|N EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY CHINA THE Manchu Emperor Ch’ien-lung reigned for 60 years. He was loved and respected by the people. His writings reflect a deep affection and respect for them, but interestingly, too, for the beautiful Yuanming Garden at his summer palace.1
The garden had been the last place he had spent precious, restful, nurturing time with his father, who died young in a tragic accident.
The garden’s name means literally “garden of perfection and clarity,” but it was best understood by the local people as “garden of perfect peace.” These qualities were thought to be the highest virtues in a great ruler, but also of a great kingdom.2
The beautiful, creamy-white Jade Belt Bridge still stands today in Beijing. In deep contrast to the bright-green river in the center of the Yuanming garden, its high arch symbolizes the watery curve on the back of the river dragon, and its unique color represents the brightness of the moon. To the Chinese, the bridge represents the union between the earth and the heavens.3
It was from the vantage point of this bridge more than 300 years ago that the emperor began to think of the garden as a kind of mirror image to the entire Manchu kingdom. Standing on the top of the steep arch looking out in every direction, he came to know who the peasants were and how they lived, how difficult and demanding the toil of their daily survival was, and to appreciate the things nature had provided for all humankind to enjoy.
When he visited the garden and stood on that bridge, he was revitalized. So he decided he must write about what he experienced.
The emperor enthusiastically recorded these words in his journal: “As the heir of my father and grandfather and their principle of simplicity, I am happy to live in this place protected by heaven and blessed by the earth.”4
To honor his father’s memory he opened the gardens as a park so others, too, could experience the same rest and renewal he did.
For the industrious citizens of modern Beijing today, this bridge remains an important monument. People still come to linger on its high arch surrounded by the beautiful, centuries-old garden to experience a taste of peace and tranquillity—a liberating rest from their weary workweeks.
Tranquillity for Today
For just a moment, I invite you to think about your own personal monument of tranquillity. What image brings you a sense of peace, rest, and wholeness? How does it revitalize you? How does it change the way you live?
The Bible reveals a powerful image—another garden of perfection, clarity, and peace—instituted from Creation (Gen. 2:2, 3) and lifted up throughout the written and oral testimony of salvation history. This image is woven into the fabric of our name and identity as Seventh-day Adventists. It is, of course, the Sabbath.
When God completed the work of Creation and rested on the seventh day, He gave the very first family the Sabbath, a real opportunity to rest in their Creator, to know God and to be known—to draw energy from that relationship. Though Adam and Eve failed to obey God and were expelled from the original garden of peace, God’s original purpose of offering that rest to humanity, and all of creation, remains unchanged.
After the Fall the Sabbath continued as a reminder of that rest—hence the law given through Moses for Israel at Sinai to “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Ex. 20:8-10). Not only is the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath a perpetual memorial of creation, but the Sabbath also testifies to “faith in [God’s] power to transform the life and qualify men and women for entering into that eternal ‘rest’ He originally intended for the inhabitants of this earth.”5
God had promised this spiritual rest to literal Israel. Despite their failure to enter it, the New Testament church recognized that God’s invitation still stands: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).
Today, Hebrews 4:1-11 speaks to us, as it did the early Christian church, about the promise of Sabbath rest remaining for God’s people. The appeal is not to wait to experience this rest of grace and faith, for “today” is the opportune time to enter it (verse 7).
Notice the way it reads in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the text:
“Today, please listen, don’t turn a deaf ear. . . . This is still a live promise. It wasn’t cancelled at the time of Joshua; otherwise, God wouldn’t keep renewing the appointment for ‘today.’ The promise of ‘arrival’ and ‘rest’ is still there for God’s people. God himself is at rest. And at the end of the journey we’ll surely rest with God. So let’s keep at it and eventually arrive at the place of rest, [and] not drop out.”6
The writer of Hebrews cautions us not to miss the opportunity to claim the fullness of Sabbath as God’s gift to us. Hebrews speaks about a historical community (Israel as it journeyed in the wilderness after the Exodus) and to a contemporary community (the church). Just as the desert journey was a group experience, the behavior of some affecting the behavior of all, the writer of Hebrews admonishes the community of the Christian church: “Let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it” (verse 1). All who have entered this rest—the saving grace received by grace in Jesus Christ—stop trying to achieve righteousness by their own efforts. We don’t have to work, work, work at being good, good, good—acceptable as God’s kingdom people. We rest in a tangible opportunity from week to week to accept and experience Christ’s forgiveness, grace, rest, and peace, and to be revitalized.
