The word alive (Hebrews 4.1-16)

Hebrews 4.1-16
“The Word Alive”
Ordinary 28B/October 14, 2018
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church
Tom James
What is the perfect vacation? A few years ago, in the wake of my Father’s death and my own bout with an illness, I was determined to have the perfect getaway. My Mother got the idea of using my Dad’s life insurance payout to take us on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Mediterranean, and it made me think, “Ok, this may actually have all the elements of a perfect vacation.” The sea? Check. Sunshine? Check. Sights of historical and cultural significance I had never seen before? Check. Something my kids could talk about when all their friends at school brag about their exotic summer vacations? Check. But above all, as with all planned vacations, I just wanted something to take me away. I wanted a break. I wanted to rest. And the Mediterranean conjured up images of lounging by the sea or sitting in a café sipping cappuccinos.
Well, I’m not sure how restful it was. My kids have memories of running to keep up with the schedule more than anything. Our trip was a cruise that departed from Barcelona, Spain, and sailed to two ports in Italy by way of the French Riviera. And, because we couldn’t imagine missing out on any of those places—when would we ever be back?— we booked shore excursions at each place. And they were long excursions. Each of them was a full day. We could have picked shorter options, of course, but why not try and see it all? And of course, even so, there was way too much to see, so our tour guides whisked us through streets and down alleyways with a constant buzz of too much information in our earphones about what we were seeing and where the next bathrooms were and where to get the best souvenirs. And so almost every evening we got back late for dinner and thoroughly exhausted. And all I wanted to do was rest.
TV commercials advertising vacation destinations work really hard at making them seem perfect, and perfectly relaxing. They hit us in the evening when we are tired, perhaps after a long day. They call to us with promises of ease, of simplicity, of rest. And it makes me think again, what exactly is the perfect vacation? What does it mean to “rest?”
The letter to the Hebrews talks a lot about rest. It was written, very likely, during a time of difficulty for Christians. They were probably suffering from the beginnings of some kind of persecution—certainly, some degree of social ostracism, as well as pressure to conform to a civil religion, focused on the sacredness of the emperor. Jesus had come preaching a message completely antithetical to the worship of imperial power, so being forced to conform was not something that they could abide. Their faith in Jesus and their safety in the empire were beginning to come into conflict with each other. They may themselves have been thinking about a getaway.
So, the writer reminds them of their forbears—the ancient Hebrews who wandered and trudged through desert sands for a generation, having fled from slavery in Egypt in hopes of a rest from their labors in a settled land of their own. But it was a rest that seemed never to come. And even when it did, we remember that there was, as they say, no rest for the weary—for they had to conquer the land’s inhabitants once they finally arrived, and then they had to keep vigil indefinitely in order to keep their society intact in the face of attacks by the kings of the region and by invading imperial powers, too.
You might say, in fact, that the ancient Hebrews never got their promised rest. They never got peace in a promised land. Their getaway into the desert never became the dream holiday. Their hopes remained unfulfilled. I wonder, though, whether there isn’t an important spiritual lesson in their experience. The writer of Hebrews seems to think so. He reminds his readers at several places during the letter (or speech, as some scholars view it) that those who waited faithfully for God’s promises to them to be fulfilled waited all their lives, and at the end of their lives they died never having seen the fulfillment of the promise, never having experienced that rest that they longed for. This is the model of faithfulness we are given: perpetual deferment of our hopes, years of trudging through deserts without having even glimpsed the promised land—or, having glimpsed it or even lived in it, not knowing it as the fulfillment of promise but as the land that still promises, that points to a future which has all too evidently not arrived.
What is the perfect vacation, though? What is the perfect rest? Hebrews springs it on us in verse nine: there remains, we read, a “Sabbath rest for the people of God.” A Sabbath rest. Shabat. The Hebrew word for the rest that God enjoyed on the seventh day of creation. When God had finished the work, according to the old priestly tale in Genesis one, God rests in joyful contemplation of what has been done. The rest of God is possible because God has blessed the earth, and in the blessing, its creatures have been given the powers of self-regeneration. The world grows and flourishes. Creatures multiply, and sustain themselves, and are good. In Christian tradition, we say that the Sabbath rest of God also prefigures the Sabbath that awaits. It is the final rest in which God’s purposes have been completed and all the ambiguities and hardships, all the wilderness wanderings, are over and the all God’s creatures find themselves in the promised land. And then the Sabbath rest of God becomes the Sabbath rest for all creation. We are all embraced in the deep and primordial rest of God.
