I love how God as our Shepherd is faithful to lead us even when we don’t understand or know the way. I am not the “quickest” sheep in the pen to understand, so I am thankful for verses like Isaiah 42:16 which says: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”
In July of 2014 I was approached to assume a new role with a mission organization. It was not something on my radar or that I had even considered prior to being asked. In fact a month before, I was on the verge of putting my resume in for a pastoral role with another church. But I did not have a peace about it so I didn’t do it. However, when approached about this role, God began to confirm it in multiple ways and through multiple people. In September of 2014 it was confirmed on both ends that this would be the direction we would go. However it would be something entirely new than what I had grown accustomed too.
It was within the first month of beginning this new role that I read and was comforted by the words of Joshua 3:3-4 “When you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the Levitical priests carrying it, you are to move out from your positions and follow it. Then you will know which way to go, since you have never been this way before.” God would lead…I would just need to follow him, trusting in Him every step of this new and “unfamiliar way!“
While I know I am where God wants me to be, there has been one main struggle. For six years I was preaching and teaching week in and week out multiple times a week. Preaching/teaching are my main gifts and while I have had a few opportunities to preach the first four months of this year, it has been two months without doing so since we moved to Colorado. Until just a week ago, Saturday nights and Sunday’s have been the hardest days. It has also caused some restlessness even though I know this has been right and is “just a season.”
But late last night, the Lord began to grant understanding (or I finally began to more fully understand this season and what the Lord has been doing and trying to reveal to me). It has to do with the Hebrew Shmita, or “Sabbatical year” that was supposed to occur every seven years for the Israelites. On this seventh year they were not to plant or harvest their fields, but let the land rest. Interestingly, September of 2014 began the Jewish Shmita. This corresponds exactly with when a new transition began in my life, after six years of pastoral ministry!
As I began to do a little study on the purpose of this season seven principles began to develop that I would like to share. While we are not under the Law of Moses, everything in the Word of God is there for our instruction and learning (Romans 15:4). It also corresponds with everything God has been trying to teach me over these past months personally. I pray it will be a blessing, even a guide, for when God leads you into a season of rest or “Sabbatical.”
Even God rested from his creative work on the 7th day (Genesis 2:2-3). In doing this he set an example, for our good, from the beginning of time. Jesus in fact said in Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Rest is essential and important to rejuvenate and replenish our strength and well-being. But “resting” has always been very difficult for me as I know it is for many people. “Resting” actually requires effort! (Hebrews 4:11). It can be a struggle, not just physically but spiritually in truly trusting and resting in Christ. I relate very much to Psalm 23:2 where the Psalmist says “He MAKES me lie down in green pastures.” Sheep don’t easily rest, unless they are totally at peace. Only the Shepherds presence can provide this peace. But this means we must trust in our Shepherd. When we do, he (Jesus) promises us rest (Matthew 11:28).
Prior to studying the seventh-year Sabbath the Lord had been speaking to me about resting from preaching/teaching. I had sensed that this year would be a season of “rest.” I just didn’t realize how much I needed it! This season has been a season of rest and healing from the hurts and emotional toll of the last six years of pastoral ministry.
We all need “Sabbaths.” To not disengage from our work, to not find quiet time to rejuvenate our souls by getting away and alone with Jesus (for short as well as extended times) is not healthy. In the academic world (and now even parts of the business world) professors often are granted a “Sabbatical” every seven to ten years. Personally, I believe pastors should be granted this as well. This is a healthy and positive thing that increases productivity, fruitfulness, effectiveness and creativity upon returning.
A “Sabbatical” is different from a mere vacation however. A “Sabbatical” doesn’t mean doing nothing. Often Sabbaticals are used to learn or develop a new skill, write a book, travel, further education, spend more quality family time etc. For me, this has been a season where I am learning all kinds of new skills, doing more writing (which has been therapeutic) and increasing my own learning and personal study. All this has been happening without me realizing or understanding fully the season I was in!
2. Reflect on God’s work/creation
One of the things I have been finding myself doing a lot of this year is simply enjoying and marveling in God’s creation. From the rolling hills of PA (where we are from), to the shores of NJ (where we were for six years) to the mountains of Colorado (where we are now), God’s creation is awe-inspiring and reveals aspects of His character/nature.
The seventh day is not a day for creating, but marveling in and reflecting on our Creator and his creation. This has a powerful renewing effect on our hearts, mind and souls. There is a reason so many people take vacations to the beach or seclusion of the mountains. Jesus himself often withdrew not only to “quiet” and “lonely” places, but to the mountains of Judea (Luke 5:16) and is seen walking the shores of Galilee (Mark 1:16, John 21) where he first called and then renewed the disciples calling and did a work of restoration in their lives. The shores can be restoring! The book of Psalms contains many metaphors and derives inspiration from creation to describe relationship with God (Psalm 8, 42 etc). A “Sabbath” season is a time of reflection and restoration of God’s calling on our lives! I know I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what has been done and what God has in store. Make it a habit to get away and alone where God can restore/renew your soul and relationship with Him.
