March 8, 2020
Let’s talk about the Sabbath. The lesson from Exodus also includes keeping God’s name holy and honoring the older generation. So, there are three valuable topics, but let’s talk about just one, the middle one, the hinge between the commandments about how we relate to God and how we relate to each other. You see, the first three commandments in Exodus 20—no other gods, no worship of idols, and no careless claims in God’s name, all deal with our relationship to the Creator. And the last six commandments—honoring seniors, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying about your neighbor, and no lusting after other people’s stuff—all deal with our relationships with each other. But number four is at the core—a pivot that ties all the commandments together. So, let’s spend some time on it now.
One side of this hinge, as I mentioned, connects to those last six commandments—our relationships with other people. Depriving someone of rest leaves that person irritable and anxious. It can lead to emotional volatility and strained relationships.
The other expression of this commandment, as found in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, urges anyone who has authority over other people not to deprive them of rest. It says not to make your son, your daughter, your servant, your maid, your ox, your donkey, your cow, your homing pigeon, or a migrant worker do any work on the Day of Rest. Why? Because you remember being a slave in Egypt where the only thing you were valued for was your productivity.
In America, the incentive for an enslaved human being to work was, “Do this or you’ll get whipped or beaten.” In Egypt, a weaver would be punished with fifty lashes for missing a day of work. A day off was not part of the deal for a slave.
I don’t remember being a slave in Egypt, do you? Most of us have been privileged to live in a culture with a two-day weekend. Nevertheless, between earning a paycheck, caring for children, and caring for aging parents, many adults hardly enjoy a moment of rest, much less a day of it.
Other people find it hard to rest even if nobody is forcing them to work. The Economist magazine says 60 percent of people using smartphones stay connected to their offices 13.5 hours per day on average. Recognize any of these statements?
“I feel guilty if I’m not working.”
“My work is competitive. If I don’t work, I’m afraid other people will get ahead.”
“My coworkers will say I’m not productive. People will think I’m lazy.”
“I just have to stay busy or I get anxious.”
Or even, “I simply love what I do so why take a break?”
Might we suggest that for some people, work has become a form of idolatry, a god to fear, to love, or to obey?
Don’t misunderstand. It’s good to work! Some of you will tell me you grew up on a farm where the family started the day no later than 5 in the morning with chores and kept at it until 10 at night, when you finally hit the hay exhausted. You worked six days a week, but not seven. Maybe you even thrived on hard work.
But we also need rest. Stress reduction, health benefits, restored mental energy, productivity, and creativity, sharper focus, better memory—all these are tested, scientifically proven benefits of rest. The Sabbath principle—resting between periods of work—has practical value.
How do you observe a Sabbath? A North Carolina employer recognizes the Sabbath principle this way. The company is Bandwidth.com, a huge communications company. Their policy is that everyone leaves work by 6 p.m. at the latest and cannot communicate with each other for the next two hours. During those two hours, employees are asked to spend time the people they love. How about that?
Chick-fil-A is closed on Sundays. The founder, Truett Cathy, recalled working in restaurants that were open 24/7. He understood the importance of time off. So, he set aside one day of the week for himself and his employees “to rest and worship if they choose.” Assuming the workers are paid enough to afford a day off without going to work somewhere else on Sundays, I approve of this policy,
Why not engage in some creative thinking about how you might personally add some Sabbath practices to your life:
- What if you set aside a certain time each day to take a walk, take a nap, stop working, read your Bible, or pray?
- What if you commit yourself to attend worship every week (some who say they attend worship only show up about 20 percent of the time)? Not that coming to church is the highest standard of Sabbath-keeping. But even for the remainder of a Sunday—how about relaxing with family or friends?
- And what if, once a year, you were to go on a retreat? Or a mission trip that includes daily spiritual devotions?
Any of these suggested actions can benefit you spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Earlier, I called the fourth commandment a hinge. Its earthly benefits are a gift given by a gracious God. Its other dimension is our connection to God.
One of the two creation stories in Genesis tells us that God created for six days and rested on the seventh. To put it quite simply, rest reminds us of the privilege of being made in God’s image.
In chapter 31 of Exodus, the Lord doubles down on the Sabbath commandment because it’s by keeping the Sabbath that generation after generation will keep alive the knowledge of God. The Sabbath, says the Lord, is holy.
Holy. Holy-holy-holy! But what’s holy mean? In Exodus 3, verse 5, when Moses stands spellbound, the Lord’s voice comes from the burning bush that never burns out: “Take off your sandals. You’re standing on holy ground.” Holy ground. In the psychedelic days, we would say, “Far out! What a trip!” For truly, this story portrays a mind-blowing encounter. But why? Why does God initiate this holy moment with Moses? Not for entertainment, but to give Moses his vocation. God calls Moses to be the prophet who will lead the people away from affliction. God wants Moses to get the people out of Egypt and to lead them toward a land of milk and honey.
Orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath with detailed restrictions: no baking, no sewing, no washing clothes, no writing, no erasing, no cutting, no gluing, no stapling, no building, no lighting of a fire, not even candles, and no putting out a fire, even if a house may burn down.
But Christians recall the conflicts Jesus had with the Pharisees about picking grain on the Sabbath, healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, telling a lame man to pick up his bed and carry it on the Sabbath, and healing the blind man on the Sabbath. Such stories illustrate Jesus’s words, The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27) We understand the Sabbath not as a drudgery of restrictions, but as God’s gift of quality time.
No matter how you interpret this commandment—from strictly refraining from any type of work for one whole day a week, to showing up for worship every Sunday, to weaving periods of rest into your rhythm of work, ask yourself whether your Sabbaths are serving the holy purpose of keeping alive the knowledge of God in your life and in the lives of those around you. What’s the use of taking a day off, a vacation, or a leave of absence if it leaves you as frazzled as you were at work? Remember to observe the Sabbath in a way that brings you into closer communion with the Holy One. Let it be an opportunity to enjoy a refreshing closeness to the Creator and to delight in God’s creation.