Nurture … restoring the soul … healing deep wounds … saving of human life; not just saving from pain and from death, but saving for joy, for blessing, and for eternal life …
Renowned Presbyterian pastor John Buchannan writes of Sabbath, “the whole purpose of this tradition is … the nurture and restoring and healing and saving of human life. That’s what Jesus cared about –not religious legalism but whole, healthy human beings.”[i] And we would add, one cannot be whole and healthy unless one in a right relationship with God and with others, and the relationships are not right unless Jesus is at the center of them.
Nurture … restoring the soul …healing deep wounds … saving of human life – what feeds your soul? This is deeper than what is fun, though it can be fun. It’s more profound than what makes us happy, but in it we will most likely feel happy. It is of much greater significance than getting what we want and in the feeding of the soul, we get something that is more and is better than what we thought we wanted. What feeds your soul? To understand what to do and not do on the Sabbath we need a sense of that. We need to, at least in part, have an idea of what restores us in the depths of our very being.
Our base passage, which we have already read, is Exodus 20:8-11, the fourth commandment. Remember. When we remember July 4th, we celebrate our nation’s democracy and freedom. More than simply recalling a date and facts about it, remembering is involved. Fireworks, parades, and barbeques are ways we remember. Remembering the Sabbath is even more involved as remembering really means re-living or living again what God instituted at the creation and at the establishment of the Law.Remember.
Keep. Keep this day as a holy day that is set apart from all other days. Other ancient societies did not take a day off. People worked from sun up to sunset. There was no concept of leisure. Life was survival. People died of old age – at 35. The Israelites were odd. They circumcised their men and believed in 1 God not many. They stopped all activity 1 day a week. The Sabbath is to be kept holy and a way we do that is Rest. Remember, Keep, and Rest.
This passage from Exodus is the word of God and it is to inform and guide our lives. Yet, before we get bogged down trying to understand and obey, we must remember what Jesus said. All scripture is to be taken in terms of Jesus’ teaching and Jesus’ values. He said, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath”(Mark 2:27). This day made holy by God is a gift to us that serves us and invigorates us. Or, we said at the outset, the Sabbath nurtures, restores, heals, and saves. Of all that we come across in faith, the Sabbath, like nothing else, feeds our souls. From the mouth of Jesus we know, that more than command, the Sabbath is gift to us.
Our remembering, keeping, and resting are acts of obedience. In obedience, we are made new. The overarching goal of Sabbath is to live in God’s blessing. Before I get into examples of how people keep Sabbath, it is important we know why we do all this. It is to live in God’s blessing, receive God’s gift.
Here are some principles to consider as we think about planning Sabbath. First, we have to prepare. In most of our lives, there are commitments and expectations from others. We have to prepare people who count on us that Sabbath time is different. Our rest and our honoring of God and our time with family is the only precedent. All other demands on us that fill our lives most of the week will be left unattended until Sabbath time has passed. We need to prepare others by letting them know we stop business as usual. After preparation, we consider some important themes.
We’ve already mentioned that Sabbath activity should nurture, restore, and heal. Of course, Jesus is the Savior. Keeping Sabbath is not a way of forcing God to act. Rather, we do activities that God uses to make us new again. We do things that are likely to put us in a place and in a condition to meet God. Sarah MacDonald suggests three movements – ceasing, seeing, and celebrating.[ii] We’ve said ceasing is stopping business as usual. It is not stopping all activity. It is stopping normal time and the rushed thoughts that crowd our minds and stress us out in normal time. That stops as we enter Sabbath time.
Seeing picks up on the slightly different wording of the Sabbath command in the rendering of the 10 commandments found in Deuteronomy 5. In Exodus it says remember the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy it says “observe” the Sabbath. We observe that all days are Gods and that this is God’s special day. After we have stopped, we seek and see God. And with God, we celebrate a joy-filled time of relationship.
With our goal established – to live in God’s blessings on the day God blessed – and our principles laid out, how then do we keep Sabbath?
