Lord of the Sabbath

The next prompt from Writing in the Margins:

Romans 12:1-2 offers insight into transformed lives.  Reflect on the text in your margin.  What needs to change in your life to live into this message?

The passage is:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing you may discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The first thing that came to mind for me as I reflected on what needs to change in my life was the Sabbath.  Perhaps, I was still traumatized by reading the story from Numbers of a man was stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath in my rather morbid review of stoning.  I started thinking:  “Maybe Sunday should not be my regular laundry day!”  I do my best to make it to church every Sunday and whenever I teach my preschoolers about the Ten Commandments I tell the children what I heard growing up:  “We honor the Sabbath by coming to church.”  But we come to church on the first day of the week, not the seventh?  And I’ve never been good about taking either the seventh or the first day to rest.  This seemed like a good opportunity to “test Scripture and discern the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”  Since I already illustrated this verse, I decided to do something totally different in this post, a whole Bible study on the topic of the Sabbath!  (Warning sign for crazy long post!)

As I studied and illustrated the topic of the Sabbath, I felt like the whole Bible came into better focus for me, particularly the work and message of Jesus.   I used to think of the Sabbath as something only a legalist would try to understand, but I don’t see it that way anymore.  How to best keep the Sabbath was part of the prophetic message of Jesus.  It now seems clear to me that what Jesus taught about the Sabbath increased the tension between him and the religious authorities and ultimately precipitated his death on the cross.  The message the Bible teaches about the Sabbath is deeply relevant to our always busy, never resting, weary world.

I always use Google to search for images related to each Bible verse.  A Google search of more popular verses like “Cast your anxieties upon the Lord” brings up much different search results than “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”  It made me feel a little lonely in my quest to understand the fourth Commandment, as if I were trying to turn back the clock and return to some bygone era.  Nevertheless, I set out to explore the Sabbath and came to appreciate the Sabbath as a wonderful gift from God created for our benefit.  Along the way I discovered that the Sabbath is a reminder that we need to take a rest and be refreshed, a sign that we belong to God, a time set aside for fellowship, a day to enjoy what we have created through our labor, a pleasant way to bring rhythm and order to our lives, a time to lay down our burdens and step away from commerce, a day to do good for others, to take care of ourselves, and to heal what ails us, a day to have our own cup filled, a reminder that there will be a day when we rest from our labors on earth and that the world will go on without us, a day to love God and feel God’s love for us.  God knows we need rest.  It’s one of God’s Ten Commandments, and for me, personally the easiest one to ignore.

Bricks without Straw

Most people start their study of the Sabbath with the creation story, but I have simply read it too many times!  And I feel that if I haven’t been convinced to rest once a week because God rested on the seventh day by this point in my life, it’s not going to happen.

I decided instead to start from a point of no rest and I reread the history of the people of Israel in Egypt.  After Moses first tells Pharaoh “Let my people go”, Pharaoh responds by increasing their burden.  They are no longer given straw to make bricks, but the daily quota is not reduced and then they were beaten for not being able to do their daily task:

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After the plagues and the parting of the red sea, the people of Israel are in the wilderness and complaining of hunger.  God provides manna, bread from heaven, and he gives the people a Sabbath.  God’s very first command to the people of Israel is “Take a rest once a week!”  He tells them to prepare for it and then simply rest.  They don’t even have to move from the place where they are:

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I’ll return to the topic of the Ten Commandments when I get to Deuteronomy.  For now I’ll just share this rule regarding the Sabbath and Festivals:

Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.

The purpose of taking a rest was refreshment!  And God expresses his concern for the animals, too:

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I was reading along through all the passages I could find on the Sabbath and found this verse:  “Above all, you shall keep my Sabbaths.”  I was puzzled to read that keeping the Sabbath was of such high importance.  As I thought about how to illustrate the passage, I decided on an engagement ring as an example of a sign between two parties.  The seventh day is like a standing date between two parties that love each other.  I was also struck that God says he will sanctify his people through the Sabbath.  As I reflected on this, there is a sense that keeping the Sabbath supports all of the other commandments.  Keeping the Sabbath strengthens our relationship with God, which helps with the first three commandments (have no other God before me, don’t worship idols, don’t take the Lords name in vain).  Spending unstructured time with children aids in teaching children to honor their parents.  Resting makes one feel less hostile.  Spending time together as a family strengthens marriages.  Taking a day to enjoy the fruits of our labor makes us less likely to covet or steal.  Keeping a Sabbath probably helps keep us honest, too!

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Some of the instructions for the Sabbath completely baffle me.  One of the instructions says:  “You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”  No candles?  What if it’s cold?  I think this passage is generally understood as a prohibition against heating food on the Sabbath.  I found myself wondering if the Sabbath was meant to be a day to gather in community?  Not a day to make a fire in your own dwelling place?  I asked my seven-year-old son about the passage and he had as good an explanation as any I read:  “Don’t start a fight on the Sabbath!”  This seems like good advice!

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(I am a little sad about the spelling error above.  But I’m learning it’s ok not to be perfect.  And it makes me smile just a little.  My three-year-old daughter keeps asking for Kinder Surprise Eggs, so “kinder” was on my mind!)

I illustrated this passage about the bread of the presence because it becomes important later!  The priests were instructed to bake twelve loaves of bread and set them in two piles topped with frankincense on a table of gold every Sabbath.  As I researched the showbread, I learned that it stayed fresh all week and that the priests (and only the priests) would eat the bread at the end of the week before setting out new bread.

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We’ve made it to the story that started my curiosity about the Sabbath:  the man gathering sticks.  The Bible even seems a little self-conscious about this story, too.  Just before the story, there is a LONG passage about how nobody is going to get stoned for doing something accidentally or unintentionally.  After drawing the picture, I noticed how he seems alone on a day meant for the community.  (I can’t help but think Jesus would have just searched for the lost sheep!)

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This is another passage that becomes important later.  When Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, he reminds his listeners of the priests who profane the Sabbath.  My study Bible pointed me to Numbers 28:9.  I noted that everyone else gets a rest, but the priests’ daily burnt offerings are doubled on the Sabbath:

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When I read the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy, I yelled out lout “Eureka!”  In Exodus, the Hebrew people are told to keep the Sabbath because God created the world in seven days and then he rested.  In Deuteronomy, they are told to keep the Sabbath as a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt and God brought them out from there with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.  In both versions of the Ten Commandments, the words dedicated to the fourth commandment are by far and away greater than any of the others, the explanation is more complete.  To keep the day holy means to rest!  God tells a group of people who were once slaves, “Rest or else!”  (My understanding on this has been mixed up my whole life!)

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When Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, he reminds listeners of the time that David went to the temple and ate the showbread.  After reading the passage, I had a hard time understanding how it had anything to do with his disciples picking and eating grains on the Sabbath.  It’s kind of a sad and horrible story.  David is on the run from Saul, who wants to kill him out of jealousy, and he goes to the temple for food and a weapon.  The priest hands over to him five loaves of the showbread and the sword of Goliath that was kept as a trophy.  I just felt sad reading this story, remembering how David once took five smooth stones and a slingshot to battle the giant Goliath.  Here he seems to have lost all faith.  And the worst part of the story is that Doeg the Edomite sees the event and reports to Saul that the priest gave David these things.  Saul has Doeg the Edomite kill 85 priests.  It seems like every time David does something wrong somebody else gets punished.  I just wondered if perhaps Jesus were drawing attention to this story to suggest that he would be the priest who pays the price should any of his followers break the Sabbath?

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Onto happier things!  Solomon decides to build a temple.  As I read Solomon’s excitement about creating a place for regular offerings on Sabbaths, new moons, and feasts, I felt filled with a sense of appreciation for the rhythm that Sabbaths and holidays bring to life.  The temple must have been extraordinary to behold.  I can’t even begin to imagine that much gold in one place!  As I thought about Solomon’s temple, I heard Christ’s words ringing in my ears:  “Something greater than the temple is here.”

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You really can’t study the Sabbath without breaking open the book of Nehemiah.  This book was written in a time of reform and a BIG part of the reform was reinstating the Sabbath.  Among the prohibitions:

And if the peoples of the land bring in goods or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on a holy day.-Nehemiah 31

And it struck me that it is a good thing to take a break from commercial activity.  Before I had children, one of my favorite things to do on Christmas was to take a chilly walk with my husband on the Appalachian trail.  I loved the drive to the park because it was always such a marvel to me to see EVERYTHING in town closed.  We live in a such a relentlessly commercial culture.  On Christmas day, it just makes me feel really happy inside to know that at least for one day a year people across the country have a collective pause!  For me personally, I find that it’s refreshing one day a week to simply avoid being places where money is needed and spend more time enjoying our home and nature!

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Skipping ahead to the book of Isaiah, I found myself scratching my head:  Why would God say that Sabbaths had become a burden and made Him weary?  I can’t imagine God saying:  I’m really tired of you being faithful in your marriages or it’s wearisome to me that you don’t steal or kill?  Why would God grow weary of one of the ten things He commanded His people to do?  It just struck me as odd.  I kept reading and smiled.  The thought occurred to me, “The minister of my childhood church sure got this message!”  He always preached about being good, seeking justice, correcting oppression, helping the poor (and not once that I can remember about the Sabbath!).  Sunday mornings were to prepare us to go out into the world and live our faith so that we could in turn change our culture for the better!  But I found myself wondering, if perhaps the most oppressive quality of our society today is how it never stops.  So many children are “orphaned” through the business of their parents’ lives.  We need freedom from the tyranny of the to-do list.  Families need more quality time together.  We all need more rest!

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I read the following passage just after reading the whole book of Nehemiah including the list of returned exiles, some of whom were labeled as unclean since they could not prove that the belonged to the House of Israel through their descent. So I paused thinking how refreshing Isaiah’s invitation to foreigners felt to my ears!  God promises to make everyone who keeps the Sabbath joyful!  In this passage that talked of foreigners keeping the Sabbath, I found the words that Jesus said as he cleansed the temple:  “For my house shall be called a house of prayer.”  Most scholars agree that the cleansing of the temple was the event that directly led to the Crucifixion–the final straw.  I added a cross to the page as a reminder to myself that these are the words that cost Jesus his life.  Jesus demanded a house of prayer for all peoples!

051In Jeremiah, I found a prohibition against carrying any burdens on the Sabbath.  I have always loved the image of God as a potter.  It happened to fall on this page, so I added the words to a familiar hymn along the outside edge:

Have thine own way, Lord.  Have thine own way.  Thou art the potter; I am the clay.  Mold me and make me after thy will while I am waiting yielded and still.

053The prophet Ezekiel notes that when God’s people fail to keep the Sabbaths, they start chasing after idols.  I asked my father about Sundays when he was young.  He told me that his grandfather was not allowed to play professional baseball since they played on Sundays.  He also told me about Blue Sky laws and how nothing was open.  I found myself wondering what idols we have been chasing in the United States today that caused the big shift in attitude about Sundays.  Even faithful Christians seem to be caught up in being busy all the time.  In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” Brene Brown shares that one of the characteristics of whole-hearted people is that they rest and play, but shares this observation about life today:

Well, this is where my work as a shame researcher comes in.  In today’s culture–where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity–spending time doing purposeless activity is rare.  In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen.  We’ve go so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress.

She shares a quote from Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, clinical research, and founder of the National Institute of Play:

Respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform work.  It can bring back excitement and newness to our job.  Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process.  Most import, true play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work.  In the long run, work does not work without play.

This is obviously a more secular perspective on the topic, but we miss out when we don’t take time to refresh ourselves.  Blue Skies Laws were upheld as constitutional on the grounds that they promoted a public good beyond enabling people to worship.  It’s curious that we now need so much convincing that it is good to rest and play!!!

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I included the following verse because Jesus refers to it on his teachings regarding the Sabbath….

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We are finally to the New Testament!!!  There is a story that is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus was traveling through the grain fields and his disciples begin to pluck heads of grain.  The Pharisees want to know why they are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.  That’s when Jesus tells the story of David eating the showbread, of priests profaning the Sabbaths, and how God desires mercy (or my translation above reads “steadfast love”) not sacrifice.  Then in all three of these gospels Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  In each Gospel, this story begins the tensions between Jesus and the religious leaders.  In Matthew it reads: “The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”  (Matthew 12:11)  I picked a verse from all three gospel stories….

Jesus teaches that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath…

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He teaches that the Sabbath should not be a burden!!!  The Sabbath is a gift to us:

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And Jesus declares that he is Lord of the Sabbath…So I wrote a prayer addressed to Lord of the Sabbath!  As I did, I could hear a whisper in my heart…”You never did like taking naps!”  It’s taken me over forty years, but I am finally starting to see the value of rest!!!

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The big outstanding question on my mind is “Why Sunday?”  I have read every reference to the Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation and can’t find any Biblical reference to worship or rest on the first day of the week.  Its ALWAYS the seventh day.  I read the article on Wikipedia and focused on the the Easter story.  The best explanation I can give is that the early church focused on the first day of the week as the day to celebrate Holy Communion.  Each Sunday represented a little Easter.  It happened that sometime later the Roman empire declared Sunday to be a civic holiday, which made it easier for Christians to worship and rest on Sunday.  As I carefully reread the Easter story, I noted that Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day, which feels like a sad and heavy rest to me.  On the first day of the week, the tomb was empty.  St. Paul teaches that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected for our justification.  The resurrection is evidence that God is satisfied with the offering.  It wasn’t enough for Jesus to die for our sins; he also had to be resurrected for his work to be complete.  This makes the first day of the week the day that our Lord was released from the work he came to do, so as Christians we follow Christ’s example!  We walk in new life, and it is a happy, joyful day for us!  My conclusion for what it’s worth:  The reasons for a Sunday Sabbath are rooted in the Easter story and supported by two thousand years of tradition.

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The gospel of John does not share the story of the disciples picking grains or the man with the withered hand, but it does share the story of a man blind from birth who was healed on the Sabbath after Jesus made mud and put it on his eyes.  Until completing this review of the Sabbath, I never understand the significance of the mud!  But now I see.  My favorite part of the story is when the Pharisees ask the blind man who Jesus was.  He replies “A prophet!”  Prophets are always doing strange things, but with a purpose.  Here’s my interpretation of the mud…

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Jesus teaches that the Sabbath is made for man.  It was never meant to be a burden.  It is completely lawful to do good on the Sabbath.  We are expected to care for ourselves and others, to take time to heal!  It is a day to be refreshed and restored and be grateful that we are not slaves making bricks without straw in Egypt!  This teaching was met with tremendous resistance (and I can better understand why!).  St. Paul goes further than Jesus in changing our understanding about the Sabbath.  For Paul, Jesus is the Sabbath, the one who gives us rest from the law.  We are completely and radically free in Christ and that freedom extends to how we worship:

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In Hebrews, St. Paul teaches about the Sabbath as the rest yet to come, a vision of a promised land that awaits all those who believe in Christ.

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It’s a bit anti-climatic to reach the end of this study with the conclusion that for Christians, we don’t have to worry about finding the exact best way to keep the Sabbath.  We just have to keep Jesus.  Through studying the Sabbath, I have a better understanding of who Jesus is:  the great high priest, the bread of the presence, the lamb of god, light of the world, savior, messiah, and king.  He is Lord of our Sabbath, however we celebrate it and Lord of the promised rest to come!  For myself, I will be doing my best to keep Sunday a holy day, taking time to rest and worship!  As far as I can discern, this is God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for my life as a sign that I will not be conformed to this world, but will be transformed by the renewal of mind and body and spirit!  My cup totally overrunneth with this post!  Now to get some rest!!!

As an afterthought…this post feels very much like the answer to my prayer in my very first entry in my journaling Bible, also on the topic of rest.  It’s like God said to me, “If you want rest, Sally, I do have a plan for that!”

One thought on “Lord of the Sabbath

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