THE GIFT OF SABBATH—Exodus 20:8-11, Exodus 31:12-16
(Children’s Sermon: Show a car Maintenance Schedule. Just as a car needs maintenance, we do too. We do that at church, and other times…)
Which of the 10 commandments is optional? For many Americans, all of them! You can hardly go through a day without hearing Lord’s name misused. Lying, stealing (cheating on taxes), adultery (pornography or flirtation)—as long as it doesn’t get too bad, is accepted. And coveting—coveting keeps the economy humming along.
Most Christians would not routinely steal, lie, murder, commit adultery, or use profanity—at least without feeling guilty and trying to improve their performance! But when we come to the fourth commandment…
Read Exodus 20:8-11. Is keeping the Sabbath optional?
The Jewish Sabbath was from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Christians worshipped on a different day, Sunday, because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection. Since many Christians were slaves, they had to work all day Saturday and Sunday, and they worshipped on Sunday evening. How would Christians keep the Sabbath?
By the fourth century, Christianity had taken root in the Roman Empire, and there was a law against working on Sunday. By the ninth century, Sunday was called the “Lord’s Day,” a sort of Christian Sabbath. The Westminster Confession of 1648, the Presbyterian confession which influenced the Puritans, said of Sunday, “This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up THE WHOLE TIME in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.”
Did they get it right? I grew up in a home that was not quite that strict, although we spent a lot of time at church on Sundays. We couldn’t do homework, and we didn’t shop. Sunday afternoons were sometimes boring, but I read a lot of books, and our family loved to play cards or other games together. It may have been legalistic, but a break from normal activities had its benefits. Should that be the standard for Christians?
Jesus affirmed God’s law, but he was not legalistic about the Sabbath. Jewish leaders were upset when his disciples picked grain as they walked through a field, and when he healed on the Sabbath. His response was, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)
Are we, then, obligated to observe the Sabbath? A related question is whether we, as followers of Christ, are obligated to obey ANY of the commandments. If we are wondering whether we can rebel against what God says, the Apostle Paul is quite clear in Romans 6:14, “Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace? No way!” We are not UNDER LAW. Our obedience is not to a list of rules, but to the will of God for us. In other words, we don’t ask, “What does the law require of me?” but rather, “What does God want for me?” The Ten Commandments help us determine what God wants for us, of course, and as followers of Christ, we are also guided by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 7:6, “We have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
We don’t keep the Sabbath as a legalistic requirement; we keep the Sabbath as the Holy Spirit leads us. At the same time, we take very seriously God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath, because we trust him to have our best interests at heart.
HOW DO WE KEEP the SABBATH HOLY? How can we implement the principle and practice of Sabbath into our lives today?
1. Set aside a regular time to relax from the pressures of everyday life. (Does that sound good to you?)
God built into his creation a rhythm of rest. Exodus 20:11 says, “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.”
Did God need rest? Hardly. But we do! At the very beginning of the Scriptures, God gave people a maintenance schedule. (Preacher: If you didn’t do the suggested Children’s Sermon, you might want to work it in now.)
I was once a pastor in a small town where the main employer manufactured parts for trucks and cars. The business was cyclical, and to avoid hiring too many employees the plant went through extended periods of mandatory, 70-hour-a-week overtime. People who worked at the plant told me that when 7-day-a-week overtime lasted for more than a few months, there was more scrap and more accidents at work. Marriages also suffered; stressed employees would not go home after work, as might be expected, but to the bar.
God gave us a maintenance schedule: Take a break from busyness, stop multi-tasking, and take time to reset.
Secular journalist A.J. Jacobs spent a year of his life living quite literally according to the laws he found in the Bible. Some of his practices were very legalistic, although he found himself drawn to forgiveness, prayer, and the Sabbath. Christianity Today asked him, “What did taking a Sabbath do for you?” He replied, “I had been a workaholic, so I would work 24 hours a day. The first thing I would do when I woke up was check my Blackberry. The Sabbath is a great thing, because the Bible is saying you can't work. You can't check e-mail. You have to spend the day with your family. It's a real smell-the-roses type of day. I found it to be a day for joy, for just really reconnecting with my life and realizing that work is not everything. I loved it, but it was a huge struggle. I had to do it in stages. I still practice the Sabbath now. I'm Jewish, so I do it on Saturday. It's a day where I spend time with the family and refuse to work.” (CT, January 1, 2008)
Does our rest have to be on Sunday? God gives us a lot of flexibility: Romans 14:5 says, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” It doesn’t have to be on Sunday, but when do you unwind? When do you let go of stress and busyness?
I have good news for you: Your Boss told you to take some time off…every week! It is not optional; he is the Lord! Don’t feel guilty!
