Ancient Commandments; Modern Applications: III Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy
Hespeler, 14 August, 2016 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Luke 13:10-17, Genesis 1:27-2:3
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” That has got to be the biblical commandment that, over my time working with the church, I have heard about the most. People bring this one up just out of the blue all the time.
a time,” they
will say, “when Sunday actually meant something. Everything would stop for one
day. All the stores would be closed. The sports arenas were empty and everybody
was so bloody bored that church looked downright exciting. <Sigh> Those were the days when, for those few golden hours, the
church was definitely the least boring game in town.
“But these days,” people will go on, “Sunday is just another day. Everybody is working or, if they’re not working, they’re at the arena or the sports field or shopping. Everybody is so busy doing things that are interesting and even exciting. Is it any wonder that the church is having such a hard time?”
I mean, I may be exaggerating the position a little bit there, but I am not so sure that it is that far removed from how I have heard people talking about it. And there are some things behind those statements that we don’t usually examine and that I think we should.
It is assumed, for one thing, that we know what the purpose of the Sabbath law is – that a law requiring people to stop working for one day a week was created in order to bolster the practice of religion. That is why we assume that the law is about taking Sunday, the first day of the week, off when it is actually quite clearly about taking Saturday, the seventh day. We think that 3500 years ago, God told Moses to tell us to shut everything down for one day a week in order to make sure that people had no real alternative but to go to church on Sundays.
But that is clearly not what this law is about in the Bible. There are two main versions of the Sabbath law in the Bible, one in Exodus and one in Deuteronomy. The commandments are identical in what they order the people to do. The difference between the two versions is that they each give a reason for the law, but that they give two different reasons. According to Exodus, God gave the Sabbath law because “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” So, according to Exodus, the reason why we rest one day a week has to do with creation itself – almost as if the need for rest is built into the very fabric of the universe.
Deuteronomy gives a very different rationale for the law: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” it says, “and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand.” The reason in Deuteronomy has to do with the Israelites’ past experience with slavery. Basically, because they had been slaves, they aren’t to treat themselves or anyone else like a slave by forcing people to work seven days a week.
So the Bible is actually quite clear when it comes to the reason for the Sabbath law: it is about respect for creation and about respect for human liberty. Nowhere in the scriptures do you find any suggestion that the Sabbath was there to protect and promote religious institutions and yet Christians today seem to assume, that that is really all that it is for.
There is one other thing about how we speak of this commandment that troubles me. The only people I have ever heard who complain about people who don’t observe the Sabbath are people who go to church at least most of the time. People use it to complain about the behaviour of others – people who are not like them.
And that is actually one of my pet peeves about how we deal with biblical commandments in general. Anytime we believers start making a big deal about how other people – people who don’t believe like us – are not following a commandment, I don’t think that we are reading the commandments properly. The Bible states that the Law was given to the people of Israel as a blessing – as something that would allow them to live long and prosper in the land that the Lord their God was giving them. The commandments are for us, folks, and we really don’t get anywhere by complaining about others not following them.
As in many things, Jesus is the one who grasps the real purpose of the sabbath. When faced with the possibility of healing a woman whose body has been enslaved by pain on a Sabbath day, and also with the judgment of the religious folks of his doing healing work on the Sabbath, Jesus says, “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Jesus really couldn’t have been much clearer than that. He was right there – right in the middle of a religious gathering called a synagogue on a Saturday and he declared that the reason for Sabbath had nothing to do with the needs of that local religious institution and everything to do with the needs of this woman. And yet we continue to act as if the commandment is all about the place of religion in society.
So, the question is, if the commandment is not about the promotion of religion, what is it about? We have already seen a part of the answer to the question in the passages that we have briefly touched on. According to Exodus, the sabbath law is about respecting creation. According to Deuteronomy, it is about liberty from slavery. According to Jesus it is about healing. Those may sound like three very different reasons for why you ought to observe a Sabbath but I think that, if you put them all together, it can actually begin to make a lot of sense.
