The way it was meant to be:
Set apart for God
Many of you can remember when there were very few stores open on Sunday, and very few public events held. No school would have dreamed of holding any event on a Sunday. Even the Indy 500 was only run on Sunday when Memorial Day – which was always May 30th – fell on a Sunday, and oh, how the Indianapolis preachers complained! Especially those on the west side. And even though the federal government moved Memorial Day to the last Monday in May, the 500 has been run on the Sunday before since 1974, with the actual holiday only serving as a rain date – for times have changed.
Some of you also may have grown up in conservative religious traditions or rural communities with a strong Sabbatarian streak. People in those traditions or communities spent Sunday in quiet pursuits, visiting each other after church occasionally, but otherwise staying close to home, or even indoors. Kids hated it. You had to get dressed up – and then stay clean – and worse, stay quiet – all day until sundown. It could get a wee bit boring.
The “blue laws” prohibiting the sale of alcohol and so on are mostly gone now, and Sunday is a bustling time for travel and entertainment. Lots of schools and sports leagues schedule events on Sunday – even on Sunday morning – with barely a peep of protest. So, what was all that about?
Well, today I want to talk about the creation of the Sabbath, and what God was up to when he instituted it. For we read in the Scriptures,
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.It is the crowning act of God’s creation, this seventh day, the day of rest. But unless you’re paying very close attention, you can miss what makes it so unique. For counting every seventh day as a day of rest and of worship is the origin of the week, which is the only major division of the calendar that has no connection to the observed movement of heavenly bodies.
The day is built upon the rotation of the earth, the year upon the revolution of the earth around the sun, with the mathematical calculation of the four quarter points that determine the seasons. The month is an approximation of the actual waxing and waning of the moon. But the week is fairly arbitrary.
Still, they needed some kind of unit in there, and the Greeks and Romans and Babylonians named the days after the seven classical planets – pretty much as we have them today, although when the Old English were brought into the system, they renamed several of them after their Germanic gods, like Woden (which is why there’s a ‘d’ in Wednesday).
But the seven-day week wasn’t the only way to divide up time. The Greeks and the Romans also kept count of market intervals, which occurred every ten days or so. That’s when all the people who grew food would bring it into town so people could go shopping – like our farmer’s markets and roadside produce stands. The Romans also broke the month into two halves, with the Calends being the last day of the old month and the first day of the new month, while the Ides were in the middle of the month – so that the Ides of March (upon which Julius Caesar was assassinated) would be March 15, and so on. The Greeks didn't use this system, which is why when a Roman suggested postponing something until the "Greek Calends," he meant, "never."
But really, the week wasn’t all that important as an organizing principle – except for the Jews, and after them the Christians, who took over the week fr them. Now, the Jews observed the seventh day of the week as their holy day, and the first Christians – who were all Jews – were used to doing so, as well. But the early Christians also observed, in addition, the first day of the week, as the remembrance of the resurrection of Christ. And they would gather on that day every week and worship God, celebrating communion with the risen Christ & praying for his ultimate return.
Eventually, far more Gentiles wanted to become Christians than Jews did, and the succeeding generations coming into the Church had no memory of a seventh-day observance – just the first day celebration. So they adapted the theology of Sabbath from the Old Testament to match the holy day they had inherited from the apostles. Still, nobody paid that much attention to all this until about the 4th Century AD.
For in those days, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion and showed much favor to it. He advanced many bishops and priests to high position in his administration, and it became fashionable to become Christian and keep the calendar of worship and special days after the manner of the Christian Church.
Nowadays, people the world over think that the seven-day week, which is almost universal, is an essential part of the calendar and always has been, but in fact, our use of it originated only in the commandment of God. For remember, on Mt. Sinai, when the Lord gave the Law to Moses, he said, “Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy.” God set apart one day out of seven, and then commanded his people to set it apart, too.
Why would he do that?
