A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Sabbath


Disciples Eat Wheat on Sabbath, James Tissot  (1886-1896)

Pentecost +2
Rev. Doug Floyd
Deuteronomy 5:6-21, 2 Corinthians 4:1-12, Mark 2:23-28

Today we have the privilege of revisiting the 10 Words from the book of Deuteronomy. Our Gospel reading recounts the disciples plucking heads of grain in a grainfield on the Sabbath. These readings draw me to revisit the glory and wonder of Sabbath-keeping. Over fifteen years ago, I was drawn to meditate upon the 10 Words or Torah. It is so rich and speaks to our own lives. I ended up leading several retreats on Sabbath to clergy, other Christians, and even to businessmen.

There is so much worth reflecting upon in Torah and in the Sabbath, we can only touch the surface. If anyone is interested, we could do a day retreat on Torah and another one on Sabbath.

I will start by recommending Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Sabbath. It is one of the most beautiful recollections of Sabbath observance I have ever read. This book gives us a sense of how Eastern European Jews lived into the rhythms of Judaism and how they translated it to American soil.

I’ll open with a memory of Heschel’s daughter Susannah about Sabbath-keeping. She writes the following:

“When my father raised his kiddush cup on Friday evenings, closed his eyes, and chanted the prayer sanctifying the wine, I always felt a rush of emotion. As he chanted with an old, sacred family melody, he blessed the wine and the Sabbath with his prayer, and I also felt he was blessing my life and that of everyone at the table. I treasured those moments.

Friday evenings in my home were the climax of the week, as they are for every religious Jewish family. My mother and I kindled the lights for the Sabbath, and all of a sudden I felt transformed, emotionally and even physically. After lighting the candles in the dining room, we would walk into the living room, which had windows overlooking the Hudson River, facing west, and we would marvel at the sunset that soon arrived.

The sense of peace that came upon us as we kindled the lights was created, in part, by the hectic tension of Fridays. Preparation for a holy day, my father often said, was as important as the day itself. During the busy mornings my mother shopped for groceries, and in the afternoons the atmosphere grew increasingly nervous as she cooked. My father came home from his office an hour or two before sunset to take care of his own preparations, and as the last minutes of the workweek came close, both of my parents were in the kitchen, frantically trying to remember what they might have forgotten to prepare—Had the kettle boiled? Was the blech covering the stove? Was the oven turned on? Then, suddenly, it was time: twenty minutes before sunset. Whatever hadn’t been finished in the kitchen we simply left behind as we lit the candles and blessed the arrival of the Sabbath. My father writes, “The Sabbath comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories.”[1]

The bond between humans and Sabbath is so deep that Heschel describes the Sabbath like a bride that has come to her people. People wear special clothes, eat special foods, and enjoy one another while giving thanks to God. He says that the days of the week were counted in relation to Sabbath: three days until Sabbath, two days until Sabbath, preparation day, Sabbath, day after Sabbath, two days after Sabbath, three days after Sabbath. Thus, all of life moves in light of Sabbath.

I understand how reading someone like Heschel can cause some people to become Sabbatarians. I have friends who attend the Messianic Synagogue in Knoxville. While some are converted Jews, others are Gentiles who fell in love with Jewish practices. I think it’s fine to practice Sabbath-keeping instead of worshipping on the Lord’s Day, but Scripture makes it abundantly clear that our day of worship is a personal conviction.

In Romans, Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, he gives freedom for how we practice our faith. He writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”[2] I’m going to return to Paul and the New Testament in a minute. First, let’s consider the command given in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

There are distinctions between the two commands. In Exodus 20:8-11 we read the following:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. [3]

This command is given to the recently freed Hebrew slaves from Egypt. They are at Mt. Sinai. And the Lord tells them to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The rest of the command will explain what remembering and keeping it holy looks like. No work. No one in the household shall work: sons, daughters, servants, livestock, or even sojourners who are staying with the family. In other places, the people will be told not to gather manna on this day but will be given grace to gather extra manna on the day before.

While the other nine commands specifically focus on guarding relationships, this command focuses on time and space. Heschel calls the Sabbath, “a Sanctuary built in time.” It promises a day of rest to the family but also to the servants and animals. This is a day of Shalom, of peace and worship. It anticipates the Shalom, the peace and justice and glory that will eventually be restored to all creation.

