Sabbath and Time | Lent 1 | February 18

Texts: Mark 1:9-15; Exodus 16:1-5; 13-26

Over the years I’ve watched my fair share of TED talks.  One that left a big impression was also one of the shortest.  It’s a talk by Jessa Gamble from way back in 2010 titled “Our natural sleep cycle is nothing like what we do now.”   Rather than the standard 18ish minute TED talk, this one is only three minutes and 55 seconds.

Her talk goes something like this: Humans, like all other multicell organisms, plants and animals, have an internal clock.  It’s part of our chemical make up, linked to the daily cycle of light and darkness.  Humans evolved close to the equator, where days and nights are about equal, so our body clocks are most naturally equipped for this kind of cycle.  But we’ve spread to every corner of the globe, where daylight and night time hours are not evenly split, and of course our modern world of abundant artificial light throws another curve at our sleeping patterns.

But we seem to have a fairly persistent body clock, even when we don’t know whether it’s night or day.  Jessa Gamble cites studies of people having their watches taken away and living in a bunker underground for weeks and months at time, with a combination of darkness and artificial light.  After the initial disorientation, participants settled into a consistent sleeping pattern, what Gamble and others refer to as our natural sleep cycle.  It matched up with what we know about pre-industrial sleeping patterns.

It turns out we most naturally sleep twice, rather than once.  Participants would go to sleep around 8pm, wake up around midnight, have about a two hour span of alert wakefulness, and then go back to sleep from about 2am until sunrise.  Eight hours of sleep in a ten hour window…ish.  During those middle two waking hours the body releases high doses of prolactin, a chemical with all kinds of positive health benefits.

This is how Gamble ends her talk:

“The people in these studies report feeling so awake during the day time that they realize they’re experiencing true wakefulness for the first time in their lives.  So, cut to modern day, we’re living in a culture of jet lag, global travel, 24 hour business, shift work.  And our modern ways of doing things have their advantages, but I believe we should understand the costs.  Thank you.”  End of TED talk.

I don’t remember when I first watched this.  It was probably around 11pm, when my not-so-distant ancestors would have been sleeping their way toward their daily surge of prolactin, and I was trying to milk the day for just one more thing before trying to fall asleep.  I do remember how I felt right after those closing lines about true wakefulness.  It was like someone shows you something beautiful and says, “This, this is your birthright.  But you know you can’t get it.”  And then says, “But I dare you to try.”

This short talk that I’ve never really stopped thinking about came to mind soon after we settled on Sabbath as the theme for Lent.  Practicing Sabbath in the modern world often feels about as practical as the pre-industrial, pre-artificial light sleep cycle – for many of the same reasons.  There are just so many factors working against us.

One option would be for us to dive into the history and purpose and theology and poetic praise of Sabbath, to paint a beautiful picture of what could be, and then end by saying, “Well, at least now we know what we’re missing.”

Another option would be to do that first part, to look more deeply into Sabbath scriptures and practices and their meaning, to glimpse something beautiful that is our birthright, and then dare ourselves to try.

I’m aiming for the latter.  As I’ve been in conversation with Mark and Robin and Worship Commission about this Lent, we share a hope that Sabbath practices, Sabbath-making, being made by Sabbath, might become a more important part of our lives, individually and collectively, as a result of this season.

So let’s get started and see where this leads.

The first Sunday of Lent always takes us out into the wilderness, with Jesus.  Jesus has just undergone that radical life-defining water ritual of baptism.  He had come from Nazareth, where he grew up, in the Galilee region, and opted in to the restoration movement initiated by John the Baptizer.  Under the hand of John, Jesus goes down under the waters of the Jordan.  As he emerges he’s greeted by a feathered Spirit, a dove descending toward him, and a voice that proclaims him a Beloved Son.

This, however, is only the beginning of Jesus’ initiation into the work ahead of him and the kind of consciousness he must have to fulfill it.  In Mark’s urgent style of narration, that same dove-like Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness, where he lived for 40 days.

In the scriptures the wilderness is a place of education.  Of learning and un-learning.  A prime location in the Divine pedagogy.  Separated from one’s usual environment, and from the life-support systems of civilization, one faces down everything one most fears, is exposed to one’s limitations, is confronted with one’s desires.  In the wilderness one must separate intuition from temptation.  Sort through the voices in one’s head and find the center that holds.  Mark summarizes all this by saying Jesus was “tempted by Satan; and the angels waited on him.”

