In the ancient world that the Israelites inhabited, work was your saviour. If you worked you ate.
So when God commands Israel to rest on the Sabbath, to do no work, he is making a daring statement: “Your salvation shall be found in me and not in your labours.”
That is, after all, how Israel’s salvation was won. God saved them not because of their own work, or their own strength or goodness, but because of his work, strength and goodness. Israel is to continue in the manner of their birth. That’s the Deuteronomy account of the Sabbath.
And the Exodus account of Sabbath? God rested from his labours. What could an extra day’s work on creation not have achieved? Just think how much more amazing it could have been if God had put in some overtime. The colours could have been amped up! Unicorns could have been created!
I jest, but this twin reality, God’s salvation work and God’s creation work is the template for the rest we encounter in the gospel of Jesus. We read in Hebrews 4:9-10:
So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For whoever enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from His.
Yet what happens when the transcendent falls off the map? Rest falls off the map. More importantly our salvation as people, and our creation as the people we think we ought to be – or at least what the images confronting us daily say we ought to be -, are more frenetic, less restful, more urgent.
What is our saviour today? It is politics surely. Our culture – in particular our political culture – is pushing for a secular form of transcendence to bring us what only God can, and in so doing announces itself as our saviour. And its restless, relentless pursuit is wearing us out, grinding us down. It is souring us and polarising us and we don’t know what to do about it.
Politics – as ultimate saviour – is like rust. It never sleeps – it never can. It keeps moving, keeps doing its thing, and like rust, keeps eating away at our social and communal foundations.
Politics is our salvation now. If the political process grinds to a halt salvation is lost. Left and Right. Conservative and Progressive. It’s a 24/7 social media feed. Politics is always on. It has to be, because it is filling the void left by transcendence’s absence.
Yet as James Smith reminds us in Awaiting The King, politics without transcendence becomes totalising, either as tyranny or idolatry. And it’s as true of progressive politics – maybe even more so given its majority penchant for refusing the transcendent -, as it is of conservative politics (which often wants Christendom without Christ).
Smith states of the progressive desire for peace:
When we ‘naturalise shalom, it is no longer shalom. For the new Jerusalem is not a product of our bottom-up efforts, as if it were constructed by us. The new Jerusalem descends from heaven (Rev 21:2, 10).
And Smith nails it with this line:
Shalom is not biblical language for progressive social amelioration. Shalom is a Christ-haunted call to long for kingdom to come.
In other words, take Christ out of the picture and the kingdom is something we have to engineer ourselves. We need a kingdom, right? And since no one’s bringing one, we’d better bring it ourselves. And we’d better not ease up on the task.
But if secular politics takes no rest, neither does it take any prisoners. Political opponents are no longer merely those with a common goal with a slightly different approach to achieving it. Unity of purpose is gone. My political opponents are not my enemies, they are The Enemy.
So as the saying goes, if you’re making an omelette, some eggs will just have to be broken. And hasn’t restless politics broken a lot of eggs over the past century! Hence whether they’re embryos, the poor, the marginalised, the different, or the old and vulnerable, this secular utopia – this Shalomelette – isn’t gonna cook itself.
Restless, relentless politics knows no Sabbath. But God’s people live within a Sabbath gifted to them in Christ. And whether you’re a sabbatarian or not, it’s the enforced rest from politics as saviour that turns Sabbath into what Bernd Wannenwetch labels a statement of “inertia” that faces off against politics and challenges its totalising tendencies. Or as Marva Dawn memorably called gathered worship: “A right royal waste of time.”
We gather to meet as God’s people as an anti-politics that, even in its rebellion against secular politics, equips us to serve the wider polis of which we are a part, just as effectively, if not even more so, than our secular counterparts.
Only the Christian community is sent out weekly by a Transcendent Sender “in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Unlike the secular polis, we no longer need to strive to justify ourselves. We love and serve the Lord and others free of self-interest, in the manner in which the Lord has loved and served us.
Worship again and again interrupts the course of the world. Through worship the Christian community testifies that the world is not on its own. And this also means that it is not kept alive by politics, as the business of politics, which knows no Sabbath, would have us believe. This is why the celebration of worship is not directed simply against this or that totalitarian regime; it is directed against the totalisation of political existence in general.
Whether you love Trump or hate him. Whether you’re a Brexiteer or Remainer. Whether you think Australia Day should remain January 26th or be shifted, when you totalise politics you reject Sabbath and its transcendent hope.
And when you do that you replace it with another hope altogether, usually one of your own withered imagination. And such a hope must be managed, curated, and purged of all that might threaten it. Marches must be marched. Media campaigns must be launched. Slogans must be painted. Sinners must be expunged.
And all of it 24/7. Welcome to the godless politics the likes of which Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr would not recognise despite their immense achievements. Neither of them would have sacrificed their weekly Sabbath to endorse such politics, for their politic was grounded in Sabbath, and their ultimate Shalom was coming to them in the form of a King.