Talk about liberating!
Our Rest, and Others’
Part of our responsibility as individuals and as the church in claiming Sabbath is to be passionate about helping others enter that rest and place of peace, too. What I’ve found interesting in the last several years studying theology with people from other faith traditions is that they are also excited about the promises the Sabbath brings.
Some months ago I was asked to help one of my seminary friends introduce the blessing of the Sabbath to her congregation. In addition to her preaching, she carefully prepared a packet of information from Adventist materials to guide people into a greater understanding of Sabbath rest. I was astounded by her openness and embrace of these ideas. Some of her parishioners are now joining her in reaping the benefits of a holy day of rest and continuing their study to know more about the importance of the biblical seventh-day Sabbath. The liberating message of the Sabbath interests people, and they want to know what it can provide their tired bodies and souls.
One woman’s comment to my friend went like this: “Now I understand that if I don’t allow for this rhythm of rest in my busy life, illness becomes my Sabbath.” She was talking about how her own long bout with pneumonia created a much-needed Sabbath rest for her. I’m always struck by the mix of sadness and relief people experience when illness interrupts their overextended lives. While people share their particular fears and sorrows, almost everyone confesses some sense of gratefulness, too. At last, they say, I can finally rest.
Just as the Jade Belt Bridge, surrounded by the garden at Yuanming, was a vantage point for the emperor, the Sabbath is also an excellent vantage point from which we can see the needs of people in our own circles of influence. It holds the key for reimagining our role in working for a liberating peace in a divided world. While we Adventists are best known for experiencing the benefits of a literal day of rest on the seventh day from week to week, to be credible as agents of God’s kingdom on this earth we must also understand that the Sabbath reflects a way of living in the world the other six days, one that actively considers the welfare of the rest of humanity and all of creation.
Agents of Healing
The liberating principle of knowing and keeping the Sabbath commandment also helps us ask the question, Where is it not tranquil in our community? In our homes? In our world? The meaning of Sabbath calls us to be healing agents in God’s earthly kingdom; to be engaged with what’s going on in whatever community we live in; to care, to understand and confront injustice, to use the liberating freedom Sabbath brings to act on behalf of others.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a tremendous opportunity to bring this Sabbath message of perfect peace and its relationship to wholeness and healing to the forefront of all our activity. The writer of Hebrews is telling us not to blow it!
When we do not keep the promise of Sabbath peace at the center of our daily lives, our lack of rest and reflection is not just a personal affliction, or a denominational one; it affects the world around us. It colors the way we help build and sustain community; it dictates the way we respond to suffering; and it shapes the ways in which we seek peace, justice, and healing in the world.
Resting in Present Tense
This text in Hebrews is a helpful reminder that the life of faith is not simply periods of movement and periods of rest. Rest, says Hebrews 4:3, does not just follow pilgrimage; it occurs during pilgrimage, as well. The rest of God is both present and future. A Near Eastern proverb says: “There is going in my staying and staying in my going.” So also does the preacher in Hebrews say: “There is rest in movement and movement in rest.”7
One Adventist theologian put it this way: “The Lord intended that the weekly Sabbath rest, if properly observed, would constantly release man [and woman] from the bondage of an Egypt not limited to any country or century, but which includes every land and every age. [People] today need to escape from the bondage that comes from greediness, from gain and power, from social inequality, and from sin and selfishness.”8
Many would agree with writer Thomas Merton that a contemporary form of violence is overwork. “To be successful means that we make war on our bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us; war on our communities, because we are fearfully protecting what we have, and do not feel safe enough to be kind and generous; war on the earth and our environment, because we cannot take time to put our feet on the ground and allow it to feed us, to taste its blessings and give thanks.”9
The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves, and we imagine, to others. To be “unavailable” has become the model of a successful life!
