Monthly Letter – September 2023


Work and rest – the music of eternity

Dear Friends,

‘The summer has ended,’ the prophet Jeremiah at one point declared.

I know. Summer? It’s a sore subject for some.

And, yes, it was a sore subject, too, for that preacher from a former generation. He was using the graphic language of the changing seasons to articulate the gravity of an unrepentant state. Summer, the season when you reap the final benefits of all the sweat and toil the previous months involved: the moment when at last it all comes good: the days when there’s more of the sun.

Make hay, as they say, while the sun shines. ‘Now is the time of God’s favour,’ wrote Paul: ‘now is the day of salvation.’ But here, in the prophet Jeremiah’s day – here was a people who’d sleepwalked through the summer, missed the opportunities they’d had. And now that moment was gone.

‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

Yes, a sore subject indeed. But it’s not so much the need to make the most of all such moments which we’re given that I mean to highlight by that quote from Jeremiah – pertinent as it certainly is to our own situation today (I wrote about that last month, and don’t plan now to repeat myself). It’s more the way in which summer is itself the season both of holidays and harvest that I want to explore just a bit.

The welcome vacational centrepiece in most folks’ annual diary: and, at one and the same time, the great, demanding climax to the whole vocational schedule of the farming world. A simultaneous smorgasbord of rest and work.

Yet ‘smorgasbord’ is maybe not the most helpful or accurate word to use in describing this particular phenomenon: for a smorgasbord suggest that you may pick and choose just which you’re going to have – a bit of this, a bit of that: you get to choose.

Which is certainly how we do tend to think of rest and work: you get to choose (well, sometimes anyway) between the two. It’s one or the other – that’s how we tend to think of them – the two of them seen as opposites; a contrast to each other, rather than a complement.

Depending who you are – perhaps your personality, that sort of thing: depending what your current situation is in life: depending on a range of different factors at the time, you’ll have a certain tendency to gravitate towards one or other pole along this core and crucial spectrum of our earthly lives.

We call them ‘workaholics’ at the work end of this axis of humanity. Work is what gives them their meaning in life; work is the drug to which they’re addicted and sold, the ‘fix’ that fuels the ‘highs’ which they crave and satisfies their longing for significance. They can’t break the habit; they must be at work.

And yet they sometimes hate it too. Like any sort of addict, they hate the very thing they crave and recognize how easily their work (or, more precisely, their addiction to their work) may drive them to an early grave. Work, as well as being their master (perhaps, indeed, because it is their master), is also very much the enemy.

There are many, no doubt, who view it as such, as something of an enemy – necessary perhaps, but an unwelcome and necessary evil. Understandably so, of course. When your work is exhausting, frustrating and hard: when you find it both boring and pointless, a litany of day by day monotony; when the pressures and stresses, the targets and tensions, the sleeplessness, worry and grind, when all of these weigh down upon you constantly, impinging on your general health in all sorts of different ways – then it’s easy to see why work is deemed an enemy.

You long for rest. You swing across to the opposite end of this very basic axis of humanity. You’d give your all to be free from your work – from all its demands, from all its constraints, from all of the toil it involves. A million miles from being a workaholic; far more a ‘work-a-phobic’. Leisure and pleasure are the constant, stand-out virtues at the spectrum’s ‘southern’ pole.

Work and rest are viewed by most, you see, as wholly antithetical, the two great poles along this very basic axis of humanity. And that very view of the two is itself a further fall-out of the ‘fall’: it’s part of the damage that sin has produced in our lives as men and women here on earth – and as a result we’ll often end up oscillating markedly between the two.

Why the oscillation? Because, at least in part, we view work often now in a rather negative way. For work is hard, the ‘painful toil’ and the ‘sweat of your brow’ which the curse of God upon sin has infused through all our work (Gen.3.17, 19). And it makes ‘rest’ seem the end we should pursue. How long until my next day off? How long until my holidays? How long before I can take my early retirement?

But ‘rest’ as well has been distorted by the presence now of sin. Rest can become (and has often become) the pursuit of a self-indulgent leisure. Rest can become (and has often become) an aimless sort of laziness.

And rest can be found to be boring and empty and hard. When you lose your job and end up unemployed, when your health takes a tumble, when you’re no longer able to be out and about as once you were, when you’re largely confined, dependent on help and restricted, in both what you can do and where you can go … well, that enforced and obligatory ‘rest’ is suddenly not so attractive and has little appeal at all. You’d give a king’s ransom to be able to work and to have work you were free to do.

The fall has affected both work and rest – and distorted our view of both. For work and rest are never in the Scriptures an antithesis, with each in stark, sharp contrast to the other and viewed as two alternatives. Work and rest, so far as the Scriptures view them both, are in essence more antiphonal. They belong, in other words, together: a part of the same single song of life. Like the psalms which were written to be sung in that lovely antiphonal way – a single song, whose harmonies served to reinforce the truths which they conveyed. Or, indeed, even like a duet, where the same single line is sung in two ways by two different singers at once. Work perhaps as the melody, rest as the simultaneous harmony: the two lines sung together, the captivating music of eternity.

