On this second week of the sermon series, Why Keep Sabbath, I'm wondering what does Sabbath-keeping mean to you? For those over 40, it probably equates to a list of do's and don'ts about what is allowed on Sundays. For most of us, honoring the Sabbath meant that you did go to church on Sunday and you did not go shopping.
During my childhood, we called Sunday, Holy Day, and there was a specific routine we followed. All the women, all the children, and some of the men, went to church every Sunday. Interestingly though, not everyone went to the same church. I'm sure there's a good story behind that - all I know is that my mom and grandparents took me to the Baptist church.
On a typical Sunday, we all gathered at my grandparents farm - even the heathen uncles who didn't go to church - for a huge Sunday afternoon meal. Afterwards, the cousins were allowed to play together outside -- only if remembered to bring our play clothes to Mamaw's - and the grown-ups would tell stories or take naps. As I recall there were a lot more naps than stories most Sundays!
On the weeks when we did not go to my grandparents, Sundays were still treated differently than all other days of the week. My Papaw and uncles did not farm on Sunday...ever....no matter where they were in the season. No one worked. No one shopped. And somebody was always visiting someone. I have to admit, growing up, Sunday felt a bit prison-ish; however, in hindsight, those slow Sunday afternoons were a blessing. Personally, I think our society is missing out on this gift from God. And post-modern Christians have lost sight of the original purpose and blessing of Sabbath rest.
But we are not the first to do so. The ancient Jews also turned the concept of Sabbath-keeping into a list of rules and regulations...nearly all of which started with the words, "Do not!" In fact, many times when we read that Jesus was at odds with the temple leaders, it was because he was doing something on the Sabbath...usually healing or showing compassion. In the minds of the religious rulers, Jesus was violating the Sabbath law.
The thing is though...according to the scriptures...there is no reason to believe that God intended Sabbath to be about rules and regulations. God gave Sabbath as a gift...a time of joyful celebration and rest. As one Jewish author puts it, "Shabbat is meant to be a precious gift from God, a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits."
Don't you love that idea? Sabbath is about setting aside all of our everyday, ordinary, concerns to devote ourselves to higher pursuits. It begs the question, though, what are our higher pursuits? On our best days, I suspect that they would be those things that connect us to God and to each other. But some days are not our best...and on those days, loving God and loving others are not our highest pursuits.
Many things distract us...demand our energy..or truly need our time and attention. We have jobs. We have busy, over-extended, families. We have things we need to do, things we want to do, and things we really should do - like 5 loads of laundry.
Thanks be to God though, Jesus understands all of this about our earthly kingdom...and does not condemn us for it. He does, however, make it clear that those lesser-pursuit kind of things do not define our worthiness for God's love, nor do they have the right to occupy our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Oh, what a sweet, sweet sound to our over-scheduled, noise-filled, ears!
Likewise, it is re-assuring is to know that keeping Sabbath is not about how we spend our Sundays, nor is it just another set of standards for us to fail to live up to. Sabbath is a God-ordained, natural part of life. It is a grateful, non-anxious mindset. And above all, Sabbath-keeping is an expression of our trust in the sabbath-keeping, sabbath-giving, sabbath-commanding God revealed in Scripture and incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Last week we talked about how the fourth commandment was one thing that uniquely separated the God of the Israelites from the task-master Pharaoh. You know, the guy who insisted that the Israelites produce unreasonable quotas...and called them lazy when they did not?
Well, there is another side to Pharaoh we should also mention. He was highly anxious, and totally stressed-out. Constantly worrying. Needing to be in control and fretting when he wasn't.
Early in the Exodus story, we read about his reoccurring dreams of scarcity. By the way, the strange dreams are recorded back in the 41st chapter of Genesis if you're interested in reading them. Suffice to say, even way back then, Pharaoh was subconsciously worried about having enough.
Ironically, it turns out this would later become a legitimate concern for him when Egypt experienced a seven-year famine. My guess is that Pharaoh was always anxious about the food-supply, mostly because his ability to produce more wealth was directly connected to it. However, when he learned of the impending crisis, his angst became more acute. With a famine on the horizon he worried about losing what he had accumulated...or using it all up without being able to replenish it.
Oh, I think many people can relate to Pharaoh's situation. The more we have, the more we have to lose. The more we have to lose, the more have to worry about.
