Who Makes Me Lie Down in Green Pastures

We have a Sabbath crisis on our hands. As we continue our summer look at Psalm 23, we come across this curious phrase about the Lord, our shepherd, who “makes me lie down in green pastures.” It’s not that the shepherd merely takes the sheep to these grassy places, these fields of abundance, but forces the issue by making the sheep lie down. Why would the shepherd have to make the sheep do something that’s in the sheep’s own best interest?

The short answer, of course, is that the sheep are dumb. If you’ve ever spent any time around sheep, you know that they are not the brightest bulbs in the box. And I started to research this question about sheep and shepherds, to see if I could unearth some truth about a natural stubbornness. And then I remembered: Psalm 23 is a metaphor. The use of shepherd and sheep exists as an image, a shortcut to painting the picture of our relationship to God. And, I hate to say it, but we’re the sheep – the less-than-brilliant herd – who, for whatever reason, protest against doing what is good for us.

I think we know this already. It takes ridiculous amounts of discipline to do the things that we know we should: eating right, exercising right, sleeping right, maintaining healthy relationships, you name it. It’s a good day when we do it; an excellent day, even. It can also be a rare day. And I think that behind it all sits a crisis of Sabbath.

The whole idea of a Sabbath, a day of rest, goes back to the beginning of everything. In the creation story in Genesis, after crafting something out of nothing for six days, God goes on to rest on the seventh, meaning that we ought to do the same. In other words, if even God, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-creating being at the center of everything needs to rest, then who are we to think we can do better?

The idea builds in Exodus, as God frees the Hebrew people from their Egyptian slavery. And Sabbath takes its sacred place among the Ten Commandments. Right there along side basic principles of civil society like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” and “don’t commit adultery” is “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” And in our lesson this morning, we run into the first test of this commandment. The people are in the desert, with nothing to sustain their lives. And food literally comes out of nowhere. But what about on the seventh day? Well, God took care of that, too: on day six, twice as much food will fall, so that the people can rest on day seven. Even in the harshest of wilderness, the Sabbath can hold sacred.

Our lessons this morning then fast-forward a few centuries to Jesus, spending the Sabbath day at the synagogue, teaching the crowds that seem to grow with every new town he visits. And on this particular day he incurs the wrath of the Sabbath purists, the religious authorities who are horrified to find that he has cured a woman on the day of rest! Is there nothing holy to this wandering teacher? And rather than draw on the ancient understandings of Sabbath to unearth a deeper meaning that the synagogue leaders have forgotten, he simply points to their own hypocrisy. Their beasts of burden are thirsty on the Sabbath, and they untie them to let them drink. What about this woman, who has thirsted for healing for almost two decades? Why should she not be allowed to drink from the fountain of healing, too?

Jesus has brought to light the challenge of being faithful to God in the midst of Sabbath-keeping. And I’m convinced that we, today, live in a time of Sabbath crisis.

Two years ago, Georgia allowed local communities to decide for themselves whether it was OK to sell alcohol on Sundays. And not surprisingly, Atlanta voted yes. The end of blue laws around here was, in some ways, the last vestige of community-sanctioned Sabbath. And yet, what an odd remnant it was. Did we really think Jesus’ first priority would be to darken a couple of grocery store aisles on Sundays?

I say that somewhat flippantly, and I honestly don’t think that blue laws were doing a whole lot to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. That said, I really do believe we have a Sabbath crisis on our hands. The working week expands, encroaching on family time. Technology plays its part. We are rarely out of touch, fielding phone calls and answering emails on the weekends and even during vacation. Open the doors here to see what people would rather be doing than coming to church: jogging, walking, biking; because we don’t give our bodies the time of day during the week. Sundays are not sacred, but are times for sports, leagues, you name it.

And even those of us who are here today, who make worship a regular part of our lives, many of us don’t do so as a part of a weekly rhythm. It’s once a month, every other week. We do it when there’s no conflict, or when we our spiritual thirst is such that we need a refill. Keeping Sabbath may be a commandment, but it’s also the one that we are most likely to violate. We even do so proudly, almost boasting at how busy, tired, overworked, stressed we are. Would we do so with other commandments, bragging about our theft, our murderous rampages, our infidelities?

It suddenly becomes clear why the shepherd has to force the sheep to lie down in the green pastures. Because when we are left to our own devices, we will look for drive-thru pastures so that we can rush on to the next meeting. I think we are overdue to be Sabbath people again.

Sabbath means, at its core, rest. God rested on that seventh day of creation. The Hebrew people rested from gathering manna and quails on the seventh day in the wilderness. And even in what was seen as a Sabbath violation, Jesus made it possible for this broken woman to rest from her aches and pains. Being Sabbath people means being people who engage in healthy rest.

Farmers know better than most how important the principle of rest is. The healthiest fields are the ones that are allowed to lie fallow for extended periods. The downside? Economics. It’s not nearly as productive in the short-run. But allowing for a Sabbath time means recovery. The land heals itself, rebalances its chemicals, and produces a healthier crop in the future.

And we’re no different. Technology may have changed dramatically, but we human beings are not at all different from those who came before us. We need sleep. It permits our bodies to heal and recover. We know that, but we also know that in the short run, a couple of extra hours of work will make us more productive. But in the long run? Not even close. One study had healthy young men sleep four hours a night. After only six days, their blood test results were virtually indistinguishable from those of diabetics. Stress, hypertension, and memory impairment were all elevated. And that’s just after less than a week.

We’re running on empty, all for short-term gain. And we’re handing it down to our children. We sign them up for more and more activities, we give them more and more homework (or busywork, more accurately). We make them sleep less and less, and then we end up completely baffled as to why they’re not learning nearly as well. Our whole approach to life has become one big hazing ritual: “I have to do it, so you should, too.”

Friends, it’s time to break the cycle. And if we wait for that cycle to be broken for us, we will wait forever. Instead, we should ask this question: What is it that God wants for us? What is it that the shepherd wants for the sheep?

God wants us, God wants you to rest! The shepherd makes the sheep lie down. God commands Sabbath. These aren’t options; these are requirements. And they’re for our own good, the very thing that God desires for us!

What would it look like to build in a rhythm of rest? Do we even know where to begin? I think it starts with sleep. But what does a good practice of sleep even look like?

Here’s your homework for the summer. Carve out a week where your mornings are free. Go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up in the morning when you wake up. By the end of the week, as you work off some sleep deficits and the ins and outs of rest, you will know how much sleep your body actually needs in a night. Then you’ve got a starting place to shape the rest of your life around.

I hope it goes without saying, but I say this all as a fellow struggler. But this one thing I have managed to do, scheduling a week to figure out exactly what it is that my body needs. It’s just the first step in becoming one who can serve God more fully by honoring the image of God within.

So my friends, remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy. Rest. Heal. Renew. And rise again, refreshed and restored, to love and serve the Lord.