Those 40 wilderness days are re-lived each year in the liturgical season of Lent.  Throughout Lent we enter into the wilderness with Jesus.  The wilderness is a place of re-education, refinement, casting off things you don’t need; finding something you didn’t know you’d lost.  Sort of like going down into a bunker for a while and re-disovering your natural sleep cycle.  The trick is how to have the wilderness experience while life goes on as usual.  Maybe life has to stop going on as usual.

This is not a Sabbath passage, per se, but it does set the stage in some way for Sabbath-living.  Jesus emerges from the baptismal waters, then emerges from the wilderness, with a message.  It’s a message summarized in Mark 1:15, placed on the tongue of Jesus:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Turn, change your mind, and believe this good news.”

This is Jesus’ elevator speech, and it’s very much focused on a peculiar way of living in relation to time.  Living, as if time has reached its fulfillment, and the kingdom of God is present and pervasive.  Such that we can relax in to a world defined by compassion, peacefulness, and neighborliness.  That’s the good news Jesus proclaims.  It’s an invitation to a certain consciousness about time which affects every aspect of how we live and move and relate within time.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.

In the middle of the 20th century, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote what is still the definitive work on Sabbath in the modern world.  One of his key ideas is that humans have gotten pretty good at mastering the world of space.  Not space travel space, but space as in the world of things.  Three dimensional space.  Atoms, molecules; roads and cars; streets and buildings; mining and manufacturing.  He calls all this “technical civilization,” which excels at the conquest of space.

He traces our pre-occupation with space and things back through ancient religions that located deities in particular locations, “like mountains, forests, trees or stones, which are…singled out as holy places” (p. 4).

And then he turns a corner:

He writes: “Indeed, we know what to do with space, but do not know what to do with time, except make it subservient to space.  Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space.  As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.  Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.  Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space”  (p. 5).

Heschel proposes that we’ve missed the point.  That it is that mysterious 4th dimension we call time which is most sacred.  That holiness is most deeply experienced not in sacred objects but in sacred moments.  And that Sabbath is the primary embodiment of time’s holiness.

He writes: “Sabbaths are our great cathedrals” (p.8).  The Sabbath is “a palace in time,” a “sanctuary in time.”  It puts a different spin on this concept of sanctuary we’ve been working on for a while now.  Sanctuary has to do with how we use our space, but also has to do with how we use time.   When we live in such a way that we enter regularly into sanctuaries in time, we are on our way to Sabbath living.

The first biblical account of people engaging in Sabbath practice is found in Exodus 16.  It takes place, not coincidentally, in the wilderness.  The wilderness is a place of education and re-education, learning and unlearning.  What the Hebrews are unlearning in the wilderness, throughout Exodus, is their deep enculturation into Pharaoh’s time clock.  For generations the Hebrews had been slaves in Egypt, under the regime of Pharaoh.  In Egypt, there were no Sabbaths.  Under Pharaoh’s anxious eye, the demands for production were always rising and time as a gift of being was always in recession.

But the Hebrews had been delivered out of slavery by Yahweh, under the leadership of Moses and Aaron and Miriam, who led them through the Red Sea which now marks the beginning of a new era of re-education in the wilderness where they will be for 40 years.

The wilderness can be a fearful place, without the life support systems one has come to depend on.  As if to confront this head on, the first instance of collective Sabbath practice has to do with something as absolutely necessary as food.  There will be manna in the desert six days a week, and on the sixth day they are to gather enough for two days, because the seventh day will be a Sabbath, when they will celebrate the enoughness of what they have, and there will be no need to gather.

It’s a new kind of rhythm that will come to define their lives.  Under the regime of Yahweh, time is not merely for labor and provision and altering the world of space.  It is for dwelling content within the world of time.  Defined not by acquisitiveness or accumulation, but by restful enjoyment.  Or, in the words of Jessa Gamble and those bunker experiment participants: “True wakefulness.”

Very soon the Israelites will come to a mountain in the desert where they’ll be given 10 commandments to order their lives.  Sabbath is one of those commandments.  More on that in the coming weeks.

The Christian default mode is perhaps to assume that Sabbath is the one commandment Jesus didn’t particularly care for – and neither should we.  He was rather fond of pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable on the Sabbath, but it was always in the direction of healing and wholeness and restoration.  Not so much in the direction of a more frenzied life.

His message about the time being fulfilled and the Kingdom of God being near could be understood as an expansion of Sabbath and Jubilee.  They’re so good and beautiful that they’re in the process of taking over the world.  They’re our birthright as beloved sons and daughters of God.

As distant and almost impossible as it may seem much of the time, what if our lives would more and more come to be ordered around sanctuaries in time that we enter and enjoy?  Regularly.