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God’s Promised Rest: Still Open?

San Williams

June 2, 2013
Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 4:1-5

06-02-2013 Sermon Our summer sermon series opens with the theme of Sabbath keeping, something that most of us don’t do, or at least don’t do very well.  Today keeping the Sabbath commandment is largely forgotten and–let’s face it–almost universally ignored. So aren’t we intrigued, interested, and maybe even a little disbelieving when we hear the Preacher of Hebrews declare to the church that “the promise of entering God’s Sabbath rest is still open.”

By all accounts, we Americans are a very un-rested bunch.   A recent ABC News survey declared that there’s a reason Americans line up in large numbers at Starbucks and in the office break room.  We need pepping up, the survey suggests, in order to keep from slogging through our days feeling drowsy and tired.  Of those questioned in the survey, 70% said they had experienced sleep deprivation during the previous month. A similar study from USA Today concluded:  “We all know the keys to health:  eat right, exercise, and get some rest.  Yet as a nation, we are overweight, out-of-shape and tired.”   A book titled Over scheduled Kids, Under-connected Families declares, “Sadly, we Americans are imposing our hurry-up, overworked lifestyles on our children, with rueful results.”   

Probably our families with children are the ones who struggle the most.  Here at UPC our Faith and Parenting Class often finds the discussion centering on the issue of time-management, balancing family and work, soccer practice, and piano lessons. One gets tired just thinking about how over scheduled many of us, including our children, have become.

And sadly, the church isn’t always a help.  Our worship this morning is all about inviting the congregation into a holy day, a Sabbath rest.  But like most churches, we also try to squeeze in as much work as possible while we the have folks here on Sunday.   It’s a bit ironic that, immediately following today’s worship on the theme of Sabbath, some of us will get right down to work:  the Ministry Chairs will have their training session, the youth committee will meet, and so on.  What the church proclaims as a day of rest can start sounding more like a church work day.  As individuals, families, congregations, we’re all are caught up in an unrelenting continuum of work, of productivity, of buying and selling, of checking things off our list, of accomplishing household tasks.  No wonder, then, that so many people today claim to be overworked and tired.

But there’s another kind of weariness which is more than physical exhaustion.  Modern life also makes us susceptible to a spiritual fatigue, a weariness of the soul, ennui. Yes, our lives are busy, but our busy-ness can easily lose any larger sense of purpose and meaning.  The tedium of everyday life can become innervating in itself.  Some have compared their day-in-and-day-out lives to running on a treadmill that never really stops.  Not only is such a life physically tiring, but also it wearies us with a sense of futility.  Wasn’t this what T.S. Eliot portrayed in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?”  “For I have known them all already, known them all:  Have known the evenings, the mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”    It’s not only that we Americans are overworked, but that modern life tends to make us spiritually restless.

Well, for all these reasons and many more, the words we heard earlier from Hebrews come tumbling back to us. “…the promise of entering God’s rest is still open.”  But what is “the rest” that God promises?   Tom Long points out in his commentary on this passage in Hebrews that  biblical “rest” is a big theological concept that has three dimensions.

 First, “rest,” as it’s used in the Bible, speaks of the beginning of time.  It refers to the finished character of creation, where God is said to have “rested on the seventh day…from all the work that God had done in creation.”  In his typically colorful language, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote:  “God rested on the seventh day. God did not show up to do more. God absented God’s self from the office.  God did not come back to check on creation in anxiety, to be sure it was all working. God has complete confidence in the fruit-bearing, blessing-generating processes of creation that have been instituted.  God exhibits no anxiety about the life-giving capacity of creation.  God knows the world will hold, the plants will perform, and the birds and the fish and the beasts of the field will prosper…”

 So in the first place, “rest” has its foundation in the character and activity of God.  God declared the creation finished, the work done.  Thus on the seventh day God, rested in complete confidence that all God had made was good.

But secondly, “rest” points to the end of time, to the finished work of redemption, when Christ is revealed as Lord; pain and toil are ended; death is defeated, and all that would destroy the will of God for human beings and for creation has itself been destroyed.  Entering God’s Sabbath rest, then, means embracing with confidence God’s promise that, when all is said and done, the goodness of God will prevail and evil will not prevail; the love of God will triumph and  hate will be defeated; the wholeness of God will overcome disease, and the Son of God will be on the throne and the powers of death will be destroyed. Only with hope in God’s final victory can we rest in the assurance that, as Julian of Norwich expressed it, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

But “rest’ is not just a concept applying to the beginning and the end; it is also a quality of Christian life to be lived out in the present.  The Preacher of Hebrews knew how hard it was for his congregation to enter God’s promised rest as a present reality.  The early church was already growing restless.  They wanted to see some evidence to support their faith.  To encourage them, the author of Hebrews reminded them not to repeat the example of their ancestors.  These forebearers of ours, he declared, got lost in the wilderness.  What they lost was the confidence that God was still with them, to lead them and to use them in God’s grand drama of redemption. The Preacher of Hebrews warns his congregation:   Don’t let that kind of faithless wandering happen to you, because the promise of entering God’s rest is still open. 

And friends, in spite of everything, it still is.  Therefore, in the words from our text, “Let us make every effort to enter that rest.”  Without a doubt, Sabbath-keeping in our speeded- up world is complex, counter-cultural and hard to do.  Yet we need to help each other find Sabbath practices that slow us down and give us the deep rest our souls crave.  It begins with gathering for worship to consecrate a day holy to the Lord.  “We need Sundays,” wrote John Calvin,  “to rest from our work, so that God can work in us. In addition to worship, individuals and families can make an effort to do Sabbath type things like going to the park, taking a hike in nature, riding bikes together. Most of us haven’t done very well, or maybe even given much thought to Sabbath keeping.  But the good news is that the promise is still open for us “today!”.  Let’s make every effort to enter that blessed rest.