Here’s the text of the sermon I gave yesterday, also posted on the Network Vineyard blog. You can also listen to it here.
Today I want to talk about discovering the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the weekly day of celebration and rest God commands his people to take in the ten commandments. Of course, for the Jews it was the seventh day, Saturday. Some time early in the history of the church, Christians made their holy day Sunday, rather than Saturday, honouring the day of Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t think God cares which day it is, only that it happens.
The Sabbath has the potential to be a part of our good news for the world. If we kept it well it could prophetically critique the busyness and stress of our world. It could demonstrate to the people we meet that life in the kingdom of God is different. It could show them some of the peace and rest that should follow from living in Jesus’ kingdom.
But too often the reality is quite different. I want to tell you a couple of examples of getting the Sabbath wrong.
In Jerusalem today, in some buildings owned by ultra-orthodox Jews, elevators stop at every floor on Saturdays so that no-one has to press the button, because pressing the button is work and all work must cease on Saturdays. Some rabbis believe that it is only acceptable to go up in the elevator, because on the way down, your weight assists the motor and so you’re doing some of the work.
You might think that’s ridiculous, but let me tell you a story from our city. I know a pastor – not Stuart – whose church gives him Friday and Saturday off. On Friday, he works for another Christian organisation. This leaves Saturday as his day off. But his church runs a Saturday night service and he helps out at this too. During the day on Saturday he catches up on the chores – the shopping, lawn-mowing and washing. He has basically worked seven days straight for eighteen months.
He sounded tired but also a little proud. He was coping with it. He was achieving a lot. He was squeezing in more things for God. But is that what God wants?
His story affected me. I don’t have his work ethic or his energy, but I realised I wasn’t doing a much better job of keeping the Sabbath.
Let’s look at the Bible and find out what we can learn about the Sabbath there.
Sabbath in the Old Testament
Have you noticed how often the Old Testament tells the same story twice? It might seem boring or unnecessary, but if we look closely we can learn important lessons. Often stories were retold at different points in Israel’s history to emphasise things that were relevant to their current situation. It’s a little like the way we remake films today. My mum loves the version of Romeo and Juliet that she watched in 1968 starring Olivia Hussey. But when I was a teenager, I loved Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version. If you watched them both, you’d a learn a lot from the similarities and differences.
I think it’s wonderful that God had his hand in keeping these stories together in the same Bible. It stops us from emphasising one side of things at the expense of the other side. It makes us realise that in different circumstances, stories have different significances for us as God’s people.
The command to keep the Sabbath is one of the cases where we have two versions of the story. In both cases, Sabbath keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments.
Here is the Exodus version in 20:8-11:
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Sabbath keeping gets us into step with the rhythm of the Creator. We’re made in God’s image and we are to follow his pattern of working and then resting.
In Deuteronomy 5:12-15 we have a different version of the ten commandments. It starts out the same, but the reasons for keeping the Sabbath holy are different:
Observe the Sabbath by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
Here, the command has a social justice element. You rest and you give your servants a rest. You rest to remember the Lord delivering you from slavery.
In thinking about this, we’ve got to remember how important the Exodus was to the Israelites. As Christians, our salvation is in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; for the Israelites, the Exodus was their salvation in freeing them from slavery in Egypt.
On the Sabbath, we should remember our salvation in Jesus. We remember the ways in which Jesus has brought us out of our enslavement. Perhaps enslavement to money, or success or to past hurts. Or for most of us, maybe we reflect that Jesus is still breaking that slavery and we offer ourselves to him to do his work.
We don’t have any servants ourselves to give a rest. Or do we? One thing we can think of when we hear this passage is the bondage of many people in the two-thirds world. We can remember the factory workers who work in poor conditions doing repetitive work for low wages to produce the consumer goods for rich countries like ours. We could refrain from shopping for one day. It will start an attitude in us that moderates the consumerism of our society.
Does it apply today?
