Lessons from Sabbatical
It’s good to be back, Grace Church. This morning (before beginning Genesis next week) I’d like to share with you all a seven lessons from our sabbatical. None of the lessons are revolutionary. I’d heard of all of them before. I imagine every one of you have heard of every one of them as well. In other words, these aren’t lessons, as in new concepts. They are lessons, as in new levels of understanding and appreciation… kind of like moving from premarital counseling to marriage counseling.
But this was my sabbatical and not yours, my lessons and not yours. So why share them in a sermon? What does any of this have to do with you? Let me suggest three things—three ways to listen well, honor God, and be strengthened in your faith:
First, thank God with me for his kindness to our family and to all his children. It is only because our God is personal and loving and merciful and gracious that he would care about seven nobodies like us. Nothing in us deserves God’s goodness in these ways. Nothing in us deserves God’s teaching us more about himself, ourselves, and the world he made. We didn’t deserve the sabbatical or any of the grace God poured out upon us in it. We didn’t deserve a church like you all who care for us the way you do. Christian, as you hear the following lessons, I invite you to join me in praising God for his kindness in teaching them to us. Guest, non-Christian, I invite you to stand amazed at the fact that there is a God who is this personal and kind and good.
Second, would you consider how these lessons might come to bear on your life and on the life of our church? Though they were the fruit of my sabbatical, I don’t believe God impressed these things upon me for my sake alone. Hopefully one or two of them will encourage, challenge, and change you too.
Third, please pray that God would not allow them to fade, but rather, drive them in deeper and deeper into all of us. These are not lessons we want to forget or neglect. They are so simple and yet so vital that I hope they continue to shape my life and yours in increasing ways until Jesus returns.
Please pray with me then that God might be pleased to do these things and more over the next few minutes.
Hard Work Is Good and Rest Is Necessary
With that, let’s get to the seven (clearest) sabbatical lessons. First, hard work is good and rest is necessary. The primary passages that teach this lesson are found right at the beginning of our bibles.
Genesis 2:1-2 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.
God worked and then rested. This passage and pattern are, of course, the basis for the fourth commandment.
Exodus 20:9-10 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work…
The lesson I learned was not that God left us with a pattern of work and rest. Once again, I (along with all of you) already knew that. The lesson I learned in a deeper way is that there are dangerous ditches on each side of this pattern and command. The two ditches are laziness and workaholicness. Both are acts of rebellion against God’s design. Being lazy is a rebellion against God’s charges to steward the world toward fullness and order (Genesis 1:28) and sinners toward the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). And being a workaholic is a rebellion against God’s having made mankind finite and in need of rest.
Of course, we want to stay out of both ditches and on the godly path of working and resting as God has demonstrated and commanded. And yet I realized how tempting both ditches are to me at times. The sabbatical helped me to see:
- That I feel low grade guilt whenever I take my foot off of the gas.
- That I often look for rest in worldly ways (TV, mindless books, etc.).
- That I sometimes allow an abundance of good needs to justify a lack of intentional rest.
- That I believe the lie that God’s success in building his kingdom depends on my effort.
- That I believe the lie that my best effort is nothing without God so even trying is futility.
The reality is, Grace, God made days with just the right amount of hours, and weeks, months, and years with exactly the right number of days. He gave us the perfect amount of time to accomplish everything he requires of us. Likewise, he made me (and you—even with all of our weaknesses and limitations) just as we need to be to do all he requires. He gave us the perfect amount of strength and skill to accomplish everything he requires of us. Again, God did not give us responsibilities incompatible with his creation or his commands. The days aren’t too short to make God happy and he didn’t give us too much to do to sleep and rest well. We’re not so strong that we can do anything without God or so weak that God won’t use us for good. I needed to learn again that I’m equally out of sync with the world as God made it if my rest begins at 2pm each day or hasn’t started until 2am; if I work as if God needs me or as if he’s unable to use my obedience.