Well, there are two reasons, and to grasp the first you have to imagine a very different kind of world, a world in which survival was a matter of utmost concern, and there were no guarantees of any sort. Everybody lived on the knife edge of disaster. Most people had no money, nor any means of getting any. They scratched in the ground to grow food, they hunted and gathered whatever was wild, they made almost everything they had with their hands. Too little rain, too much rain, a late frost (or an early one), robbers, disease, injury, fire: all kinds of things could imperil your family’s survival. If you let up for a single day, you might not make it through the hungry days at the end of the year.
That was what life was like for most of human history. That was what life was like in ancient times, and that was what life was still like here, even in, say, Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood. Against such a demanding set of circumstances, the command to take one day out of seven as a day of rest is a radical, even a scary, thing. It requires great trust to do so; but then, when God hallowed the seventh day, he implied that he would take care of those who set apart the day, which gave them the courage to trust him.
And to those who were bent over with a life of unceasing labor, who lived every day with the knowledge of how little margin for error they had, the gift of a day off, a day of rest, was also an unparalleled blessing. We humans need rest. We need to lay down our burden of worry and fret and think about other things for a while.
And God knows we need this, which is why Jesus said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” And why every so often, he told his followers to come apart to some lonely place where the demands of others wouldn’t press in on them so closely. We cannot be always striving, without paying a cost in stress and weariness. And God gives us the pleasant command to go knock off for a while. To be refreshed, re-created. So the command to take a day of rest is not a burden, but a gift. God will take care of you while you take care of yourself.
Well, about 100 years ago, another subdivision of the calendar began to informally appear. More and more people were working for wages rather than growing food, and a great wave of industrialization swept across America. As part of the new system of industrial work, the 8-hr work day and the 40-hr work week eventually became standard. All of which gave us that uniquely American invention: the week-end.
Now, we had two whole days in which most Americans didn’t have to work for somebody else - plus Friday night, which could be made to carry as much fun as a whole day, if you hit it hard enough. And suddenly, how to use leisure time became an important topic on everyone’s mind. A society in which most people are very far removed from the thin edge of survival doesn’t view a day of rest mandated by God the same way the old agricultural society did.
But we have so much free time now, we tend to go after our fun with as much intensity as our work, and we wear ourselves out in the pursuit of what is supposed to be refreshing. Many people come to look forward to Monday morning when they can go back to work and recover from the week-end. And many others complain that all the things they’re involved in – or their kids are involved in – are just driving them nuts.
Now, far be it from me to tell other people how they should relax, but I see a lot of people whose leisure is at least as stressful as their work, and I remind them, as I remind myself: God still says you need to take care of yourself. God gave you a day off, not so you could beat yourself up, but so you could rest body and soul.
The other thing God set apart a day for was for us to seek him out and renew ourselves in his worship. We need physical and mental rest, yes, but we also need spiritual rest. We need to be renewed after the image of our Creator, through prayer and worship and communion and the sharing of the love of the Christian community.
One of the subtler heresies the Church has been wrestling with over the last two generations is the attempt to make Church “exciting” – or “relevant” – or at least, “not boring.” And preachers and choir directors and lay leaders spend enormous energy trying to give everybody a big, programmatic jolt on Sunday morning. And that’s fine; but, you know, the longer I live, the more I realize that God is sufficient. And he doesn’t need a whole lot of bells and whistles to make him more valuable to us. There’s a need for quiet as well as joyful noise in our worship, for tears as well as laughter. And the old, old words you’ve heard so many times, together with the sight and touch of people you’re sharing this journey with -- is enough.
What our souls need is regular renewal, not just a gigantic surge of spiritual power now and then. Just like our bodies need food on a regular basis, and rest on a regular basis, and exercise on a regular basis, so our spirits need to establish a regular pattern of meeting with Jesus amidst the meeting of his followers; to keep our relationship with him current, and to strengthen our souls, and to renew us for the tasks ahead.
God planned it that way. He planned us that way. It’s “the way it was meant to be.”