Sabbath

Why Stop?

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.

S-T-O-P

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.

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Disregarding the Rules

Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


This story begins on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath.* This much is made clear in the preceding story in Mark. If we are to understand anything, we must first understand what the sabbath day means.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the desert on Mt. Sinai says this:

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The reason for this commandment then is given in detail: “Six days you shall labor 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.)

By Jesus’ day, this commandment had been defined even more narrowly, to the point where nothing that looked like real action was permitted. My favorite example is a rule promulgated by the Pharisees. It said you had to be careful on the sabbath not to drag your chair on a dirt floor. The tiny furrow looked too much like plowing to these very restrictive Jewish leaders.

In this story, everyone is, from a strict Jewish perspective, breaking the sabbath rules. Healing is not allowed, but Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. She then gets up and begins to “serve” him. Implicit here is that she does what women of her day normally do six days of the week, acting as a host, cooking and performing other kinds of work. She does it all without a hint of reprimand from the teacher who is present.

People who don’t follow Christ often criticize Christianity as being rule-bound, but in many ways we worship a rule breaker. At the same time, Jesus, being God in flesh, is holy; that is, his thoughts and actions in these stories are perfectly aligned with the Father’s will.

So, why does Jesus break rules that seem rooted in God-given law? There can be only one explanation. Human understanding of what God intended through the law has become corrupted, and must be corrected.

Look back to the words in Exodus about the sabbath. It is a blessed day; it is a holy time. When does a blessing ever weigh us down? A sabbath day is not a burden, it is an opportunity to rest in the presence of God, to commune with him without the distractions of day-to-day survival.

In other words, the sabbath is a time to experience the God who is love, the one who lovingly created and who paused to gaze lovingly upon what he had made. And never forget, that aspect of God that took on flesh, the logos, the Word, was fully involved in the creative act.

As Jesus gazed upon that woman bedridden with illness, he saw a part of his creation that was broken. He saw someone incapable of enjoying the true meaning of the sabbath. So he lovingly fixed her.

Her response, by the way, was very appropriate, despite what the Pharisees and others might say. The word we translate as “serve” is a Greek word associated with the work of disciples, the people who pledge their lives to follow Jesus.

She may have been going through the same motions that had always defined her work, but she now performed her tasks with a new purpose. Clearly, the man who had healed her was tied to God somehow and was going to change everything, and she would serve him not as an affront to sabbath, but in the true spirit of sabbath.

As the story continues, Jesus goes on healing on sabbath days and regular days. He drives out demons. But most importantly, he preaches his message: The kingdom of God has arrived.

The kingdom continues to dawn in our lives now, and once it is here in full, we will see the kingdom of God is an eternal sabbath, a continuing, joyous rest in the love of God. How much you allow the kingdom to shine into your lives is up to you.


*I do not have time today to explore how Christians came to see Sunday as the Sabbath, or for that matter, how American Christians have come to treat the concept of Sabbath so poorly. If you are looking for a focus for your small group or Sunday school, those are certainly topics worthy of study.