“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
What is your experience with the Sabbath? Have you ever observed a literal Sabbath? Is it merely a nice idea? An Old Testament law that has little relevance to your life today? This morning, I want to use my post to encourage all of us to take the idea of the Sabbath more seriously. One aspect of doing youth ministry with excellence is paying close attention to our personal care. We are only able to minister out of the reservoir of what we have, and our practice of rest plays a large part into how healthy that reservoir is. So allow me to answer why I think the Sabbath is important, and how that connects to youth ministry. (It would have been really neat to have this as the seventh post on the site, but discussing the virgin birth on Christmas fit much better haha)
The tradition I was raised in did not provide any experience with the Sabbath, and besides reciting it as one of the ten commandments, I don’t recall any teaching or discussion of it. It wasn’t until two years ago, in the first part of 2016, that I actually considered the commandment to observe a Sabbath. I was at a seminar for pastors at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and Tim Keller was discussing resilience in ministry. In addition to speaking himself, he invited Rich Villodas (who I quoted in last week’ post) to discuss the same thing. Rich pastored with, and now after, Pete Scazzero, who has written several books for ministry leaders around these topics – most notably Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Both Tim and Rich spoke of observing a Sabbath, and Rich in particular put some flesh on it.
He talked about how he and his wife, along with their 2 children, observed a literal 24-hour Sabbath. They purposefully did not work, and instead used that time to rest and intentionally celebrate the goodness of God. I was about 5 months into full-time ministry, and took the challenge to heart. Until I was full-time, I had been working in restaurants, and I had never had any full day where I purposefully put aside all work. I’m sure I had portions of days where I became a vegetable, but there’s a difference between being lazy and observing a Sabbath. In a similar way that fasting is intended to create room to pray more, ceasing from work on a Sabbath is intended to then insert intentional reflection and praise of God.
My Sabbath practice meant that I didn’t set an alarm for the morning, and I made a big breakfast for myself. I love to cook, and enjoying some good food was a way for me to celebrate and praise God. However, I left all the dishes in the sink, as a visual reminder that I was not doing work. I didn’t do any work for school or ministry, and simply rested for the day. In a very cool way, God was working to prepare me for a class I would take a few months later at Fuller Theological Seminary. It was a vocation formation class, designed to help us develop healthy rhythms of life for a resilient ministry. One of the practices we were focusing on in this particular class was observing a Sabbath. I was thrilled because I had been doing that, and now we were going to explore it on a deeper level.
The book we read on the Sabbath was titled Sabbath Keeping by Lynne Baab, and I want to share one quote with you. Regarding what constitutes work, she writes “A youth pastor told me his Sabbath guideline: to stop doing things he would later judge based on progress or production. Another man avoids anything that feels like work or an ‘accomplishment.’” There was a lot of great stuff in her book, especially in understanding the purpose behind the Sabbath, and I encourage you to read it if you’re able to. (It’s a short read, and I recognize that I’ve got no shortage of books to recommend, so start reading!) All in all, I came to understand that the Sabbath was not simply a command to be followed, but rather a blessing to be enjoyed.
The best source of understanding on the Sabbath I can think of is Jesus. In his interactions with the Jewish leaders, he often challenged their understanding of the law, and the Sabbath was no exception. Where the Jewish leaders had taken the Sabbath to an extreme, delineating the number of steps you could take and more like minutiae, Jesus clarified the purpose: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
In other words, God commanded the people to observe a Sabbath for their benefit. A few of the benefits are readily apparent, while others may be harder to see. First, if we work seven days a week, we will break down. We are simply not made to work without taking a break. Whether it’s in the secular world or ministry, I’m sure we can all think of people who have worked themselves into the ground. The Sabbath creates the rest we need. Second, observing a Sabbath is what we are commanded to do. And I know there are laws in the Old Testament that are not binding to us because Jesus has fulfilled the law, but I don’t think the Sabbath falls into that category. While we shouldn’t allow it to become a burden like the people in Jesus’ day had, we also shouldn’t toss it aside, saying “it doesn’t really apply to me”, when there are great benefits God has intended for us.
Perhaps the most important reason that I think we need to observe a weekly literal 24-hour Sabbath is this: it very practically relinquishes control to God. It is a way of saying to God, “I know I could never achieve everything I need to, so I trust you to provide.” In our day, it seems impossible sometimes to take an entire day off from doing any work, but consider what that was like in the agrarian society of Bible times?! They had to farm and do real work to provide for themselves, so to take a day off from that was crazy! But they did so in faith, trusting that God would provide. How then can we, in the comfort of our 21st century world, say, “there’s no way I could take an entire day off, there’s too much to do”? What does that say about how big we think our God is?
What does this have to do with youth ministry?
As usual, I want to tie this back into youth ministry (although the applications are largely relevant for any kind of ministry). Our health and well-being has a direct impact on how effective we are in ministry. If we are resting like we should, we will be able to give out more and to last. In addition, if we are taking a weekly Sabbath, that means we have to plan our week better and work more efficiently in preparation for that day off. It is also one aspect of creating boundaries and protecting our time off, especially when that coincides with family time.
However, I think one of the most important impacts that a weekly Sabbath has on our ministry is in the responsibility we have to teach our teenagers to rest as well. I don’t know about your context, but where I am, in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, everyone is so busy. Adults are always on the go, and this is passed down to their kids, especially the teens. It is simply astonishing how much these kids have scheduled into their lives, and there’s no margin. We have a big responsibility to help them see the need for rest, that God intended, and we are able to show them that more effectively if we are living it out ourselves.
I hope this post has been an encouragement to look at the idea of a Sabbath from a new perspective, if need be. I also want it to function as a starting point – not that we are exhaustively discussing the Sabbath here, but that it prompts you to continue that study and growth on your own. But foremost, I hope that it serves as a challenge to you and to me, that we will take seriously the need for a Sabbath. In recent months, as I’ve become a father and responsibilities in other areas have called for my time, I have not been practicing a Sabbath. And I can see a difference. May we take this seriously, because God intends it as a blessing for us, and actually modeled it for us first in creation.
 Exodus 20:8 ESV
 Lynne Baab, Sabbath Keeping, 55
 Mark 2:27 ESV