crossroads, each road stretching as far as eye can see. He is relaxed, smiling, in no hurry. He is poised between boundless opportunity and endless discovery. He can go anywhere, or nowhere. He can become anything he chooses.
Only the man who stops is that free.
What will it take for you to stop? Too often it takes disaster. Something has to go amiss…sickness, tragedy, catastrophe – and we get blown hundreds of miles off course. Sometimes we have to be forced to stop. Will it take all that to get you to stop? I know it’s hard to stop. Some even feel guilty when they do.
Only, our not stopping is killing us. There is only one story in all Scripture that gives any clear indication of a specific activity that God forbids on the Sabbath. A man is found gathering wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36). For that, the Lord commands he be put to death. Rather severe, you think? And yet, isn’t that man killing himself? He won’t stop. He won’t, for one day, lay down the load and refuse to pick it up again. He won’t, for one day, trust God to meet his needs. That way of life always in the end kills us.
The prophet Isaiah describes the lifestyle of the people of Israel: Read Isaiah 28:10-13. It could be us he’s talking about. Don’t you see: God longs to give us a resting place. He gives us a sabbath rest to enjoy. But if we choose endless busyness, if we spurn His gift – if we won’t stop – very well then, He says, have it your way. The day will come when foreign powers, things outside you, will enforce that way of living. You’ll be trapped in it, unable to get out. And no matter how hard you toil, you’ll never get ahead. You’ll keep falling backward, getting hurt, being snared. What will it take for you to stop?
“There is astounding wisdom in the traditional Jewish Sabbath…Sabbath is not dependent upon our readiness to stop. We do not stop [because] we are finished. We do not stop because we have completed our phone calls, finished our project, gotten through this stack of messages, or sent out this report that is due tomorrow. We stop because it is time to stop… Sabbath liberates us from the need to be finished. The old wise Sabbath says: Stop now.” (Wayne Muller, Sabbath)
God stopped. Indeed, that is the first thing the Bible urges us to remember when we keep the Sabbath. Read Genesis 2:1-3 and Exodus 20:8-11. The original Sabbath is holy because, first and foremost, on that day God stopped. Our first act of Sabbath rest, then, begins with stopping. In other words, our first act of keeping Sabbath is not to remember, observe, or celebrate those things only God can do: rather, our first act of keeping Sabbath is to imitate the one thing that God alone did not need to do. He did not need to stop. He doesn’t get tired. But we do. All living things do. And so God led the way. He stopped, and then asked us to stop, too.
Our refusal to stop usually stems from getting Sabbath observance exactly backward. We won’t dare imitate God’s stopping because we are too busy trying to be God. Who will run the world, if not me? Who will provide? How will the bills get paid? I am so busy being God, I have no time to be like God. “God, if you want a day off, that’s Your business. But You can see very well that I have no time for such luxury.”
“We are most deeply asleep at the switch,” the poet Annie Dillard writes, “when we fancy we control any switches at all.” Don’t we get it? God stopped! What greater example do we need? And God says, “Stop!” What stronger motivation do we need? God says, “Stop, and I will change you to be more like Me.” What more attractive incentive do we need? Stop! What will it take for you to stop?
To observe Sabbath rest, we must realise that it begins with stopping. That means, at a minimum, we stop working. In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, old Scrooge finally stops. It takes a disaster to make him stop. He’s got to get blown hundreds of miles off course, and be brought the edge of his own grave. But finally he stops, and is transformed, and set free. The morning after Christmas, Boxing Day, Scrooge is back at his desk. Before his change, Scrooge had grudgingly allowed his haggard employee Bob Cratchet Christmas Day off, but insisted he be in promptly on Boxing Day. Cratchet is a minute late. He is flustered. He quickly settles into his desk.
“Mr. Cratchet!” Scrooge’s stern hard voice booms from the shadows.
“Yes?” Cratchet answers, quavering.
Cratchet starts to apologize, explain.
“I’ll have none of that,” Scrooge says. “Under the circumstances, Mr. Cratchet, I see I have no option… but to raise your salary.” Scrooge starts to giggle.
“And, after we’ve enjoyed a cider, I want you to go spend the rest of the day with that beautiful family of yours.”
Cratchet stands agog, mouth open. Then he breaks out into a smile, astonished and thankful.
The last thing Cratchet would do, which is unthinkable, is resent Scrooge for this.
I have no option, God says, but to raise your salary. And after we have enjoyed one another’s company, I want you to spend the rest of the day with that beautiful family and those wonderful friends of yours. The last thing that you should do is resent God for this, as though it is an imposition, a deprivation.
It’s a gift.
It’s okay…you can stop.