What should you do with that time? Are you going to be glued to your phone, or sitting around, feeling you should be doing something? You probably need a plan, and your plan should involve a CHANGE OF PACE. If you are active all week, take a nap, watch TV, go fishing, or read a book. If you sit most of the time, get out and exercise, or work in the garden. If you constantly stare at a screen, turn everything off and take a quiet walk with your spouse. If you really enjoy mowing the lawn or doing the laundry, go ahead; if you don’t enjoy it, plan ahead, so your lack of clean socks or the angry stares of your neighbors don’t force you to get to work. You have a lot of freedom to choose, but don’t cheat yourself!
2. Make worship a priority
As I said, Jesus was no legalist when it came to the Sabbath. Yet we read in Luke 4:16, “Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, AS WAS HIS CUSTOM.” Worship was on his busy schedule every week.
When we worship every week, we are making a statement to ourselves: “God is the center of my life.” The center of my life is not work, not recreation, not even family. In fact, God is even more important than activities I might enjoy during the time when I worship.
Weekly worship also makes a statement to our children and all those around us about the priority of God in our lives. One writer tells how his pious parents left their hay in the field on a Sunday, to go to church. They lost most of the cut hay to mold, but the impact on the family was priceless. The man wrote, “The one time Dad asked me why I live in a black neighborhood, I reminded him of the Sunday morning. Immediately he understood.”
In the Old Testament, keeping the Sabbath was a spiritual thermometer for God’s people. It was a sign that they valued their covenant-relationship with God, as well as the responsibilities they had toward the people around them. Exodus 31:12-16 says, “You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a SIGN between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you…The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.”
The Sabbath has practical impact as well. Our worship is preventive maintenance. We reflect on our lives, to eliminate confusion and confess our sins. We encounter God, and renew our faith and passion. We gain perspective on our problems and pressures, and receive guidance from God.
One of the best church ads I have ever seen is, “After the week you’ve had, you need a church like ours.” I hope our church is the kind of church that resets us for another week.
Sunday worship is also maintenance for the Bride of Christ, the church. Weekly worship is critical for a healthy, vibrant church that makes an impact in the world.
Weekly worship is a challenge. Sports and recreation have taken over traditional worship times. Some people worship on Facebook or gather their family to worship. That can be a good thing, although it does not provide as many opportunities for people to share gifts of teaching, music, caring, or encouragement. That is why Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
You know how it is when people are missing from church; you miss them. When you are the one who is missing, they miss you. Just sayin’.
How do we keep the Sabbath? Relax, worship, and…
3. Get a taste of heaven
The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 has a great statement about the Sabbath: [God’s will for me is] “that every day of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin already in this life the eternal Sabbath.” (Note to preacher: Q. & A. #103, based primarily on Hebrews 4:9-11. The H.C. is a Reformed Confession.)
What would you like to do in heaven? In heaven, will you spend time with your family, or will your family be much larger, and more perfect? Will there be unimaginable beauty, fantastic music, and an endless array of interesting things to do and see?
Will you worship in heaven? ***“The Color Purple” is a Pulitzer Prize winning book about racism, inequality, hypocrisy and violence against helpless people. The movie, based on the book, ends with powerful scene in a small country church. The church shares communion, with the bread and cup being passed down the rows, from white hands to black hands, from poor to wealthy, from oppressors to the oppressed. It seems surreal, and it is, except for the grace of God. Will the worship of heaven be anything like that?**
What is your ideal Sunday like? Is worship part of it? (If not, what does that say to you?) Is reconciliation and harmony part of your vision?
Does your ideal Sunday include a family dinner or family outing, some games together, or an intimate conversation? Will you enjoy the beauty of nature? Will you create something? Will you watch sports?
Will you take the time to visit or call someone in need of company? Will you plan for deeds of mercy and love? (In some tradition, people often took time on Sunday afternoons to visit those who were lonely or sick.)
Will you have intimate fellowship with God in private prayer? Will you spend time with a small group from church?
Your ideal Sabbath might tell you something about how ready you are for heaven! Your vision of heaven will carry over into the rest of your life. As the catechism says, “that EVERY DAY of my life I rest from my evil ways, let the Lord work in me through his Spirit, and so begin ALREADY IN THIS LIFE the eternal Sabbath”
We keep the Sabbath when God is at the center, and we worship and love him. People are a priority, especially family and church family and people in need. We enjoy the good things of God, and give thanks for his good gifts, and for the time he gives us to enjoy them.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO ENJOY SABBATH?
We can establish healthy rhythms. This week, you might want to take some time to reflect on your schedule, and adjust priorities and patterns. A healthy life includes productive times (six days!) and rejuvenating times.
We can make worship a priority. Maybe you change your commitments and plans. Also, when you come to worship, come prepared with a passionate desire for God, readiness to participate with others, and high expectations.
We can strive for a taste of heaven every day. We can spend time with God, do our work for his glory, love our families, and show his grace to everyone we meet.
The Sabbath is a gift from God, which we should accept with joy and gusto.