To this end, on the sabbatical I learned to enjoy both the naps and the “work projects” that Gerri (bathroom remodel, house repairs) and Mike and Kyle assigned me (a booklet helping parents think through conversion and baptism, a booklet to help kids study the bible, and preparing to preach through Genesis).
These are just a few of the things that the Spirit of God helped me to see in the past three months in this area. My hope and prayer going forward is that I’d live life more intentionally; that I’d be able to identify the best ways to live out the commands and commission of God and the best ways to rest for that to happen. I mean to work harder and rest better.
Prayer Is First and Primary
This second lesson is actually the first. That is, if I had to name one lesson that stood out above all, it’s this one: prayer is first and primary. I mention it second only because I came to realize this through the first lesson. It was in recognizing how much I have relied on my “own strength” and my “own gifts” (by working without rest or resting without work) that I came to see on a new level how central prayer is in the life of a mature Christian.
The primary passage that shaped my thinking here is John 17. As you may know, that chapter contains what is known as Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer”. In John’s gospel Jesus prays this just before being betrayed and crucified. It is a remarkable prayer in many ways.
I’ve read this passage—and even marveled at this passage—many times in the past. I’m not certain as to why God impressed it upon me in a new way this time. What I do know is this: in a way that goes beyond any previous experience with the passage I noticed the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, praying with a kind of intimacy, trust, unity, and dependence upon the Father that I know I desperately need. And I noticed in a new way that Jesus prayed with a kind of love and care for the people of God that I desperately want.
If these things came out of the all-sufficient Christ, how much more must they come out of me? If Jesus recognized his need for the Father, how much more must I recognize mine? If Jesus longed for the presence and help of God, how much more must I? If Jesus loved and longed for the salvation of the world and the strengthening of the saints, how much more must I? And if Jesus expressed all of this first and primarily through prayer, how much more must I?
The prayer retreat I went on at the beginning and end of the sabbatical and the book “The Kneeling Christian” were significant means of God’s grace in this area.
Since then I have found myself praying more often and more specifically. More importantly, I’ve found myself increasingly realizing that the most practical thing I can do is pray—that all of my strength, wisdom, gifts, and goodness combined are entirely impotent apart from God’s power working through them. Most importantly, I have found myself believing that whatever the outcome of my prayers God is with me, hearing me and working to bless me along with all of his children.
I’ve learned in a new way that prayer is first in that it should always be my first response to hardship and joy, to mundane and new, to times of need and plenty. And I’ve learned in a new way that prayer is primary in that it is the best thing I have to offer in my every capacity—as a Christian, husband, father, pastor, friend, son, brother, etc.
The Body of Christ Is Big and Christ Is Working Everywhere
While on Sabbatical we had the opportunity to visit a number of churches. In one our family made up about a quarter of those present. In another we were singled out in the sermon and brought the median age down by about 30 years. And in another—the one we spent most of the summer—we learned to sing a new and glorious hymn almost every week. Almost every church we went to was a really, really sound church. The Word of God was preached, the gospel was shared, and the love of the saints was evident.
With all of the ungodly things happening in churches today and with (what seems to be) the ever-lowering view of God’s word, I had forgotten Jesus’ promise in John 10.
John 10:14-16 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
The lesson I was reminded of here is that Christ is at work everywhere. He has a people in every tribe, tongue, and nation. God is at work at Grace Church and countless other churches around Minnesota, the US, and the world. It was really encouraging to find more like-minded churches in our area than I knew existed.
Among the results was a renewed desire to seek good gospel partnerships, to pray for other pastors and churches, and to be in heaven where all of God’s people will live together in perfect harmony forever.
Preparing for Worship Is Vital
As a pastor who is able to spend almost the entire week—every week—thinking and praying through the sermon text, singing the songs, reading over the sermon on Saturday evening, arriving early to a quiet church to read over the text again and pray for you all, I was truly (and remarkably naively) surprised and how different it is to go into a worship service without having done that.
