Worship in Observing the Sabbath


Today’s post is for those who feel tired, beaten down, and overwhelmed. Sabbath has been woven into the fabric of creation; God knew that we would need rest from our labor to keep us healthy. Learning more about Sabbath has changed my life, and I believe that it can change yours as well! I highly recommend reading the two books that influenced this post, “The Sabbath” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and “Sacred Rhythms” by Ruth Haley Barton. Both are available in our Harvest bookstore on Sunday mornings.


“Better one handful of quietness than two handfuls of toil.” Ecclesiastes 4:6

We are all familiar with the days of creation found in Genesis. In this first account, we see creation poetically patterned into days where God makes the entire universe in which we live[1]. At the end of the account, we reach the seventh, final day, and the Bible tells us “God finished His work” and “rested from the work.”[2] Wait, God finished working on the seventh day? I thought he took a day off? What did God finish on this seventh day, what did he create?

The ancient rabbi’s taught that there was an act of creation on the seventh day. After six days of creation there was still something that was lacking in the universe, and that was Menuha (the Jewish word for “rest”). The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book “The Sabbath” explains that menuha is so much more than the cessation from labor, toil, or activity – and that the universe would be incomplete without menuha. Here is how Heschel describes menuha:

“To the biblical mind menuha is the same as happiness and stillness, as peace and harmony. The word with which Job described the state after life he was longing for is derived from the same root as menuha. It is the state wherein man lies still, wherein the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. It is the state in which there is no strife and no fighting, no fear and no distrust. The essence of good life is menuha. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters” (the waters of menuhot). In later times menuha became a synonym for the life in the world to come, for eternal life.”[3]

In a previous post, “Living a Life of Worship” we talked about how learning to live a life of worship begins with time. Entering into menuha on the Sabbath is where we enter into God’s time. Heschel describes the world as existing in a tension between space and time. Space, is our realm where we create and we possess. In space, we build and we do. Time, is God’s realm, for not a single one of us can possess time.  In time, exists eternity and the world of eternal life to which we look to in the future.

We control space. Within space, we create and we build. We do. We shape the world into what we would have it be. In Genesis, God commanded humanity to “fill the earth” – to build up civilization within the realm of space. The goal of space is to have, to do, to create. We spend most of our lives caught up in space. God knew this when he created the universe, which is why he wove menuha into the pattern of creation so that we would not forget to leave our space behind to seek out God in time.

When we observe Sabbath, when we enter into God’s menuha (his eternity of time) we set aside our “doing” in the realm of space in favor of simply being. This is the meaning of Sabbath. When we observe the Sabbath we are set free from the dreaded “to-do list” that constantly hovers over us, and instead get to live in a time as if the cares and burdens of our world have already fallen away and we are already living in the eternity of the world to come. The goal of time is not to have, but to be.

“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”[4]

Maybe you have felt as I have, that there is always something to do and there is never enough time in which to accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished. Perhaps your chest will begin to feel tight, like mine does when I become overwhelmed by “doing.” Like me, maybe you will begin to lose sight of God’s eternal time and menuha. Don’t waste your life in “space” pursuing temporary life and neglecting the pursuit of eternal life and time!

The Sabbath is what sets us free from having to do, anything! It is not simply something else to do, another righteous task that we have to commit. The bible tells us not to grow weary of doing good, and the way that we keep from becoming weary is by entering into menuha – on a regular basis. Menuha can’t be sprinkled around or squeezed in “when I have time” – because let’s be honest, there is never enough time. We need to be intentional about drawing a hard line between our space (our work) and our time (our rest). I hope this is making sense.

The Sabbath is not another thing to “do”, as if it existed in the realm of space – it is instead something for us to look forward to! It is the climax of our week. Heschel says that the Sabbath is not a date, it is an atmosphere.

