I stand here today giving the first sermon on the subject of Sabbath, being as it’s the first I thought I would spend a little time looking Sabbath, what is it, how can we do it, what is it not and why? And reflect on what Sabbath is and how we might observe Sabbath in our modern context. What does God want?
The first thing many of us learn about the sabbath was, that when God made everything, he rested, on the seventh day he had a rest. Did he go have a lie down? Did he sort of let creation do its own thing for a bit? Like when we leave our kids with the iPad for an hour and go put a wet flannel on our head?
Here’s the thing, as much as we try, humanity is not going to stress out God to the point of needing a lie down and neither is making everything. God is omnipotent, all powerful inexhaustible and does not need a rest. God did not need to rest, so why is this in scripture?
This is God setting an example to us, showing us what we should do moving forward. He’s saying 6 days of toil and then we stop, he loves us and only wants whats best for us, and so he’s setting the cycle by which we should live, for many more reasons than just rest.
There have been many versions of what doing nothing on the Sabbath means in the bible, the Hebrew noun for Sabbath, “Shabat” simply means stop or cease. The first time Sabbath is mentioned by name is in exodus verse 20 chapter 9-11 in the ten commandments, where God makes it a holy day, and says everyone including the foreigner has to stop work.
Making a thing Holy really means setting it apart as special. The dictionary really points us in the right direction when it defines holy as “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred.”. Hence the reason why Ezekiel criticised people for continuing to buy and sell sheep in the sabbath, basically keep the works of industry moving, but Isaiah was more interesting, he wants us to celebrate the sabbath as more than just as an exhibition of piety, but to do so properly meant to ‘learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’.
That’s not really stopping as such is it, so what is it? Isaiah also foresaw when the Sabbath was for more than just gods chosen people but for all humanity and included us here today.
But if it isn’t as simple as just stopping and watching Netflix, or a good book whats it all about?
Jesus often ran into the Pharisee’s legalistic view of the Sabbath when he healed people and walked through fields of wheat eating corn, this was seen as breaking the strict laws of Sabbath, His response was that the sabbath was made for humankind not humankind for the sabbath.
Essentially God made the sabbath for us to be released from bondage not to be interned by another sort of bondage of legalism. So for Jesus Sabbath had a greater meaning than just doing nothing on a Sunday.
Also it hasn’t always been on a Sunday, for early Christians it followed the Jewish tradition of starting on a Friday to a Saturday evening. It then moved again to the “lords day” on the first day of the week in acts.
The Sabbath was a day of rest, but the Lords day was a day to gather in community and worship God and concentrate on his word. As our faith moved to the Gentiles community Paul said that they don’t need to follow this Jewish rite but encouraged them to set aside a special day to worship the lord if they decide to do so, but they are free of the legalistic duty.
Essentially as Christianity separated from Judaism to create its own identity they moved from a legalistic sabbath to a “lords day” where the emphasis was on worship.
So what did our lord want us to do with this day? Old testament law was not abandoned in the new testament but fulfilled, properly fulfilled. Take Jesus pronouncement that where the OT says do not commit adultery, anyone who looks lustfully wishfully at another woman has done so.
The law is about the betterment of society, Jesus is concerned about whats going on in our heart. So it is with the Sabbath, as we move from the legalistic rite of Sabbath bound up in laws and a burden to all, so as we as modern day Christians work out what to do with old testament ideas of sabbath we must overlay the idea’s that Jesus came to fulfil that law, to bring it to its proper purpose. This is in part what the Jews listening to Jesus saying in matthew
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”.
would have heard, their yoke was twofold, the burden of an occupied society, but also burdened by a legalistic faith that used the Old Testament law as a tool to keep their culture intact but also to make a straitjacket that all had to be bound by.
So Jesus yoke is easy, and his burden is light. But there is a yoke and a burden, he wants us to follow the law by having a day of rest, but the yoke is he wants us to spend that time concentrating on him, pondering him. Closer to the lords day of the early Christians.
As the old testament scholar mark scarlata said “Sabbath is God’s way of drawing us into a place of rest where we might begin to tap into the divine imagination and wisdom that brought the entire universe into being.” Being still and knowing he is God as it says in the psalm, only by being still and turning ourselves to him can we access the true meaning of Sabbath. I recently gave another sermon about Jesus being the bread of life, and someone asked him how they can access that bread. Jesus response was “Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”.
By taking ourselves away from the pursuit of the bread that spoils, in our ever more commercialised world we can stop and meet the bread that never spoils in our lord Jesus Christ. By being in his world for a day or so, we are driven by what Boenhoffer called costly grace, the grace that costs something in our lives and drives us to sacrifice ourselves for others , that drives us as Isaiah said “‘learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’” or whatever our society needs us for, by letting him into our lives we become his body on earth, make a rebellious statement about what we think is of real importance by turning of and tuning into him. We make a statement that we believe life is more than the frenetic gathering of wealth.
This ethic takes us right back to the time of god and his overthrowing the Pharaoh and exile.
Each time God sent a plague Moses demanded god free his people Pharaoh had his people making more bricks and with every twist he removed the means to make bricks but increased the demand, he wanted Israelites firmly focussed on mammon,
Whereas as soon as God got them, he asked them to stop on the seventh day, eat the bread they had already collected, but focus on him. Focus on him and leave mammon behind
This is what our Sabbath should be, its why I was happy to work on my studies on Sundays as I trained to become an LLM, because that wasn’t about mammon it was about God, its why we should gather here each Sunday and focus on him. Because ultimately this is fulfilling the law of the sabbath, not meeting it legalistically but truly in our hearts. Making time, real time each week to focus on him, our Sabbath.
Which by the way in our busy lives doesn’t have to be on a Sunday because it has moved around, in the past both through our Jewish heritage and as a means of setting our faith apart from Judaism and sometimes it has too, wherever it settled it was always encouraged. Because wherever it is , the idea is we must set aside time to be with our lord each week. Proper time that we regard as sacrosanct, not of mammon and to state openly to the world this time is his.
What a statement, my life is yours, I think your more important than everything else I might be doing. That’s rest and witness all at once!
So to sort of cover off what is this sabbath and what isn’t it…
Well some of that is informed by the fact
God doesn’t need a Sabbath, but he knows we do, that’s why he models and commands it for us
Also Jesus railed against a legalistic sabbath and
It’s easy to be legalistic about observing the Sabbath, but that doesn’t get to the heart
It’s easy to be blasé about the Sabbath, but then we miss the rest we need that helps us refocus on God
Properly observed, Sabbath is a light yoke and an easy burden
Because ours is the lord of the Sabbath, and we should give our Sabbath time to him.
Because that’s what he wants, that’s sabbath our time focussed on him and being his body here on earth, acting for him, in ways that please him, and bring his wholeness to the world.
When we reflect on sabbath that is what we should reflect on both on defining it, and doing it.
Our Lord Jesus Christ
Because it’s his