Leonard Sweet has served as Methodist pastor and is currently a professor of evangelism at Drew University. He remembers growing up and keeping the Sabbath which his family observed on Sunday. Gramma knew the principle of “Sabbath time.” [She] was rigid about the Lord’s day. My aunts and uncles and we grandkids couldn’t even file a fingernail on Sunday. There was no ball playing, no hide and seek, no running wildly through the house. We had to stay dressed up in our Sunday best all day. It seemed as though all we could do on Sunday was go to church, sing hymns, or take a walk. At 7 AM, the family gathered around the big table, with everyone in their best clothes. Grandad always asked the blessing and when he said “Amen,” everyone delved into a feast of bacon, eggs, hot biscuits, and oatmeal. No one got up from the table until Grandad led everyone in a family prayer. Then the chairs were pushed back and everyone knelt at the table for a time of Bible reading and more prayer.It was then time for church – Sunday School and then worship. Sunday dinner (served midday, after the morning worship) was the biggest meal of the week, both in terms of food and people at the table. Gramma always made enough for extra guests – fresh southern fried chicken, gravy, pinto beans, greens, bread, sliced tomatoes, coleslaw, and pickles. Far from boring, lonely, depressing times, Sunday afternoons were the primary time for visiting relatives and friends in country, playing the pump organ and singing hymns. On special occasions Gramma got out her dulcimer or banjo and she and Grandad sang a duet. At three PM we would visit local country churches for afternoon service and help with the music. Sunday supper was always early and light: mush and milk or pinto beans and corn dipped into buttermilk. Sunday evening worship services were always an obligation.Growing up I protested the strictness of these Sunday regulations. Today they stand as some of the most pleasant memories of my life.”[iii]
That’s one example, one from a big family, a country family that did not allow anything to interfere with what Leonard Sweet’s gramma would call the Lord’s Day. I don’t have anything negative to say about Sweet’s depiction of his childhood Sabbath. There is a lot I like about it. I am not convinced it is the only way to remember and observe, to live in God’s blessing.
I have previously mentioned the writing of Duke Divinity School professor Lauren Winner. She grew up as a Sabbath observant Jew and has since accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. She is not married and does have the kind of days of overwhelming family that Sweet describes. She writes about her Sabbath. Sabbath is, without question, the piece of Judaism I miss the most.[iv] I am not suggesting that Christians embrace the strict regulations of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. Indeed, the New Testament unambiguously inaugurates a new understanding. But there is something in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and above all a time that points toward God.For Christians, the Sabbath has an added dimension. It commemorates not only God’s resting from creation, but also God’s resurrection.For my own return to Sabbath observance, I am starting small. I have joined a Bible study that meets Sundays at 5PM. I attend church in the morning then have a leisurely lunch with friends, which might include reading the “Can-do Pigs” with the young twin daughters of my particularly close friend. I close out the day with the even Bible Study group. I have forsworn Sunday shopping, but if I am not with friends, I am at the Mud House [a coffee shop]. This is not much compared to the cessations of the Orthodox Sabbath; but still, the first arcs of a return to Sabbath.
Clearly quite a different ritual and practice than what was described Leonard Sweet. Lauren Winner’s may appear a bit easier to keep, but difficulty or ease are not the point. The point is living in God’s blessing. Both authors would say the Sabbaths they describe help them be conditioned to receive the blessings God extends. Leonard Sweet spoke out of a childhood memory. Lauren Winner spoke as one who does religious work but is not working Sunday.
Listen to the Sabbath approach of Eugene Peterson, a pastor of more than 30 years. We (him and his wife Jan) quit taking a“day off” and began keeping a “Sabbath,” a day in which we deliberately separated ourselves from the workweek – in our case being pastor and pastor’s wife – and gave ourselves to being present to what God has done and is doing, this creation in which we have been set down and this salvation in which we have been invited to be participants in a God-revealed life of resurrection.We kept Monday as our Sabbath. For us Sunday was a workday. Monday served as a day to get out of the way and to be present in an unforced yet intentional way of prayer. It was a day of nonnecessities: we prayed and we played.After getting the children off to school, I prepared a simple lunch of sandwiches and fruit. We took our day-pack, walking sticks, binoculars, and appropriate clothing for whatever weather faced us – rain, snow, sunshine. We drove to a trailhead, usually not more than 30 or 40 minutes away.Jan read a Psalm and prayed. We entered a morning of walking and silence in which we listened to Jesus. After a few hours of walking we found a rock alongside a river. We broke the silence with prayer and then ate our lunch. We talked about all our observations, a beaver, a fox, flowers in bloom, a robin or an oriole. We talked about conversations of the past week and reflected on the previous Sunday worship. We paid attention to the week we have just lived through. It turned out that we had missed a lot [before stopping to notice]. Each Sabbath became a day of remembering, becoming aware of where we were, who we were – the gifts of God for the people of God. We talked all the way home.[v]
Lauren Winner entered God’s blessing and lived in the day God blessed through a slowing of pace, intentionally refusing to work or hurry, and spending time with friends and with the community of faith. Jan and Eugene Peterson did the same with one another and out in nature. Leonard Sweet, as a child, entered God’s blessed time in the context of a rigid family ritual that involved family, worship, and food.
