Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Matthew 11:28-30
Sabbath is a tricky concept for Christians.1
We’ve tended to see it as a Jewish thing, not really applicable to us, or, more recently we’ve conflated it with trendy forms of self-care. It’s the only one of the Ten Commandments that we brush off as not really that important. But it’s the longest and most descriptive commandment, the hinge words between how we relate to God and how we relate to each other. It’s not a throw-away comment.
The Israelites are no longer slaves, no longer owned by a master and locked into a system that dictates their worth solely by what they produce. They’ve lived this way some 400 years; it’s deep in their psyche. Now they are free, and they will need to learn how free people live, alongside other free people, with God as their master instead of Pharaoh.
The other commandments take the people out of slavery; the Sabbath command takes the slavery out of the people. One day in seven, God says, you stop all work. You do this because you are not to be defined by your output. One day in seven everyone rests, and all distinctions that you erect to define your value and measure your worth disappear—old, young, rich, poor, slave, free, citizen, foreigner—you are all simply and completely human beings, alongside one another, all beloved children of God.
This is the hardest lesson to absorb, so we have to do it regularly, God tells us. We have to regularly step out of the mindset and activity of the world around us, the measuring, comparing, competing, striving, producing and consuming. We have to regularly stop doing and practice just being.
Like all the other creatures and the earth itself already do, we must succumb to the cycles of rest and renewal that God built into the fabric of existence, which we are brutally determined to transcend. One day in seven, this command says, you on purpose remember that you are not God. And you on purpose remember that you are neither better nor worse than anyone around you, but connected in a mutual belonging to God and each other. This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be free. But we forget this most of the time.
While we seek meaning from our lives, forces around us seek to shape how we find that meaning. 24/7 connectivity in our pockets ensures we’re saturated with messages that strip us of our freedom and humanity, and suck us into relentless comparison and division, ranking and judging, striving and measuring. With social media, texting, email and phones ever at the ready, we’re justified in acting as though the world can’t run without us; (the average American checks their phones 80 times a day while on vacation).2
Spirituality is nice, and God is, of course, real, but do we really need God? We’ve got it pretty much covered. Meanwhile we’re so disconnected from true selves that we can barely stand when emotion of almost any kind arises—it throws off our equilibrium. We’re chronically over-committed, under-resourced and exhausted, and who in the world has time for Sabbath?
If we step off the spinning carousel it will all fall apart, and we’ll never figure out how to put it together again. In fact, let’s label Sabbath self-indulgent, or keep rest a reward for a job well done! Let’s bolster our Protestant work ethic with a good dose of self-effacing pride. “How are you?” we’ll ask each other. “Busy!” we’ll answer, holding it out like a badge of honor, proof of a life well-lived. Look how well we are producing and consuming! We are not wasting any time.
Sabbath is one of God’s big ten, right up there with not murdering, because unless we regularly stop, we forget that God is God and we are not. We forget that we are creatures—with bodies and minds and hearts that need tending, dependent on the love and care of a creator who is ready to meet us when we stop moving long enough to be met. We forget that we are in this together, alongside everyone else, and we need one another because life isn’t meant to be done alone and against. And human beings that forget their humanity are arguably the most destructive force in the universe.
Rest is not a reward to be earned. It’s the starting point. The Jewish day begins at sundown. All creativity, invention and construction happen in the second half of the day, fueled by, and resulting from, rest. And when the Sabbath day arrives, everything stops, whether you are ready or not. Sabbath interrupts and takes over.
You don’t start Sabbath after all the work is done, the house is clean, the thank you notes are written, and the gutters are cleared. When the sun hits the horizon, you stop. The phone goes off, the screens go dark, the work is put down and the only thing left is human beings being human, in the presence of God, who was there all along but who largely went unnoticed until now.
It’s uncomfortable. It’s strange. We are trained to measure the worth of a day by what we accomplish; what do we do with a day in which the goal is not to accomplish a thing? Expect there will be restlessness. Often there are tears, as emotions we’ve stuffed down come up in the space we’ve made. These become, like hunger pangs during a fast, a sacrifice back to God and a gift to us, a reminder of our pressing need to stop, so unaccustomed and painful it is to have our basic humanity in our face like that. We’re out of the rhythm. We’ve forgotten how to remember.
Our texts this series all touch on the underlying truth that Sabbath is God’s strategy for helping us remember that God is God (and we are not), and that we are human beings, made in God’s image for love and connection, (and not locked in a never-ending competition for worth and resources).
This series is a fantastic opportunity to be brave as a congregation and practice Sabbath together. Set aside a day when you all will practice Sabbath (make it a Sunday and dedicate the time normally used to gather for worship!), and share afterwards with each other about the experience. Make space for silence during worship, five minutes to just sit and be. Turn off cell phones when you gather (download this cell phone liturgy). Plan a Sabbath retreat together. Sabbath is a discipline that works best with the support of a community, and its benefits will be felt by the whole community. When we stop, God will meet us. Why not help people try stopping?
