It may seem that the so-called Sabbath Commandment is pretty low-level stuff. It doesn’t deal directly with God and how to worship as do the first three. It also doesn’t deal with those big ethical issues, as do the last five. It has to do with a specifically Jewish observance, the Sabbath. In the Christian North America of earlier days, these words were interpreted to mean, on one hand, that you had to go to church (for some Christians twice) on Sunday. On the other hand, you couldn’t play sports or games buy booze (if you ever could), or have rowdy fun on Sunday. To help with that, stores remained closed on Sunday (in Nova Scotia the so-called Lord’s Day Act was repealed only recently). It was pretty negative and depressing, and, as a certain style of cultural Christianity has exerted less influence, it also has become pretty irrelevant. And yet…
We have called this list “The Ten Commitments,” have held that they are just that, ten ways of committing ourselves to life in covenant with God and one another, and ten outcomes of such covenant living. In the list of ten, this fourth commitment is the most complex and the longest. Fully one-third of the text of the Decalogue is taken up with these words about Sabbath. That’s nearly as long as the first three put together and quite a bit longer than the total of the last five. Furthermore, this commitment is not a “you will not”! Both the fourth and fifth commitments are positives about what we will do. Clearly, the people who put this text together for the People of God sent signals that they wanted us to stop and pay attention to these words about Sabbath. What’s so important about them?
To answer that question, first, we must understand that Shabbat is a Hebrew word that means “rest.” The reference is to the seventh day of the creation story in Genesis 2:1-3. As I have said to you many times, this story is not to tell us how and when the world was made, but who made it and to what purpose. The six days previous were taken up in three days of forming the spaces of the world, and three corresponding days of filling those spaces. The space created on Day 1 was filled on Day 4, the space of Day 2 was filled on Day 5, and the space of Day 3 on Day 6. The words are a way of talking about the way the author experienced the present world. It is formed and filled (created) by God. Again, this does not affirm scientifically, how, but, to the eye of faith that the world is the product of the One Living God. The passage of a week’s time in the story affirms that the world exists in the movement of days, weeks, etc. There is yet a seventh day in the week that does not belong in a pair, but exists as a capstone to God’s whole creative enterprise, in which God, so to speak, celebrated the completion of that work by resting, by choosing not to do more. God blessed and affirmed the goodness of that capstone day of the week called “Rest,” and, here in Exodus, the value of resting, stopping, and setting ourselves apart is said to be one of the key principles on which experience of God is built. The fourth commitment begins with the word “remember,” which in Hebrew does not mean simply to “call to mind,” but also to “refresh, update, contemporize” what is remembered, in this case, the Sabbath. It means to do what is necessary to make the principle of stopping, resting, and taking a breath, contemporary.
This Sabbath commitment allows plenty of time for work and occupation, but there is a regular time that gives meaning and summation to that “other” time by stopping, withdrawing, ceasing, resting because God has shown us that such repeated stoppage gives value to work. Our text says, “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day.” If it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for those in covenant with God. We do not need to be so vested in the world that we cannot divest ourselves of it once in the week, in the regular rhythm of life. We need to be clear that the Sabbath is not primarily about worship, but about rest. In fact Shabbat is one of the Jewish ceremonies that is not celebrated in the Synagogue, but in each home.
Sabbath also points ahead to the last five commitments about the elimination of murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness or greed. All these ethical principles have as their basic assumption the kind of environment that will not capitulate to the rat-race of acquisitiveness, but lives in commitment to regular, timely, rest, ceasing, stopping, saying “Enough for now.” The last six commitments are about neighbourly living, and we cannot live as good neighbours if we are committed to crawling over our neighbours to get ahead economically, socially or religiously. Without Sabbath there is no community. It is about giving to and receiving from our neighbours.
(At this point, let me recommend a wonderful little book by Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance. It’s less than 100 pages long. The sub-title [Saying No to the Culture of Now] indicates that he is still willing to step on some toes. He says much more than I can. It’s a good read.)
Let me now take a few minutes to spell out some implications of taking Sabbath rest seriously in the fabric of our lives. The first has to do with our Gospel Lesson, which comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ first words go back to the commitments to “No other gods” and “No imaging God by what is less than God.” He said:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Mammon).
