1. Steven Covey coined a phrase, “Begin with the end in mind” and I think that applies to the Sabbath this morning. What was in God’s mind when he spoke to the children of Israel about a day of rest? Was there something more than a day of rest in His mind? I think there was.
I think that end is to be found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”
I think it was through the Sabbath that God began the process of teaching them – and us – that everything is a gift. Everything is grace. Nothing comes to us through our own hand or merit.
Deuteronomy 8:11-18: “Make sure you don’t forget God, your God, by not keeping his commandments, his rules and regulations that I command you today. Make sure that when you eat and are satisfied, build pleasant houses and settle in, see your herds and flocks flourish and more and more money come in, watch your standard of living going up and up—make sure you don’t become so full of yourself and your things that you forget God, your God, the God who delivered you from Egyptian slavery; the God who led you through that huge and fearsome wilderness, those desolate, arid badlands crawling with fiery snakes and scorpions; the God who gave you water gushing from hard rock; the God who gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never heard of, in order to give you a taste of the hard life, to test you so that you would be prepared to live well in the days ahead of you.” If you start thinking to yourselves, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine!”—well, think again.
Remember that God, your God, gave you the strength to produce all this wealth so as to confirm the covenant that he promised to your ancestors—as it is today.
This is why Paul says in Galatians 3:24: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” A part of the role of the Sabbath was not just to lead us to rest to but to lead us to faith and trust.
This is why Jesus says he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it and the fulfillment of the Law is faith and the recognition that everything is by grace – not just freedom from the constraints of the Law. Sabbath was intended for our good but not stopping there. Think of it as learning to play any instrument. We learn the notes and then we play our scales. But playing the scales is not the purpose of learning an instrument. Music is why we play our scales and master the basics. The same was true with some of the practices of the Law. They were scales on the way to music.
2. In Exodus 20 God says the original purpose of Sabbath is to be a sign – not just a rule with no meaning or something to be slavishly obeyed. It is a sign of a relationship between Himself and Israel. If you are going to create a peculiar people then you create some peculiar characteristics – and the Sabbath is not something people would create on their own. We’ll see that even more when we look at the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year.
Sabbath is about signs and weekly reminders of our relationship with God, with each other and with creation. There were four signs that began as reminders and were turned into prohibitions and a burden.
It is a sign of the world being created by a personal God and not by chance.
It is a sign that every created thing needs rest.
It is a sign that God will provide.
It is a sign that we are responsible for the poor.
There were 39 forbidden activities eventually and most of them were against being creative or making anything because God rested from being creative. Things as simple as weaving two threads, writing two or more letters of the alphabet, erasing two or more letters of the alphabet, putting the finishing touch on an object, baking, tying or untying. In other words, it was not just work that came to be forbidden but any act of creativity. I don’t believe this is what God intended and why Jesus said man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man.
3. But in spite of their reversing it and becoming slaves to it there were four elements of the Sabbath that were intended for their good.
First, it was a time to cease and enjoy. It was not rest as a way to be more productive but rest as a way to let go and trust God. Aristotle said we rest in order to do even more work. That is not what Scripture says.
A friend of mine once told me that you cannot compete with the ones who work all the time. You have to resign yourself to that one way or the other. He was right for the most part. Yet, people are always amazed that Chick-Fil-A can afford to close on Sunday. Yet, Truett Cathy said from the start that there must be something special about the way his people view their spiritual life and there must be something special about how Chick-Fil-A feels about its people. “In today’s business world, the Closed-on-Sunday policy may seem to be a costly business decision. But, as company sales figures have consistently proven, Chick-Fil-A restaurants often generate more business per square foot in six days than many other quick-service restaurants produce in seven.”
It’s not irresponsibility or denial but the obedience to a command to stop and put your life back into God’s care. What are the things that wear us out during the week? For most of us it is not physical labor but worry, anxiety, fear and striving. Eugene Peterson said, “I go to sleep to get out of the way for a while.” and the Sabbath is a getting out of the way. He went on to say, “We are not ultimately responsible. While we rest, life goes on. There is no healthy responsibility from which we cannot rest. In spite of all that’s wrong, all that needs doing or undoing, all that is wicked, painful, unfair and difficult, God does not need us all the time.”
It is rest to look back – not look forward. It is rest to, like God, see what has been done and to bless it. However, I can barely remember last week from thinking about the future. How can I bless it?
“Defined simply, narcissism means excessive self-preoccupation; pragmatism means excessive focus on work, achievement, and the practical concerns of life; and restlessness means an excessive greed for experience, an overeating, not in terms of food but in terms of trying to drink in too much of life…And constancy of all three together account for the fact that we are so habitually self-absorbed by heartaches, headaches, and greed for experience that we rarely find the time and space to be in touch with the deeper movements inside of and around us.” Ronald Rolheiser
Or the recreation that Wendell Berry describes in Jayber Crow: “It might seem to you that living in the woods on a riverbank would remove you from the modern world. But not if the river is navigable, as ours is. On pretty weekends in the summer, this riverbank is the very verge of the modern world. It is a seat in the front row, you might say. On those weekends, the river is disquieted from morning to night by people resting from their work.
