We’ve had a house guest staying with us the past few days. When you have a house guest, you start to realize that not everything that you do is normal. We have our family quirks, but we’re so used to them that we forget that not everyone acts as we do. We do them without even thinking about it. Then a guest comes along and we realize, “We’re not always normal after all. In fact, sometimes we’re freaks.”
If you do something without thinking, over time, that makes a difference. Do it once, and it hardly matters. Do the same thing over decades, and you have a situation. It makes a big difference whether I eat a piece of chocolate cake every night, or if I go out and exercise every night. One time doesn’t matter. Do the same thing over twenty years, and watch what happens.
Today, we’re going to look at something that most of us don’t do. Yet it’s something that, if done over time, can make a significant difference in our lives.
Tracing the Sabbath
The past few weeks, we’ve been examining the account of the creation of this world as recorded in Genesis. Last week, we got to the culmination of all that God created. You’d expect that, now that everything is created, the story would move on to other things. It doesn’t. There’s one more event in creation, and it’s not written as a tag-on. It’s a key part of all that God did to bring this world into being.
Genesis 2:1-3 reads like this:
So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. On the seventh day, having finished his task, God rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from his work of creation.
If you had written this story yourself, you wouldn’t have guessed that God would complete his creative work by resting. God finished creation, and then he rested, not because he was tired or needed to relax. He rested to commemorate what he had done. It’s as if God finished and was then enthroned. God commemorated the day and made it different.
I never caught one detail until this past week. Prior to taking his rest, God created humans in his image. God essentially said, “I’ve created you to be like me, to rule with me, and to act like me.” Then, the very next thing God does is to take a Sabbath and rest. If we’re going to be like God, it makes sense that we would do some of the same things that God does.
If this was all that the Bible had to say about the Sabbath, we’d just have to think a little about what it meant for God to do this. Instead, the idea of Sabbath becomes one of the themes of Scripture. When Moses gave the Ten Commandments, this was big enough to become number four, which is also the longest of the Ten Commandments:
Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days a week are set apart for your daily duties and regular work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any kind of work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; then he rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)
I’ll be there’s some details in this commandment that you’ve missed before. God never says what we’re supposed to do on this day. He doesn’t say to go to church or to the Temple or to do anything religious. God told Israel a lot about how to worship him, but he never gave any instructions about any religious duties to be performed on the Sabbath day. He didn’t say what to do, but he said what not to do. Don’t work. Don’t make it a day like every other day. You, and everyone around you (even the animals!) are to make this one day different.
“Wait, it says to keep it holy!” Actually, it says that if we make this day different and stop our normal routine, that will make the day holy. It’s not the religious stuff that we do on the Sabbath that makes it holy. It’s what we don’t do that makes it holy. We’re not told what to do; we’re only told what not to do on the Sabbath.
Think about this for a minute. God gives a list of his ten big commands for us to follow. One of them is that we take a break and don’t work all the time. What should we do instead? He doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t fill that day with all kinds of other stuff to do. He leaves that up to us. Just don’t work yourself to death seven days a week. Take one day and do something different.
This was so important to God that it came to be known as a sign of God’s relationship with Israel, part of his covenant. In Deuteronomy 5, it becomes tied with God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt as well as with creation. Then we get the idea that it’s tied to Israel’s ability to delight in God. Isaiah 58:13-14 says this:
Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the LORD’S holy day. Honor the LORD in everything you do, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly. If you do this, the LORD will be your delight. I will give you great honor and give you your full share of the inheritance I promised to Jacob, your ancestor. I, the LORD, have spoken!
By the time that Jesus arrived on earth, though, this had become a command that was seen as a burden rather than a delight. The religious leaders had built so many rules around how to keep the Sabbath that Sabbath-keeping was almost work itself. Jesus, who is presented as the God himself, came and claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath, and he released people from the burden that Sabbath-keeping had become. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to benefit people, and not people to benefit the Sabbath. And I, the Son of Man, am master even of the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:27). It’s not something that’s given to us as a burden. It’s given to us as a gift.
This commandment, which was so central to what God intended for us, had become a burden instead of a gift, but Jesus changed all of that. Later on, Paul went even further and said that the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ. He told followers of Christ to stop judging one another by how they kept the Sabbath (Colossians 2:16). The author of Hebrews goes even further and teaches that followers of Jesus Christ have already entered into God’s Sabbath rest.
Most of us read that and go, “Wahoo! No more being told what to do or not do on the Sabbath!” We’re like kids who are no longer on a curfew. The first few nights we stay up all night before we realize that sleep is actually a good idea. Paul doesn’t say that there is no more Sabbath. He essentially says the opposite. He says that every day belongs for God. Instead of one day out of seven being God’s, every day now belongs to God. We live in divine time. As followers of Christ, we’ve already entered into the Sabbath rest that God promised, even though we haven’t completely experienced it yet.
