Hebrews 4:1-7: Radicalizing Ordinary Time

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The bliss of summer and ease of demand has come and gone along with ordinary time. Because of its length and placement in the year, ordinary time stretches on just as simply as its name implies: ordinarily. The sun beats down on the long days as the summer drags on and on. Pastors preach to congregations splitting their time between vacation and church. Students bask in the rest that comes with the long break. And for a moment, the world slows into Sabbath. 

The demands of the holiday seasons are deeply felt among marginalized groups. Traditional and well-known prayers are demanded for the ritual of high holy days, particularly Advent and Eastertide Seasons. Whether we are deconstructing, reconstructing, or simply being, we must mentally distance ourselves from gendered liturgy; historic prayers that historically harmed; images of the straightlaced, canonized whiteness; firm and binary boundaries; and inaccessible altars and pulpits. Ordinary time is an opportunity for Sabbath subversiveness. 

For those marginalized, particularly by the church, ordinary time can be an opportunity as great as Advent or Eastertide. With emptier pews and lower risks, churches open up their spaces for people on the margins to craft their own prayers and sermons, to speak truth to power. Ordinary time as a Sabbath is dynamic and subversive. It is a time to cast fresh visions, prepare for new busy seasons, and reflect on the previous year. It is the kind of radical Sabbath talked about in Hebrews 4:1-7 (NRSVUE): 

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it. For indeed the good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened.

For we who have believed are entering that rest, just as God has said, “As in my anger I swore, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” though his works were finished since the foundation of the world. For somewhere it speaks about the seventh day as follows, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 

And again in this place it says, “They shall not enter my rest.” Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

In his book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Walter Brueggemann writes that the Sabbath was and is a subversive teaching, an act of defiance against empires of productivity. A Sabbath rest is an alternative activity that resists “the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence” of whatever steals our limited leisure time. With Sabbath rest as a salvific, divine activity, the author of Hebrews empowered their audience to push back against the empire. In refusing to partake in societal norms and activities, Sabbath participants may enter a holy protest and regain their voice against those who persecute them. 

Delving into Hebrews 4:17, it seems that the author knew their intended audience would be among those who were persecuted—those in need of hope, a reason to hang onto their faith, and in need of rest (Heb. 10:10; 12:12).[1] Based on the author’s likely location and time frame, New Testament scholar K.K. Yeo concludes that the audience members were first- or second-generation Christians.[2] This audience, a people who faced rising persecution and were in danger of abandoning their faith, needed to be reminded of what it meant to be children of God despite imperial oppression.[3] The promise does not always result in prosperity but, like that of the Israelites, a nomadic life in the wilderness: “[T]he joyful life in Christ turns out to be full of resistance and saturated with suffering.”[4] This passage from Hebrews is a promise of resistance and redemption for both the first Christians and for marginalized groups today.

The author of Hebrews quoted Genesis 2 at the end of this passage, calling the reader back to a familiar story about God’s Sabbath rest after creation.[5] Sabbath rest is a divine activity, a communion with God, a time of restoration after a time of birthing new life. Humanity is invited to partake in the divine rest of God, but only after participating in the faithful, sanctifying, restorative act of creation.[6] Christians are called to breathe life into the world, to work with the chaos to usher in creation, just as the Spirit did (Gen. 1).

Some have retranslated Hebrews 4:3 as people who “are entering” rest rather than those who enter it at one point.[7] In other words, Sabbath is a pilgrimage.[8] The message is not that people of faith are guaranteed that rest, but that they are in a constant process of entering into rest.[9] Just like the Israelites, those marginalized into the wilderness are promised that their wanderings are not aimless, random, or chaotic; we are continually entering rest.[10] Notice that the author of Hebrews changed the tense of God’s testing of the Israelites in the wilderness depicted in Psalm 95.[11] This deliberate shift was intended to contextualize the story for the audience, a weary and long-suffering people in the midst of persecution. Just as the Israelites wandered, so also do people in the present journey onward toward rest. Those who are faithful do not enter at a particular moment but are in the sanctifying process of constantly entering the Sabbath.

