Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NLT)
“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God.
“On that day no one in your household may do any work. This includes you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your oxen and donkeys and other livestock, and any foreigners living among you. All your male and female servants must rest as you do.
“Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out with his strong hand and powerful arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.”
Is the idea of a Holy Sabbath day even important anymore?
After all, we Christians certainly have shifted the meaning of “Sabbath” a lot, going so far as to change the day. When Moses gave the people of Israel this commandment—the fourth of ten commandments and the last one specifically defining how we are to relate to God—they were thinking of Saturday. With a few exceptions, those of us who call ourselves Christians think of Sunday when we think of the Sabbath.
The reason for the shift in days is obvious. Jesus’ resurrection happened on a Sunday, and as more and more non-Jews came to follow Christ, Sunday became the logical day of worship for us. The Israelites spent the Sabbath day remembering how God saved them from slavery; we remember how Jesus Christ, God among us, saves all of humanity from sin and death.
In recent decades, European and North American Christians have shifted seismically in how serious we are about Sunday as the Sabbath. In my own lifetime lived in the Southeast United States, I have seen Sunday move from being a quiet day when most stores and restaurants were closed to a day when pretty much everything is open, Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers being notable exceptions. Ball teams even hold practices and games on Sunday mornings, something that would have been unthinkable or even unconscionable in the South 30 years ago.
The Sabbath of Others
About ten years ago, I asked a very bright young adult in my congregation why churches have such a hard time getting people under the age of 30 into worship. He looked at me wryly and asked a question:
“What are you going to do after church is over?”
“Well,” I said, “We will probably go out and get some lunch.”
“Who do you think cooked the lunch, cleaned the tables and got the restaurant ready?”
Duh. Of course. Who is most likely to be working on Sunday mornings? Young people just starting out in the labor force.
Those of you who go out to lunch after worship may not like me saying this, but we Christians who care about reaching teenagers and young adults are shooting ourselves in the foot every time we eat out on Sunday. The same principle applies any time we take up an activity that may impact working people’s ability to worship.
We’ve still not answered our first question, however: Is the idea of the Sabbath important? If you take the Bible seriously, it’s hard not to say yes.
Through the law, God established some underlying behaviors and principles that simply are good for us—we follow them and prosper in our relationship with God, or we ignore them and slip into confusion and misery.
God’s idea of the Sabbath can be summed up in one short word: “Stop.” I’m not talking about stopping and freezing like a statue. The Sabbath is more of a contemplative stop.
If you’ve ever read any survival books, you may have learned that stop is not just a word, it’s an acronym: S-T-O-P. When lost in the wilderness, this acronym defines a pattern you should follow. First, the “S,” which stands for—you guessed it—stop. Second, you think, going over where you’ve been and what has happened since you began your journey.
Third, you observe: Are you on a trail? Are you near water? Can you hear road sounds? Is night coming soon? What are you carrying?
Fourth, you plan what to do next. In one of my survival books, there’s a picture of a hunter who got lost, panicked and froze to death in the snowy woods. When would-be rescuers found him, he was next to a pile of dry brush, a box of dry matches in his pocket. Obviously, he didn’t S-T-O-P.
God offers us a Sabbath so we don’t go through life running in panic like a lost hunter. We stop to be with him. We think of him in prayer, worship and fellowship. We observe the tools God has given us, in particular his holy word, and where we are in our Christian journey. And then we plan how to move forward.
And yes, as part of our Sabbath, we go to church on Sunday. We S-T-O-P together. After all, there’s far less danger of getting lost as a group. And even if we do find ourselves a little lost, it’s so much easier to get back on the right path as a group.
The Habit of Worship
There is a basic principle regarding worship attendance that has been repeated for years. I cannot find who first came up with it, but after leading churches for 15 years as a pastor, it sounds right to me.
If you miss church three weeks in a row, there’s about an 80 percent chance your worship attendance will become very irregular. To get back to your original attendance pattern, you have to make the decision to show up for worship at least three weeks in a row.
Judging from the book of Hebrews, irregular attendance has long been a problem for Christians. In the tenth chapter, the author writes this:
Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
Ironically, when you miss worship, you’re also missing a lot of the good work that happens on the Sabbath. God may have told us to take the day off, but it doesn’t mean he’s taking the day off.
We meet God in worship to be changed into the holy creation he intended us to be. We meet God at church to be healed spiritually, emotionally and even physically. We meet God on Sunday so the week to come can be lived fully in God’s light, be it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
Once we’ve considered the importance of the Sabbath, I suppose we’re left with some additional questions. What happens if I miss the Sunday when God intended everything to change for me, my spouse or my children? What do I lose if I fail to stop on the Sabbath where God waited for me?
We should never let the frenzy of work and play separate us from the gifts God offers us when we stop.