When Sabbath never ends

19Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ 20The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’21But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.[1]

When Jesus was visiting the temple in Jerusalem shortly before he died, he said the most curious thing. His listeners, of course, took his words literally, which was a problem. Because it took forty-six years to build that temple and it still wasn’t completely done. But Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They couldn’t believe him.

The disciples believed him only after he died and was raised to new life. They had to experience for themselves the loss and grief of their Lord’s death. They had to experience for themselves the joy of the resurrection. 

Neither literalism nor metaphor could ultimately help his disciples believe what he was talking about. Only experiencing—being there—in the moment of his dying on the cross and three days later rising to new life could they finally come to believe in Jesus.

It’s easier to deny and avoid the hard learning that comes from living and accepting the life we live, in this moment. It’s easier to say, “we just need to get through to the end of this pandemic, get our vaccines and get back to normal,” before we can be whole again, be true to ourselves and live life. As if what we experience now is too difficult a task, too confusing a time, too frustrating to accept as the moment to live and experience the grace of God. As if it doesn’t have anything of value to teach us, to show us.

A reading assigned for this Third Sunday in Lent comes from the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments.[2] Maybe because it is the third Sunday in the Lenten season, I zeroed in on the third commandment about observing the Sabbath. But I really don’t know why this one especially jumped out at me. Maybe because it feels like COVID time has imposed sabbath for many of us. 

We have been forced—more difficult for some to accept than others—to stay at home, shelter in place, restrict gathering in places of social meeting. It has been more time alone, more time to reflect, more time to rest. We have had to experience what it means to pause the normally hectic pace of life.

Usually sabbath observance, as with all the ten commandments, is what we chose to do if we are wise. But this sabbath has not only been imposed on us, it may also be the longest sabbath ever. What do we do when sabbath never ends?

It may be scandalous for me to say I’m grateful for this last year. 

Yes, I know we still live under the threat of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable loved ones. Yes, many have gotten really sick and some have died. Yes, the anxiety levels are high all around, and so much in our work-a-day world remains uncertain. We still live, in many ways, on the precipice. 

And when under threat, our knee-jerk is to get busy, go somewhere, see someone, do something. Anything. But “Be still and know that I am Lord”[3]? Don’t do anything productive? Just, be? Like I said, scandalous. 

So, why am I grateful? 

Last week our sixteen-year-old daughter Mika wasn’t sure what to do one evening. So, she said, out of the blue, “I’m going to make peanut butter cookies.” Eyebrows cocked all around. Silence fell like a huge question mark upon the scene. She hadn’t made cookies in months. In fact it had been a long time since she last baked anything let alone the king of all cookies – the peanut butter cookie.

“Ok! Go for it!” We encouraged her.

These cookies turned out to be the BEST peanut butter cookies EVER. The right balance between firm and soft. The flavour not too strong but peanut buttery enough.  And they were big! For Jessica and me, a bit of a temptation knowing that scoffing down a couple of these would ruin the day’s calorie count and throw off any weight loss plan.

Building on that positive experience, Mika announced a couple of days later that she was going to bake biscuits – a whole tray of them. Only four of us live in our house. What do you do with twenty biscuits? And they, too, turned out scrumptious. Nothing like the taste of some margarine dripping from hot biscuits fresh out of the oven.

Now, I know it’s pure conjecture, but I wonder if Mika would have been so affirmed in her gift of baking if not for this imposed sabbath time. In the past we all told her that she had some gifts for baking. But she either didn’t have time nor the space to develop and experience some sustained success with baking, with all the other things competing for her attention pre-COVID. 

They say that sabbath time is creative time. In order to learn and experience something new, we need to create some space and time for it to be birthed and nurtured. In that sabbath time a great gift of God, a grace, waits to be discovered anew.

For you, sabbath may reflect a different context and yield different fruit. But why is this pandemic and its restrictions taking so long? I don’t know for sure. But could God want each of us to learn something valuable during this time? I mean, really learn it. Have we not yet fully recognized and appreciated that which is ours to learn? There may be a gift waiting for us to accept, and practice. And God wants us to experience it for ourselves.

Because when this is over in the next year, we will no doubt be tantalized, stimulated, tempted and distracted again with all those compulsive activities and intrepid pace that drove our lives pre-COVID. But will we want or need to engage life in the same way again? Without  giving up on what is essential and most important in our lives, which must include social interaction of course, do we need that level of go-go intensity that overlooks our limitations and need for periodic sabbath rests?

God is in this moment. God’s light shines for us in all that is dark in our lives. We don’t have to wait until ‘later’ to discover or experience the fullness of God’s grace. Because Jesus is right in front of us now, trying to get our attention.

[1] John 2:19-22, NRSV; the Gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)

[2] Exodus 20:1-17

[3] Psalm 46:10

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