At times I have been a daily poster, at others far more erratic. My blogging began when I was ‘between jobs’, having decided to move on from the church where I had been based for over twelve years, but not yet sure where I was meant to be next. Back then blogging seemed a good way of keeping my friends in touch with what I was up to; it quickly became much more about expressing an opinion on something.
As of Monday next week I will be on an extended period of sabbatical, enjoying a break from my normal responsibilities through to late-August. I haven’t yet decided what that means for my blogging. I may well continue posting – if there are things that catch my attention it would feel odd not to; but then again, I might disappear for a while.
I know some church leaders disagree with the policy of pastors taking sabbaticals. “Other people don’t get sabbaticals – why should we?” is one typical line of reasoning. It’s a reasonable point, even if not entirely true, there being some other occupations which grant similar periods of leave of absence. But even if it were true, I would still want to defend the practice.
One reason for this is that my conception of what a sabbatical is does not mean sitting around doing nothing. This is of a piece with my general theology of rest, which understands rest not as loafing, but an active pursuit of spiritual, emotional and physical replenishment. Sabbath is not sloth. True rest is not lazy.
This means that ‘study leave’ may be a better term, at least for what I am planning to do. I want to read some thicker books than I normally make time for, and I want to do some writing that is more substantial than a typical blog post. Not having to prepare sermons every week, and not having to give time to the normal leadership and pastoral priorities that occupy me should mean I have time to do so.
Also, I have seen too many of my friends have ‘sabbaticals’ imposed upon them when they have experienced burnout of one degree or another. I’d much rather schedule my rest than have it forced upon me – it’s much more likely to be fun that way!
Last year I ran a series of posts on the letter to the Hebrews, and made some observations about rest from chapter 4 of that letter. It may be worth repeating some of that now, because these are the kinds of things I am hoping to experience while on sabbatical – and they are the kind of things that all God’s people will enjoy eternally:
God’s rest is freedom from enemies
God had promised the people that in Canaan he would, ‘give you rest from your enemies’ (Deuteronomy 12:10). We all face enemies, whether it be hostile people, sickness, depression, ugliness, poverty or whatever. The hope of the gospel is that in defeating our biggest enemy, sin and death, Jesus has defeated all our enemies, so we can rest easy, not having to check nervously over our shoulder all the time.
God’s rest is being in his presence
The ark of the covenant found its eventual resting place on Mount Zion (1 Kings 8:56; Psalm 132:8, 13-14) and when the people came to worship there they were in some way entering divine rest. It was in this place of worship that they shared all the benefits of YHWH being their king. Now that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on God’s people, we all enter his presence regardless of where we are physically and know the benefits of being ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation’ (1 Peter 2:9).
God’s rest is freedom from slavery
There was a direct link between the command not to work on the Sabbath and Israel’s experience of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). To enter rest is to live in freedom. Christ has now purchased us eternal freedom, so that we do not need to be at the exhausting beck and call of any other god.
God’s rest is freedom from sin
For Israel the Day of Atonement was a Sabbath day – a day of rest and celebration. The declaration of God’s mercy and forgiveness brought them into liberation. Now that Christ has made complete atonement for sin, his people are permanently at rest from the penalty for their sin.
God’s rest is ‘Cosmic’
When God rested on the seventh day it was evidence of the completeness of his creation. This completion speaks of perfection and harmony – a perfection and harmony that were marred by the entry of sin. Because of sin all creation groans, but the victory of God in Jesus Christ means that the creation will once more be restored to a condition of restful harmony. The gospel is green!
God’s rest is a party!
‘Sabbath rest’ means ‘Sabbath celebration’. Praise and rest go together and the rest we are called to enter is not passive, but joyful celebration!
God’s rest still involves work
Jesus once said, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17) – which means there is a paradox of God having entered rest on the seventh day, yet being perpetually engaged in his work. This apparent paradox is resolved when we understand work in rest to be like the work of Adam and Eve in the garden. This was work as ‘leisure’, not survival. It is an ideal rest, which involves joy-filled, satisfying, working. The new creation will not be boring!
All these expressions of rest were to be experienced in part in the land of Canaan, which is why the people’s refusal to enter it was such a tragedy. What about us? We Christians are already entering this rest, through Christ! He has overcome our enemies. He has delivered us from the slavery of sin. He brings us into God’s presence by the Holy Spirit. He brings us into harmony with God. He gives us reason to celebrate. He gives us work to do.
Our rest will be complete on the day of Christ’s return and the renewal of all things. Then we will experience complete rest, in the world we have always wanted. This is a rest it is worth striving to enter – which means that unlike the Israelites, we must not put ourselves in opposition to the word of God, but respond to it with faith and joy. And this means the overarching objective of my sabbatical is to dig deeper into faith and joy. I’m looking forward to it!