The Gift of Sabbath

Original Date: 
Sunday, September 20, 2015

Genesis 2:1-3 and assorted scriptures The Gift of Sabbath

The Rhythm of My Childhood
Growing up, my family did Sundays well.

There was a predictable pattern to our Sundays. An easy rhythm. A routine that emphasized God, relationships, and rest.

On Sundays, we had breakfast together. The other six days were fend for yourself. Cold cereal and milk, or if you wanted something better you would make it yourself. But on Sundays we slept in a little, and then mom got out the magic fry pan coated in bacon grease and fried up eggs for anyone who wanted one. Dad would bring in the Sunday morning paper and we’d read the comics.

Then we headed off to church, where we sat in one of three pews, all on the east side of church, all near the front. Dad stuffed his pockets with peppermints or Werthers toffee and rationed them out according to how long the praying and preaching took. Then it was Sunday School for the kids, while Dad headed over to Grandpa and Grandma’s place to break down the week with Grandpa. When Sunday School let out, my brother and sister and I would walk the three blocks to Grandpa and Grandma’s house, or hitch a ride with Mom. Then we’d sit around Grandma’s kitchen table and have a bar or a cookie or a piece of angel food cake with a glass of orange punch while the grown-ups talked.

Eventually, we’d head back home, where lunch would be simple: hot dogs or chicken buns or whatever happened to be in the fridge. Then we’d watch a football game or read a book or take a nap. Around 2, I’d go with my Mom and sister to my other Grandma’s house, on my Mom’s side. There we’d have tea and more baked goods and we’d sit around Grandma’s kitchen table and play games. That’s where I learned to play games like Hearts and 10 Point Pitch and Tripoli.

(It doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I have to tell one of my favorite stories about Grandma. She was a bit older (my mom was the youngest of 7 kids) and had been widowed for about 10 years. She was also getting hard of hearing. She had a big 1970s era Mercury in the garage, but didn’t use it much. One winter Sunday we were playing games when she announced that she needed to go start her car and let it run a little, just to make sure the battery didn’t die. So she shuffled over to the garage and we listened as she started the car up and revved the engine. And I mean, she revved the engine. She had that big V8 roaring. Vroom! Vrooom! The plates in the china cabinet were rattling. Then she shut it off, came back in the house, shuffled back to the table, sat down, and said: “Purrs like a kitten.”)

Anyway… Sunday evenings at our house usually consisted of a lite supper (we’d been eating baked goods all day) and then we’d go to evening church or youth group or go visiting another family from church.

Like I said, I think my family did Sundays well. They were relaxing. There was a rhythm to them. There was room for God, room for family, room for rest.

But I was also aware of a dark side to Sundays. I grew up in Sioux County, where Sundays can be a day for watching the behavior of others. A day for gossiping about how others choose to spend the day. I was aware of tongues clucking over those who mowed their lawns on Sunday or hung laundry out to dry. I heard rumors of people who washed their cars on Sundays, but only in the garage with the doors closed.

Just a couple of months ago my family and my brother’s family went to Mom’s for Sunday lunch. Then we went out and trimmed some trees that were causing Mom problems. To me, it was fun. A chance to work with my brother and our teen-age boys. Something completely different from what I normally do during the week. But Mom lives on a busy black top, and she commented several times that she wondered what people would think, especially if people noticed it was her preacher son working on Sunday.

Spiritual director and psychiatrist Gerald May describes the Sabbath as a “day of spaciousness in form, time, and soul.” But he acknowledges that the practice of keeping Sabbath can switch from pleasure to pain. He says: “Now, religious Sabbath is apt to feel like restriction rather than freedom, confinement rather than space. Instead of freedom from having to work, Sabbath came to mean not being allowed to work.” (quoted by Alan Falding in An Unhurried Life, p. 113)

The Sabbath Gift
We’re in a series we are calling Slow. We’re talking about our busy lives and what God has to say about our busyness. We are finding that Christianity is a religion of rest. That Jesus invites us to bring our weary and over-burdened lives to Him and find rest for our souls. That God invites us to sleep, in the full assurance that He is still on the Throne and ever-watchful. Where other religions tell us we have to work to earn God’s approval, Christianity tells us what we really need to do is rest in the work He’s already done.

And we can’t do a series on slowing down without talking about Sabbath. After all, it was so important to God that we take one day a week for rest that it made His top ten list of commands. But Sabbath-keeping can be confusing: is it more about what you can’t do than what you can? Is it a day meant for us to be still and quiet or a day for us to be loud and raucous? Was it wrong for me to be cutting trees on Sunday? What does God really say about Sabbath keeping?

