Read it here in the Common English Bible.
I find myself in a time of unexpected Sabbath. It’s not unusual for a first-call pastor to be looking for a call after graduation. However, my Sabbath comes not from finishing seminary and waiting for a call, but rather leaving a “temporary” call in my home church. This Sabbath is both restful and challenging; a ceasing and a beginning.
Our view of Sabbath is most commonly seen as a day of rest. If we are familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, it expands to full year of “ceasing” (see: Exodus 16:26, 16:29, 20:20-21, 31:15, 35:2; Leviticus 23:3, 24:4; Deuteronomy 5:14; Nehemiah 10:31).
In our expanded view of Sabbath, we learn the two-sided coin of Sabbath: that it includes both life and death. We learn that the Sabbath year proves a needed rest for the land, but we don’t hear that God guaranteed the people would have the same amount to eat in that seventh year. In fact, they would have to forgo excesses during the six years to have enough for that seventh year. This Sabbath year required trust in God that the Sabbath would end so that planting could be resumed. We live in hope that Sabbath will come.
But at the same time, Sabbath is the time in-between because as much as we need it to come, we also need it to end.
Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go and do what you said. Only make a little loaf of bread for me first. Then bring it to me. You can make something for yourself and your son after that.” (1 Kings 17:13-16)
So here’s the thing about Elijah’s story: Did Elijah know what he was getting into when he said “yes” to God’s call? This is an interesting ministry Elijah has been invited into. Had God invited him to a ministry of death and exile? Had his life prepared him for this dry season that travelled much deeper into his soul than just a season without rain?
Elijah had a long time to contemplate this. Even though it takes us less than three minutes to read 1 Kings 17, it actually takes place over three years: three years from the time Elijah proclaims God’s judgment in the form of a drought, until finally, chapter 18, God sends Elijah back to Ahab to announce the rain will return.
What were these three years for Elijah? Did he wonder if this was the end of his ministry? Did he live in fear that God had forgotten him? Would he ever get back home? And if he did, what would he find when he returned? Was this merely a time of angst for Elijah – or did it become an unexpected Sabbath?
Sabbath can feel like rest but it can also feel like exile. This exile may be from people or places, but it can also be exile from things that have been left undone. But we learn in this passage that exile also shielded Elijah from harm. It provided time for Elijah to learn that he is never exiled from God.
And if this is true, then are we ever truly in exile?
Just as in the Sabbath for the land, God didn’t promise they would have everything to eat that they wanted – but God did promise food and even greater abundance when the Sabbath ended. Will my Sabbath be a period where I focus on exile and scarcity or God’s presence and abundance?
During this Sabbath period, I expect to encounter many unexpected people and events. Elijah found that a raven and a pagan widow were the means of grace that brought life. Do I believe that God can and will act in unexpected ways during my Sabbath? Will I be focused on myself, so sure of the necessary path, that I will miss how God is providing grace and life in unexpected ways?
During this Sabbath period, there will be times when I fear this Sabbath will never end; that God has forgotten me and the ministry God has called me to.
But every Sabbath ends.
God’s faithfulness is found in the sun that rises on a new day or a new year, proclaiming that our hope in God through Jesus Christ is not in vain. The sun rises, and work that had ceased is picked up again – and debts that held us in bondage are released.
How long with this Sabbath be? God only knows. Elijah shows us what it looks like to trust. Elijah teaches us that trust reveals God’s faithfulness, which is always revealed more fully in times of suffering and waiting. Elijah’s story is one of an Unexpected Sabbath. And probably if each of us is honest, our story is as well.