Sabbath Reflections

This past Sunday I spoke about Nehemiah’s decision to close the gates to Jerusalem so that people who were ignoring the Sabbath would begin observing it as God commands. As Christians we do not actually practice Sabbath because we worship not on Saturday but on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day in which we commemorate every week the resurrection of Christ. This does not, however, minimize, much less eliminate, the need to practice Sabbath as God instructs—it is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments.

For many of us, the idea of Sabbath requires a shift in focus: from a day that is primarily what we can’t do to a day that sets us free for what we can do. This is a day to remember and act like we are free from the bondage of sin and its enslaving power. The Israelites are slaves for hundreds of years. All during this time they work every day. Now that God has rescued them and brought them out of slavery, he gives them the gift of a day every week in which they don’t have to work: they are free to do things that they would never be able to do because of the demands of work. This is an issue for many people who have grown up in the church. The rules have been drilled into us that we cannot do certain activities on Sunday. In one sense this is true. It is a day to be different, but what does this different look like? Here are a few suggestions.

Corporate worship is a non-negotiable for Sunday. Coming together in worship acknowledges that we need God and that we need God’s people. We need to sing songs that declare who God is and who we are as his children. We need to read the scriptures because we might not read them that much other days, and we will probably ignore a great deal of Scripture that we don’t like or doesn’t make sense to us. We need to pray together. In worship we are reminded that our prayers for each other mean something. We are also helped in our struggle to interact with God’s word through preaching. I realize that some people must work on Sunday. For some of us, our Sabbath can’t be Sunday; then it needs to be another day. It’s the principle of Sabbath that is most essential.

Sunday should be a time for play, especially play that is unavailable to us other days of the work week. Our family spends quite a bit of time on Sunday playing games: something we have no time to do other days. We might watch a ball game or a movie, but we are doing it together, bonding with each other, enjoying each other. Whatever we do on Sunday should restore us. When we are done we feel refreshed and encouraged and blessed by God and others. We must therefore acknowledge that “play” means something different to each of us. Some of the ancient rabbis would say that if what you do on Sunday is a means of making money or is something you regularly do on other days of the week, then it is forbidden. If however, what you do is done for joy and satisfaction and creativity and is often something you don’t have time to do on other days, then it is permissible and encouraged. So, if you make money from your garden or from selling your flowers, then you should stay away from it on Sunday. If you garden for enjoyment or to refresh your soul because something about your hands in the soil feels like a gift of God, then by all means, work in your garden, tend to your flowers.

It’s not about creating a rule; it’s about giving each other freedom to live as God designs our lives. It’s about our attitude, our spirit, our perspective—this is what matters. Let me also caution us about judging each other: just because we feel constrained about a behavior on Sunday doesn’t necessarily mean that others must live by the same constraint. Let us me also add, however, that we need to be aware of what our Sunday freedom means for others.

I don’t necessarily mean other Christians. That’s who we typically worry about: what are they going to think of me? How will this look? Forget about that. We will never be free of judgmental people and we need to get over letting their judgmental spirit of bondage from keeping us from enjoying our freedom in Christ. I’m talking about the cause and effect of our Sabbath freedom. Does our Christian Sabbath behavior of play and joy and restoration make other people miss their chance for Christian Sabbath behavior? This might mean people who work in a service industry; it might mean people who live in our homes. We have to be careful about legalism here (as we have done in the past), but we must also be careful about ignoring the needs of others. Jesus is pretty clear about this one: awareness of the effects of our behavior are a sign of the Spirit in us.

The stories of Jesus in the Gospels are explicitly clear that doing good on the Sabbath is always right. Doing good on the Sabbath trumps any and all rules we in our belief system. Helping others. Serving others. Caring for others. Expressing compassion for others. The genius of Sabbath is that in the busyness and demands of life, we have a day, we have time, to do good for others in the name of Christ.

As I mentioned in the sermon, Sabbath keeping tends to be near the bottom of our list of important commands of God. We tend to see it as negotiable. Our actions almost seem to imply that we could just as easily live with 9 commandments as 10. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am convinced that so much of our spiritual life rises and falls with Sabbath-keeping. So, from one who struggles to keep Sabbath, I want to encourage us trust God enough to obey him and see how it changes our lives.