But before we go any further, you might ask whether we’re even meant to keep the Sabbath. It’s in the Old Testament; there’s a lot of commands in the Old Testament that we don’t keep any more. We think it’s okay to wear clothes made from two different materials, even though the Israelites are commanded not to do this. Why should we keep the Sabbath command and not others?
This is such an important question. We could spend several sermons on it, but we won’t. Instead, I will just make some brief suggestions about learning from the Old Testament.
Firstly, we have to look at how a particular command took what was present in that ancient culture and transformed it. A command to not make human sacrifices is still true to us, but it’s not particularly relevant. However, we can learn some principles from it that would transform some elements of our culture. In terms of the Sabbath, the command was directed against the temptation to work all the time, a temptation that still exists today.
Secondly, we have to look at Jesus and his life and teaching. What direction does he give us? In the case of the Sabbath, we will be seeing that he had some very helpful things to say. He wants the Sabbath kept, but in a life-giving way, not the soul-destroying way some were doing it.
Thirdly, we have to look to the life of the early church in the rest of the New Testament to see how they wrestled with learning from the Old Testament, which was their only Bible. We don’t have time to do that with the Sabbath today, but basically they seemed to think they should keep observing the Sabbath.
Fourthly, we have to remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:18-20. Here he tells us that as a church we are responsible for working out how to apply the Bible to our lives. He says whatever we bind on Earth will be bound in heaven and whatever we loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven. Binding was the word Jews used when a command was judged to be applicable to a certain situation. Loosing was the word they used when a command was not applicable to a certain situation. This is a huge responsibility God has given us. The application of the Bible isn’t decided for us. Instead, we get to be part of an ongoing conversation about how to live faithfully as God’s people in our context, learning from the people who have gone before us and from each other. So part of the answer is that with the help of the Holy Spirit we have to prayerfully discern the answer together.
Jesus and the Sabbath
So what about the Sabbath in the New Testament?
In the Old Testament God tells the Israelites that they must keep the Sabbath day. He doesn’t tell them how to keep it. Eugene Peterson thinks that in giving clear reasons for keeping the Sabbath but not giving precise instructions, God has dignified us with creativity and initiative. He trusts us to work out Sabbath practices appropriate to our situation.
Of course, God’s trust is often broken.
At the time of Jesus, the Jews had spent centuries working out how to keep the Sabbath and the other laws God gave them. Teachers or rabbis debated with each other and each put forward a certain way of doing things.
The Pharisees were one group of Jews who were known for insisting on strict keeping of the Sabbath. God had told the Jews not to work; the Pharisees came up with a strict definition of what counted as work.
In Mark 2, Jesus gets into trouble with the Pharisees for breaking their rules of what counted as work. He let his disciples pick grain and eat it as they walked through a field. In answer to the Pharisees’ objections he tells them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’
Today I think we’re very conscious of not being Pharisees. Some of us have grown up in strict churches where there were a lot of rules about what you can’t do on Sunday. Perhaps for some of us the keeping of the Sabbath was a joyless, rule-bound duty.
Because of this fear of being like the Pharisees, we become so allergic to rules we don’t live with much discipline. Yet good rituals and good habits around the Sabbath don’t have to be life-sapping and Pharisaic. They can be life-giving, resting rituals and habits that get us in touch with ourselves, with each other and with God. This is how God intended it.
Jesus didn’t abolish the Sabbath. He only called for it to be restored to its true heart. Its true heart is not about nit-picking and precisely following rules, but about resting from work and celebrating our salvation. The Pharisees needed to hear that the Sabbath was made for humankind, not the other way around. We need to be reminded that the Sabbath was made.
Keeping the Sabbath today
If we try to keep the Sabbath today we have to walk that fine line between working out some Sabbath habits which make the day meaningful and the risk of becoming legalistic and bound up with rules. I’m going to suggest two broad types of activities for the Sabbath : ceasing and feasting.
A part of ceasing work means ceasing productivity and accomplishment. Not many of us work seven day weeks, but I wonder if there are other people like me who fall into the trap of needing to be productive seven days a week.
