I had the privilege of preaching in chapel at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University's seminary, on Tuesday, September 29; I am grateful to Dr. Brett Younger for the invitation. The theme for the semester is the Ten Commandments and my assignment was the Sabbath commandment. Here is the sermon that I preached.
Hope for the Chronically Rushed
Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Hebrews 4:9-10
I am thankful for the mysterious providence of God that caused me to plan not to attend the Mercer Preaching Consultation this year so that I could accept the invitation to be here on this day when my assignment would be to preach on the Sabbath commandment.
I am thankful for two reasons. First, in preparing I have been reminded of the necessity of practicing Sabbath in my own life and I plan to respond to my own invitation by doing better. Second, I have been on a quest for a while now to help myself and the people among whom I minister to become more authentically the Church by living out of a real and growing relationship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, a relationship that I am increasingly convinced can best be pursued—perhaps can only be pursued—by exercising the classic Christian disciplines. This assignment has led me to seriously consider the discipline of Sabbath keeping and I have become convinced that it may be one of the keys to the way of life into which I should be led and into which I should in turn lead the people for whom I am responsible as their pastor.
Why do I say that?
Well, consider the position of the Sabbath commandment in the Decalogue: it comes at the end of the “first tablet”; it thus concludes the set of commandments that deals with our responsibility toward God and it leads into the set of commandments that deals with our responsibility toward other people. That positioning is appropriate given that the command has to do with God—“the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” and it has to do with others—no person (and no animal, even) is to work. Notice, though, that the command also has to do with the self, with the ones who are to keep the commandment: “you shall not do any work.”
This emphasis on honoring God, on honoring others, on honoring self—it all sounds so very familiar, doesn’t it?
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he did not say “Keep the Sabbath.” What he did say was, “’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:29-31a). The keeping of the first and second greatest commandments, then, involves loving God, loving others, and loving self—none of which are easy and all of which require intentionality and discipline and practice.
The keeping of Sabbath is a good way to be intentional about practicing and developing the discipline that will enable us to love God, others, and self in the ways that God intends because Sabbath practice prepares and positions us for the daily practice of loving God and loving neighbor and loving self and Sabbath observance prepares and positions us for the daily practice of acknowledging the blessings of God and the needs of others. We need to observe Sabbath not as the only time that we love God, others, and ourselves but rather as a time to take the time to remind ourselves that we are to love God, others, and ourselves at all times and that the day is coming when all will be loved as they should be.
To observe Sabbath is to remember—and remembering inspires us to love God.
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”--in remembering the Sabbath, we remember who God is and what God has done. We remember that God is Creator (Ex. 20:11) and that God is Savior (Dt. 5:15—“Remember that you were a slave and the Lord brought you out”). In observing the first day as a Sabbath we Christians remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and we thus remember what God did in Christ to bring us out of slavery.
We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to remember who God is and what God has done so as to discipline ourselves to remember who God is and what God has done at all times—and remembering we will be inspired to love God at all times.
To observe Sabbath is to respect—and respecting inspires us to love others.
Here is the ethical dimension of the commandment: nobody in the family, no one in the workforce (slaves/servant), no one in the immigrant workforce (resident alien) was to be abused or misused—all were to rest. So here is a focus on others. We use Sabbath to remind ourselves how we are to treat others on all the other days.
It is here that Jesus’ example and teaching are especially important. Jesus did good for and to others on the Sabbath and, since he is Lord of the Sabbath, we should follow his example. “In Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath Day, the commandment becomes an embodiment of the love of neighbor” [Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 162]. So in our Sabbath observance we should take the time to reflect on how we can offer help and healing and wholeness to people and we should gladly embrace opportunities to do so.
There is a good word here for ministers, I think. For those of us who pursue parish ministry (and some other forms of ministry), we will work on the “official” Christian Sabbath (and thus we need to carve other real “Sabbath” time for ourselves) but, in the spirit of Christ, we are on the Sabbath touching folks for the sake of their help, healing, and wholeness, which is a good thing—and the Sabbath gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we are—or aren’t—doing that all the time.
We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to respect the needs of others and to reflect on how we can take action to meet those needs so as to discipline ourselves to respect and act on those needs at all times—and we will thus be inspired to love others at all times.
To observe Sabbath is to rest—and resting inspires us to love ourselves.
Such resting is for own good. In taking time to rest, to recreate, to celebrate—I would sum it up in the phrase “to let go”—we acknowledge that it’s not all up to us and the failure to acknowledge that truth is a danger in all vocations and maybe especially in ministry. In acknowledging through Sabbath practice that God is God and we are not we learn the great truth that Thomas Kelly put so succinctly: “Nothing matters; everything matters” (A Testament of Devotion); in Sabbath rest we lay it all down so that we can, by the grace of God, pick up again what is appropriately ours.
As for what it means to practice Sabbath rest, I am drawn to the emphasis of Karl Barth as pointed out by Tilden Edwards in his book Sabbath Time; Barth said that the Sabbath should be approached without a program by which I think he meant without a planned agenda. Edwards summarizes Barth’s emphasis this way: “’Let things take their course with particular freedom,’ in stark distinction from weekday practice. Don’t radically plot or settle it beforehand. Do just as much or as little as the day brings, ‘without grasping after it anxiously or eagerly.’” Edwards goes on to say that Barth’s “basic challenge” is “to allow the day a quality of lightness” with the hope and expectation that such lightness “will spill over into the workweek too, cutting into our temptations to overcontrol life willfully, and at the same time sharpening our capacity to discern those actions to which we are truly called.” [Tilden Edwards, Sabbath Time, rev. ed. (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003), p. 69]
We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to rest so as to discipline ourselves to rest in our trust in God at all times—and we will thus be inspired to love ourselves at all times.
But there is more to it than that. In resting—celebrating, enjoying—we look back to what God has done, we look at what God is doing, and we look forward to what God will do. When we observe the Sunday Sabbath, we look back to the resurrection of Jesus, we live now in the power of the resurrection, and we look forward to the resurrection to come—to the Sabbath rest that is yet to be.
Sabbath reminds us that as it was in the beginning (God rested on the Sabbath), is now (we rest on the Sabbath) and ever shall be (we will rest on that great Sabbath that is yet to be). (Cf. Miller, p. 126) The Sabbath then becomes for us an inbreaking of the Kingdom, a foreshadowing of the great Sabbath rest that is to come—a foretaste of glory divine. In Sabbath observance we practice living in what some have called “the ‘isness’ of the shall be” which involves, of course, not just love for ourselves but also love for God and love for others.
As Patrick Miller has recently put it,
The Scriptures thus understand the Sabbath rest as both present gift and also blessing yet to come. That Sabbath promise receives its seal and authentication in the church’s celebration of the holy day of rest and worship on the first day of the week, thus forever identifying the Lord’s Day with the climactic redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ, a work that is the ground of all hope. ‘The first day of the week should be a pointer to the last, final day for every person’ (Wolff, “Day of Rest,” 75). The rabbis were right. The Sabbath is indeed a glimpse of the world to come. (Miller, Ten Commandments, p. 166).
We need Sabbath because we need “a glimpse of the world to come”; we need a glimpse of the world that God has in store for us one day, a day in which love of God, love of others, and love of self will be perfected—but don’t we also need a glimpse of the world that God in Christ and through us might have in store for Monday and Tuesday and every other day of the week, days on which we can go a lot farther than we think we can in loving God, loving others, and loving self?