The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath
A typical Sunday in a time not so long ago . . .
We start off with Sunday School about mid-morning, then the main worship service, which lasts until noon – or later, if the preacher’s really wound up. After returning home, there’s an enormous dinner laid on before the family and any guests, followed by – nothing. No TV. Hadn’t been invented yet, or at least, your family didn’t have one. No shopping. No stores are open, anyway. No games. “Aw, come on, Ma, ya mean we can’t even go play ball out in the yard?” Nope. No school activities – well, there’s a mercy. No loud activities of any kind at all. And if there was a second session of church in the evening, everybody went to that, too. This was called “keeping the Sabbath” in its day, and some of you are old enough to remember just how long the Sabbath could seem to a kid with a day off that he wasn’t allowed to do anything with.
Little by little, even religious folks began sneaking more amusements into the day’s program. By the time I was a boy, there weren’t many full-bore Sabbath keepers left, though it took another generation before schools and stores began to treat Sunday as just another day. Today, about all that’s left of the old-fashioned Sunday – besides the morning routine at church -- is the fact that (at least, in Indiana) package sales of liquor aren’t allowed (something that out-of-towners attending the Super Bowl were warned about, lest they be disappointed by this benighted barbarian backwater they’d somehow stumbled into). But what finally killed off the old-fashioned Sunday was the hyper-busy-fication of our modern society.
We have more leisure time than we have ever known before in the history of the world, and we have bigger plans for it than we know how to squeeze into even our generous days off. Those whom we unsuccessfully invite to church are sometimes known to remark that Sunday is the only day they get to sleep in, which is a strange remark, given that most folk work five days a week, and thus get TWO days off.
And what are we doing with our days off? Well, we’ve got youth sports of every variety, some of which have decided that the whole concept of a “season” is outmoded, because they never seem to quit. Then, there are school events, of which it seems every kid has one per weekend. There are Scouts and 4-H, of course, and the various recitals and performances and festivals that our music teachers, clogging groups, and fellow hobbyists organize. There are movies and eating out and visiting relatives (who no longer live as close as they once did). And there’s fairs and carnivals and amusement parks and arcades and sales at the mall, not to mention home repairs, yard work, and cleaning everything up before the cookout. And if you think we cram a lot into weekends, you should see what we do to ourselves with our vacations. Is it any wonder that people commonly say that they have to go back to work just to rest up from their time off? The truth is, we work so hard at our fun that it has become as burdensome to us as the work for which we actually get paid.
Looking at these two alternatives, the old-fashioned borefest where you weren’t allowed to do anything other than go to church (and eat) VERSUS the frenetic roller-coaster that never seems to reach the end of the ride, one can only marvel at the ability of human beings to carry things to such extremes. And it is against this background that we today consider the commandment of God to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.”
In order to fully appreciate the meaning of this commandment, we need to remember what life was like when it was given. Most people, for most of human history, have lived on the very edge of subsistence. Life was precarious. One bad harvest could mean the death of most of yr family. One day of bad decisions or bad weather or letting your guard down could lead to a disaster from which there was no recovery, for there were no doctors, no antibiotics, no crop insurance, no disability payments, no reliable courts or police. You worked from sunup to sundown, every day, in order to safeguard your family and ensure their survival, and you never, ever, even once, let down your guard. Oh, there was fun along the way, but you could never get away from the daily grind.
And then along came the God of Israel, who said, YOU MUST TAKE SOME TIME OFF – I will GIVE you some time off – and I will protect you and provide for you when you do. This was demonstrated by the fact that the manna that he fed them with in the wilderness was twice as plentiful on the day before the Sabbath than they were at other times. And in addition to this day off each week, the Lord demanded greater Sabbaths, with greater promises to cover them. Every seven YEARS, they were to plant no crops, but let the land rest, and only harvest whatever came up volunteer. And God said, test me, see if I don’t give you enough – you can rely upon me. And every seventh Sabbath Year, there was to be an additional year – a 50th anniversary, the year of Jubilee – when all debts were canceled, and all slaves were freed, and those who had pawned their ancestral lands got them back again. For TWO years, there was to be no planting, and again, God said, I will provide for you.
