I sat tucked away in the corner of a church and listened to the pastor confess to his congregation, “I might need to take some time away, because I’m just exhausted. I’ve not rested in years.” Those listening to his words cocked their heads in curiosity. The pastor always took yearly vacations, and his passion for the outdoors found him often enjoying God’s creation. His schedule was protected to provide him plenty of time to study and write—even staff requests were filtered through other executives to ensure he was not overwhelmed. He had an accountability group, a counselor, and a circle of close friends. He poured himself into Scripture and prayer daily. He loved his family beyond measure.
It seemed he was doing everything right. So what had gone wrong?
Some might say the pastor was suffering from burnout. Some might say he had no reason to complain at all. And most would tell him he just needed to Sabbath—to be obedient to the scriptural mandate to cease.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that word lately, Sabbath. And I don’t know if it means what we think it means.
It’s such a great word, isn’t it? Just saying it conjures up the image of God resting in a hammock with a cold glass of lemonade, taking the ultimate day off while someone else mows the lawn.
Every pastor I talk to defines Sabbath as rest, and every pastor quickly talks about Sabbath as the thing we don’t do enough. As a former church staffer, I listened to both pastors and congregants talk eagerly about what Sabbath looks like—a worship service and good sermon in the morning and a great meal with family at lunch, followed by a nap or watching a game on television rather than responding to work emails. And when that one-day Sabbath failed to offer true rest, there would be talk of an extended Sabbath—a sabbatical with time away from everything to disconnect from the busy and reconnect with the simple.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Days off are good. Vacations are healthy. Time away should be celebrated. We all need weekends in our weeks. But lately the Lord has shown me what I’ve been taught might be incomplete. Sabbath rest is different, deeper, richer than any ritual or rite. It’s a Psalm 42 “in the midst of the battle, be still and know . . . ” moment. It’s the stillness in our fury. Sabbath is inviting Jesus into the chaos, rather than escaping the chaos to find Him.
If Sabbath was merely a day of the week or a quick vacation, Jesus would have demonstrated it. Yet in Mark 1, he broke all the rules set in place about Sabbath by the religious leaders and was condemned for His actions. He healed on the Sabbath, and His disciples worked on the Sabbath. He declared that Sabbath was more than simply ceasing work—and He reminded all those who would listen that He knew what Sabbath was because He created it. And the purpose of the Lord of the Sabbath is to tend to the people who receive Him.
Yes, RECEIVE. It’s not about the getting away, running away, hiding away. There is no place we can go to find Sabbath—no mountain retreat, no warm sandy shoreline. It was never meant to be chased or confined. Sabbath is the very presence of Jesus, given to us.
Sabbath is a cool breeze, a wash of peace, a do-over, a start-again in the midst of the still going strong. Real Sabbath happens while life is happening—Sabbath is there in our commute to the office, in the staring at spreadsheets, in the living room and boardroom and at the bedside vigil of a dying loved one. Sabbath is even there in the worship service and the message and the family lunch—long before there’s a nap and a game on TV.
The pastor behind the pulpit that Sunday morning was no different than you and me, so easily caught in the snare of serving Jesus rather than inviting Jesus in to be served by Him. We who preach rest are in the most danger of not receiving it, because we expect to find it after the work is done or away from the stresses of the schedule. We do all the right things, check off all the lists, schedule time away, mute conversations, and fast from social media. And yet we’re weary because we forget to invite the Lord of the Sabbath into the very mess of our calendars—not to clear them but to bring stillness to the fury of them. “Cease striving . . . ” are the words of the Psalmist. “Come to me—and I’ll give you rest,” are the words of the Savior. And both are offered in the midst of our work.