We’re no longer under the obligation to keep the Sabbath. Still, I think the Sabbath has something to say to us today. I want to unwrap some of what the Sabbath should mean to us today.
In ancient times, God did at least two things within Israel to claim them as his own. He instructed them to create a Tabernacle. There was nothing special about a tent set up over a patch of dirt, except it represented God’s presence. By claiming a piece of their space, he inhabited all of their space. He claimed their space as his own.
God did the same with time. He carved out a piece of time, and by inhabiting it and making it different, he claimed all of their time. At the core of Sabbath, that’s what it’s about. It’s about more than just taking a rest for ourselves. It’s stopping to remember that we’re his, that we’ve been made in his image, that he’s been at work in our lives. By giving God some of our time, we’re recognizing that he is the God who is over all of our time.
At its core, the Sabbath is about trusting God. One of the biggest problems that we tend to have with the Sabbath is the question, “Who’s going to look after us if we take a day off?” There’s all kinds of work that needs to be done, all sorts of needs that we need met. God takes this day and says, “Remember that I’m the one who looks after you. I’m the one who ultimately meets all your needs.” We’re tempted to depend on ourselves so much that we sometimes forget that we ultimately depend on God. The Sabbath is a reminder to us that it doesn’t depend on us. At least once a week, we stop to realize that we depend on God to meet our needs. He is, after all, the one who completes his work, as he did on the original Sabbath.
A person who feels they should work seven days a week is faced with the question, “What god am I worshiping?” When I’m tempted to do this – and I am! – I find myself realizing that I’m worshiping self-reliance, productivity, advancement. I’m worshiping all kinds of things, but I’m not worshiping God.
The Sabbath is also for rest. It’s meant as a rest for us. When you think about it, it’s funny that we struggle when God says, “Take a break. I won’t tell you what to do that day. Just take a break.” What’s not to like? It’s a day to realize that there is something higher than daily life. We enter into God’s rest and share his Sabbath. We realize that we’re more than cogs in a machine.
When I lose perspective, I tend to run even harder. I’m less sure of what I’m doing and where I’m going, but I’m doing it harder and going faster. Sabbath reminds me to take a break and to catch my breath. It’s time to reflect on what we’ve done and to welcome a few sacred moments into our lives.
Living the Sabbath
I need to bring this home today to two groups of people. The first are those who have been keeping the Sabbath religiously, even dutifully. The word for you today is probably something like this: relax! Recapture the delight of the Sabbath. It isn’t meant as a duty. It’s meant as a delight. It’s not something for which you should judge other believers. It’s a gift to be enjoyed.
If we have to be coerced into the Sabbath, it loses its function. It’s not an obligation or a duty. There’s not a list of what you should do. There aren’t tons of do’s or don’ts. Martin Luther said it well:
If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day’s sake, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to feast on it, to do anything to remove this reproach from Christian liberty.
So relax about it. It’s not a duty or a legalistic thing. It’s for your enjoyment, and the minute you start to make the Sabbath work, it’s already lost its purpose.
Most of us don’t fall into this group, though. I’m not going to try to make you feel guilty and to tell you that you need to start to take a Sabbath day. But I would invite you to receive a gift – not as an obligation, not as something that you must do. I’d like to invite you to receive a gift, believing that over the course of years and decades, this will make a significant difference in your life. I’d invite you to make one day a week different from the rest. Don’t do anything like work that day. Don’t get all caught up on what’s work and what isn’t. Just make it a different day.
Do I have to go to church on the Sabbath? No, you don’t have to do anything religious on the Sabbath. In the early church, people didn’t go to church on the Sabbath. They went to church on a Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. You’re never told what do on the Sabbath day. Be creative. Do whatever fuels your love, appreciation, respect, and awe of God and his cosmos. Create sacred space within your week.
Because every day is a Sabbath, we can do this with all of life. Len Sweet says, “A weekly or daily Sabbath is a ritual crowning of God’s reign and governance. It is life leaning into the sway and swag of the Spirit. But all of life can be a coronation rite.” You can celebrate the Sabbath in little ways daily. You can create sacred space within your time
Here’s what I’d like you to do this week. It’s not a promise, because then it would be an obligation. It’s a gift. Pick a day, any day this coming week, and make it a break for yourself. Don’t do anything that would be work. Use your creativity and do something different. And see what it does for your soul.
Let me close with this:
Remember, Sabbath is a gift to us from God. Accept his invitation. You can relax in his presence because he is safe to share your life with. More than anything else, he just wants the time to be with you. Unfettered and unbusy time to enjoy you, to show you his love. Time to make you a champion at living. (Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart)