September 3, 2023


Sabbatical Reflections ❧ Part 1 of 1

Selected Scriptures ❧ Pastor, Dr. John Denney

It’s good to be back! I’ve been gone for so long that I suspect some of you may not know who I am!  For the past number of weeks I’ve been on what is commonly referred to as a sabbatical.   The word comes from just what sounds like – Sabbath, meaning rest.  So, I’ve been on something of an extended rest.  One person described it as “sabbaticaling.”  The biblical idea of sabbath is more than a mere rest though, like kicking your feet up after a long day or pausing to catch your breath on a steep hike. Sabbath means experiencing God’s rest in the fullest sense of the word – becoming whole again in body, mind, and soul.  The Bible says after God created the entire universe in six days, on the seventh He rested (Gen. 2:3).  And because we are made in His image, He commands us to do the same – to have one day of rest in seven.  Sabbath is God’s gift to us.  It means relaxing without guilt. We need it as much as we need food, water, and shelter – if not more.  Only God can give us this needed rest.  Try as it might, the world can’t give us this kind of rest, only God can.   

Some seventeen hundred years ago the great theologian Augustine captured our great need for this kind of rest in his prayer: “You (God) made us for Yourself, and our hearts find no peace until they rest in You.”  Expanding on Augustine’s prayer, author John Piper wrote, “The world has an inconsolable longing.  It tries to satisfy the long with scenic vacations, accomplishments of creativity, stunning cinematic productions, sexual exploits, sports extravaganzas, hallucinogenic drugs, ascetic rigors, managerial excellence, etc. But the longing remains. What does this mean?” Piper asks. C. S. Lewis answers: I find in myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  This is the very rest Jesus’ offers us, Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-29, NAS).  

This morning I want to share with you four reflective keys to finding God’s rest for our souls. 

Before we get started, I want to take a moment and say, “Thank you.”  I am deeply grateful for all of you who’ve allowed me the opportunity to step back from the daily demands of ministry.  I’m thankful to those who filled the pulpit in my absence – Pastor Danny, Ken, Jim, Gary… 

While away I read a number of books.  One of them was truly a serendipitous gift from God.  The title alone immediately caught my attention: “The Rest of God – Restoring your soul by restoring Sabbath” by Mark Buchanan.  After fifteen years of ministry Mark went on a sabbatical and penned these words of appreciation to his church family for allowing him three months of rest.  He writes, “I feel deeply obliged to the people in my church…Obliged, not to come back smarter, or thinner, or more eloquent, or more studied up, though all that could help.  The obligation I feel is not to pay them back.  These things don’t work that way, on some barter system where the church trades several months of leave in exchange for shorter, pithier sermons. The obligation I feel is to come back restored.”   Thank you for allowing me the time to seek God’s rest and restoration. 

Three Reflective Keys to Finding God’s Rest For Our Souls 

  1. Be stillCease striving and know that I am God(Psalm 46:10a).  Psalm 46 is the needed 

reminder that God has promised to be His people’s sure defense at all times.  Though they are surrounded by the overwhelming threats of war and destruction God is saying, Be still and know that I am in control.  Trust Me. I am fully aware of the growing threats of the world.  

Being still is the opposite of being in a hurry.  When you’re in a hurry you miss all sorts of things – little things, big things, important things.  Most notably, we miss who God is.  I have to confess, being still does not come naturally for me.  In fact, I’ve been in a hurry for most of my life.  I have been inwardly driven to catch up, to get ahead, to get somewhere.  I know all too well I am far from alone.  

I’m both embarrassed and saddened to say there was a time that I was pastoring full-time while teaching half time at a Bible college. On top of that, I was working feverishly trying to finish a doctorate and complete blackbelt training! Not to mention being a husband and father!  My wife told me when I was finished, she was going to tie me to a chair so I couldn’t get up for a year!  

Why are we in such a hurry? Why are we so intense? It never gets us ahead.  We only feel further behind.  We think if we can just catch up, we’ll be fulfilled, we’ll be satisfied.  But we never catch up.  We’re left feeling more unfulfilled, more diminished than we were before.  

The Chinese pictograph for busyness is the combination of two characters: heart and killing.  What a brilliant picture of always living in the fast lane!  Being in a hurry exacts its heaviest toll in our hearts leaving a wake of regret.  When you slow down long enough to take stock of life, you realize all you’ve accomplished is you’ve gotten older, and life has passed you by in a blur.  

What’s missing is understanding God’s invitation to rest.  Mark Buchanan writes, In a culture where busyness is a fetish and stillness laziness, rest is sloth.  But without rest, we miss the rest of God: the rest he invites us to enter more fully so that we might know him more deeply. Being still means slowing down, not to be lazy or slothful, but know God more deeply.  