Sabbath, first of all, is about creation. It is about how you were made and about how we, as created beings, fit in with the whole of God’s wonderful creation. I think that this is something that is extremely important to realize given the world in which we find ourselves today. This world was created with certain built in cycles of work and rest. Until very recently in human history, for example, there were only so many hours in a day when human beings had enough light to do meaningful work. When the sun went down, you really didn’t have much choice but to take a break. The seasons of the year also had their natural cycles when there were times of heavy labour, but also times of rest and celebration.
But we were not satisfied with that. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution we have sought to take control over those natural cycles built into nature. We have filled our once darkened nights with artificial light. We have set up artificial environments where people can work long hours at all times of the year.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when people looked at all of the technological advances that were coming and predicted a future when most work would be automated and the biggest problem we would have was figuring out what to do with all our leisure time. The opposite seems to have happened with technology mostly being used to wring ever more and more productivity out of workers. Now, thanks to the cell phone and mobile computing you can take your office with you wherever you go and fill more and more of your life with work.
And I know that these technological advancements have brought many blessings with them and that none of us would be interested in going back to a pre-industrial age when everything stopped when the sun went down, but I think that it is important to recognize that while this technology has reshaped the world around us, the basic human software hasn’t changed. We are still essentially the same biological beings that were designed to thrive in a world a thousand years before the invention of the lightbulb.
If we don’t build into our lives ways to stop, to turn off the technology and to rest, our bodies will find ways to make that rest happen in spite of us. We see it all the time: health crises, mental health problems, breakdowns. You think that the modern epidemics of depression, addiction, breakdown and more came out of nowhere? When you deny your created nature and force your body to live without the rest it is designed to need, your body will find a way to rest that will likely be much worse for you. The need to rest is, first of all, about respecting who you were created to be.
It is, second of all, about respecting the created world around us. Human beings have always harvested and used the resources of the earth, of course, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there were always cycles of rest built into the exploitation of the earth. Fields were left fallow for a time, precious materials were dug out of the ground at a pace limited by human strength and endurance, trees were not cut down faster than more could grow. But here again, our technology has changed the balance and we are able take and take from the earth with no breaks to feed our profits. But the need for sabbath, we are told, is built into the very structure of the earth and if we do not find ways for the earth itself to rest, we may well find ourselves paying for that in ways we will not like.
According to Deuteronomy, the reason for the Sabbath law is different, though. There it is about freedom from slavery. It may be historically about God giving freedom to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, but I think that it's pretty clear that that is not the only application. The Sabbath law reminds us that, when we make life all about work and productivity and making money off of your labour and the labour of others, we do begin to rob people of their liberty.
And finally, according to Jesus, the Sabbath law is all about healing: “ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” And with those very words, we already see a connection with the whole idea of freedom from slavery. Jesus chose to speak of the woman’s infirmity as a kind of slavery – a slavery to pain, fear and weakness. She also was a former Hebrew slave set free by God just like the others and if her illness was preventing her from living out her freedom, then Sabbath was not only an acceptable time to heal her, it was indeed the most fitting time ever.
Even more important, healing was about the wholeness of the sick person – about restoring her to the person she was created to be. That is, therefore, where the Sabbath law comes to its completeness: a person who is living in wholeness, according to her creator’s plan for her and free from any and all bondage.
Sabbath is not some gimmick to prop up religious institutions and practices. It is about us becoming the best free people we can possibly be – the people that God created us to be.
What then does it mean to apply this law to modern life? Somehow, I think, it is going to have to be about more than establishing certain rules for what you can and cannot do on certain days of the week. Rules can be helpful, of course, but they don’t really get to the heart of the matter.
The reality is, for better or worse, that we live in a world that never stops – that is always moving and working 24/7. That’s not likely to change. And part of this reality is that we are never going to convince our society to go back to a practice of not working for one day of the week. It is just not going to happen. But what we can do – what we must do – is embrace those opportunities for rest that we can find and create. We must not feel guilty for resting from our labours. It is part of who we were created to be. We must embrace priorities other than work and production because we were made to be free. We must rest because it is a first step to healing and wholeness.
#140CharacterSermon Sabbath #Commandment isn't about propping up religion. It's about respecting creation, freedom from slavery and healing.