Celebrating summer (2)

In the second of a series of summer articles drawn from our Bible reading notes, Day by Day with God writer Chris Leonard seeks God’s wisdom on holy days and holidays.

20 August 2023

Time to celebrate and rest

We’re looking at God’s wise instructions about the patterns and rhythms he designed for us. They include taking time to rest and to celebrate as well as to work, as laid out in Leviticus 23.

Many people struggle with Leviticus, finding it obscure and wondering how all the commands about Jewish sabbaths, animal sacrifices and ancient agricultural festivals are relevant to Christians today. But remember what Jesus said:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.’

Matthew 11:28–30 (The Message)

Unforced rhythms of grace

Let’s keep those ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ in mind as we read on. The Father’s heart was full of grace towards humanity as he gave the instructions recorded in Leviticus, knowing that we need structure for our lives. It’s God’s grace, his gift as well as his desire, that we take time to celebrate and to rest, as well as to work.

Years ago, I read The Heavenly Party, by vicar’s wife Michele Guinness, who had grown up in a practising Jewish family. Missing the colour and fun of the lively coming together of Jewish family and community for celebration and faith woven right into life, Michele and her husband found ways to incorporate those things into their family and parish year.

I recall thinking how much Christians can learn from Jewish festivals and sabbaths, even if Leviticus does make them sound prescriptive, boring and irrelevant. Christians too have been guilty of turning Sundays into boring, legalistic no-fun days – and of failing to understand what God means by rest.

Rhythm is built into creation – regular patterns of day and night; seasons of abundance and scarcity; our breaths, heartbeats and natural responses to music’s inviting beat. God, who set all these rhythms going and created us in his image, knows why we need rhythms of life, including festivals and anniversaries, work then recreation to replenish.

It’s God’s grace, his gift as well as his desire, that we take time to celebrate and to rest, as well as to work.

Beyond one day in seven

God’s instruction to rest extends beyond one day in seven. His command to refrain from working applied to every festival listed in Leviticus 23 – even to those lasting a week.

Elsewhere the Bible stipulates three festivals that required all Jewish men to travel to Jerusalem. Jesus went with his whole family – and most of Nazareth. Three days travel each way meant 13 sociable days in all. Taken with weekly sabbaths, that’s a lot of annual ‘holy days’ (aka holidays) with work strictly prohibited.

Most of the world would have been toiling every waking hour. God said: ‘Rest. Enjoy.’ It all went wrong when religious leaders concocted endless pernickety rules around ‘not working’.

When human legalism lacked all compassion and understanding, making sabbaths miserable and un-God-like, Jesus objected: ‘The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath’ (Mark 2:27–28).

God’s command to rest never changed! The spirit of it still applies to those of us who are living under the new covenant.

There remains, then, a sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.

Hebrews 4:9–11

So how do we, today, embrace the full richness of God’s gift in commanding we take times of rest?

The break in routine that most – though of course not all – people enjoy during these summer weeks is the perfect opportunity to reflect on our own personal answer to this question.

Our answers will be shaped by circumstance, personality and belief, but the aim is always to make sabbaths, holy days and holidays a time to spend with our families and friends, to come together and build community, to enjoy nature and God’s world, and to enjoy simply being with him.

There’s time for creativity, time to sing, party and celebrate; and time to be quiet, to pause and, laying the cares of a normal day aside, to quietly listen to God.

May we find strength, rest and replenishment in this cool and soggy summer. May we celebrate the break in routine and use it as the springboard to worship and service as we move towards autumn.

How do we embrace the full richness of God’s gift of rest?