Sabbath in Exile

The Prophet Daniel by Edward John Poynter

Sabbath in Exile
Rev. Doug Floyd
Psalm 130

In the novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Elsa Mason feels the weight of being trapped in a life, in a marriage of struggle and sadness. She left her husband once but eventually returned. She feels she cannot leave again, so she must find a way to live in the midst of the struggle of living.

Her anguish brings to mind all the people across all the ages who sought to find a way to live in the midst of the struggle of living. Poverty, sickness, loneliness, and suffering can inflict pain on rich and poor alike, on the captive as well as the free person, on educated and the uneducated. No one is immune from the grip of the depths on the soul.

The Psalmist exclaims, “Out of the depths.”

These four words give voice to loss, anguish, and even despair. As though sinking into the dark waters of the abyss, a voice cries, “Out of the depths.”

This week the news brought the painful story of two celebrity suicides. A fashion designer and a chef turned television host. Both enjoyed tremendous success and wealth, and both appear to have intentionally committed suicide.

Out of the depths.

This news sadly reflects a larger trend as suicide rates have dramatically spiked in almost all fifty states.

Out of the depths

of sorrow, of despair

This image of the depths carries of someone succumbing to a pit, to sinking sand, to a self-imposed prison

Out of the depths

Could point to the grief and pain of facing cancer, prolonged illness, and withering disease.

We’ve seen friends and loved ones succumb under the weight of physical problems. Heart attack, cancer, and stroke can suddenly appear with devastating consequences.

Out of the depths

Consider the isolation and loneliness experienced by the ever-increasing aging population. At least 11 million people above the age of 65 live alone.

Out of the depths

Think of the millions of persecuted Christians suffering in prisons.

Out of the depths.

Genesis 3 tells the story of humanity turning away from God and ultimately being expelled from Paradise. In one sense, the history of the world can reflect this descent into the depths of sorrow, loss, brokenness…

The can depths swallow the soul, choke out the life, pull the victim down into darkness. Without the grace of God, humanity would fall into the depths with no respite, no hope, no deliverance.  But the Psalmist prays,

Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord.

The Lord rescued the Hebrew slaves from the depths of Egyptian possession. He led them to a land of promise. He called the people to be a kingdom of priests whose worship become prayer for the nations. Sadly, the pattern of Adam and Eve is repeated generation and generation in this nation of priests. Eventually, the Lord allows the surrounding nations to take His people captive.

Assyria invaded the Northern Kingdom and later Babylon invaded the Southern Kingdom. The temple was destroyed. The sacrifices ceased. The people withered in foreign lands.

Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord.

From the place of exile, the righteous Jews continued to cry to God. Looking toward Jerusalem, Daniel prays three times daily. He longs for the restoration of God’s people to the land. He prays, To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. (Da 9:7).

Out of the depths, he cries out,

O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. 18 O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. (Da 9:17–18).

The cry of Daniel, the cry of the Psalmist are possible only because of God’s mercy and grace. Sabbath remembering continually reminded the Jews that the very structure of the world was rooted in the lovingkindness of the Lord. In spite of the darkness, in spite of exile, in spite of death, the Lord was absolutely faithful. The Psalmist can only pray this because he believes the Lord will hear him, and he expects the Lord to answer his anguished prayer because he exclaims,

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
   my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning. Ps 130:5–6.

This image of watching and waiting for the Lord carries the same sense of Sabbath watching, waiting and remembering the Lord in His goodness. Last week we talked about Sabbath remembering rooted both in the creation story and in the story of God’s rescue of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. Sabbath renews hope in the soul. Thus the Psalmist can pray,

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption. Ps 130:7.

This memory of stedfast love gives hope for those who feel the depths surrounding them.

The Lord gives the Hebrews Sabbath as a reminder in time of His faithfulness to deliver them, care for them, and eventually lead them into the goodness of His creation. The regular practice of Sabbath feasting and resting, of Sabbath storytelling and remembering, renewed afresh the hope of God’s people walking through the wilderness into the time of His love.

Not all the Jews kept the habit of remembering while in exile. After the initial shock of captivity, they discovered a culture that offered ways for them to assimilate. Historical records indicate many Jews prospered in Babylon. The great temptation was no longer despair but forgetting who they were. Failing to remember the goodness of the Lord.

But other Jews remembered and kept the Sabbath feast and cycle of festivals, remembering God’s redeeming hand. By the time we reach the 20th century these communities continued to thrive through Europe and other places though often they suffered from local prejudices.