On the sabbatical two things really stood out to me in this regard. First, preparation is vital for depth of worship. Second, preparation must be intentional and cooperative.
It was over the course of the first couple of weeks at other churches that I realized how significant the first lesson was. My ability to concentrate and engage was much, much less than when I’m at Grace. At first I assumed it was because we were in a new place and in a new routine (and I’m sure that does play some role). Quickly, however, I realized that there was something much deeper than that. I hadn’t prepared in anything close to the way I do at Grace.
And that led to the second lesson. Without being the primary preacher it was all-too-easy for me to be less intentional on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. What’s more, even as I tried to prepare well by looking at the church’s website to try and figure out the sermon text and songs for the week and the order of service, I couldn’t believe how hard it was. It got better as we attended the same church for several weeks and I got to know the pastor, but it was never easy.
With that, I learned in a new way two quick but vital ways I’ve committed to responding to these things. First, I mean to grow in my prayer life (for myself, my family, and all of you) in the understanding that it is a work of God to unite our hearts with his and one another’s.
Psalm 119:33-38 Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. 35 Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. 36 Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! 37 Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. 38 Confirm to your servant your promise, that you may be feared.
God must work so that we desire him. I’ve begun in a new way to ask God for his grace in this way (for myself and for you all). Would you join me in that?
The second thing I want to mention and grow in pursuing for my family and all of you is that God has given us a number of ways that he means us to seek his grace. That is, God means us to prepare well and is pleased to meet us as we do. I read an article a number of years ago that succinctly names several ways we can do this.
- Seize the Rest of the Week: Practice family worship and [have quiet times] throughout the week knowing that this will inform and encourage your experience in corporate worship.
- Be Boring: Go to bed early on Saturday night. Friday nights can be filled with late-night activity, but Saturday nights should routinely be safeguarded. Sleepy heads make for drowsy worshippers.
- Right Attitude: Cultivate a spirit of joy on Sunday mornings in your home. If this is the highlight of our week, then let’s act like it. Talk about how wonderful the day is going to be, wake the kids up with excitement, turn on good Christian music for the whole family to listen to, and put a smile on your face.
- Media Blackout: Refrain from turning on the television, watching Netflix, [checking sports scores], or catching up on Facebook Sunday mornings. Our minds are so easily distracted. Safeguard your [brain].
- Plan Ahead: Lay out your Sunday morning clothes on Saturday night, so you don’t have to change ten times on Sunday morning before finding an outfit that fits well, looks right, or is ironed…
- Don’t Be Surprised: Read and think through the Sunday morning text earlier in the week. We should seldom be surprised at the passage we hear preached. Working our way through a passage throughout the week provides more fertile soil on Sunday morning. [Likewise, familiarize yourself with the music.]
- Early Bird: Rise early on Sunday morning and spend time reading the Word, praying, and meditating to prepare your heart for worship.
- Talk & Drive: On the car-ride to church talk about the passage that will be preached, sing [the morning’s hymns] together, and converse about the things of God.
- Timing it Right: Give yourself enough time on Sunday mornings. Rise early enough that the morning isn’t rushed. Leave home with plenty of time … to arrive more than a few minutes before the service. Rushing out the door at home and rushing in the door at church has stymied many worshippers.
- Collect Your Thoughts: Sit-down, read through the bulletin (if you have one), think through the songs, meditate on the Scripture readings, and pray before the service begins.
A lot of this depends on us sharing things like the order of service, the sermon text, and the songs with you as early as possible. When I returned, I was really encouraged to see that Mat had already begun some of this. Among other things, we’re going to try to have the order of service posted on the website by Thursday and sent out in News and Notes by Friday of each week. We’re hopeful that this will help all of us prepare well.
Over Time, Small Sins Can Become Devastating
To change gears just a bit, I want to share with you two lessons I learned as I tried to understand why I felt such a need for a sabbatical. That is, as I tried to figure out why I was so tired—aside from the obvious (large family, growing church, demands of ministry, etc.)—these next two lessons seemed to play a significant role.