What if we viewed the restfulness of Ordinary Time as a time of regenerative celebration? In the season that eases us with rhythmic ebbs and flows can be transformed into a period of radical creativity that breathes new life into the world. This is how biblical scholar Susan Docherty translates rest to an activity of heavenly worship. The word rest in this passage is better translated as a “Sabbath celebration” or a time of jubilee.[12] To celebrate amid a wandering, a struggle requires an active posture oriented toward celebration. It requires a holy work that is not of the empire but of creation. In the same way, ordinary time requires an attentiveness in its rhythms and rites. Used as a Sabbath, it becomes a beacon of hope, of respite, of busy and holy protest. 

Just as Brueggemann asserts, Sabbath rest “is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.”[13] Sabbath rest is actively not partaking of the competitive, compulsory activity of hustle-based culture; rather, we are called to pick up that which was discarded and give it new life. We create new things out of the seemingly ordinary—a renewed wandering people, new wineskins, the garden that stems from a mustard seed. Harkening back to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, restorative practices move alongside the chaos, the vast voids waiting for creation and new life (Gen. 1).[14] Celebration amid the struggle is liberation from systemic oppressive practices. It looks like queer folks serving Communion on Sunday mornings, people of color standing behind the pulpit of white congregations, children being centered in liturgies, churches tearing down altars to make God more accessible. These are the types of restorative practices that provide salvific moments of celebration amid and despite the struggle—the kind of practices that save.

We enter sanctuaries in this underemphasized moment, feeling a peace that surpasses all understanding, a rest that can only come after organizing the chaos, discovering a hope that is born out of the ordinary. During ordinary time, the stakes are lower. There are fewer volunteers to read prayers and Scripture on Sunday mornings, less prominent holy days. These are the days when the marginalized can approach the pulpit boldly, using this Sabbath season as a means of flipping the liturgy and building something new from the ashes of the old. The refreshing repetition and slowness give space for us to use ordinary time as a subversive Sabbath. We partake with God and create once more. And now, as Ordinary Time dwindles to an end, we walk into the busyness of the liturgical calendar. And we rest, waiting for ordinary time to come again so that we can create once more. In the Sabbath of Ordinary Time, we simultaneously subvert empiric, demanding powers and partake in rest with God—a radicalized ordinary time.

[1] Thomas Long, Interpretation (Hebrews), 3.

[2] K.K. Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 81.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, “The Scriptural World of Hebrews,” 239; Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 697; Long. Interpretation (Hebrews), 54.

[4] Long, Interpretation (Hebrews), 54. 

[5] Judith Hoch Wray, Rest As a Theological Metaphor, 83; Yeo. What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 100-101. 

[6] Erhard H. Gallos, “Katapausis and Sabbatismos in Hebrews 4,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing (2011): 133.

[7] Dmitri Royster, The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary (New York: St. Vladimir’s, 2003), 59.

[8] Sean Winter, “Journey and Rest: Hebrews, Pilgrimage, and the Work of Theological

Education,” Pacifica 28 no. 2 (2015):  https://doi.org/10.1177/1030570X16651652.

[9] Henry Chadwick, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964), 83. 

[10] Chadwick, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 83. 

[11] Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing, 85.

[12] Susan Docherty, “Recent Interpretations,” 181; Gerhard Kittel et al., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 992.  

[13] Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, 45.

[14] Dorsey, “Doctrine of the Holy Spirit,” March 30, 2022.

Abby Holcombe

Abby was born and raised in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. She is an elder candidate in the United Methodist Church and a second year Master of Divinity student at Garrett Seminary. Her call is to be a bridge builder, particularly in spaces of tension, and she is passionate about using liberative theologies for the cause of justice.

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