In my office I have a model sailboat that was given to me as a gift years ago.  On the main sail in flowing letters are the words of Isaiah 40:31, Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength (power); they will mount up with wings like eagles (perspective), they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary (perseverance) (Isaiah 40:31).  One day while I was spending time reflecting on God’s Word, I realized the sailboat was a perfect metaphor of what it means to wait on God. It’s a picture of what God’s rest does for us.  Isaiah mentions three things that happen when we wait on the Lord: 1) Our power is renewed; we have new strength, 2) Our perspective is renewed; we see life beyond our present circumstances and, 3) Our perseverance is renewed; our resolve to keep going is strengthened.  Renewed power, renewed perspective, and renewed perseverance.  

If you’ve ever done any sailing, you know wind is essential to navigating.  Without wind you’re not going anywhere.  That’s why most sailboats have a motor.  But if you don’t have a motor, you have to wait for the wind.  This is not a twiddling-your-thumbs kind of waiting, an idling-away-the-time kind of waiting, but an active expectant kind of waiting.  You’re attentive to the slightest breeze to set your sail by.  That’s precisely the kind of waiting God wants us to do for Him – being actively attentive to the smallest breeze, the slightest whisper of God’s moving in our lives.  

Jesus constantly navigated His days with this kind of waiting, this kind of being still. Jesus Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray (Luke 5:16).  Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night (6:12). (Jesus) went up into the hills by himself to pray. Night fell while he was there alone (Matthew 14:23).  Isaiah reminds this is the kind of attentive waiting God is looking for in us in order to give us renewed power, perspective, perseverance.  Trust me, you won’t find God’s rest for your soul if you’re in a hurry.  Learn to be still before God.  

If the current numbers are right, most believers are not setting their sails by waiting on God. According to Deyan G., the average person spends more than two hours a day on social media and more than five hours a day checking his or her phone, up to sixty-three times daily. Add to this, a Barna study revealed that only 9 percent of Christians engaged in daily Bible reading. The first key to finding God’s rest for your soul is the need to be still and know that God alone is God.  

  1. Be wise.  So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom 

(Psalm 90:12).  Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom(Psalm 90:12, NLT).  The second Sabbath reflection I came away with is how remarkably brief our lives really are!

And how incredibly important it is for us to learn to trust God through every part of it. 

God reminds often how short our lives really are. David prays in Psalm 39, Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered— how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath(Psalm 39:4-5, NLT). Isaiah writes,The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people(Isaiah 40:7).  Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? But that’s not God’s intent.  His words are not meant to be depressing but sobering. To turn our hearts all the more to trust the One who holds our days and eternity in His hand. Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. Teach us to recognize this is not just another minute, hour, or day of the week, but a minute, hour, day that God has made.  The heart of wisdom God wants us to have is to learn to trust Him whether the minutes, the hours, the days make sense to us or not. 

Again, I find Mark Buchanan’s thoughts to be helpful.  He reminds us that it is precisely in the minutes, the hours, the days of our lives where time and eternity meet.  Life is God’s classroom, he says, and its curriculum is made up of…“life’s demands and interruptions and tedium, its surprises and disappointments…Pay attention to how God is afoot in the mystery of each moment, in its mad rush or maddening plod. He is present in all that. But too often we are so time obsessed we take no time to really notice” (Buchanan, pp. 76-7).  He’s right.  Too often our lives are marked by a preoccupation of time when instead they should be marked a preoccupation of trust.  

If you follow Jesus’ days of ministry, you’ll find that His time was constantly filled with demands, interruptions and tedium, surprises, and disappointments. Yet, He had a clear course, a single ambition – to do the will of His Father Who sent Him (John 4:34). Jesus Himself described God’s leading in His life to be like the wind. The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:8). 

So often we want God to give us a clear map of what He wants us to do.  Be here at such and such a time. Do this at such and such a time. Say this, say that.  But He doesn’t.  God’s leading is like the wind; we hear it, but we don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.  

When the brilliant ethicist John Kavanaugh went to work for three months at “the house of the dying” in Calcutta, he was seeking a clear answer as to how best to spend the rest of his life.  On the first morning there he met the famed Mother Teresa.  She asked, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.  He voiced the request that he had carried with him for thousands of miles from the US: “Pray that I have clarity.” She said firmly, “No, I will not do that.”    When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”  When Kavanaugh commented that she always seemed to have the clarity he longed for, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity; what I have always had is trust.  So I will pray that you trust God.”   King David expressed this kind of determined trust declaring, The Lord will work out his plans for my life(Psalm 138:8, NLT).  

The second key to finding God’s rest for your soul is learning to trust God with the minutes, hours, and days of our lives make sense or not.   