It is my contention that God has given us the Sabbath as a gift. God has given us a day off every week as a precious present. It is something He wants us to enjoy, not something He wants us to stress over. God has given us a day a week as a time of rest from work, a time for relationships, and time for delighting in Him.

(By the way, I realize that when I say Sabbath, most of you are going to think about Sunday. Sabbath is actually a Hebrew word that simply means “cease from labor.” Throughout the Old Testament, the Sabbath was observed on the seventh day of the week, what we know as Saturday. But when Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, it quickly became known as the Lord’s Day and Christians have been observing Sunday as the day for worship ever since. So it is o.k. for us to think of Sunday as the Sabbath day. I’ll say a little more about days of the week in a bit.)

Like last week, this is not going to be a sermon that stays with one passage of scripture. Rather, I’m going to reference a number passages as we try to learn what the Bible has to say about Sabbath-keeping. And, this week I’m going to have 5 points. 5 points about Sabbath-keeping.

The God Who Doesn’t Need to Rest
So, first point: Sabbath is modeled. God gives us the gift of rest by modeling it for us. The beginning of the Bible, Genesis 2:1-3:

1Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.

When God created the world: the stars, the Milky Way, the Sun and the moon; when He created the Earth, every inch of dirt that you see, and every mountain you’ll never climb and every cubic inch of lava inside the Earth; and when He created the sea, every gallon of salty water and every fish and dolphin and sea slug and whale; when he created everything that exists in all of creation, He spent six days on it. The animals and humans came on day 6, the brown bear and the platypus, the salamander and the prairie dog, the beginnings of you and me. He did that all in six days. But on the seventh day, He rested.

He didn’t need to rest. He’s God. He never slumbers or sleeps (Psalm 121:4). But He took a day anyway. He blessed it and made it holy. He took a day to enjoy Himself and all that He had made. He created something else by stopping from creating, He was creating the concept of rest.

And why did He do that? He was setting an example, creating a pattern, a rhythm for His people: 1– 2– 3- 4- 5- 6- rest. 1– 2– 3- 4- 5- 6- rest.

God created work, and it is good. On day 6 He told the first humans to “fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) He set them to work tilling the garden and taking care of it (Genesis 2:15). Work is good and something we are all called to do. We should put our hands and feet and brains to useful tasks. Being made in God’s image means that we follow His example in creating.

But God also created Rest, and He modeled that for us too. One day a week He has consecrated as a day for rest from work and rest for the enjoyment of Him.

And this is no mere afterthought, a tag along for the end of the week. “Rather,” as Alan Falding points out, “Sabbath rest is primary, and our good work grows out of our rest.” (p. 110) In fact, it’s worth noting that the first full day of Adam and Eve’s lives was a day of rest. Remember, they were created on day 6 and told to take care of the world God had made. But before they could begin doing that, they were to observe the seventh day as Sabbath. They hadn’t done a thing yet, but they began with rest. Then their work could spring from that rest.

God gives us rest as a gift. He models Sabbath for us as a way to prepare for our work.

Second point: Sabbath is commanded. God tells us to take a day off each week. Exodus 20:8-11:

8"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your
work, 10but 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. 11For 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.

When God gave the 10 commandments to Moses, He included the command to keep the Sabbath day holy. It is so important it made God’s list of top commands. And here’s where some of our struggle comes in: because how do you command someone to enjoy a gift? If it is commanded, it seems like something that should be hard to do. And so, we make it hard to do.

Here’s why I think God commands us: as a reminder. The word God uses is “remember.” Remember. As fallen human beings, we need reminders. We have a tendency to forget.

Mark Buchanan, who is an author I really appreciate, wrote a book on Sabbath called The Rest of God. And he points us to verse 11 as the explanation for this command. God takes us back to creation week, and reminds us of the example He has already set. Buchanan writes:

The Exodus command, with its call to imitation, plays on a hidden irony: we mimic God in order to remember we’re not God. In fact, that is a good definition of Sabbath: imitating God so that we stop trying to be God…Sabbath-keeping involves a recognition of our own weakness and smallness, that we are made from dust, that we hold our treasure in clay jars, and that without proper care we break. (p. 87)

We have a tendency to think that everything we have comes to us because we have earned it. And so we have a tendency to think that we have to keep working or we’ll lose out. We find we have a hard time slowing down, letting go, taking a break, because we fear we’ll fall behind, drop the ball or miss out. We feel we cannot rest until our work is done, and our work never feels done.

So, we put ourselves where only God belongs. We attempt to engineer our own lives. We believe ourselves to be the masters of our own fate.

And then God comes along with the fourth commandment and tells us to remember that we are not God. He requires us to just stop, and remember that we cannot control everything. To just stop, and leave some things in His capable hands.

