By Paul Koch –
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He spoke into being all that there is; the sun, moon and stars, the water and land and all the creatures that fill the earth. Everything was good, everything was in harmony. There was no death, no destruction, no tears or sorrow. And the pinnacle of His creation was man, creatures made in His own image. Creatures that are able to create. But on the seventh day, God rests. He rests from all the work He has done. He sets the day aside as a holy day, a day specifically for rest. Rest is not a necessity we are driven to when worn out. It isn’t something that is forced upon us when we simply can’t go on anymore. No, rest is part of the gift of creation itself. Rest is to abide in the gifts of God. It is to do nothing because God himself has done it all.
Now with the fall into sin, the need for rest becomes something that is needed even more. Yet, it is something that proves to be increasingly difficult to obtain. God then commands that a Sabbath day be observed. He commands that rest is part of the rhythm of His people. It is a day where the actions of man are not the central focus, but instead the actions of God. It is not about what man can do or what he can accomplish but what he receives from the Lord. The Sabbath command is a day to receive the blessings of God, to attend to His Word. However, in a world corrupted by sin to simply rest can become twisted.
See, there is a slow and steady creep of the law that places more and more demands upon the rest. To rest is to rest a particular way, with particular rules and particular observances. The creeping law into rest can twist the gift of rest that it becomes the exact opposite. Instead of rest it becomes work. Instead or assurance it becomes full of doubt and fear. To observe the Sabbath is to makes sure you are doing the right things in the right way. It becomes attending to what you are doing and not doing more than attending to the Word of God. It gets so bad that when Jesus is walking with his disciples through the grain fields on a Sabbath, the Pharisees are there ready to jump on any misdeeds. And what great travesty do they see? Are they opening shop or going bill collecting? No, they are plucking heads of grain as they walk along. But that is all the Pharisees need. These disciples have transgressed the Law established by the protectors of the Sabbath day rest and they must be held accountable.
Now, of course we know better than this, don’t we? We know that because of Christ’s coming, because of his great sacrifice, you no longer have to fulfill the law of God. He fulfilled it for you. He died and rose for you. You now have a new life lived in him, a life of hope and assurance. And so, you go to church, you go to a place that is saturated in the promise of rest. For while there are many things you can do at church, many things that perhaps you would really enjoy doing, you don’t have to do anything. Church is much more about receiving than it is about giving. It’s much more about a righteousness that you are freely given rather than one that you live out triumphantly. Yet, that creeping law, that slow desire to bind up what it is free, continues even now. So when some people think of church, they don’t think of rest, but of living the right way, doing the right thing, behaving appropriately. Once again, instead of rest you find work. Instead of assurance you are faced with doubts and fear. The spirit of the Pharisees wasn’t put to an end by our Lord while his disciples were plucking grain. No, these same concerns are alive and well today. They thrive right in the very place where they might destroy rest.
I knew a young man a few years back who was going through a particularly rough divorce. Not that there is really such a thing as an easy divorce. But he really fought for the marriage. Not that he was perfect, he certainly wasn’t. He could see the mistakes he had made. He could look back with regret at all the missed opportunities to be kind and caring and compassionate. But he couldn’t fix it, it was too late. Her mind was fixed on a life without him and he was lost. No matter what he did, he could not change this. No matter how hard he tortured his mind, he couldn’t find a path forward that would restore his family. What he needed more than anything else was some small space where he could rest. Where he could just stop and collapse into the arms of his Lord. But when he went, broken and tired, he found anything but rest. He was instead given new holy commands instructing him what to do next. He was faced with new steps toward a more perfect life. He couldn’t rest. Not yet, anyway.
I remember the young girl who came into my study. Her voice was quiet, and her head hung low. She said, “Pastor I’m pregnant.” Friends had encouraged her to just get an abortion, to hide the sin of adultery in the sin of murder. She hadn’t even told her parents yet, and she was terrified of what to do next. As she cried and confessed her shame, she thought of what would happen when people found out. What would happen when the church found out? One thing she was sure of, when the church knew, it would not be a place of rest. Others would want her to work hard to atone for what she did. She couldn’t simply rest in the gifts of her Lord, She would need to prove herself worthy of them first. The law would creep its way in and steal any rest from her life of turmoil and fear.
Without rest, there is only despair. Without rest the children of God will go mad in an endless search to be good enough or worthy enough or faithful enough. Rest is what you need and yet rest is what is stolen from you. Stolen by the Accuser who relentlessly points to your sin. Who declares to your God that you have no right to His rest. For you are sinners in thought, word and deed. By what you have done and what you have left undone. Your thoughts and desires are soiled with sin. You need to clean that up before you can rest.
Jesus, though, is not shaken by the accusations of the Pharisees or their silly laws. No, he tells a story that they should all know. He tells how David had once eaten the bread of the Presence. Now this was a well-established law; the only ones that could eat that bread according to the decree of God were the priests. But David was in need. He was weary and hungry and somehow the Law about the bread didn’t stop him from eating. There is, in fact, something greater at work, something more foundational than the Levitical law. If David could eat the bread then surely the Son of Man himself, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, has the authority to do as he pleases on the Sabbath. Jesus says, “Look, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was a gift, not a confining Law. It was to produce rest, not work.
So, you see, in Christ you are taken back to the garden, back to the original blessing of the Sabbath. Christ has fulfilled the Law. He has lived the perfect and holy life, the only life deserving of rest. But then he gives that life to you. In the waters of your baptism he takes all that is yours and exchanges it for everything that is his. He removes the guilt and the shame and the brokenness and declares you righteous and holy and free. And then he says, “Come, come and attend to my work, abide in my gifts, come and rest. At last just rest in all that I have done for you.”
And yes, that old Accuser is still there. He still tries to rob you of your rest. He points out your sin and shame over and again. He wants to keep you working. But Christ is here for you. He has not turned his back on you. In his love you can calm your troubled hearts. In his forgiveness you find true and lasting rest. In the traditional order for confession and absolution the pastor hears the penitent’s confession. After, he lays his hands upon his head and speaks into his sin the forgiveness of God. And then the pastor says, “Go in peace, you are free.”
Now, if that isn’t rest, I don’t know what is. Go in peace, you are free!