When I think of margins, I think of that glorious inch or two of pure white space at the top of a piece of notebook paper: fresh, nothing required, open to doodles, scribbles, extra calculations, or just…space. When we can create an extra inch or two of space where there are no lines…no agenda…no calculations. The lines are for work. The margins can be time for rest, time to create, time to reflect, time to connect, time to love. A margin can be whatever you need it to be. When I need to rest, reflect, or pray, that margin exists on my front porch. We have two white rocking chairs on our front porch, and in the mornings I can often be found there, coffee cup in hand. I’ve blogged about these before, but we’ll go a bit deeper this time.
It’s funny–these chairs weren’t originally white. When we moved in, the house just cried out for rocking chairs to grace the front porch. I bought two at a furniture liquidation sale–one dark red, one forest green. My husband probably suppressed a groan when I arrived home with them. But we set to work, sanding each chair, wiping it down, sanding it again. Red and green dust covered the basement. Layers of primer and precisely-selected white paint. It took weeks. The summer was nearly over when I triumphantly carried them to the front porch.
Margins are like that, though. Occasionally they appear, rather haphazardly, thanks to a federal holiday or sudden time off. But regular margins…they take work. They take planning, preparation, priority. I have to decide to be a person with margins, rather than letting my agenda and schedule push me to the very edge. I have to sand down the schedule, and repaint new margins for myself, if you will.
When we talk about creating margins in our life, we’re talking about a concept very similar to Sabbath. The concept of Sabbath, like many things in our Christian tradition, has been used and abused over the centuries, for personal, social, and political purposes. This morning I’d like us to take a quick tour of where the concept came from and how it could look in our lives today.
Many believe that our concept of Sabbath, a day of rest, comes from the creation account. At the beginning of chapter 2, it says this: By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. To be “holy” means to be “set apart” for a special purpose. There’s no command for humans here, it’s almost like a parenthetical note from the writer of Genesis that God was setting this seventh day as holy, creating a rhythm, if you will. Because really…does God get tired? Is he bound by the limits of our 24 hour time? Did he get a migraine from working overtime? There’s a purpose to this holy day.
The concept of Sabbath isn’t even introduced to the God’s people until generations later, long past Adam & Eve, Abraham, Noah, and more. The Israelites have been subject to oppression and slavery in Egypt and God calls Moses to not only rescue his people, but lead them to the Promised Land. It’s when they are journeying to the Promised Land, when they are in the wilderness, that God speaks to Moses and gives him what they called “The Law,” or really more of a description: If I’m going to be your God and you will be my people, here’s how this relationship will work.
Jumping ahead to Exodus 16:22-30, we see the first introduction of the Sabbath. So Moses is leading thousands of people, this huge journey (or rather…exodus…that’s why the book is called Exodus) to the destination God has promised them, and they have no food. They’re starving. So God provides manna and quail. The manna is this bread-like substance that covers the ground each morning. The manna is there every morning but Moses gives them special instructions for the sixth morning: gather extra because tomorrow, there will be none. Tomorrow will be a Sabbath–no gathering, no walking, just rest.
This holy day, this Sabbath, is so important to God that he gives an extra blessing, extra provision to the Israelites so that they can set this rhythm. Six days of gathering, one day of rest. Six days of journeying, one day of rest. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, there was no rest. There was no break. It was day after day of bone-crushing, mind-numbing work. This day of rest was a completely novel concept. It was grace. It was God saying, “You don’t have to work for this or earn it, I’ll take care of you.” It was a physical reminder of the Israelites’ salvation from slavery and daily, soul-crushing work. This God of the Israelites, is a God of grace.
A few chapters later, we read how God gave the Laws, including the famous Ten Commandments, to Moses on the Mountain: 8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
So the Sabbath day is not just for God’s people, not just adults but children, servants, animals, foreigners. Others need us to have margins—to have Sabbath. Our kids, our grand-kids, our friends, our spouses. It was a rest for all—even the land! In Exodus 23:10-12, we read Moses giving another part of God’s expectation of the Sabbath: Not just the people will rest, but the land. Every seventh year, the land shall lie fallow for the poor to take what is left and the animals and earth to refresh themselves.