Buchanan again:

Get this straight: The rest of God—the rest God gladly gives so that we might discover that part of God we’re missing—is not a reward for finishing. It’s not a bonus for work well done.

It’s a sheer gift. It is a stop-work order in the midst of work that’s never complete, never polished. Sabbath is not the break we’re allotted at the tail end of completing all our tasks and chores, the fulfillment of all our obligations. It’s the rest we take smack-dab in the middle of them, without apology, without guilt, and for no better reason than God told us we could. (p. 93)

The Classroom of Faith
Third point: Sabbath is a teacher. God uses Sabbath to teach us to trust in Him. In Deuteronomy, the 10 commandments are restated. (God knows that we forget.) The fourth commandment is pretty much the same, but when God explains why it is important He gives a different reason. Deuteronomy 5:15:

15Remember 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.

Instead of pointing back to the example set at Creation, this time God points back to the great salvation event in Israel’s history: the escape for Egypt. And it’s as though God is asking a rhetorical question here. He’s saying: How’d you get out of Egypt? How’d you escape the slavery chains? Was it because of your great skills as warriors? Was it because you had Harry Houdini-like escape abilities? No, God says, it was my mighty hand and my outstretched arm.

So, God says, you need a day off a week to teach you that it is I who works in this relationship, not you.

And, of course, He could say the same thing to us. We could have worked and worked and worked for our salvation forever, and we never would have earned it. 1000 years of labor wouldn’t even make a dent in the debt we owe. But Jesus came and paid our debt for us. Then He called out to us with the gospel. And He took our stony hearts and made them into hearts of flesh so that we would believe. And He’s given His Holy Spirit who is at work in us to sanctify and save us.

Again, it is God who does all the work in our relationship. And we should take a day off every week just to be taught this lesson. To learn to trust in God for what He has already done.

There is a story in Exodus 16 that takes place just after the Red Sea crossing. The people are hungry, and they are complaining. Already they are thinking it might be better to go back to Egypt. So God causes bread to rain down from heaven. Manna. All the people have to do is step outside their tents and they can gather as much as they need. There is just one rule: no keeping extra for the next day. If they kept any overnight, it filled with maggots and began to smell. They had to trust God to provide them with what they needed from day to day.

But on the Sabbath, no manna fell. The day before the Sabbath was the one day they were allowed to keep extra. Because on the Sabbath they needed to learn to trust God to provide them with what they needed. They needed to see that they could stop, and the world wouldn’t come to an end.

What about you? Can you stop working for a day and trust that God will provide what you need?

Truett Cathy was the founder of Chick-fil-a, the fast-food chain that is famous for being closed on Sundays. When asked why he was willing to give up an entire day of business, and one in which many restaurants do good business at that, he said: “Why do we close on Sunday? Well, it started back in 1946 when I opened my first restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop called The Dwarf Grill. After the first week, I determined that if it took seven days a week to make a living, I should be in some other business.”

Do you believe that you can slow down and stop for a day and still make a living? Can you take a day off, and trust that God will have enough for you to survive?

Lord of the Sabbath
Fourth point: Sabbath is for us. Sabbath was made as a gift for mankind, and not the other way around. One of the real problems with Sabbath-keeping is our desire to legislate it. We focus more on what we cannot do than we do on experiencing the gift God has for us. Mark 2:27-28:

27Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."

Here’s what’s happening when we read that verse. Jesus and His disciples are out for a walk and as they pass through the grainfields the disciples are plucking heads of grain from the stalks, rubbing them between their hands, and then eating them. This was a perfectly normal thing to do: it was considered part of Jewish hospitality that a farmer’s fields would be available to travelers.

The problem is: it’s the Sabbath. And what the disciples were doing was considered a form of labor, and therefore the Pharisees considered it to be a violation of the Sabbath. And the Pharisees took Sabbath-keeping very seriously.

So the Pharisees call it to Jesus’ attention, and wonder what Jesus is going to do about it. Jesus responds with the statement of verses 27 and 28: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words: God has given the Sabbath to us as a gift, not a punishment. The Sabbath “was instituted for our good, for our benefit, for our refreshment. Keeping the Sabbath was never intended to be an end in itself. It was meant to minister to the wholeness, rest, and renewal of human lives in communion with God.” (William C. Brownson, Meeting Jesus, p. 191)

We get a much more serious illustration of this in the very next story told in Mark. Jesus is in the synagogue on the Sabbath day when a man with a withered hand approaches. It’s an obvious set-up. The Pharisees consider healing to be a form of work and therefore impermissible on the Sabbath. So Jesus asks: “What is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or kill?” (3:4) In Matthew’s version of the story He asks if any of them who had a sheep fall into a pit on the Sabbath would be so cruel (and such poor farmers) that they wouldn’t get it out.