For me the Sabbath has been the lifting of a burden. Sometimes I used to come home from church on Sunday and wonder what chores I could get done before I had to go out again. If I wasn’t doing chores, I would try to get work done on the novel I’m writing. Even though I wasn’t doing any paid work, I had a productivity mentality even on Sunday.
When I decided to give the Sabbath a go, I was set free by knowing I wasn’t allowed to be productive on a Sunday. There was no pressure on me to do any housework or write any more words. I could do things just for fun.
You’re probably not as bad as me, but I challenge you to think about what you feel you need to do in order to have a ‘successful’ day. Are you giving yourself a weekly break from the need to be useful? Or are you letting the productivity obsession of our culture twist your perspective?
It’s a step of faith though. If you already feel like you have no time, how can you stop doing stuff for a whole day a week? We need to trust that God wants us to take a rest and that he will help us get everything we need to get done in the six days we have for ‘doing stuff’. I think we’ll find that having a day of rest will actually help us to work more effectively the rest of the week.
A book about Burke and Wills I was reading recently called The Dig Tree contrasts the expedition of Burke and Wills with that of the explorer John McDougall Stuart. Stuart was a Scotsman who observed the Sabbath and rested his men and horses every Sunday. Burke’s expedition drove relentlessly on without rest. The author thinks Stuart’s keeping of the Sabbath was one of the things which enabled him to survive four difficult expeditions through the same territory as Burke’s one disastrous expedition.
Resting one day a week makes sense, it’s how God designed us to be.
Having a day set free from being productive gives us more time to spend with people. If there is nothing we have to do on Sunday, we have the time to spend with other people. We have the time to visit, we have the time for hospitality. Relationships need time and on the Sabbath we have time to give.
Perhaps you can spend time with people from church that you feel like you’ve never got to know well enough. Or spend time with newcomers who don’t anyone yet. You could have lunch with them in an unhurried, leisurely way, knowing that there is nowhere else you need to be.
Perhaps you can spend time visiting family members who you don’t see often enough. Perhaps you can simply spend time together as a family that you don’t usually get.
Whatever you do, don’t feel burdened. Everyone’s situation is different. You might have had too much of people and you need to spend some Sabbath time in solitude, reconnecting to God on your own.
I encourage you to be creative in your Sabbath keeping. Find something that works for you in your situation. I once had a housemate who was very good at keeping the Sabbath. She looked forward to the Sabbath and was refreshed and enriched by it. After church in the morning, she would go to Fremantle. In the colder months, she would spend all afternoon at a cafe writing in her journal or reading. In the warmer months, she would go to the free concerts at the Fremantle Arts Centre and just spend time listening and hanging out with people.
Eugene Peterson takes his Sabbath on Monday, because he’s a pastor and Sunday is his busiest day. Here’s how he describes working out a Sabbath day:
We knew it must be a day for praying and playing, the two elements we noticed were woven in and out of all the healthy biblical, Jewish, and Christian observances.
We knew we needed a place and a routine (a sanctuary and a ritual) to support our practicec. We chose to use the forest trails for our sanctuary and devised a simple ritual of silence for the morning hours; we break the silence over lunch with audible prayers and are free to converse through the afternoon and evening. We birdwatch, smell flowers, pray the psalms, feel the weather, reflect, listen, look. We keep these Monday Sabbaths in all kind of weather and whether we feel like it or not, intending to be as diligent in our Sabbath keeping as we want our parishoners to be in theirs. No other single thing that we have done comes close to being as creative and deepening in our marriage, in our ministry and in our faith.
You need to talk with each other, with your spouse and with your brothers and sisters in the church. Have a conversation about what makes for good Sabbath practice. Do some of the binding and loosing I referred to earlier. One blogger writes:
Whatever genuinely rejuvenates your body and soul, do those things in increasing measure, the rest drop-kick.
To finish off, I want you to get talking around your tables about the Sabbath. Here’s some starting questions:
1. What good or bad experiences of the Sabbath have you had in the past?
2. Do you agree God is calling us to a Sabbath?
3. What sort of Sabbath practices would give life to you?