Have you ever been part of a community that had particular practices for Sunday? Did you grow up in a family where Sunday was special?
A special dinner
Or were there particular things that were not done,
No car washing
No lawn mowing
No TV, music, games
What do you do now? Anything?
For many of us these particular ways of observing the Sabbath aren’t helpful. But, at the same time,Sabbath seems important and we can’t quite figure out what might be helpful. Or we wonder if it makes any sense to “keep the Sabbath” in 2013. Perhaps Sabbath is a practice that is no longer useful. How can we think this through?
As always for Christians, it is helpful to reflect on what we find in the Bible.
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:1-3
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. Exodus 20:8-11
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. Exodus 23:10-12
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. Deut 5:12-15
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Mark 2:23-3:6
There are many, many things to consider in these passages and about observing the Sabbath, so as always we’ll need to limit our discussion.
Notice that the Exodus 20 passages says “remember” and the Deuteronomy 5 passage says “observe” and the Exodus passage references the Genesis creation story and Deuteronomy recalls the Egyptian captivity and deliverance. Western Protestants might wonder which interpretation is best. Rabbinic commentators encourage us to hold on to both ideas and they suggest that on the Sabbath we remember God as both creator and redeemer.
Notice in Deuteronomy 5 and Exodus 23 everyone and everything rests, not just the chosen people of Israel.
Ponder why Mark tells us about two particular Sabbaths in this order.
There is an aspect of rest we need to consider also. For most of us, rest means something akin to napping, taking it easy, a ceasing of activity. And that is true, but in the ancient word there was another meaning. One of the tasks of kings was to lead armies into battle. But sometimes there was not need for war and the king was home on the throne. At those times the king was said to be at rest. In the ancient world, rest also could describe a time of peace when the king was home and life was safe and secure. Life in the kingdom was as it should be.
Christians and Jews have a long history of connecting the Sabbath with life in the kingdom of God. Each Sabbath is both preview of and practice for life in the kingdom of God where life is as it should be. That is, in part, why Christians pray “thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
For some reason, we often think that Sabbath is a time to not do rather then a time to do. Perhaps a little of both is what we need. We don’t do some things so we are able to do others. Perhaps we could do some things in a different way, with a different attitude, with an increased mindfulness about how and why we are doing it.
I wonder if Sabbath should be kept in different ways at different times in our lives? Of course this means we are never “done” thinking about how to keep the Sabbath. We have to take time to think about cultural, social, and work pressures and be ready to make some different choices for one day.
In hectic family life perhaps quiet is what is needed. In a quiet single life, perhaps intentional engagement with others is needed.
Perhaps when we make the bed we are thankful for our home.
When we take a shower we might take a moment and be thankful for our bodies and water.
Perhaps instead of checking work e mails we pray for our coworkers.
If we go to a child’s sporting event we consider how God might be honored by the way we participate. How would Jesus play soccer?
If we have to work on Sunday, can we be aware of how God is present?
Mostly I think, don’t make things too hard for yourself. Give yourself and others lots of grace. Start small, allow for mistakes and forgetfulness. With time things will get easier. And with time the length of Sabbath might just grow-from a couple of hours to most of a day. And after a few months or even years those Sabbath practices might slip over into other days and other parts of our lives.
Is Sabbath meant to be the yeast that slowly, quietly, and in secret leavens the entire week? Or an entire life?
What do you think?