Week 1 (Aug. 20, 2023)
Preaching texts: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Matthew 11:28-30
The Deuteronomy text is a strikingly specific commandment, alongside the other succinct ones. This is a hard one, former slaves, so listen up: You really are supposed to stop. All of you, every week, every thing, no exceptions. You’ve been delivered from a life of slavery, where your output was the sole measure of your value, and any weakness, otherness or need was a life-threatening deficit.
You’re made to care for one another like God cares for you. You must stop, regularly, to remember this, or all the other commandments will become simply another way to measure, compete, and dehumanize yourselves and others. You’ll forget the God who saves you and the freedom you’ve been saved for, and you’ll go back to being slaves.
The Matthew text begs the question, Who among us isn’t weary? What would it be like to take Jesus’ yoke, to find our life inside Christ’s own connection to God and purpose in the world? When we return to trust and alignment with Christ, the result is rest. Not just metaphorical rest, actual rest. You will find rest for your souls. If our faith requires constant striving and insistent measuring, if we’re never good enough, always needing to do more or be more, it is not the faith of Christ.
Week 2 (Aug. 27, 2023)
Preaching texts: Genesis 2:1-3; John 15:9-15
It’s a radical thing to have a Deity who rests. To be so secure in one’s power and place as to stop and step back? It’s almost as though God’s only job isn’t keeping the world going! It’s almost as though God has other things to do and be, other facets of personality, other interests and thoughts and isn’t defined solely by the act of creating!
Besides creating and declaring things good, God gives three blessings at creation: God blesses the creatures (1:22), the humans (1:28), and the rest itself (2:3). God stops working and enjoys what God has made. An integral part of creating this earth for God is enjoying the beauty and harmony of each creature and feature contributing its unique music to the exquisite symphony.
God does not create for the sake of creating, God creates to enjoy and relate and connect. Like a parent stepping back to see their child learn and grow, resting is God’s, I love watching you be you. Made in the image of God, we are drawn into the rest of God, in fact, commanded to participate in it, in order to remember who God is, and who we are outside of what we do to keep things going.
Jesus invites us to abide in him. Connecting back to last week’s text, we cling to the faith of Christ in God, the life of Jesus that is both absolute trust and belonging to God, and in absolute mutual care and connection to other human beings. We are made for this love, made to live in and share this love. And like our Genesis text, we’re meant to enjoy the life we’ve been given, to share the fullness of life that Jesus enjoys with God in this world God made and loves. Abiding in God’s love brings us joy. What would it feel like to have our joy made complete?
Week 3 (Sept. 3, 2023)
Preaching texts: Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11; Luke 15:11-32
Our Deuteronomy text is a striking illustration of the trust the Israelites are invited to live in. What a shift to go from many generations of slavery, to a generation of absolute and total dependence on God in the wilderness—both of these rigorous but fairly simple and very clear-cut ways to live—to now owning land, having power, shaping and living in a society with all the complications and messiness that brings. In case the wilderness manna wasn’t enough, in case the practice of resting every seventh day isn’t enough, God says every seventh year all debts will be erased.
God recognizes how insidious the mindset is, how sin creeps in and entices us to build ourselves up at others’ expense, to guard and protect our perceived worth and ignore others’ need. So, a clean slate every seven years ought to prevent the consolidation of power and the disempowering and dehumanizing of others. It ought to help them keep seeing each other as mutual caregivers, always belonging to each other and always able to help one another as God helps us. And it’s so pragmatic and honest—calling out the temptations before they happen—being tight-fisted and hard-hearted, resenting those in need as though they are taking something away from you.
There will never cease to be need upon the earth—no amount of vigilance or tireless work on our part could end the world’s need—so open your hand to the poor and needy. God is God and we are not. Therefore, as creatures of our Creator we’re invited to join with God in the ongoing meeting of one another’s needs. This is the way of freedom and trust.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is interpreted in lots of ways, but there’s a particular delight in seeing it through the lens of Sabbath. We are so tempted to measure, compare and earn our worth, that even those who are near to the Father, cared for in every way, feel threatened when someone else is shown grace. But grace is what we all exist within, claimed by God not because we’ve proven ourselves worthy, but because God is love. We are to abide in this love and find our joy there.
The younger son returns defeated, his efforts to define himself apart from and outside of the Father’s household are self-destructive and dehumanizing. He discovers he is loved and claimed simply for being a child of the Father. He is given a place, working alongside the father, in freedom and wholeness. The older son is invited into this same arrangement. But it’s harder to let go of the false idea that this place is earned when you’ve done such a comparatively and measurably good job of appearing to earn your place.
If the rules of this world are off the table, if we cannot assess our value and our standing by how productive, successful or good we are, the remaining grace and invitation to simply abide in the love that claims us can feel terrifying. Offensive, even. But we too can find ourselves shifted from slavery to freedom, awakened from death into life, feeling our joy made complete, and experiencing rest for our souls, if we can stop and let God meet us just as we are.
- Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 18, 2019.
- “Time for a digital detox? Americans check their phones 80 times a DAY while on vacation – and more than half have NEVER unplugged when taking time off,” Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-5741687/Americans-check-phones-80-times-DAY-average-vacation.html