Let’s face it, we need a rest…
I’m sitting in a café writing this post and watching people stream in and out. It’s a normal day in Cambridge where students, tourists and locals fill the streets and shops. As I look around almost everyone has some sort of digital device they’re staring into—phones, laptops, tablets. Very few are actually speaking to anyone face-to-face. I’m sure many are caught up in the constant stream of Brexit news, or the latest on Donald Trump. We are physically present in the same place, but do we have any sense of those around us? (And yes, I note the irony that I too am writing this whilst staring into a screen!)
This is not an uncommon scene in our modern society. The speed and self-absorption we experience in the digital world leaves us disconnected from our surroundings and often from one another. It is a pace of life that is without rhythm, cadence or a sense of connection to the physical world. We are constantly distracted by our notifications, social media or email. This constant stream of interruption creates anxiety and a stress that is almost palpable around us. But rather than engaging with others, so often we simply slip on our headphones and yet again block out the other.
The digital world has offered many benefits but like any new technology it has also offered significant challenges. Many of us have simply accepted the technological wave of the past century and can barely remember what life was like without social media, email, or even mobile phones! For others who have grown up as ‘digital natives’ the life of constant connection has been their companion. But in all our connectivity we are in danger of losing our humanity and our ability to find rest.
We don’t have to go far in the Bible to discover that the God of all creation, the God who spoke into existence the whole of the universe, is also a God who rests. The rhythm he establishes from the beginning of time is one that celebrates our work in the material world. For six days we bless the tools of our trade, we engage with the natural world, and we rejoice in the divine creativity we have been given as children made in God’s image. But on the seventh day, we follow the creator into the hallowed space of time and rest.
‘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’ (Gen. 2.2-3).
In the creation story God blesses the material world and commands it to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. The result of blessing on earth is multiplication, fertility and fruitfulness. But what happens when time is blessed? How does the holiness of time produce the same fruitfulness and abundance? The account of creation is a movement from chaos to order, from discord to rhythm, from being incomplete to being made whole. God’s rest and consecration of the Sabbath day is the completeness of creation. Without rest all things will spiral out of control, which is why the biblical authors were bold enough to say that God ‘rested’ as if the eternal God of the universe could get tired! God does not get exhausted, but he does set an example for us so that we might imitate his pattern and follow him each week into the holiness of Sabbath time.
Holiness is always a difficult concept to wrestle with. In the ancient Hebrew it essentially means to set something apart to God which usually includes a ritual washing or preparation as something is committed to him. Things can be set apart as holy, people can be set apart as holy, but time can also be set apart as holy. The point is that when something is holy, it becomes different. It is an offering to God who will infuse it with his holiness. Sabbath time is something that has been made holy in the beginning but God later commands us to consecrate holy time in our own lives and communities each week. ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it Holy’ (Exod. 20.9). The commandment was not meant to spoil our Sunday afternoon fun! Instead, rest and holy time restore and refresh us and bring life and wholeness to the community of faith and to the world. This is the rhythm of creation moving towards God’s wholeness and it is the rhythm that God invites us to participate in.
The Sabbath day has been critically important for Jews over the centuries but especially after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. Sabbath offered a time to gather as families and in synagogues to study the scriptures and celebrate a day of rest. Jesus and the disciples practiced this same pattern throughout their lives. Jesus often confronted the Jewish leaders of his day on their stringent interpretations of the Sabbath because he understood it as a blessing and gift for humanity to find God’s intended rest and wholeness. This gift does not cease once Christ is resurrected and ascended but, rather, we discover even greater depths of Sabbath rest through the Holy Spirit.
If we understand the Sabbath as a movement towards wholeness and the experience of God’s rest and refreshment for the whole community, then in Christ we experience the first-fruits of that wholeness in the Spirit. But that does not mean we are no longer an embodied people also in need of physical rest. In the hectic, non-stop pace of our daily lives we find ourselves desperately in need of God’s rhythm and peace. This is a rhythm which includes six days of healthy work and creativity in the world balanced by a day of rest where we can disengage from the digital world and reconnect face-to-face with family and friends. The Christian Sabbath is day to remember the wholeness ushered in by Christ through the resurrection. It is a day to celebrate the beauty of creation, justice and rest for the oppressed, and to join with the whole communion of saints to celebrate the wholeness of God’s kingdom breaking into this world.
Revd Dr Mark W. Scarlata is Tutor and Lecturer in Old Testament Studies at St Mellitus College, London. Sabbath Rest: The Beauty of God's Rhythm for a Digital World Age is available now.