How to get real rest
Today’s sermon is brought to you by the number seven.
Seven branches of the Temple lamps. Seven Churches in Asia. Seven seals of divine judgment. Seven stars in Christ’s right hand. Seven angels with seven trumpets. Seven deacons of the early church in Rome. Seven gifts of the Spirit. Seven heavenly virtues. Seven deadly sins. Seven colours in a rainbow. Seven notes in a classical western scale.
Why does the number seven so permeate the Scriptures and tradition of the Church? Why has seven even influenced the way the West has categorised light and sound?
“And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”
Because God completed creation on the seventh day, seven is the biblical number for completion. So, the seven Churches in the Revelation to St John represent the completion of the Church, the whole Church; the seven seals of judgment the completion of divine judgment, and so on. But the Gospel draws our attention to today is exactly of what that completion consists:
God “rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made.”
The completion, perfection, wholeness, the very purpose of creation represented by the seventh day is rest.
If you have ever lived in a Jewish area or are friends with any orthodox Jews, you will know how seriously they take the seventh, Sabbath day. For them the seventh day is Saturday - the Christian sabbath is different because it is the day of the Resurrection - but on their sabbath, the strictest of Jews will do absolutely nothing at all but study and pray. Gentiles like us sometimes find it baffling and bizarre that some very observant Jews will not even open a door or flick a light switch on the Sabbath: everything has to be prepared to enforce proper rest. But I think that their seriousness of purpose on the Sabbath is sign for us all, especially Christians, of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.
The respect of modern Jews for the sabbath also helps us to understand the magnitude of some of the claims made by the ancient Jewish man we worship: his claim to be Lord of the Sabbath, his claim to be allowed to break the Sabbath, and in the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Trinity, this:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Now just think about the implications of what Jesus is saying here. Think about the importance of rest as the entire purpose of creation. Then listen to what Jesus says: “not God will give you rest,” which his Jewish hearers would have expected - but “I will give you rest.” To Jewish hearers, Our Lord is putting himself in God’s place.
We tend to think of the Sabbath as a day off from work, and perhaps a chance to squeeze a bit of God into our otherwise busy schedules. Even the ancient pagan Romans had their priorities better sorted than ours: the Latin word for ‘business’ is negotium, which literally means ‘not at leisure’ - for the Romans, life was defined as rest which alas has to be interrupted some of the time for work. We and especially our brethren across the Atlantic seem to see life quite the other way around. There was a time not long ago when even in this country, Sunday was enforced as a day off for everybody so that they could go to church and spend time with their family and friends - and while it’s convenient for the shopping, I am not convinced that the flexibility of Sunday opening hours has been such a good thing for people, especially for workers in the service industry themselves. That battle is long lost, but it does leave us Christians with an even greater challenge to keep God’s purpose for us in mind and, even amid all the busyness, to live a life oriented primarily towards his rest.
So how? How do we come to Christ, rest in Him, take on his gentle yoke, when the list of tasks and chores and responsibilities keeps growing? To be honest, I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer that question at the moment. Being a rural Worcester boy, it has taken me some time to get used to the busyness and noise and crowds of London, and just as I am starting to find some equilibrium and make more space in my mind and heart for God I am moving on again. So you’ll forgive me if on this occasion, I preach something that I have been struggling to practice myself for the last year or so: but prayer really is fundamental. I don’t just mean a few minutes of intercession at the bedside each night, although interceding for others is vital work. What I mean is time set deliberately aside each day simply to rest in God. Perhaps a candle, an icon, some incense in the corner of your room, even time with the Blessed Sacrament in church if you can get here, and keeping that time just to sit or kneel in silence and drink in the presence of God. You can repeat the name of the Lord, or count your breaths out one to ten, or use something like the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me,” over and over again - anything to take your attention from the wanderings of your mind and rediscover the divine rest, stillness and stability which God has implanted at the core of your heart. It could be 15 minutes or a full hour, a daily mini-sabbath, calling us back to the purpose for which we are made.
“Physician, heal thyself!” you might rightly chastise, but prayer is my prescription: For “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” Amid the earthquake and the fire, the terror all around, and even just the busyness of modern life, let us make some Sabbath rest to listen deep within for God’s still small voice of calm.