What possibilities are there for God’s people at HillSong Church to keep Sabbath, to remember and observe, and to receive God’s gift on this day God has blessed? Think of the question posed earlier. What feeds your soul? Think hard on that question.
What about golf? Is it played with others? Does it include meaningful relationship –real talking with one another, and genuine appreciation of God? If yes, then maybe golf can be a Sabbath activity. But if family time is lost because of golf, or if worship is skipped, then no. If golf is played for the sake of God, then it is not appropriate for Sabbath. The golf has to fit into the context of seeking God, making the day holy, and investing in relationships with Christ at the center.
The same is true of watching football. If it falls in the midst of day the includes worship and time spent meaningfully with people, and it is clearly a day that is set apart, then football is OK, I think. But if football, and not Jesus, is the center of the day, and everything is set around the football game, then football is not a good Sabbath activity.
These things – sports and other amusements are play, and play is good. They bring joy. But, if there is no specialness to the day, then football or golf or whatever are just fun things to do. They do not usher us into the blessed day of God.
What does?Worship – alone on a walk, with the church, with loved ones. Sabbath should be saturated in prayer and worship. One of the ways to make the Sabbath meal extra special and set apart is to light candles, read Psalms and say prayers that are only said on that day. Let the Sabbath meal be leisurely. For families with young children, this may be as chaotic as all other times are, especially when you first try initiating Sabbath. But stick with it. In a few months, and maybe sooner, the eight-year-old might say, “Oh boy, it’s Sunday. We light candles.” It might take him a little while before he connects the candles and the prayers and the worship with the day. But that’s OK. This is Sabbath. It’s OK if things take a little while.
At the risk of seeming ridiculously obvious, another great Sabbath activity is a Sabbath nap. Nearly every book or article I’ve looked at mentions a nap when talking about Sabbath time.
Be outdoors for a bit of the Sabbath. Feel the chill of winter, the fresh liveliness of spring, the warm summer’s sun, the caress of an autumn breeze, and maybe even the freshness of a sprinkle or gentle rain, if it’s not too cold. Go for a walk or do some gardening (but only if gardening is not “work”). Toss a Frisbee. We sometimes play kickball games at our house that include neighborhood kids. We had some close friends who, before they moved out of town, would invite us over for Sunday dinner. The kids would play we adults would linger over the table just talking, sometimes for hours. That, along with worship, all of it together is Sabbath.
I will mention a couple of hazards. Sabbath has the potential to be extremely enjoyable. In fact, if the goal is to live in God’s blessing then it most likely will be among the most wonderful times of life, as Leonard Sweet attested. But, it must not be self-indulgent. On Sabbath, we do not seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake. We stop our hurry, we leave ordinary time (business as usual), and enter into God’s holiness. We aren’t seeking pleasure. We are seeking God.
One other hazzard or caution has to do with rules. Jesus rejected the rules the Pharisees clung to regarding Sabbath. None of those rules were made with bad intentions. The ancient rabbis looked at Exodus 20 just as we have this morning. The only rules God gave were to remember, to keep the day holy, and to rest. Trying to obey the command, the rabbis came up with hundreds of definitions of work so they could know what to not do. Jesus rejected this legalistic reading when he said the Sabbath is made for humankind, God’s gift to us. If we set a plan and something comes up to force us to do the things we resolved not to do on Sabbath, we aren’t in danger of Hellfire. We fall into God’s grace. We come back the next week, and try again.
Sabbath is not about rules, nor is it not about self-indulgence. Jesus rejected this type of Sabbath-keeping. For Jesus Sabbath was living in God’s goodness, God’s blessing.
On the Sabbath, stop! Stop daily, normal life. This is hard and requires commitment, but the result is living in God’s restful blessing. Stop. Then seek God in Sabbath time. Worship. Then do things in a special way to acknowledge the holy otherness of the day. And do it with people, loving them with the love of Christ whether you know them well or have just met them.This is the day the Lord has blessed. Live in it.
[i]From textweek (http://www.textweek.com/pentateuch/ex20b.htm), see http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/buchanan_4419.htm
[iii]L. Sweet (1998), Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville, TN, p.104-105.
[iv]L. Winner (2003), Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA, p.3, 9-10, 12-13.[v] E. Peterson (2011), Harper One, New York, NY, p.220-221.