“[The Sabbath] is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.“
Exodus 31:17 (NRSVCE)
One of the things that becomes really clear when you read through the Moses story is the emphasis that God placed on the idea of what’s called Sabbath. It’s one of God’s Top Ten rules and God keeps bringing it up, over and over again, and reminding the Hebrew people how important it is to knock off work every seven days. In concept, Sabbath is really pretty simple. The Creation story at the very start of Genesis describes God as having created the universe in six days. Then, on the seventh day, He took the day off and got some rest. Easy. Work six days, then take a day off. Get some rest. Be refreshed.
I have always scratched my head at what a sticking point Sabbath has been for people ever since. I mean, just a few weeks ago Grandma Vander Hart reminded me that God doesn’t want me mowing my lawn on Sunday, and she was quite serious. She also has a thing with tattoos, but that’s a post for another day.
When I grew up, my family were regular church attenders and sincere about God in a general sort of way. Going to church on Sunday was pretty much a given. We had rote prayers for family meals and bedtimes. During Christmas or Lent, mom might make us do the family devotion prescribed by our church which always felt a little awkward. The religious thing was always there, but it wasn’t a pervasive part of life. Sundays were always a restful day. After church mom usually made brunch, and then the rest of the day was spent chilling out. We kind of did Sabbath by default but nobody got uptight about it.
After becoming a follower of Jesus and becoming exposed to the traditions of other families and churches, I learned that this “Sabbath” thing was something certain churches and denominations took very seriously. Mothers prepared all of the Sunday meals on Saturday so they wouldn’t have to work. But that didn’t make sense because they still had to warm it up, serve it to the family, and clean up afterwards. So, I guess women still had to work, but less. I had friends tell me that they literally sat around in their living room with their family doing nothing. Some of them even had to be quiet. Maybe they got to read, but some couldn’t watch television because that meant you were making someone else work to entertain you and that was considered “conspiracy to commit Sabbath-breaking” in their religious code.
As I started to try and study and understand it, it got so confusing because the 7th day of the week was prescribed as the Sabbath. We read it again today! I knew my Jewish friends treated Saturday as “church day” but all the Christian churches I knew treated Sunday (which is the first day of the week) as the Sabbath day. When I asked about this I was told that when Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, the Sabbath changed to Sunday in the Christian tradition, but I knew for a fact that wasn’t anywhere in the Bible. After the resurrection, there’s not one shred of evidence that Jesus said, “Hey boys, we’re going to make an official Sabbath switch.” In fact, the record states clearly that the Twelve continued to follow all of the Hebrew traditions. So, these same people who were being ultra-legalistic and literal about obeying the Sabbath weren’t literal or legalistic at all about obeying the Sabbath on the only day prescribed for the Sabbath in scripture!
Sabbath confusion and conflict has been around forever. It started with the Hebrews and Moses and it was still causing conflict when Jesus showed up. Jesus was perpetually hounded by the religious leaders about keeping the Sabbath. If Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath He got in trouble. If His disciples picked a fig off a tree as they were walking by He got in trouble. And each time it came up, Jesus brushed it off. In fact, He made a point of healing someone on the Sabbath just to make it clear to the religious fundamentalists when He said: “The Sabbath was made to help humans. Humans weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.”
And, in the quiet this morning I’m reminded that this was the point. The Hebrews in Moses’ day had been slaves for hundreds of years. They never got a day off. The concept of a day of rest was foreign to them. They were an agrarian people with farms and livestock, and it’s easy to become a workaholic when there are fields and animals that need constant tending. When you’re so focused on your work all the time, you have very little physical, mental, or spiritual energy left. It’s unhealthy on multiple levels. What did Jesus say were the two commands from which all the others flow?
- Love God with everything you got. But if I’m working all the time then God ends up getting little or nothing from my depleted body, mind, and soul.
- Love others as you love yourself. But, if I’m working all the time then I’m really not loving myself well, and everyone around me gets nothing of me but what meager leftovers of self I have left.
I’m also reminded of observing how the legalism and fundamentalism I experienced early in my spiritual journey created really sad, angry, and bitter people whose lives, and even their worship, appeared to me to be void of anything close to resembling peace, love, or joy. I observed that what it did create were people driven to keep up religious appearances in public while sneaking around doing what they shouldn’t in secret.
This is exactly what Jesus came to free us from. And Sabbath is a great foundational lesson. It’s easy. We each need regular rest, relaxation, and relationship with our fellow sojourners on life’s road. We need to stop work for a day and fill the life tank with a good meal, some meaningful conversation, playing together, laughing together, and sharing of life together. Sabbath is about lifting the burdens and the drudgery of everyday life, not adding to it.
And, speaking of Sabbath, it’s the 4th of July holiday weekend coming up here in the States. Wendy and I will be doing a little extended Sabbath, exactly as I just described, with a couple of other families who are dear friends. So, I’ll be taking a few days off of blogging.
I hope you experience some Sabbath, as well, my friend. And, experience it in the fullness of the way God always intended it. Cheers!