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Keeping the Sabbath

September 3, 2006

Mark 2:23 -3:6; Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

I need to talk to you today about a topic that is important for every one of us. I will begin by asking you several questions. Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel worn-out, completely exhausted? Do you ever have days when you feel as though you will never catch up on rest? You are tired, but you have to keep going. This malady is common to most Americans.

In the early nineties, millions of people bought Juliet B. Schor’s book entitled Overworked Americans. It seems, however, that very few readers took the advice of this instant bestseller. The truth is that we live in a culture of overwork. We feel fatigued and tired, and we need more rest than we get. The greatest deficit in this country is not the national budget deficit. The greatest deficit in this country is the sleep deficit.

Last Sunday afternoon, I met here at the church with a group of dear people for a little more than two hours. Most of those attending this very important meeting had been at church since the early service. We had already had a full morning. After a quick lunch, we returned to church and met through much of the afternoon. Following that meeting, some individuals attended other meetings scheduled here. I looked around the room at one point and noticed that every single one of us – young adults with families and older adults, who for several decades have been living life at pretty much a flat-out pace – were so tired.

The Ten Commandments are very important. We hear so much about how we need to preserve the values of the Ten Commandments, but I would submit to you that we break consistently one commandment: keep the Sabbath and keep it holy. We do not know how to keep the Sabbath, and we certainly do not know how to keep it holy.

While visiting a large city, I had an occasion to meet with a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Knowing that the Southern Baptist Convention was scheduled to meet in that city later in the year, I said, “You are going to have a big convention here later this year.”

He answered, “Yes, but it is the Baptists.”

I asked, “You don’t like the Baptists to come to your city?”

He answered, “When the Baptists come to town, they bring ten dollars and the Ten Commandments. They don’t break either one.”

That is a funny story, but the truth is that most of us routinely break the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. We simply do not follow this commandment well. I certainly do not, and you probably do not either. Some of you will say, “My pastor sets a bad example. That’s my excuse.” I am the chief among sinners here. I do set a bad example. The truth is that we all need to make a better effort to keep the Sabbath. I want us to have a heart-to-heart talk about this topic because it is important for our well-being. It is certainly vital for our spiritual well-being, but it is also essential for our physical, mental, and emotional health.

Some of you who have come to church today have been working all night long. Most people for whom that situation applies go home after work, take a shower, clean up, and come to church. They know that if they can make it through the early service, they can get some much-needed rest afterwards. Many of you here now will grab a quick lunch and go to work soon after this service. A woman in our congregation comes to church as often as she can, but she has three jobs in order to make ends meet. For some of you, working on Sunday is a necessity. For others, however, it is a matter of choice. We just prefer to work.

We repeat the mantra, “There just is not enough time. There are not enough hours in the day. I do not have enough time.” I submit to you that repeating those statements is a sin. We have exactly the amount of time God intended us to have. He has given us seven days every week. He has asked us to take one of those days, one-seventh of them, and give it back to Him. When you think of the Sabbath, you need to think of it in the same way you think of a tithe. God has given you your financial income. The tithe is one-tenth, God’s part. He wants us to return that to Him. The Sabbath is one-seventh of the time God has given us. God asks that we return that day to Him.

You do not have a good example in your pastor, but you have an exceptional example in your God. The first pages of the Bible tell us that God worked for six days. Then on the seventh day, He rested. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth states that when God took that seventh day off, He said, “I have done a good job.” In fact, He looked back on every part of creation and said, “That is good.” Once God’s work was completed, He stopped and reflected on what He had done. “Behold, it was very good,” Scripture says. God put that day aside because He wanted to enjoy a relationship with His creation, especially His people.

Why does God want us to observe the Sabbath? He wants us to take time to enjoy our relationship with Him. So often we get this all botched up in our minds. When I was a child, I used to consider Sundays as the days I could not read the comics until after church. I considered Sundays as the days I could not go fishing. I suppose that for some of you, the prohibitions were even more stringent. When you view the Sabbath in this manner, you start thinking, “I will be glad when Sunday ends.” God has given to us this day as a gift of grace; it is not an attempt to make life hard and inconvenient. A big part of the gift is learning to enjoy God.