  1. Be determined. Jesus described it this way,If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny

himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (Luke 9:23-24).Jesus is very clear. If we want to be a true follower, we must give up our own way, take up our cross and follow Him. Jesus promises in Matthew 24 he who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).  This kind of following requires full-on determination. This kind of determination takes time and consistency. This is the third reflection I came away with of finding God’s rest.  Be determined to follow Jesus.  

To be clear, Jesus is not talking about a salvation by works. The strength of our determination does not come from us, but from Jesus (Philippians 4:13).  We are saved by our faith in Christ alone.  The moment we turn from our sins and place our trust in Christ, God saves us for all eternity. The question is do we understand what it means to deny ourselves and daily take up our cross? 

Sadly, it seems we are fast approaching the time when being a follower of Jesus may not be the same as it once was. Dr. David Jeremiah laments, Almost everywhere you look, we are turning a deaf ear to truth as we desperately seek for meaning and fulfillment in all the wrong places. While searching for truth, we were actually running away from the truth. 

Meanwhile, the truth goes from taught to tolerated in the public square and from believed to band in the public schools. What was once the rule of faith and practice in our culture has been relegated to a negative icon used to illustrate the “narrow mindedness” of our founding fathers. As we were running away from the truth the truth is running away from us. We are in the midst of a famine. “Not a famine of bread, nor the thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8: 11) (David Jeremiah, Where Do We Go from Here? P. 156). 

So, what does it mean to a determined follower of Jesus in a world of deepening hatred for God, His Word, and His people?  I want to give you two simple, yet essential choices we need to make. Stay true to God’s Word and stay true to God’s work. 

  1. Stay true to God’s Word. For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound

and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord(2 Timothy 4:3-4, NLT). This was the Apostle Paul’s final letter to Timothy, his young protégé. Paul is saying, Timothy, there will come a time when people are going to reject the truth.  But you stay true to God’s Word.  People have always rejected God’s Word, but not like we’re seeing today.  I recently read about a young pastor who became a best-selling author at the age of twenty-two. For two decades he served in a local church preaching, writing, counseling, then something happened.  In 2019 he announced his marriage had come to an end.  A short time later he wrote, I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.  It is both surprising and sad to hear the number of people or denominations who were once “committed” followers of Christ now abandoning Him. They even have a new name. Instead of being “evangelicals” they are calling themselves “exvangelicals.”  As I hear of different ones falling away, they all share one thing in common – they have a shallow or weak understanding of God’s Word.  I want to encourage you to dig into God’s Word. Ask God to help you understand it as you read and study it.  Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions.  Grow your roots deep in God’s Word.  You won’t regret it.   

  1. Stay true to God’s work. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the

ministry God has given you (2 Timothy 4:5, NLT).  Paul practiced what he preached. In Acts 20 Paul said, My life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus—the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God(Acts 20:24). Paul stayed true to the work God called him to until the very end.

Paul’s determination to finish to the very end reminds me of a man my wife and I had the privilege of knowing for a number of years. His name was Thornton Jansma.  We knew him as Pastor J. After serving for many years in a local church as the senior pastor, he became the president of the small Bible college we attended.  He told the corniest jokes you’ve ever heard!  But we loved him.  For over fifty years he served the Lord in ministry.  I remember him tell me on several occasions, “John, I’ve been in ministry for over fifty years.”  And he was still going strong.  When we moved to Portland, Oregon to go to grad school, Pastor J came to visit us.  If there was anyone I’ve known who lived out Paul’s words to finish the work assigned him, it was Pastor J.  

I say this in part, because I realized this past week, I’ve now been in ministry for the past 36 years.  That may seem like a long time, but it really isn’t.  The truth is time has flown by! And by God’s grace, I hope to continue to serve Him until the end, finishing the work He has assigned me. 

Let me get personal with you for a moment.  Just as God had given Paul and Timothy and Pastor J a work to do, so He’s given you and I one as well.  He’s given each of us certain gifts as well as a certain measure of minutes, hours, and days to carry out the work He has assigned.  

God is calling each of us to be determined to stay true to His Word and His work.  That’s what Jesus meant by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Him.  We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know Who holds the future. God has assured us nothing will stop the advancement or the victory of His Gospel, not even the gates of Hell.  Jesus said, I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it (Matt. 16:18). Our victory is certain, our destiny is sure, our hope is secure.  The third key to seeking God’s rest for your soul is to be determined to finish the work He’s given you.  

What is God saying to us? Be still – stop being in a hurry. Take time to know God, to really know Him. Be wise – remember every minute, every hour, every day is from God.  Use them wisely. Be determined to finish the work God has assigned you.

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