It is not good to work all the time. And so, God gives us the gift of Rest, so that our bodies and our minds and our relationships can come back into their right settings – to renew us. He does this because he loves us. And he does this to point to the great Sabbath that is to come – the eternal Rest of the new heaven and new earth, the Day of Resurrection.
So, the fundamental intent for the Sabbath is for the benefit of God’s children. This is what Jesus meant when he said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. It’s not about rules and respectability and all that. But that means it’s not about running yourself ragged, either. To say that God has given us leisure and then gorging ourselves on too much “fun” is like saying God has given us food and then gorging ourselves on ice cream – it’s just gluttony of a different sort. Or like the young adult off on one’s own for the first time who discovers that two beers will make you feel pretty good, and so figures that TWENTY beers will make you feel TEN TIMES as good – well, it ain’t necessarily so – there’s a little something called the Law of Diminishing Returns at work here.
In the kingdom of God, play is as holy as work, but you do not honor God when you make play as wearying as work – or when you let your play get out of control. And here’s the thing: if you don’t take care of yourself, there will be less of you – and of an inferior quality – to share with those you think you’re doing it all for.
One of the things we need to learn how to do is to Rest; to not drive ourselves so hard; to enjoy the moment; to remember what we were working so hard FOR; to recover our sense of what is truly important. And I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone, here. (Yeah, I'll be hearing this sermon quoted back to me when I get home.)
And for those who are living on the edge, for whom play is a dim memory, because work is so hard and so uncertain, and you feel like you’ve got to hit it every day as hard as you can – and then when you can’t go any longer, you collapse and feel guilty for stealing time for yourself – Hear this: God says you must take care of yourself. It’ll all still be there tomorrow. But today, you need to stop, if only for a while. A very wise man once said to me that the waking hours of the day are divided into three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening; and you should try to work only two of them.
You need some time for yourself every day, to put your burden down, to let God worry about it for you. And you need some larger time every week, as an exercise in trust as well as a gift to renew your strength. This is what it means to remember the Sabbath, and when you use it properly, as the gift of God it is, then it is holy time to you, even if you are not primarily engaged in religious exercises.
Speaking of which . . .
If the Sabbath is all about rest, then why do we hafta get up and go to church? Well, in Jewish life, the Sabbath (meaning, sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday) is, at bottom, a family holiday – a time for domestic gathering and family prayers. Of course, when synagogues were invented, back in the Babylonian period c. 500 BC and after, they met on the Sabbath morning for prayers, as a community recognition of God’s gift. The early Christians took over the Sabbath tradition for their Sunday gatherings when they celebrated the resurrection of Jesus. They thought of every Sunday as a little Easter, and they called it the Eighth Day of Creation; as such, it looked forward to the Great Sabbath to come.
Anyway, remember that some of the things we are supposed to use the Sabbath for are the renewal of our souls and the remembrance of what is truly important and the tending of our most important relationships. We call people to worship on our primary day off because worship is a gift, too, and not merely an obligation. It renews our souls; it reminds us of what is truly important; and it tends to our most important relationship, our relationship with God himself. People who won’t take time for God are going to find it difficult to manage the time they have, because they wind up “majoring in the minors,” as the saying goes. They want to weed out the unimportant stuff, but they don’t understand what is truly important in the first place, so it’s a struggle for them to take care of themselves.
So let me point out to you, that the well-lived life is a life of prayer and worship. We should set aside time each day for God – to pray, to study, and TO REST IN HIM – not merely to frantically pray for strength, but to claim his peace. The every day rhythm is punctuated by the every week gathering with friends to worship and to be blessed by the love of others and be encouraged by their faith, to receive instruction and be set back upon our path with renewed hope. And just as the Sabbath Day led up to greater events – Sabbath Years and Jubilees – so each of us has need now and then for time away with God -- personal retreats or times of fasting; an occasional day of silence, perhaps; maybe attending a group retreat or a church camp or a mission -- where you will be inspired and have your inner gears cleaned and recalibrated and come back with a renewed appetite for life and ministry.
Sabbath is not a duty; it is a gift. It is a gift given to you, because God loves you. Rest a while in him, and let him mind your load. Amen.