Let's take a break. Clear the decks and restart a New Year. You probably need it. If you’re like most of us you’re either recovering from being frazzled and stressed out, or still there. Holidays are always go, go, go — so much to do, so many things to take care of. The non-stop holiday season is normally a stressed out time, but this second Christmas and New Year with Covid, stress was running higher than usual.
Our readings today are appropriately about restarts. Stop, refresh, restart. God created rest periods for men and beasts, plants and trees. God even rested himself. Yet we plow on every day convinced that if we take our hands off the wheel the world will crash. The answer is, No. Creation, and you, are designed to need breaks and take breaks, to rest, restore, and restart, refreshed and with clear minds and new strength. Breaks are so important, that if we refuse to stop and take a break, God will help us out by stopping us -- one way or another. So how do we stop and restart? God gave us a clue. God invented the Sabbath and handed it over to us. God even demonstrated the value of the Sabbath for us. After his six stages of creation, God took a break. God rested. After the sixth stage of creation, creating Man, God himself ceased from his labors for a while, and rested. God rested, but God didn’t quit. To rest is to pause, to refresh, recollect. And then restart. And that is God’s message to us as the year turns, as we begin again. We restart.
As a young Jewish boy I learned about the Sabbath. But I had it wrong. I thought Shabbat was to honor God, study the Torah and avoid work so we’d have time to do that. That was the commandment. Don’t do any work on the Sabbath. Study and honor God. There were even rules about what you could and couldn’t carry, push, pull or help. We had it wrong. Jesus cleared it up for me. The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath.
When I heard that, BANG. I realized the Sabbath isn’t for God. God doesn’t need it. He gave it for US, for our best interest. Man needs the Sabbath. Man needs a break from our work, our worries, our anxieties, our stress. We all need regular rest and reset.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. ... Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
We were like those who dreamed. Dreaming is an important part of rest and restart. Sleep cycles are like mini-sabbaths. Dr. Mike will tell you about your sleep cycle, the non-REM and REM sleep cycles. We go through several of these cycles every night. We start barely asleep, then a period of light sleep, then deep sleep, then dreaming, REM sleep activity dreaming, Rapid Eye Movement. We may even partially awaken after the REM sleep period as the cycle begins again. Light sleep preparatory for deeper sleep. The deep sleep is very important - it’s when the stuff of the day is sorted out and stored, and the trash we piled up during the day is removed.
God gave us this sleep pattern. We didn’t invent it. It’s common to all of us. Our sleep is not a continuous stream of sleep even if we have no memory of everything that went on during the night. If we sleep well, we awaken refreshed, cleansed of mental and emotional trash, reset and ready to take on the new day.
The Sabbath does that for the week. Religion helps us rest and reset with the Sabbath. But it's not just a weekly cycle. This rest and reset with the sabbath pattern is repeated in both long cycles and short cycles. In the bible we read about the long cycles. One long cycle is seven years, YEARS, not days. The seventh year is the Sabbath year. No crops are to be planted, indentured servants’ period of indenture is over, loans are forgiven if not already paid. The land, man and commerce rest and restart in the Sabbath year. The piled-up trash of life is cleared out and everybody starts over. Then there is the Jubilee Year. Every 50th year a Jubilee is declared at the end of the seventh Sabbath year. The Jubilee is a Sabbath year redoubled, two off years in a row. Jubilee is a release to all inhabitants. The land rests for TWO YEARS. The land rests, God provides. Any patrimony land sold is returned to the original owner, possessions sold or borrowed against are returned, indentured servants and slaves are released. This restart is for the good of mankind. The cycles are real. We no longer practice the jubilee, but if you studied economics, you’ll remember that the inexorable 50-year Kondratieff economic cycles of expansion, crash and contraction do it for us. We get to restart every 50 years whether we like it or not.
Isaiah reminds us who's running the show. We think we're in control of things. But God says, I am the LORD, and there is none other; I make the light, I create the darkness; author alike of wellbeing and woe I, the LORD, do all these things(...) I am the LORD your God: I teach you for your own wellbeing and lead you in the way you should go. If only you had listened to my commands, your prosperity would have rolled on like a river, your success like the waves of the sea.