Rhythm. Six years of work for this acre, one year of rest. Even in planting and harvest time—work, then rest, work, then rest, work, rest. The Sabbath was meant to be restorative to not only humanity, but the earth, the animal kingdom. This principle with land use, this rhythm still exists today: we call it crop rotation. Farmers rotate what is planted in each field, with usually at least one season of no planting whatsoever, to restore nutrients to the soil. There’s even a provision in the law for something called The Year of Jubilee! Every 50 years, after the seventh Sabbath Year, there is this year of freedom for all, a holy year, restoration of property, an even-ing of the scales. You can read more about that in Leviticus 25.
It wasn’t just about rhythm though. It was more. Following the Sabbath required trust—even as simple as trusting God to provide enough crops to sustain the people. That trust made a point about the relationship between God and God’s people. Final Old Testament passage for this morning, Exodus 31… Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy…. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” The Sabbath was not just about rest, but about relationship—being able to identify who the people of God were.
So to recap…Sabbath:
- Was initiated with the Israelites after God delivered them out of Egypt.
- Was a physical reminder of the Israelites’ salvation from slavery and daily, soul-crushing work.
- Was to be established as a regular rhythm, even during times of harvest and plowing.
- Was meant to be restorative to all: Israelite, children, slave, animal, foreigner, poor, and the land.
- Was a reminder of who the Israelites were and who their God was.
With the introduction of the Sabbath, God says to his people: Honor this relationship I’ve established with you. Israel had a serious problem with idols…literally molding and creating new gods to worship. I think we could argue that we have a similar problem with idols—worshiping status, position, busyness, worldview. When we stop moving, stop working, stop filling in the lines, we remember that we actually aren’t in charge. That we live and move and depend on a higher source. We remember we aren’t God, but we remember who is.
When we reach the New Testament, there’s a funny turn. The people have almost started worshipping the Sabbath itself, rather than God. In chapters 2 and 3, the author of the Gospel of Mark records two instances of the Pharisees trying to trip up Jesus on the Sabbath. In the first story, Jesus and his disciples were travelling on the Sabbath, and as they walked they picked some heads of grain to eat. In the second story, Jesus heals the hand of a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees get totally bent out of shape about both. Jesus responds to them that first: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around.” Margins establish a relationship between us and God. We remember who we are when we re-establish our relationship with God. We remember God is a God of grace and we are a people chosen, loved, and set apart for a purpose. Jesus’ second response is rhetorical question: “Which is lawful to do on the Sabbath—good or evil? Save a life or kill?” He knows his listeners know the answer. Sabbath points to salvation. For the Israelites, it was a literal physical salvation from Egypt. For us, this Sabbath, this day of rest points to our salvation in Christ, salvation from a life of slavery to sin and death.
A couple weeks ago, my husband and I spent a week in Tennessee mountains with his entire extended family. Our house was on a lake and we spent the week swimming, jet-skiing, and boating. It was great. But maybe because it was a few weeks before our fall ministry launch, or maybe because I was working on project that was past a deadline, or maybe because I love my iPhone too much, I just couldn’t relax. I couldn’t reach the “zen” place of total relaxation, you know what I mean? When you’re on the beach and your heart slows down to a pace that is just fast enough to keep you alive? Yeah, my heart was like 5 times faster than that. I was frustrated.
One morning, we took the kayaks out early. Only a few of our relatives were awake as Justin and I paddled out. It was a gorgeous morning—fog was rising over the water as we paddled in and out of little coves, exploring, spotting a few deer and a blue heron along the shore. I didn’t take this picture—in fact I didn’t take any. I left my phone inside the house. I left my mental task list inside too. I started to breathe more deeply.
We need a rhythm of work and rest. Lines and margins. Fast and slow. What does that look like for you? Sabbath doesn’t have to literally mean Sunday on the calendar. It’s not for me. For me, it’s a slow Saturday morning, no agenda, or at least no agenda till noon. Maybe you circle one weekend a month as your Sabbath. You can build in little margins in your day too—a few minutes here or there to breathe. To remember who you are, remember who God is. Maybe that’s a few moments of quiet in the car on the way to work. Turning off your phone or computer for an hour, shutting out the noise. Taking a walk. Remember that Sabbath, that margins, are meant to be restorative and life-giving. What restores your soul? Maybe it’s motorcycle ride, maybe it’s a round of golf, maybe it’s a kayak or just a cup of coffee in quiet.
Friends, our kids, our families, our friends, the world need us to have margins. Because when they see those margins, when they see that Sabbath, when they see our trust in God to provide, restore, and heal, when they see a physical representation of the freedom we have from sin and death, then they see who our God truly is.