Isn’t that what the Scriptures teach? God works: not because He has to or gets paid to, but simply because He delights to. It’s who He is and what He does. God is emphatically a worker. From the opening page of His Scriptures, it’s continually made quite clear that this is what the living God does for His living: He works. “My Father is always at work to this very day,” said Jesus, “and I too am working” (Jn.5.17). Or think of what Isaiah affirmed in contrasting the Lord with the lifeless, useless idols of the ancient world – “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides You, who works (same word as in Genesis 1) on behalf of those who wait for Him” (Is.64.4). Or consider the point which Jesus Himself later stressed in reference to Himself – “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk.10.45).

God is emphatically a sleeves-rolled-up, willing, eager worker. And yet the Lord is also the pre-eminent exponent of the truly, wholly restful life: the quintessential ‘rest-er’. Not because He easily tires. Not because He’s got nothing to do. But rather because He takes time in the course of His work to enjoy and to savour that work: so He works (that’s how Genesis 1 is described in Gen.2.2-3), but as He works He looks: “and God saw that it was good … and God saw that it was good.” Not in the sense that whatever He’d wrought was a pleasant surprise when He stopped and saw what He’d done: but in the sense rather that He took time to enjoy and to savour the fruit of that work. Resting even as He worked.

And working even as He rested. Because work and rest are antiphonal, a constant duet being sung through the aeons of eternity, the melody of work being complemented by the harmony of rest – together the gentle, restful, peace-imparting, energizing shanties of the great Creator God.

Work and rest together. Rest and work together. That’s how it is with the Lord Himself. And that’s how He means it to be for His creatures as well. Take the sabbath instructions, for instance, and see how the thing got distorted by the Pharisees when they failed to see that work and rest are meant to be antiphonal, and not as they thought an antithesis. Rest, they concluded, must mean no work. Like no work at all.

But that’s not the way the Lord views the day. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,” He says, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them and not to turn away your own flesh and blood” (Is.58.6f). Which is hardly a laid-back twiddling of your thumbs: it sounds like an action-packed life.

I know that that passage is on about ‘fasting’; and I know that that passage goes on to refer to the sabbath, exhorting God’s people to ‘keep your feet from breaking the sabbath and from doing as you please on My holy day’. But the point of the passage is picked on by Jesus when confronting the sabbatarian sentinels of the day. What will you do – He teasingly asks – what will you do when your sheep’s in a hole and the day is the sabbath of God? You’ll go and grab a hold of it, of course you will, and you’ll go and lift it out. You’ll roll up your sleeves and get to work. Isaiah 58, applied to sheep: and if applicable to sheep, then how much more applicable to those who are the wandering sheep of God.

The day of rest, sure, but not the rest of total inactivity at all. You’re freed from the chores of your regular labour to engage in the work of ministering grace. Rest and work together.

It’s exactly the same that you see in the classic Jesus quote on ‘rest’. “Come unto Me,” He exhorted, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Which all sounds great: the best rest out. Which it is. But you need to take a look at what that rest He gives involves. It’s far from being the laid-back life of leisure which you maybe hoped it was. Anything but. “Take My yoke upon you,” He says, picking up the picture of the oxen in the field, and the hard, demanding labour that a future harvest calls for and requires. Hard work – but no longer an ox on your tod: the rest that He gives sees you yoked up with Jesus, where He takes the load and the lead, and you get to share in the harvesting work of the incoming kingdom of God. Rest and work engaged in together with Him. Antiphonal. The melody and harmony of heaven’s constant song.

Because that, of course, is just what heaven will bring. Rest – yes, for sure. The ‘rest’ for which we were made and for which we have longed. But not a lazy, laid-back life of leisure-time passivity: not that sort of rest at all. Instead, a life of liberated labour in the service of our great creative God who is always, through eternity, at work.

It’s to that sort of life, that sort of manner of living, that the gospel bids us come: learning to work in a rest-filled way, and learning to rest in a way that works. Watch how Jesus Himself in the gospel accounts shifts with such ease from one to the other and back again in a seamless, ceaseless singing of the symphonies of grace.

Learning to live in that sort of way is the key to spiritual stamina in our service of the Lord. It’s thus that we find our strength being renewed – whereby we soar on wings like eagles, and run and don’t grow weary, and walk with the Lord in the cause of the kingdom without ever faltering, flagging or fainting. He who is Himself our rest works in His servants so powerfully the energy of eternity, whereby alone we run the race and fight the fight and keep the faith to the end.

A new church year begins! Are you up for the work that it’s going to involve? Are you ready again to roll up your sleeves, and, like Paul, contend strenuously with all the energy which Christ so powerfully works in you – even as you joyfully, constantly rest in Him, and take His yoke upon you?

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord

Jeremy Middleton