The Pharisees have no answer. Because the answer is obvious. It is better to do good on the Sabbath. To bless and help one another. So Jesus has the man stretch out his hand and heals it. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man (that’s Jesus!) is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

It’s a sad commentary on the misplaced priorities of the Pharisees that the story of the withered hand being healed ends with Mark saying “then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:6)

My point is not that we should all do whatever we want on the Sabbath, but that we should recognize this day off as the gift it is. A day for rest and for relationships and for God. Rather than focus on what we shouldn’t do, let’s enjoy it for what we can do. And if we have the opportunity to bless someone on the Sabbath, by all means let us take it.

Reality in Christ
Fifth point: Sabbath is a person. The point of Sabbath-keeping is to point us to Christ, who is the ultimate fulfillment of everything the Sabbath is meant to teach us. Colossians 2:16-17:

16Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Here Paul is picking up on a theme that runs throughout the New Testament: much of the Old Testament law was in preparation for the coming of Christ. The reason we don’t worship at a temple or sacrifice sheep or ceremonially circumcise our baby boys is because those laws found their fulfillment in Jesus. He is the new temple, the new sacrifice. He is our circumcision. And here, Paul includes the Sabbath day in that list of laws. What the Sabbath points to: rest and salvation and trust, is fulfilled in Jesus.

As my friend Matt Mitchell puts it: the principle of rest from your work and rest in God continues forever, but the command to hallow one day in seven is no more. It is subsumed and fulfilled in Jesus. Every day in Jesus is now the Sabbath. Every day we are called to accept the gift of God’s rest. Rest from thinking that we provide for ourselves. Rest from thinking that we can save ourselves. Rest from striving after other, lesser things to give you true and lasting joy.

A day off a week is merely a shadow of things to come. It points us to our eternal rest in heaven. Which is found, of course, only in Jesus Christ. He is indeed the Lord of the Sabbath. Not just that He decides what is right to do on this day, but that the whole day points to Him.

So, as I wrap up, allow me to give you a little coaching for how you think about Sabbath in your own life. I want you to Sabbathize well. So here are three things:

Don’t quibble over Days. As we’ve seen, the church has already moved its worship away from the seventh day to the first. The passage in Colossians reminds us that the Sabbath day has found its fulfillment in Christ. I don’t think we should get caught up in which day is best.

Frankly, Sundays don’t feel much like Sabbath to me. For those who work in healthcare and hosipitality and even the restaurant business it’s not always possible to take Sundays off. But I do think the rhythm of at least one day off in seven is important. It’s part of how God has created us. I take Mondays off, and try to make it a Sabbath. For those who work weekends, I recommend finding a day to be your Sabbath day.

At the same time, our culture still does a decent job of recognizing Sunday as a day off. And, of course, this is the day that we worship and celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. So I would encourage you to make worship a priority and I would encourage you to use Sundays as a day of rest. But I’m not going to quibble with you over days.

Or, again, Do not get legalistic. It’s so easy to start making rules. And, as we saw with the Pharisees, it’s especially easy to start applying those rules to other. Legalism turns God’s gift into a burden. And nobody wants that.

Mark Buchanan has what he calls Sabbath’s golden rule. He says we should cease from what is necessary, and embrace that which gives life. (p. 127) I think that is a good rule. Using your Sabbath to rest, for relationships, and for God; cease from what is necessary, embrace that which gives life.

So, with that in mind, was it wrong for me to trim trees on a Sunday? If it was necessary, if I made my living as a tree trimmer, maybe it would have been. But since I was spending time with my brother and our boys, since I was doing something good for my Mom, since I was doing something that felt life giving to me—I think it was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

At any rate, I don’t think we should get legalistic about it.

And, finally, Do not neglect the gift. Sabbath is a gift from God. Don’t ignore it. He’s given us one day in seven to rest, to connect to Him, to relate to our families, to renew. Don’t neglect the gift.

Let me take you back to the fourth commandment, as it is given in Deuteronomy. God reminds the Israelites that they were slaves in Egypt, but then He rescued them.

Here’s the thing about slaves: they don’t get to rest. Slaves, by definition, have no freedom to rest. Slaves are subject to the taskmasters, and they have to jump and bow and scrub and toil whenever the taskmasters tell them to.

But God drowned the taskmasters. God set the Isrealeites free. And one of the gifts of that freedom is Sabbath.

So, why in the world would you want to go back into slavery? “Don’t revive what God has removed. Don’t gather and piece back together what God has smashed and scattered. Don’t place yourself in a yoke that God broke and tossed off with his own hands.” (Buchanan, p. 89)

Sabbath is a gift. Take advantage of it.