Elie Weisel writes of his childhood in Romania,

“The Shabbat helped people endure the other six days of the week, often gray and dark, heavy with sorrow and anxiety. Hence the waiting for Shabbat, which actually began much earlier. Thursday evening or early Friday morning, the housewife would already be busy preparing the hallah, gefilte fish, and cholent, the traditional elements of a Shabbat meal in the shtetl. The white tablecloth, the white shirt: everything had to be ready, and everything was the housewife’s responsibility….In the stores, business was conducted with haste. Sellers and customers were equally in a hurry to go home. Men would go to the ritual bath, the mikvah, then dress and prepare to be worthy of welcoming the Shabbat, already on the horizon. The first to spot her would be the beadle, the shammash: he would go around stores and homes shouting “Yidden, greit zicht tzu Shabbes!”—Jews, ready yourselves for the Sabbath! Or a variation on the same theme: “Yidden, s’is bald Shabbes oif der velt!”—Jews, it’s almost Sabbath in the world! At home, one did not need these reminders: the mother, mine too, lit the candles honoring Shabbat, one for each member of the family, and blessed them silently, with gestures of grace and tenderness. Suddenly, her face would be illuminated by a light coming from another world, from another time, a light at once frail and eternal. And her beauty was multiplied sevenfold, so that even now as I am writing these words, the tears well up in my throat.”[i]

Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the Sabbath restructures time. Humans build monuments in space: giant buildings, statues, and structures, but Heschel points of that the Sabbath is a palace built in time. He says, “The Sabbath is a sanctuary, which we build, a sanctuary in time.”[ii]

He explains that Jewish days were counted in relation to Sabbath. There was Sabbath, the day after Sabbath, the second day after Sabbath, the third day after Sabbath, the third day before Sabbath, the second day before Sabbath, Preparation Day, and Sabbath. On Preparation Day, food was cooked, clothes were washed, and all was prepared for the coming Sabbath.

Heschel writes, “When all work I do is brought to a standstill, then candles are lit. Just as creation began with a word, “Let there be light!” So does the celebration of creation being with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol; light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.

And the world becomes a place of rest. An hour arrives like a guide, and raises our minds above the accustomed thoughts. People assemble to welcome the wonder of the seventh day, while the Sabbath sends out its presence over the fields, into our homes, into our hearts. It is a moment of resurrection of the dormant spirit in our souls.” 65

A thought has blown the market places away. There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees. The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night: eternity utters a day. Where are the words that could compete with such might? 67

Zion is in ruins, Jerusalem lies in dust. All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth. 68

There are even accounts of some Jews celebrating the coming Sabbath in the concentration camps. Avraham Erlanger relates a  story from a Jewish woman in Ollendorf, Germany.

“On this gray autumn day, a piece of exciting information vas whispered in my ear.

“I’ve gotten hold of candles — Shabbos candles. Do you want to light them, Miriam?”

I stared at my friend. She smiled, saying, “Don’t you believe me? Shabbos candles! I found some wax in the department where I work. I melted it down in one of these boxes — and here they are. Shabbos candles!”

My heart soared. Shabbos lights, in the very midst of the darkness that pressed in on us from every side! In the center of the arctic menace, a tiny pinpoint of light and warmth — the Shabbos flames.

In that instant, I forgot the S.S., forgot instruction manuals, arms and missiles, forgot the cold and the whips and the starvation rations. I forgot the image of the loaded gun that was never far from my inner eye. In short, I forgot where I was. The whispered secret I had just heard had the power to spirit away the ugly munitions factory and everything in it.”[iii]

Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord.

In an age of increasing suicides and lonely seniors citizens, of people suffering from sickness and sadness and sin, the regular act of remembering the lovingkindness of Lord strengthens and sustains God’s people. Just as the Jews in exile faced the threat of extinction by failing to remember who they were, many Christians have either forgotten or walked away from their identity. The prosperity and distractions of our culture has caused many to gradually let go of their identity as believers. Active remembering like the Sabbath is vital.

As Christians, we see how Jesus Christ fulfills these Sabbath longings and in many ways our worship and celebration of Christ Jesus is a form of Sabbath remembrance. The more I read and study about Sabbath, the more I see how it foreshadows the coming of Christ. Our worship in Word and Sacrament is one way we enter into that rhythm.

But I continue to think that it is a challenge for us to actively cultivate remembering. At one time, most people in our culture experienced a form of Sabbath rest on Sundays because most businesses were closed. That time has faded, but the need to rest, remember, and rejoice still remain.

It would be a grace to our bodies and souls to cultivate a regular practice of stopping from work, resting in God’s provision, remembering God’s goodness, and sharing in the gifts He has given us.  Eating a candlelight dinner once a week and pausing to give thanks. It might take the form of regular times of meditation and quiet at home or in the mountains. Or simply eating regularly with some friends to share in the goodness of the Lord. The regular habit of resting from work, from complaint, from busyness to enjoy and give thanks could renew a deep sense of goodness and lovingkindness of the Lord.

May we pray with the Psalmist,

O Israel, hope in the Lord!

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

and with him is plentiful redemption. Ps 130:7.

[i] Wiesel, Elie. Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters (pp. 328-329). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 29.

[iii] Avraham Erlenger, “The Holocaust Lights” in http://www.aish.com/sh/t/cl/48971006.html

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