It is appropriate to consider this issue on the Sunday before Labor Day. An attempt has been made to secularize Sabbath keeping. The idea of the forty-hour workweek is so laughable. People who have a steady job rarely work just forty hours. That is not biblical. Jesus said, “There are six days in the week, twelve hours in the day.” That is a seventy-two hour workweek. You can work and work diligently. If you observe the Sabbath, if you really do take one day and let it be holy, make it different from all other days.

Two versions of the Ten Commandments appear in the Bible. Moses delivered the first version found in Exodus 20, at Mount Sinai, just fifty days after the people were freed from bondage in Egypt. Following their release, they traveled through the wilderness for forty years.

I want us to turn to the original fourth commandment regarding the Sabbath found in Exodus 20:8-11. If your Bible divides the Ten Commandments into paragraphs, you will see that this paragraph is longer than the other paragraphs. It gives us more detail about what we are to do and what we are not to do on this day.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it, you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Remembering the Sabbath means that we make it different; we keep it holy. God has given us this day. God has given us the time we have. He wants a seventh of it, one day, in return from us.

As the Israelites were preparing to cross the Jordan River, Moses preached a series of sermons in Deuteronomy 5, which include the Ten Commandments. The two versions of the Ten Commandments are almost identical, but we see a difference in the wording of the fourth commandment, which begins at Verse 12.

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey, or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. The Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Exodus 20 points out that the Sabbath is to be a holy day, a day set apart unto God, a time when we enjoy our relationship to God. Sabbath means rest. Deuteronomy 5 stresses that we are to remember that the Sabbath is to be a day when we must ensure that those who come under our domain observe the Sabbath as we do. This version places special emphasis on the slaves these Israelites owned, stressing the importance of remembering that at one time the Israelites did not have the Sabbath. Since slavery did not afford the Sabbath, it should be for the Israelites a day to celebrate freedom, liberation from bondage.

That belief has direct application to the world in which we live. So many people who are enslaved to their work live a life of drudgery. When I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I knew a man who had a job in Indiana that enslaved him. All day long, day after day, all of his life, he worked one job, using a press to form the little plastic caps that sealed the cells on an automobile battery. The job paid him a decent wage, and he was able to provide for his family; but the work enslaved him. Corporations right here in the Upstate use a rotating shift schedule that binds workers. One week, a person works the first shift. Then the next week, the person works the second shift. The following week, the person works the third shift, then returns to the first shift for a week, and finally begins the rotating shift again. This method maximizes the time workers have on the job. In one rotation, the company gains eight hours of labor. This schedule disturbs the workers’ biological clock and disrupts their family life, never giving them an opportunity to recover fully from work. The Sabbath is supposed to remind us not only that we have a holy relationship to God, but also that we are to resist the things that enslave. For some people, work enslaves.

The Jewish people have celebrated the Sabbath ever since the days in the wilderness. At various times in history, the observance of the Sabbath really gave them identity as Jewish people. A Jewish home during a Shabbat meal is a happy occasion. Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath. You see no TV trays at this meal. The table is set with fine china and linens if available. The delicious meal begins by lighting candles on the table. Then people stand and greet the Sabbath, as if it were a guest in their home. We, too, welcome this day with thanksgiving and prayers of gratitude. This Jewish Sabbath observance begins at sundown on Friday and continues with an evening meeting. The chief time of worship occurs Saturday morning. When people come to the synagogue to worship, they feel well rested because the Sabbath began the evening before at 6:00. If we decided to start our worship at 6:00 on Saturday night, all work would cease. We might have a good meal, a time with our families, and a good night’s rest. Then we would get up and come to church on Sunday morning, well rested.