This resting involves traveling at great speed, first on the road and then on the river. The people are in an emergency to relax. They long for the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Their eyes are hungry for the scenes of nature. They go very fast in their boats. They stir the river like a spoon in a cup of coffee. They play their radios loud enough to hear above the noise of their motors. They look neither left nor right. They don’t slow down for – or maybe even see – an old man in a rowboat raising his lines…”
I love the way Ecclesiastes puts it. “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That every man may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – that is the gift of God…Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them…this is a gift of God…God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”
Second, it is a time to congregate. It is not solitude or withdrawing from people. It is not isolation. It is coming together to honor God and His provision. Originally, before all the prohibitions that defined it, it was and then became in the New Testament, a time of music, talk, food, prayer, and reading. It was more like a party than a prohibition. It was a time to break bread and give thanks. Time and again in the New Testament you see the relationship between breaking bread together and giving thanks. Paul says give thanks in all things and I think he is talking about coming together in all things. Supporting each other in all things. Carrying each others load in all things and we do that by congregating. What has survived is donuts, coffee and teaching but I don’t think that was the original plan. The original plan was to come together, break bread and eat together and give thanks together. The Quakers called it a “holy gladness”.
Third, it was a time to contribute. Paul says to the early churches that when they are together they are to set aside some money for the suffering church. James says we are to take care of the poor, the widows and the orphans. Sabbath – and especially the Sabbatical year and Jubilee – tells us that not only are we to recognize God’s provision but we have a responsibility to the poor. It says “so that there will be no poor among you.” Of course, we all know the verse “there will always be the poor” but that is not the ideal. Taking care of the poor is not charity. It is responsibility. It is not voluntary. It is mandatory. Today, we have created an industry dedicated to appealing to our emotions in giving because the sense of duty and responsibility has withered away. We now have to feel something emotionally in order to be prompted to give. Is that one of the reasons tithing and regular giving has declined? What is regular cannot compete with the appeals to our emotions that come and go.
I started wondering this week why Scripture has so few clear definitions of “the poor” and yet there is such a clear expectation that they would be cared for. We have literally thousands of organizations created to take care of the poor and still have no common definition of what it means to be poor. The Old Testament and New Testament are simply focused on our obligation to take care of the poor.
Years ago we did something called “dollar day” in the class. Everyone put a dollar in the pot and we gave the total to someone to do something with it that would benefit the poor – however they chose to define it. The following week they would come back to the class and report on what they did with the money. Maybe it is time to do that again. It is time to contribute.
Fourth, it was a time to concentrate. The Sabbath is “unto the Lord and not simply a day of rest. It was a time to refocus and not simply recuperate. It was a day of respect for the Lord and not just a day to reflect on our own lives. It was a time to be grateful for what He has done. It was not a time to do nothing at all for fear of breaking a rule. It was a time to focus on what God has done.
4. But the weekly Sabbath was not an end in itself. It was preparation for the Sabbatical year. It was a habit with a purpose. It was “faithful little then faithful in much.” God doesn’t just want a day a week. He wants a lifestyle of trust and permanent faith in Him – a permanent release. God gave them 312 weeks (6 years) to prepare for the Sabbatical year. He did not just spring it on them suddenly. By the time of the sabbatical year they would have had a habit firmly in place. They would have week by week practiced their scales for years in preparation.
Every seven years, the land was to lie fallow and all agricultural activity was to cease. People were to live off what the land had already provided. The land was given rest.
Every seven years any claim against a brother was forgiven and the debt was cancelled. It did not forgive business debt – only the debt that was personal.
Every seven years any Hebrew who had indentured himself or his family was to be released.
Every seven years debt carried by the poor was forgiven and they were allowed to eat from the fields anything that grew on its own without cultivation.
In other words, the weekly Sabbath was the way God chose to prepare the people to do something completely counterintuitive and even strange. They were to rest from production and release people from their debts. The poor and those who had become slaves to repay their debt knew there indebtedness would not go on indefinitely. There was hope.
Of course, there were all sorts of cunning and creative ways developed to get out of forgiving debts and releasing slaves and letting the land lie fallow but God was clear – if you will make rest and release a habit of your life I will bless you. If you will have faith that He will provide then He will.
5. Even the Sabbatical year was not an end in itself. It was preparation for the Jubilee when every 49 years the people were to be stretched in their faith even more. There was to be a reset. Leviticus 25:
Not just rest but return. The land could be leased for 49 years but in the 50th year the lease was terminated and the use of the land reverted to its original owner. No land could be sold outright because it did not belong to them. “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”
Not just rest but release. “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. “If one of your brothers becomes indigent and has to sell himself to you, don’t make him work as a slave. Treat him as a hired hand or a guest among you. He will work for you until the Jubilee, after which he and his children are set free to go back to his clan and his ancestral land. Because the People of Israel are my servants whom I brought out of Egypt, they must never be sold as slaves. Don’t tyrannize them; fear your God” There were to be no generations of people in bondage.
Not just rest but risk. “Keep my decrees and observe my laws and you will live secure in the land. The land will yield its fruit; you will have all you can eat and will live safe and secure. Do I hear you ask, ‘What are we going to eat in the seventh year if we don’t plant or harvest?’ I assure you, I will send such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years. While you plant in the eighth year, you will eat from the old crop and continue until the harvest of the ninth year comes in.
6. So, what do we learn from Sabbath? What should be true in our lives as well?
First, hold things lightly.
Second, we are not in charge.
Third, we are not to be charitable in spurts.
Fourth, everything is a gift.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”