Wayne Muller, founder of Bread for the Journey in California, describes his 25-year career in the field of community development, public health, mental health, and criminal justice. He says that with few notable exceptions, the way society’s problems are usually solved is frantically, desperately, reactively, and badly. Despite well-meaning and generous persons, community and corporate leaders in the United States and around the world are “infected with a fearful desperation that is corrosive to genuine helpfulness, justice, or healing.”10
Muller observes that presented with the delicate issues of poverty, public health, community well-being, and crime, our impulse, born of weariness, is to rush headlong into doing anything that will make the problem go away. The collective thinking is: Now maybe we can go home and find some rest. But without the essential components of rest, wisdom, peace, and delight that Sabbath brings, Muller feels the majority of solutions he’s observed—and he’s witnessed hundreds—are actually obstacles to genuine relief for most of our society. He says: “In the soil of the quick fix is the seed
of a new problem—because a quiet wisdom is unavailable.”11
Another writer mentioned by Muller, David Steindl-Rast, reminds us the Chinese pictograph for “too busy” (meaning unfocused activity) is composed of two characters: heart and killing!12
Rest in Community
God’s church has to demonstrate an alternative way to live as well as to worship.
How are we allowing Sabbath rest and peace to liberate us and others in our day-to-day living? How do we help others know how the Sabbath’s ethical precepts inform our lives and our ministries in our communities? How can we express the message that forgetting the Sabbath can be both morally and socially dangerous? How can forgetting to be restful, in meaningful fellowship with others, and finding no delight in creation be as reprehensible as murder, robbery, and deceit? How are we offering an understanding of Sabbath as peace and the promise of wholeness in our communities?
The world must understand that the liberating principles of the Sabbath are for everyone. For some, the liberating promise of rest and peace is a home to live in and food to eat each day. For others, the promise of peace is an education so that others will not take advantage. Still for others, the promise of rest and peace is the right to speak about injustices done and the staying power of others who will listen until an “Alleluia” can finally be heard in the place of weeping and suffering.
If we neglect to lift up the rich experience of the Sabbath in all of our living, you and I are wasting our most precious resource as Christians. Our work is fruitful only when we are quiet enough to hear the miraculous resilience and strength present among those who suffer, patient enough to see the light that shines in the midst of the darkness. Ghandi once said: “There is more to life than merely increasing its speed.”13
Rested and refreshed, the whole church is poised to generously serve all those who need our care. To quote Muller again, “The world aches for the generosity and the courage of a well-rested people.”14
I think the writer to the Hebrews would agree.
A Practical Truth
So let us think about how Sabbath rest must factor into all our bridge-building as God’s people. Sabbath is not only for us. Like the emperor who stood on the Jade Belt Bridge—rested and refreshed—we are liberated to more generously and effectively serve others. Only when we are nourished and revived continually by the Holy Spirit can we be useful to our God.
So remember the Sabbath. Let’s breathe deeply into this rhythm of life, of the earth, of action, and rest. May we and those who are our neighbors find comfort here.
God, our Creator and Redeemer, is Lord of the Sabbath. He is the ultimate Bridge and our promise of true rest and peace. He’s called us to serve this hurting, harried world. May He help us embrace His Sabbath more fully in the midst of our overextended lives; help us attend more carefully to all the stories that surround us—life-affirming and life-denying. We know the spiritual and social ills in our families and neighborhoods cannot be addressed by our humble efforts alone. Let’s lay all our good plans and intentions at His feet, asking that His will be done, not ours. Without His Spirit in all we try to do, we, as the church, will get it wrong about building bridges of hope.
When we seek to do good, we always carry the fragrance of Sabbath rest—tranquillity, peace, and wholeness—found only in Him.
1. Bernhard Graf, Bridges That Changed the World (Munich: Prestal Verlag, 2002), pp. 60, 61.
2. Ibid., p. 60.
5. Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 420.
6. Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993),
7. New Interpreter’s Bible, Hebrews 4:1-11, p. 56.
8. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Rest for Modern Man, p. 15.
9. Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives (New York: Bantam, 1999), p. 2.
10. Ibid., p. 3.
13. Mahatma Ghandi, Life and Death (quoted from Internet search).
14. Muller, p. 11.