I have been in Israel on two occasions for four different Sabbaths. It is amazing to hear the Jewish people change their greeting, beginning at twelve noon on Friday. The typical greeting becomes, “Shabbat Shalom,” which means Sabbath peace. We often miss the peace that is a part of the benefit of Sabbath. A great difference exists between going to church and observing the Sabbath. If we come to be with our friends, to transact church business, even to transact business of the world, we are missing the Sabbath.

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” I have asked Paula to play a hymn based on that verse. Right now in these moments, I want us to observe a little bit of the Sabbath. I want us to sit quietly and listen to “Be Still, and Know That I Am God.” Could you enjoy a whole day of listening to hymns? My guess is that it would be difficult to tolerate a whole day. It is not easy to observe the Sabbath, to step off the treadmill, to escape the rat race, and simply take time to be in the presence of God.

Barbara Brown Taylor said that she had a tough time learning to do that. She read a piece by Rabbi Michael Lerner who said that anybody engaging in the practice of the Sabbath can expect a rough ride for a while. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,

I have been doing it for seven years now, which is how I know the rabbi is right. For the first couple of years, I paced as much as I rested. Every few hours I caught my mind posing inventive questions. If I enjoyed yard work, was it really work? Was browsing a mail-order catalogue really shopping? By year three I had come to count on Sabbath the same way I count on food or breath. I could work like a demon the other six days of the week as long as I knew that seventh was coming. For the first time in my life, I could rest without leaving home.
With sundown on the Sabbath, I stopped seeing the dust balls, the bills and the laundry. They were still there, but they had lost their power over me. One day each week I lived as if all my work was done. I lived as if the kingdom had come and when I did the kingdom came, for 25 hours at least. Now, when I know Sabbath is near, I can feel the anticipation bubbling up inside of me. Sabbath is no longer a good idea or even a spiritual discipline for me. It is an experience of divine love that swamps both body and soul. It is the weekly practice of eternal life, marred only by the fact that I do it alone.

I am the worst example in the world of a person who keeps this particular commandment. Yesterday, I wrote lists of tasks I was going to do in the yard, in our home, and for the church on three index cards. When I mentioned to Clare that I had planned to go to the hospital though I was not on call, she scolded, “Kirk, very capable pastors have visited those people this week, and a very capable member of the staff is going today. You do not have to go.” She confiscated those index cards and my cell phone, which was there in my pocket. For the next hour-and-a-half, I sat in a chair and listened to a CD of Gregorian chants I bought Friday afternoon at the Catholic shop. I could understand very little of the words. When I sit still and listen to music, one of two things usually happens. Either I go to sleep or I allow my mind to churn. I had trouble with relaxing during that period yesterday; but during a few moments, interludes, I could feel what Barbara Brown Taylor had described. I could feel that Sabbath rest flowing over me.

Jesus said, “You were not made to keep the Sabbath so much as the Sabbath was made for you” (Mark 2:27). In our Christian tradition, we have both the idea that the Sabbath is holy and that it is liberating. In our Christian tradition, we have the further concept that we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sunday is the day of resurrection. We turn aside to celebrate with joy God’s gift of eternal life. We have so many reasons to celebrate the Sabbath. We just have not done it well.

I invite you to improve on keeping this commandment. I am going to try. This is not a solo effort. The community of faith must encourage each other. We must begin in small increments. We cannot cancel all the committee meetings scheduled on Sunday afternoons, but we can be more mindful about this great commandment. We can realize that it is more than a commandment; it is God’s gift of grace to us. If we encourage each other to be Sabbath keepers, then the health of the congregation – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – will improve.

My dear friends, I invite you to keep the Sabbath and keep it holy. How do we do this? It begins when we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the Lord of our life and the Lord of the Sabbath. He is the Lord of everything. When we acknowledge him and invite him to come into our lives, he begins to do the marvelous work of repairing and healing. Just as surely as he healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, he can heal tired souls, worn-out spirits. We must invite him to come into our lives. If you have never done that, could I encourage you to make that decision? Some of you have other decisions to make, decisions regarding church membership or decisions about your spiritual life. We invite you to make those decisions public as we stand and sing together our hymn of invitation, “Something for Thee.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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