Those who follow Jesus cannot multi-task by also following that which simply gets them ahead in life at any cost. They will attach themselves to (or love) one or the other. Covenant partners are committed to having no other gods or their values, and not to granting absolute status to things that conflict with God’s value of divestment of self and “accomplishing something” by “being still” awhile (such as a political, economic, or religious philosophy or goal). What is really important about Jesus’ saying about two masters is its link to another about letting go of anxiety. Jesus’ words here have to do with letting go of serving that other master, that acquisitiveness that makes us worry whether we’ll have enough, or keep ahead of our neighbours. That other master (that is rampant in our society) says, “No, there clearly is never enough, and you need to worry that something’s going to get away from you or someone will take it away, and that the quota of work won’t get done; that someone will think you’re lazy or don’t have enough to do if you’re not continually driven to make, do, and have more. Serving that other master drives us to continual anxiety about whether we’re performing adequately for God’s standards or for the world’s. One of my former colleagues in ministry was so driven by the principle “if you rest, you rust” that it was as if any sin was forgivable but rest, quiet, and being centred. He thought that rest showed laziness, and anything was better than that. Not worrying about such is a testimony to Sabbath rest, which, in turn, is an act of testimony to such madness and resistance (Brueggemann’s word) to these pervasive values in our culture. We identify ourselves as covenant partners with God and disciples of Jesus, and refuse to be driven to accept a seven day per week plan to get more, have more, and do more. In a regular, rhythmic, timely fashion, rather, we commit ourselves to be more, in imitation of the God who does not need to do more, but trusts the creation to go on as we rest, and we don’t worry.
To approach this from a little different angle: none of us is in this life alone. Whatever we have, we receive, even if we work for it. As covenant partners with God and one another and disciples of Jesus we recognize this and glory in it. We also recognize that Jesus addresses those named in the first words I spoke to you this morning: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you…rest.”
The burden of which Jesus spoke was the combined yoke of the Roman imperial rule on the backs of common folk that made life intolerable, and the religion that was made of rules that colluded with the empire to keep them in slavery. In our society, we wear many heavy yokes, none heavier than the yoke that tells us that our value lies in how much we have and how well we compete and produce. We begin to translate everything into terms of that. Our worth is determined by how much we have. Our wants are re-marketed into our desperate needs. Our education is, re-configured into getting us into that well-paid job that will get us more stuff, and so is geared to “teach to the test” to assure success in such terms. Discipleship to Jesus, on the other hand, promises “rest,” pausing, stopping, Sabbath, because our worth lies not in what we do or make, but in who we are, bearers of the image of God, all of us. Sabbath stoppage allows us the space to reflect and realize how much we have that is a gift from others – our families, our neighbours – most of all from God.
The Lord’s Supper illustrates my point. The words of institution from 1 Corinthians begin, “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” and the text goes on that it wasn’t only the story that was “handed on,” or “handed over,” but bread and wine. We call this act into which we soon enter “The Eucharist,” which means “the Thanksgiving.” We are given the Bread and the Cup, much as Israel was given “holy manna” in the stories of Exodus and Numbers. God gives the gift of sustenance, of which all who hunger are welcome to receive. This act symbolizes all God’s gifts and embodies our common belonging together in the covenant with God in Christ and one another, as we stop, realize we do not create what we have, but receive it as a gift, and are thankful. There’s an old song that goes:
Take time to be holy, Speak oft’ with thy Lord;
Abide in God only and feed on God’s word.
Make friends of God’s children, help those who are weak;
Forgetting in nothing God’s blessing to seek.
If we can be free of the baggage that equates “holiness,” with an individual inner feeling that denies the pain and need of the world, we can combine this idea of taking time with God with remembering (in that Hebraic sense of “making real”) that the Ten Commitments begin with God’s own identification: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves” (Exodus 20:2). God is first-known as Liberator from slavery to old Pharaoh’s driven quota for production. Sabbath makes a space, as old as the creation plan of God, and gives an invitation to take that time to be holy, to be human, to enjoy that freedom, and to rest with God and one another. Might not this really be what holiness is all about?
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer Sustainer, AMEN.