This Exodus command is linked to the creation story. In verse 11, we hear, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

It celebrates the Lord as Creator, but also emphasizes that on the seventh day, He was finished with His work and rested. Obviously, the Creator doesn’t need to rest, but He sets aside a day as holy, a day of rest, a day that points to completion. Now think about this in relation to the Hebrews at the bottom of Mt Sinai. They are just beginning a long journey to the Promised Land. They are commanded to rest every seven days and celebration completion. The Creator will lead them to a true and lasting place of rest.

The writer of Hebrews picks up on this theme in chapters three and four. He points out that the people failed to enter rest even after they entered the Promised Land. In chapter 4:8-10 we discover, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” [4]

Throughout most of history, people have lived in the sixth day, the day of man’s labor. The seventh day is the rest of God, and the writer of Hebrews points out that this rest is found in Jesus Christ, our great high priest. Through Him we come boldly to the throne of mercy and grace.

We’ll return to this idea in just a moment. First let’s look at the Deuteronomy command.

12 “ ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. [5]

This time we are told to “observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.” We are to keep it, to guard it. Moses is telling the young generation the day before they enter the Promised Land. They must guard this day as set apart. It is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to His creation. Once again, the command includes rest for the entire household including servants and guests.

This younger generation must not forget their story. So Moses reminds them, “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” [6]

This generation was born in the wilderness, but they are to remember the slavery in Egypt and God’s deliverance firsthand. This is our story too. For we were slaves in Egypt. Paul connects this story with the redemption story in Christ Jesus. In Romans 6, he talks about how in Christ we are no longer enslaved to sin. We are free in Christ Jesus. By the time we get to Romans 8, Paul says that “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”[7]

Just as the children of Israel are to remember their story as they observe Sabbath, we are to remember our story. We also were slaves: slaves to sin, but Christ has set us free, and  now we truly can enter the rest of God in and through Christ Jesus and by the power of His Spirit.

The Exodus Sabbath command emphasizes God as Creator who leads His creation to completion or perfection. That is to Sabbath Rest. The Deuteronomy command emphasizes God as redeemer or sustainer of His creation. He creates us and He recreates after we have suffered the ravages of slavery to sin. He does not forsake but is leading us to perfection, to glorification, to Sabbath.

With this in mind, we realize it is not a certain Sabbath practice or Sabbath day that redeems us but Christ alone. And yet, Sabbath practices from people like Abraham Joshua Heschel can help us remember the goodness of God in the land of the living. This part is sometimes difficult for people.

We almost want a law that you must worship this way, on this day. But that is not the way of the Spirit. I am not in charge of your spiritual growth. I can pray for you. You can pray for me, but in the end, it is the Spirit of the Lord through Christ Jesus who will present us blameless before the Father. We trust in His goodness and grace alone.

As we develop practices that rehearse our Sabbath in Christ, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  1. Sabbath is about resting in God’s faithfulness and remembering His promise to glorify us.
  2. Sabbath touches the beginning of all things in creation and the end of all things as it points to God’s perfect shalom over all creation.
  3. Sabbath practice moves out from person to community to the greater world around us.
  4. Even as we celebrate God’s good creation, we celebrate human creation even though we realize that sin and brokenness can impact all things.

Our practices of rest and remembering touches all the members of our household and can take shape in all sorts of ways. Bob Goff tells of bringing Sabbath rejoicing to his whole neighborhood by starting a New Year’s Parade. Abraham Joshua Heschel spent time with friends and played music with friends. There is no limit to the beautiful ways God can use us to point to the glorious Sabbath rest for humanity and all creation. Music, art, feasting, laughter, story-telling, and much more can all play a role in bringing the hope of Christ to our weary souls and the weary souls of others.

My Messianic friends greet one another on Sabbath with the words, Shabbat Shalom. The peace of Sabbath. I leave you today with this blessing in Christ Jesus: Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath (FSG Classics) (pp. 3-4). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 14:5.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 20:8–11.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 4:8–10.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 5:12–15.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Dt 5:15.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ro 8:2.

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