3. Trusting God.
The Lord has been speaking to me much about “trusting” him in this season. For the Israelites, not actually working their fields during the seventh year would be a real test of their trust in the Lord. He had promised to provide for them, but would they trust him? History bears witness that they did not obey this command of God despite his warnings (Leviticus 26:34-43). In fact, this was actually part of the reason God sent them into exile for seventy years (Jeremiah 34, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21).
This has application spiritually or salvation wise as well. Many people are trusting in their good works to save them, when God has called us to simply trust in the work of his Son (John 6:28-29). Trusting in our works rather than Christ’s finished work on the cross is an act of disobedience and lack of trust in God’s provision for our sin. It also is what keeps us out of the “promised land” or heaven itself!
Are you trusting (or we could say “resting”) in the Lord? Do you recognize all you have comes from Him? He is our provider. He grants us the strength and wisdom to do what we do. “Resting” is a way of acknowledging His Sovereignty…that He is God and we are not.
4. To benefit the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).
The seventh year Sabbatical was a year that was to especially benefit the poor. The land was to be unplowed and unused (Exodus 23:11). This would mean crops/fruit would still grow, but it was not to be harvested and sold…only picked and consumed. The result would be food for all (owner, his family, workers etc.) but also for the poor specifically: “Then the poor among your people may get food from it.” (Exodus 23:12).
I found this to be very assuring because my new role this year has been all about serving the poor! This has been a year of being focused on resources getting to those in greatest need. The poor are not to be neglected. Proverbs 21:13 warns: “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” The Sabbath year reminds us to remember and provide for the poor. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.” (Galatians 2:10).
5. Forgiveness: Canceling Debts.
Deuteronomy 15:1-2: “At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed.”
Today, because of Christ’s death on the cross, the time of “forgiveness of sins” has been proclaimed (Luke 4:18-19). This is the heart of the Gospel message. We are to be a forgiving people, not holding others “debts” or “transgressions” against them (Matthew 6:12, 18:21-35). Freely we have been forgiven, freely we are to forgive.
The seventh year Sabbath was always to be a reminder to the Israelites that they were to be a forgiving people. God had redeemed them from slavery, they too were now to “free” others. For those on the receiving end, this would result in great relief. It was also healthy for those on the giving end…though it would cost them something. Debts cancelled are debts not paid. But once again, it comes back to trusting God. God promised he would bless the Israelites for this. He promised he would provide for them. To not cancel others debts was to not trust God.
In ministry, as well as life in general, people hurt us and wrong us. It can be very frustrating and painful. It can also lead to bitterness and anger. I realized about my fifth year into ministry that I was struggling with bitterness towards some people who seemed blind to their sin and continual problems/turmoil they were causing me personally and the health/growth of the church. Coupled with false accusation it was emotionally draining. I also have realized during this “Sabbatical” that I have grown more impatient rather than patient these last few years. Anger is another area I’ve identified has increased and accumulated. At the core of it is the need to “cancel” (and keep “cancelled/ing!”) some debts that I feel people “owe” me.
On the other end of extending forgiveness and canceling debts, is the freedom that comes from knowing your sins/debts have been cancelled. The seventh year was a year of freedom and relief. Even “slaves” (those who had “sold” themselves for work) were to be set free on the seventh year to choose whether to leave or stay (Deuteronomy 15:12-18). If the slave choose to stay, they would voluntarily have their earlobe pierced to show they belonged to that family.
Spiritually speaking, knowing we are a forgiven people in Christ results in freedom from guilt, shame, and the burden of sin! It also means we are no longer slaves to sin, but free to live for Christ, in whom there is true life. It means we now have been “marked” and belong in his family as a son/daughter of God! John 8:34-36: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
7. Refocus on Relationship/Obedience to God & His Word.
Deuteronomy 31:10-15: “Then Moses commanded them: “At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Festival of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. Assemble the people—men, women and children, and the foreigners residing in your towns—so they can listen and learn to fear the LORD your God and follow carefully all the words of this law. Their children, who do not know this law, must hear it and learn to fear the LORD your God.”
The Feast of Tabernacles is a Jewish holiday that takes place in September. The Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is in September. The law was to be read and heard by all the Israelites at the end of the seventh year as they entered into a New Year and new season. It was a time to renew their commitment and relationship with the Lord.
How we need times of reading and remembering God’s word! How we need to renew our walk with Him and relationship to Him! The fear of the Lord and obedience to the word of God is something that is much-needed in our own lives and families today. It’s a time for the whole family to come together around God and his word. It’s a time of learning in order to learn obedience out of respect and awe of the Lord.
I encourage you to allow the Lord to lead you in and through seasons of “rest.” We need daily moments of rest, weekly times of rest…even extended periods of rest from time to time. As hard as it is for me, I am learning by experience that seasons of rest are not fruitless or wasteful when the Lord ordains and orchestrates it. There truly is a “time and season for everything under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 3). It’s important we understand those times and seasons, so we know what to do (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Psalm 23:1-3: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”