“The Sabbath is no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions…

[The Sabbath] is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.”[5]

Sabbath is something that we need, and God knows it. Otherwise, we risk becoming slaves to our work, and we become caught up in the rush and we never slow down. I heard someone say recently, that God rarely speaks at the rate we are running. The Sabbath is about slowing down, and matching our pace with God. It is about letting go of everything temporary in this world that demands our attention and our time and instead giving our bodies and spirit a day to bask in the eternity of God’s time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

Here is how Ruth Haley Barton describes her experience with the practice of Sabbath keeping:

“The truth is, Sabbath keeping is a discipline that will mess with you, because once you move beyond just thinking about it and actually begin to practice it, the goodness of it will capture you, body, soul and spirit. You will long to wake up to a day that stretches out in front of you with nothing in it but rest and delight. You will long for a simple way to turn your heart toward God in worship without much effort. You will long for a space in time when the pace is slow and family and friends linger with one another, savoring one another’s presence because no one has anywhere else to go.”[6]

I don’t know about you, but I’m busy. I’m so busy that there are days when I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to do much of anything for anybody. There are days when I don’t have time to “waste” on my three year old daughter who just wants to sit with me, or read a book. Weeks can go by without spending time with friends or family. It is rare anymore that I can even remember a day where I felt “bored” because there was “nothing to do.” I am such a do-er. Resting is not my strong suit, I like to accomplish things and be productive! Yet, God is calling me to put down my work and enter into his rest. Maybe he is calling you into menuha as well – and perhaps you have been too busy to notice.

The question remains, how do we understand Christian Sabbath? In Jewish observance, on the Sabbath there is no work for an entire day, time is sanctified, and family gather together. For a Jew, observing Sabbath was part of keeping the law of Moses. We may not be bound by law to observe Sabbath, or to enter into menuha, but it is still a beneficial practice. As for incorporating Sabbath into your life, I have some suggestions.

First, find a day or a window of time in a day (it really doesn’t have to be the whole day) where you can devote time to entering into God’s rest. Use the following “litmus” test to determine if what you are doing during your Sabbath is true to its purpose. If an activity falls into one of these categories, its Sabbath honoring!

Faith based. The Sabbath is a holy time of entering into God’s rest. It needs to be centered/focused on God.

Family focused. Sabbath is a time for family to be infused with God’s goodness and presence together.

Friendship. The Sabbath is communal. It is not the same as spending time alone in silence or solitude to recharge. It is about entering into eternity with God, and with others. It is about living as if we are already enjoying eternity.

Freedom from “have to.” In God’s time, we leave behind our space. We don’t do anything because it has to be done, we do because we want to.

Fun. The Sabbath is not a somber duty; it is a day of celebration and joy! It’s a time to play games and have fun.

I challenge you to find time, as a family, to participate in Sabbath rest. If you’re having trouble finding a time slot try drawing out your weekly schedule by day and time. Color in the blocks of time that are already committed to things that cannot be changed (like your work schedule). Next, color in the times where you’re involved in church related activities, like your small group or attending on Sunday mornings. If there is any other things you do on a regular basis, fill those in as well. Then visually look for the gaps. For my family, that gap was Saturday morning. That is our time of Sabbath. We do whatever we want to do, together, on that day (as long as it isn’t a “have to”). Sometimes that means sleeping in, having a late breakfast, and then going on a drive or a hike. Other times, it involves going to the park or visiting with friends. Anything that is Sabbath honoring. Give it a try. See how you feel. Find freedom in “rest” and let your “have to’s” wait for a little while. Enjoy it. Find your stride again.

May the Lord bless you and keep you, and may His most Holy Spirit continue to call you into the eternity of his time and give you rest. Remember, that our control over space is only temporary. Let us not get so caught up in “doing” that we forget to simply “be” in the presence of God. Amen.

[1] “First account”? In Genesis, there are two creation stories – have you noticed? The first is in 1:1-2:3, the second is in 2:4-25. The order of creation differs slightly in each account. Additionally, in the first account God creates all of humanity; in the second, He creates one man and one woman (Adam and Eve).

[2] Gen. 2:2


[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951) p.23

[4] Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 10


[5] Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 30-32

[6] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006) p. 133