Remember the Sabbath
“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
What on earth does the fourth commandment have to do with the current Covid-19 crisis? Some of you reading this may be wondering what the connection is (apart from people shopping less on Sundays, anyway!). But if we take a careful look at how the Bible presents the theme of Sabbath, we’ll discover just how relevant it is to our present situation.
Firstly, Sabbath is about human flourishing. The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew and it’s usually translated “rest,” but it means more than just taking a nap. It reflects the inbuilt rhythm of God’s creation: as creatures in God’s world, we’re not designed to work without resting, or to rest without working. Rather, as those who’ve been made in God’s image, we’re invited to follow his example and discover healthy patterns of labour and refreshment. From the very first pages of the Bible, this is a key part of human flourishing.
But I’d guess that for most of us, the idea of establishing the perfect balance of rest and work is totally idealistic! Life is too frantic, too unpredictable, too jam-packed to carve out a neat Sabbath rest every week. Well, I completely get where you’re coming from! I’ve never been very good at practicing Sabbath rest. With the constant lure of workaholism, emails endlessly pinging on an iPhone and a surging stream of content to consume on Netflix and YouTube, switching off just seems like an impossibility.
Have you noticed, though, that this season of lockdown has given many people a glimpse of a different way of living? This disruption to our normal routines has thrown everything up in the air and, in some cases, things have landed in a way that seems to work better. Of course, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to minimise the tragedy and pain experience by so many in an “Every cloud…” kind of way. This has been a devastating time for our world, but it’s also been a season where many have discovered a healthier rhythm to life. This enforced slowing down might have disrupted your tendency to overwork; maybe living more locally has been a refreshing alternative to the daily commute; this season may’ve provided the opportunity to invest more in neglected relationships with family and friends (even if it’s just through Zoom and FaceTime!); perhaps you’ve been able to engage more meaningfully with your church, your neighbours and your community.
I called this a “glimpse” of a different way of living. Lockdown is certainly not God’s ideal (and for some it’s been more frantic than “normal” life), but it does highlight some of the unhealthy traits of modern Western existence, raising real alternatives. In this sense, lockdown is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to take stock and consider what kind of healthy patterns of living God might be calling us to beyond the Covid-19 crisis.
Going deeper, Sabbath is about God’s sovereignty. In most societies, throughout most of human history, daily food, daily water and daily fuel are the result of daily work. We lose sight of this in our modern context with savings, supermarkets and store cupboards. When most people stop working, life grinds to a holt… right?! But Israel—the original recipients of the Sabbath command—were called to challenge the underlying assumption here. Work is an important part of this good creation, but life, sustenance and human flourishing ultimately comes from God, not us. He is creator, he is provider, he is sovereign.
So, self-consciously stopping is a way of acknowledging God’s sovereignty. When we temporarily stop working and producing, we resist the urge to maximise our full earning potential. In doing so we are reminded that God is our provider: we depend on him, not our own capacity for productivity.
Can we push this a bit further, though? Sabbath is a new rhythm of life for liberated slaves.
Did you know that the Ten Commandments are found in two Old Testament passages (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). There are a few differences between the two sets of commands (presumably as Moses applies timeless principles to different generations in different contexts—as an aside, this should cause us to think twice before woodenly imposing our own interpretation of the commands on others with very different circumstance). Anyway, one difference is the reason given for keeping a Sabbath. In Exodus, Israel is instructed to remember the Sabbath because of the pattern set by God in creation, but in Deuteronomy they’re told:
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
It might seem strange, but Sabbath is a way of declaring that you were once a slave and now you’re free. I guess this makes sense for Israel, doesn’t it? They couldn’t exactly take a leisurely Sabbath, with the Egyptian slave drivers breathing down their necks! One of the marks of their liberation was the possibility of pausing their work each week.
But what about us? I’m assuming that none of you have been subjected to forced labour, but practicing a Sabbath can still be a sign of our liberation. While we’re not slaves to our employers in the typical sense, we can still feel a sense of slavery within our work: the lurking concern that our effort won’t be considered good enough; the insatiable drive for promotion or a pay-rise; the fear of being overshadowed by more “ambitious” colleagues. These reasons, among others, can drive us to a destructive workaholism, a self-inflicted slavery, or to use more biblical language: idolatry.
Perhaps, for some of us, this season has shown up what we’re really living for, what we can’t live without. Maybe the gods of career, salary and professional reputation have dominated our thinking for too long. Practicing Sabbath is one way that we can say “No!” to these idols. By temporarily stopping, we declare that we have been set free from our slavery, that they have no hold on us. We declare that we’re putting God first. Again, could this be an opportunity to re-assess things? What would it look like for you to emerge from lockdown with God as number one I your life?
Finally, Sabbath is about anticipation. I mentioned at the top that Sabbath rest is more than just taking a nap. It reflects fullness, life as it should be. Like so much of the law of Moses, the fourth command was intended to point a watching world forward, towards the restored world that God is bringing into being. Through daily, weekly and annual rhythms, Israel were supposed to anticipate what’s coming down the tracks: a new creation marked by liberation and flourishing. Read the Old Testament, however, and you discover that this didn’t work out too well!
Enter Jesus. One Sabbath day, this backwater preacher announces that he’s come to bring liberation and restoration to the world (Luke 4:16-21). Throughout the gospels, we witness flashes of this new creation breaking out, but one Passover, on the eve before Sabbath the unthinkable happens: this Jesus is executed. It seems as though all hope has gone.
But you know what happens next, don’t you? Jesus rests on the Sabbath. Then, on the first day of the week God raises him to life. This is a new week, a new creation, a fresh start for God’s broken world. This is the rest that never stops, this is true liberation, this is life as it was always meant to be. As we practice Sabbath, we catch a glimpse of a new creation.
I realise that some of you are busier than ever at the moment. All this talk of rest probably seems a million miles from your own experience. But however lockdown has impacted your routine, I imagine it’s shown up some of the healthy and less healthy features of your life. It raises the possibility of living differently, of stewarding your time in a way that declares that you are no longer a slave to the idols you once served. If you are in Christ, then you belong to his new creation. How can you live differently now, and beyond lockdown, to declare that this new creation life within you is God’s glorious future for our broken world?
Miles Tradewell | Minister