Pharaoh was not only a slave-driver, he was driven...driven and defined by his warped economic system. Worried. Anxious. Unsettled. Honestly, if there was a such thing as ancient Egyptian Twitter, Pharaoh would have been the guy up tweeting in the middle of the night defending his value and purpose and power...all of which were measured by what he could produce and accumulate.
Folks when we live like that, trusting only in our own ability...relying on our success rate...measuring the size of bank accounts...depending on our reputation or what we own to give us an identity...when these are the things we trust, it won't be long until we are first class passengers on the anxiety train. Everything -- and everybody -- becomes a threat. We spend an inordinate about of time worrying...and we have no idea who or what we can trust...other than ourselves.
If you've ever seen it -- in your own life or in someone else's -- it is not pretty. Choices become overwhelming. Walls are built. Defensiveness goes up. Anxiety goes through the roof. There is no peace...and there is definitely no rest.
But here's the good news...we don't have to live like that. We really don't. Not if, according to Jesus, we refuse to serve two masters.
Jesus bids us to put our trust only in God. He says, don't worry about your life...what you will eat or drink...or your body and what you will wear.
Now let's be clear, Jesus isn't giving permission to be irresponsible. He isn't writing lyrics to a pop song. And he is definitely not saying that God's people should just wing-it in life. He is however, saying stop trying to control everything. Stop worrying. Stop being anxious. Stop serving two masters. Choose, instead, to trust only God.
Trust in the God who has provided for his people throughout all generations.
Trust in the God who is makes covenants with his people and is faithful even when they are not.
Trust in the God who cares enough to take on flesh and live among his people so they would know his unending mercy and unfailing love.
I also believe it is a call to continue to celebrate the gift of Sabbath..to trust that if God thinks withdrawing from work is important enough to make it sacred, so then should we. And we need not worry when we do.
But church, let's be honest with each other...trusting only God is easier said than done. We still worry about making ends meet. We fret over our children's lives. We are concerned about the future. We are stressed about what other people think. Not to mention we live in a society filled with countless messages of self-reliance - I did it my way thinking. So many shiny things calling out, "let me make your life more complete". And those deceptive little idols that try to convince us that our value - as employees, as bosses, as parents, as neighbors -- depends on them.
Yet these are also the exact same things that will eventually fail us, disappoint us, harm us, and take our peace from us. The very things that ratchet up our angst and worry and fear.
Jesus says..."Stop...this is not the life God wants for you. Trust me...trust the One who sent me...serve only one master. For when you do, you will not need to worry. God will provide what you need."
Now we all know this does not mean that God will always give us what we want. It does not mean that God will magically provide for our material needs. Scripture is clear that God intends for us to work to take care of ourselves and each other. However, God will always provide what we need to be his people - the compassion, the mercy, the love...the wisdom...the discernment -- everything necessary to be the church.
One of the things we clearly need in order to be God's people is to rest from the stress and worries and anxieties of the world. We need to be able to focus and be in his holy presence. We need to quiet our hearts and minds in order to listen only to God's voice -- not Pharaoh's or any other false god of society. We need to be open and available in order to receive all that God is offering. And we need to be rested and whole in order to be in healthy relationships and live the way God desires.
Keeping Sabbath gives us what we need. Whether we keep Sabbath for an hour, or a day, or spend three months on sabbatical, it allows us to step away from the culture...to take breaks from the demands of society...in order to listen...to pray...to present ourselves to God...so we can be transformed into the people and church God wants us to be.
The apostle Paul wrote about transformation in his letter to the Romans. Reading from the Message translation, I believe he captures the importance of observing Sabbath as way of life.
Paul writes: So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
Folks...this idea of Sabbath-keeping that we are talking about? It is how we resist the culture. It's how we place our whole life before God as an offering. It is how we fix our attention on God.
When we step out of our hectic, wrung out pace of life and fully place our trust in God..we not only rest and receive sustenance from God, we are transformed into our best selves. We are strengthened physically, emotionally and spiritually so we will not be dragged down...or slip backward into the proverbial Egypt. In times of Sabbath quiet, God releases our anxiety and equips us for whatever life brings our way. And, perhaps most importantly, it is in the moments of Sabbath that we are our truest selves...most like the image of God that is within us....the image of the One who created for six days and then rested...and called that time holy and blessed.
Friends, the challenge and blessing of Sabbath-keeping is to trust that we can step away from all the lesser-pursuits...and know that we - our joy, our purpose, our value, our lives - will not be lessened one bit when we do. To God's glory, let us enjoy the intentions of Sabbath together. Amen