Well, ok, then. That sounds inviting, in a way, though perhaps a bit out of this world. Or, at least it doesn’t seem to match anything that we could ever hope to experience now. For now, we seem to be still standing in the middle of a desert, don’t we, with miles of stand stretching before us. Or maybe we are in the land that was promised to us, but there are Hittites, and Perizites, and Amorites all around us that aren’t going to give us rest. We are tempted, perhaps, to see rest as a metaphor for death. There was a song on the radio a few years ago that repeated a refrain: “I can’t slow down, I can’t hold back, though you know I wish I could.  ‘Cause there ain’t no rest for the wicked until we close our eyes for good.”  
Is that what rest is, though? Is that the perfect vacation? Is rest only possible when we stop—maybe when we die? If that is so, what does it say about life? Life is restless? Life is a mad scramble from start to finish? Life is drudgery, punctuated by illness, perhaps?
I want to suggest something different. God was no less alive on the seventh day than during the first six. God’s sabbath was not about God stopping being God. In fact, quite the opposite: we might even say that God didn’t really live until the Shabat. For it is in the Sabbath rest that God rejoices. It is in the Sabbath that God is free from the grind, the relentless rhythm of making and ordering and setting right. It is in the Sabbath that God is at one with what God has made, and it is as God and the creature are united that life reaches its highest pitch.
What I want to say is that, contrary to our economy of busy-ness, rest is the principal place for life. Rest doesn’t mean simply stopping work. It has nothing, in fact, to do with being idle or passive. Rest isn’t a kind of shut down. It’s not a place of emptiness and inactivity while our batteries recharge for work. Rest itself is our highest and best productivity. It is when we live in rest that we are free to be creative, free to love where we are and who we are because we are not captive to drudgery, not beholden to schedules and demands. Rest, in the Bible, is the principal model for justice; rest is equality; rest is peace. Rest is resisting the brutal and relentless meritocracy of our culture and refusing to subject ourselves or others to it. So that we can simply enjoy each other and ourselves as well. That’s something that is not just for evenings and weekends—that’s the stuff of life, possible at every moment.
The promised rest that Hebrews points toward is not about being silent or still, but it is joy in living. Yes, enjoying the seaside, or sipping cappuccinos. But also wondering at ancient buildings or climbing to the top of a hill to catch the view. And, also, holding a grandchild’s hand, and forming new relationships, and cooking an old favorite dish, and feeling the energy of life flowing through our bodies as we exercise or enjoy the cool Autumn air.  If we model it on the Biblical concept of rest, anyway, the perfect vacation may not be a getaway at all. It may simply a matter of enjoying the blessing of God in the middle of ordinary life. It may be a matter of resting in who we are.
What are we hoping for? What do we think awaits us at the end of our journey through the desert?

I mentioned earlier that the disappointment of Israel may contain an important spiritual lesson for us. Their wandering really never ended. Their hope was never satisfied. And I think the lesson is this: Life isn’t about the “goal,” the end-game. Life isn’t about working for the weekend. It’s not about reaching retirement, though I hope to do that, I’ll admit. Instead, life is about the rest that God gives now, in the moments of joy and peace that are woven into the fabric of creation. Life is about experiencing freedom now; life is about achieving justice now; life is about the pleasure of good relationships, relationships of equality and solidarity, that we form as we journey together—today. The word of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is a living word because it holds before us the possibility of life in the face of one who welcomes children, who shows compassion toward the sick, who eats with sinners and who practices forgiveness That’s life at its best. That’s the rest we need, and the rest we can have, even as we walk—even as we work. The question is, do we open ourselves to it? Do we let God’s rest into our busy hours? Are we free enough from the demands we place on ourselves and others place on us, to grasp and hold onto the Sabbath of God? In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
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