These cycles and rules weren't given to us as some kind of punishment or test of faith or to prove that we are obedient. "I teach you for your own well-being and lead you in the way you should go." These cycles and rules about rest, reset and restart are given to us for us and for our best interest and well-being.
The sabbath rest cycles are not just long ones. Like the nightly flow of dream cycles we also have a series of peaks and valleys during the workday. These short cycles during the day are equally important to us. We often don’t understand our own daily work cycle. Our periods of peak productivity and creativity can only run for limited periods - 10 minutes, a half hour, sometimes an hour or so. But the Gamma waves and Beta waves our brains pour out during these peak concentration periods burn tremendous amounts of blood sugar. Burning our brain glucose generates trash. So we run out of fuel, and our neural systems are choked with trash. If we don’t take a break, if we keep trying to push on with our work, you’ll notice slower and slower progress and less and less quality. It can even lead to a lethargic condition we know as Sleep-Sitting, or the dreaded Desk Trance.
But our culture today frowns on breaks. We drive ourselves wanting to look good, look productive, show we are capable Alpha-types in charge of our jobs and ready for promotion or further service. This is so to some extent in almost any organization - whether Church Missions or High School Football teams. We want to look like we are pulling our weight, doing our share. So we go-go-go. Sometimes to a fault. Jesus commanded us; Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Don’t misunderstand. Works are good. But burnout is not. Sin is often excess of a good thing. We all need to eat to live, but excess of eating is called gluttony. We all need to take have self-respect, to believe in ourself. But as you know, it’s easy for self-respect to slide into the sin of pride. Storytelling can move from great theater and entertainment to false witness. Affection can move to lust. Desire can move to envy. Business success can move to greed. Righteous indignation can move to wrath. And yes, excess rest can move to sloth. The seven deadly sins are sins of excess. I think we are in danger of creating an eighth deadly sin; the sin of incessant work. Maybe we just call it Stress. It’s a sin against our family, our employer, our selves. It hurts everyone.
Religions generally prescribe breaks during the day. They are called prayer periods. Four to Seven times per day we are enjoined to stop our work, change our position and posture and connect with Creation. Our Gamma and Beta brain waves slow down, and the Alpha waves begin clearing the dirty dishes off the table getting ready to restart. I think God ordained the daily, weekly, seasonal and life cycle prayer and ritual and festival and life-ceremony schedules because he understands our mechanisms much better than we do. He created them for Man. So we are smart to listen. Science will never quite catch up to the Creator’s understanding, but we are well served to honor these ancient principles.
One such is the New Year. Biblically ordained as the beginning of the new year, in the Old Testament it is called Rosh Hashona, which means the Head of the Year. This is a time to stop, to reflect on our Creator and his purpose for us: a marker to take time to reflect on how blessed we have all been to be in this place at this moment. We are like people in a dream. All we’ve been through is past, like a dream from which we have awakened. God is leading us. He said, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble. God has restored us to this place and time. Life is new. This is the time to restart. A Sabbath Year, a Jubilee. A time to let go of old obligations, old grievances, old debts. Forgive and forget past wounds. God has led us to this new place. Take a break. Lie down by the still water.
Our gospel reading this morning is the beginning of John’s gospel. It’s a restart of Genesis. In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God. Life is a series of cycles, always expanding and always repeating -- maybe until mankind gets it right. I tried it; as a Jewish kid I tried to follow the rules for the life cycles. I found I couldn’t do it; I was trying to do it on my own. But I got a restart, and the restart was Christ. This time we have help. God himself entered the world at Christmas as a human, to be with us and help us grow the last mile home. With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world God the Father let us know, “it’s okay. I know you can’t do it alone. I love you and I’m coming into the world to help you.”
I'll offer one suggestion. God has entered the world as one of us. He told us he is here to help, not to judge. How about rethinking our priorities, our need to control things, our need to overmanage? How about letting God take control? Let's take a break. Let’s learn to pause from our works and labors. It’s a New Year. It’s a time to restart. God restarted the world. Have you asked yourself, “What can I do to restart my life?”