O Still Small Voice of Calm

Trinitarian Congregational Church

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Anthony S. Kill

June 3, 2018

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:23-28


There’s a lot happening in this morning’s service, so I’ll try to keep this short. I just want to reflect for a bit on the theme of Sabbath. For our society, and for much of the world, I fear the concept of Sabbath has become a lost cause, or a distant memory. Those of us of a certain age can remember when the ‘Blue Laws’ were in place, and most shops and businesses were closed tight on Sundays, and very few people had to work on Sundays (except pastors, of course!) But in today’s 24/7 work world, Sunday is just another day to shop, or go to a job, or work from home  on our computers, or do the household chores that you didn’t get to during the hectic work week.

According to the passage from Exodus that Pam read, the foundation for the Sabbath is in the creation story at the very beginning of the Bible, where we read in the book of Genesis, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”

The ancient rabbis, in their commentary on this text, point out that God did not finish the work of creation in six days; God finished on the seventh day.  The sabbath rest itself was an act of creation by God. In fact, while we might talk about taking a sabbath, as in taking a day off or some time off, the Jewish people don’t speak of taking sabbath. They speak of making sabbath.

One pastor tells this story as an expression of the value of sabbath: “An explorer who was making a hurried journey through the jungles of South America. He would begin the day’s march with first light and rush on until darkness made travel impossible. Finally one morning when he was ready to proceed the porters failed to appear. He called the man who employed them and demanded an explanation. The reply was “We have traveled far and we have traveled fast;  we must now wait for our souls to catch up with our bodies.” These porters knew that they were doing a very important thing that day. Without it, they could not continue their journey. It  might even be worth risking their jobs over, for their very existence was as risk if they did not wait for their souls to catch up with them.”

The Hebrew word for ‘rest’ is menuha, and menuha is a special gift from God. In the words that open the twenty-third psalm, we pray:

“The Lord is my shepherd.  I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul.”

The Hebrew for still waters is “mayim menuhot” “the waters of menuhot:” the waters of rest. It is God who leads us to the waters of rest, and thereby restores our souls.

The sabbath rest gives our spirits the restoration, the renewal, that we need to continue a quality of existence. It is a time for our souls to catch up with us, and a time to restore our relationship and connection with the Living God who placed us on this journey in the first place and blesses us with rest along the way.

I’ll repeat a quote from Wayne Mueller that I included in a sermon a few weeks ago “[Sabbath] dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished.” We don’t take Sabbath and come to worship because we have time and have finished up everything that needs to be done. We take Sabbath because it is time to stop, and we are designed to stop, rest and reflect. Those who don’t are destined to crash and burn.

But there is another aspect to the Sabbath as well As I said, when the commandment about Sabbath is given in the book of Exodus, Sabbath is related to the creation story, where God rested on the seventh day. But when the Ten Commandments are repeated in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 5, the commandment reads this way: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

So Deuteronomy 5 explains that the reason for Sabbath is because of God’s redemptive act on Israel’s behalf during the exodus experience. The people are to keep the Sabbath in remembrance of their enslavement in Egypt.

A Jewish prayer said before and after the Sabbath meal remembers this by including the words “Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people.”

Both Exodus and Deuteronomy stipulate that rest from work is extended to everyone — male and female, free and slave, human and animal, citizen and immigrant, (a radical departure from common practice in other ancient nations around Israel.) In recalling its own forced labor under Egyptian taskmasters, the Hebrew people are called to practice a day of rest for all creation.

God commands the people to rest and remember a time when they had more work than they could ever finish and were powerless to change their situation. In that remembered moment, God acted on their behalf and accomplished what they could not imagine, setting them free from that slavery, and making of them a free people.  Sabbath rest is not for remembering what we have done, but what God has done for us.  So perhaps the right time for sabbath is not when our work is finished, but when it has piled up until we cannot see over it into a hopeful future. At those overwhelming times, we are called to stop and remember the one whose power far exceeds our own. And in that knowledge we can truly rest.

How do you take Sabbath?  Do you make Sabbath time? In your week, in your month, in your year?

Our next hymn this morning (470, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”) captures the blessing and benefit of sabbath.

“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our striving cease. Take from our souls the strain and stress and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.”

“Breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm.

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,

speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still small voice of calm.”   Amen.