First, God helped me to see that my own sin was making me tired; specifically, the accumulation of small sins over time. Indeed, I learned that over time, “small sins” can become devastating. I won’t spend a lot of time on this one, but I do want to point us all to James 1 and share a quick example.
James 1:14-15 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
This passage rang out in my ears a number of times throughout the sabbatical, particularly the part about sins maturing (growing) over time. The clear point of the passage is that sins often start smaller and if they’re left alive (unrepented of, unmortified, undealt with) they will grow and grow until they kill (bring forth death).
By the grace of God there are no “big” sins in my life. I’d found too much comfort in that knowledge to the point that I’d missed a number of smaller ones, the effects of which were quietly sucking life out of me (and others). I’m thinking mainly of small doses of selfishness, sullenness, and criticalness. As these things lived (largely) unacknowledged and (therefore) unchecked in me, it made my life harder and the lives of those around me more difficult too. That led to strain in relationships which, as you all know, and by God’s design, is very tiring. The fatigue is meant to be a warning sign and a call to repentance. That’s the first reason I found for my sense of a need for a sabbatical. And the application is to be much more careful in my self-assessments, much more intentional in seeking input from others (are there any ways I’ve sinned against you?), and much quicker in my repentance.
Trust/Fear God Alone
The second cause of my tiredness that I (unexpectedly) discovered (and the sixth lesson I learned) is that I wasn’t trusting in and fearing God alone. I was reminded of passages like Luke 12:4-5.
Luke 12:4-5 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. 5 But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!
Often times in this life following Jesus means making other people unhappy with you. My main job as a pastor is to follow Jesus and call others to as well. This means, in one very real sense, that my main job is to make people unhappy with me. Walking in obedience to Jesus and calling others to do the same (with all the love, grace, truth, mercy, kindness, patience, and humility that requires), Jesus will promised, make people mad.
Please don’t mishear me. I don’t want to make people mad for its own sake, and I know that every time someone is mad at me it isn’t because I’m acting in a godly way. When it does happen though (when I am rightly executing my office as a minister of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and it spurs someone to anger), I’m meant to grieve for them and know the peace of God that comes from obedience. If my trust and fear are in God alone I will know rest even in the scorn of others. On the sabbatical the Spirit through the Word helped me to realized that the fear of man had crept in undetected in a few ways and that had produced weariness.
The lesson is to pray much, to know the Word, to seek out wisdom, to walk in the light, to preach the gospel and explain the Scriptures boldly, and then to rest in Christ come-what-may. This is easier said than done, but by God’s grace I now know in a more mature way the need to fight for it and find its rest.
We Love Grace Church
Finally, I learned that we really love Grace Church. There is no doubt that our love for Grace Church—for all of you—grew during the sabbatical. As I mentioned last week, not a week went by without one of the kids saying “I miss Grace Church” or “I wish we were going to Grace.”
From the send-off to your constant prayers and notes of encouragement to the way Mike and Kyle stayed in touch to the warm welcome we received upon returning, your love and support couldn’t have been more clear to us. What’s more, we attended several churches—good churches—where it was easy to see a lack of genuine warmth toward and affection for the pastor.
The main passage that came to mind for me was Hebrews 13:17.
Hebrews 13:17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
You all make it a joy to be your shepherd. This became more and more clear while we were gone. It is our earnest hope to continue serving you for as long as God allows; and to do so by sharing not only the gospel, but our very lives with you.
Thank you all. Thanks for this gift to my family and I which we hope turns into a bigger gift for you all. Thanks for doing so with generosity and joy. Thanks for doing so with prayer and patience. And thanks for doing so out of the fruit of the gospel in your lives. I hope that all of this encourages you and that by God’s grace at least one or two of these lessons are for you to learn and apply as well.