Sabbath Day Thoughts — Genesis 2:1-3 and Mark 6:30-34
This message was shared at the Island Chapel, an ecumenical summer church on an island in Upper Saranac Lake.
Is anyone here on vacation today? Is anyone retired, in that delightful, ongoing state of quasi-vacation? Does anyone wish they were on vacation this morning? We can all affirm the goodness of coming away to a quiet place to rest and renew.
When it comes to vacation destinations, the Adirondacks are about as good as it gets. We love the cool evenings when the magic carpet of the Milky Way stretches across the night sky and the sleeping is good. We delight in the clear waters, whether we take a skinny-dip, test our favorite fishing hole, or explore the back country in the kayak. We rejoice in the mountains: the thrill of downhill skiing, the accomplishment of climbing the 46, the alpenglow of summits set ablaze by the last rays of the setting sun.
I have read that the American use of the word “vacation” derives from the Adirondacks. The English go “on holiday,” but here in the states we “take vacations.” In the 19th century, residents of New York City and Boston vacated their hot, urban homes for the cool splendor of the Adirondacks. All that vacating coined the term vacation. Take a look out the window. Apart from the rain, it doesn’t get much better than this.
In our reading from Mark’s gospel, the disciples could have used an Adirondack getaway. Jesus had entrusted them with his power and authority. Then, he had sent them out in pairs, with meager resources, to minister to the villages of the Galilean countryside. Their mission had been even more successful than their best hopes. As they returned to Jesus, they told stories of sermons preached and prayers shared. They talked about miracles worked. The lame had walked. Blind eyes had found sight. Those troubled by oppressive spirits had found peace. There was great rejoicing.
Yet as Jesus listened to his friends, he saw the need for rest. They had been going flat-out for weeks now. Their voices were shot. They were sleep deprived. They were beginning to get on one another’s nerves. They couldn’t concentrate, and they weren’t making good decisions. The crowds pursued them. Longing for wholeness and healing, everyone wanted time with Jesus and his friends. It was so frantic that they couldn’t eat or attend to their bodies or hear themselves think.
Jesus knew exactly what was needed. He stopped his friends mid-story and said, “Come away with me to a quiet place and rest awhile.” Then, Jesus stood up and invited them to follow him. They walked down to the breakwater, climbed into the boat, cast off, and hoisted the sail.
We are all familiar with the toll that overwork and chronic busyness can take. Science tells us that it effects our bodies. Our stress level rises, increasing our heartrate and blood pressure. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol which makes us ready to fight or flee and piles on the belly flat. We are at increased risk for heart attack, diabetes, and stroke. Our brains don’t work as well when we are work-weary and stressed out. It’s hard to focus. Our creativity and resourcefulness plummet. It becomes difficult to make wise choices. Our feelings can be on edge. We are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. It’s easy to cry or lose our cool and blow up. Does any of this sound familiar?
To be whole and healthy people, we need vacation; we need rest. In fact, time set apart, free from work, is an essential part of God’s plan for creation. It’s right there in Genesis, in the foundational story of Judaism and Christianity. God spent six days creating everything. God launched the Big Bang and coalesced the stars and planets, shaped the continents and gathered the seas. God coaxed life out of the raw material of God’s very self, jellyfish and blackflies, elephants, octopi, and corgis. God brought humankind into being with the awareness of God and the task of caring for creation. Then, as the crowning achievement of creation, God chose to rest, not because God was weary—we are talking about God here—but because it was right and fitting to have a day set apart to savor and delight and be.
This keeping of sabbath is echoed in the fourth commandment, “Remember the sabbath day—to keep it holy.” Our sabbath rest honors God’s work in creation. It reorients us and reminds us who is really the boss. For Christians, our sabbath days and sabbatical times remind us that God creates and re-creates us. The sabbath is the day of resurrection, a celebration of the new life we find in Jesus, who called himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann teaches that when we enter into this intentional practice of observing sabbath and taking rest, we choose to participate in the tranquility of God. We return to the foundational rhythm that God ordained in the structure of creation. We live into the image of God in which we were made.
The science supports the scripture. Times of rest restore us and make us healthier people. All those critical numbers that shoot up with work-stress fall with rest. Blood pressure, heart rate, cortisone levels, all drop. Our brains function better. In fact, the spontaneous activity of a rested brain can suddenly solve problems that we thought were impossible. Our ability to concentrate is renewed. Even our emotional health finds healing and new possibility. Dr. Sarah Mednick, in her TED Talk “Give it Up for the Down State” says that the GDP would grow, businesses would thrive, and workers would be happier, healthier, and more productive if we incorporated more sabbath rest into our lives. An ideal work week would feature an intense Monday-Tuesday, a Wednesday half-day with an afternoon of rest, and a busy Thursday-Friday, followed by weekend downtime. Sign me up!
Finding time for a weekly day of sabbath or an afternoon of rest or a weeklong vacation isn’t always easy. We think we are indispensable. If we don’t do the work, who will? We aren’t crazy about giving up control. We find it hard to walk away. In fact, most Americans do not take the vacation time that they are allotted. I suspect that when Jesus called the disciples to come away, there were some foot-draggers. They looked back, wishing they could heal one more leper. They were afraid they would lose the direction of that killer sermon they were planning to preach. But when we refuse to rest, we deny the sovereignty of God, we reject the example set for us in creation, and we do our world a disservice as our gifts are dimmed and diminished by the fatigue and impairment that come with stress and overwork.
I hope I have made my case about the importance of rest. I also hope that your sabbath time includes some intentional God-time. Sing a song of rejoicing for the lotus that rises from the mucky lake bottom to bless your paddle. Take Jesus along on your trail walk. Tell him all your troubles and thank him for sabbath. Commune with God on the mountaintop, savoring the mystery and magic of the world spread out at your feet. Go to church. Every vacation, every rest, every time apart is an opportunity to be re-created in the hands of the ultimate Creator.
As I close, I’d like to return to Mark’s gospel. The way Mark tells it, it doesn’t sound like the disciples got much rest. They got in the boat. They crossed over. They found crowds of hurting people waiting on the other side. But I did a little research. If you have a favorable wind, sailing from Capernaum to the Gentile coast of the Decapolis takes a good six hours, longer if the winds are variable, longer still if you have calm. That means the disciples had a whole day of sailing with Jesus. How good would that be? They soaked in the quiet. They allowed the horizon to delight their eyes. Peter relaxed at the tiller and allowed his mind to roam. James and John stopped bickering. Andrew threw in a line and caught dinner for everyone. They all began to breathe with the rhythm of the breeze and the waves. At some point they realized that it wasn’t just Jesus in the boat with them. At one point, they knew that they were somehow sailing on, with, and into God. Someone sang a doxology of rejoicing, thankful for the wholeness that is found when we come away and rest awhile with the Lord. Amen.
Thompson, Marjorie. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
Hasel, Gerhard. “Sabbath” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Cherry, Heather. “The Benefits of Resting and How to Unplug in a Busy World” in Forbes Magazine, Jan. 15, 2021. Accessed online at Forbes.com.
Mednick, Sara. “Give It Up for the Down State” in TEDx Talks, June 4, 2013.