Sermon Series: Sabbath

July 4th, 2012

2 Week Series

Week 1: Keeping Sabbath Time

Genesis 2:1-3

Rest seems like a waste of time. Most of us have a difficult time imagining a day devoted to rest. We admire people who work hard and play hard. We have weekend projects, maintaining home or yard or garden. We travel or watch television. We have ball games and family obligations and hobbies. There is too much to do and too little time, and anyway, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right? As the old saying goes, there’s no rest for the wicked, and the righteous don’t need any. So to many of us, rest seems like a waste of time.

Sure, sometimes we feel the stress of busyness. We know we need a break, and we say that we should stop and smell the roses. But there never seems to be enough time for rest. We try to budget our time, stuffing time into envelopes and rationing it the way we budget money. We make distinctions between regular time and “quality time.” We know the consequences of such stress: high blood pressure, heart attacks, broken relationships, sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and so on. Yet even knowing these things, hearing that we “ought” or “should” try to take a break simply gives us one more thing to squeeze into our calendars between the doctor’s appointment and the deadline. Unfortunately, church doesn’t help much, with our programs and studies and mission projects, all of which are so important to our spiritual growth. How can we rest? We’re doing the Lord’s work! So although we may know we need a break, we don’t feel that we have time to rest.

We fear death. That’s really the problem, isn’t it? We fear squandering the little time we have. “I’ll rest when I’m dead,” we say, and we cling to our finite number of seconds the way a miser pinches pennies. Rest bears too much resemblance to that final rest below the soil, so that we fear rest and the passage of time because it makes us conscious of our own mortality. Time’s a-wastin’. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Seize the day. As the proverb says, A little sleep . . . a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty [another word for death] will come upon you like a robber.(Proverbs 6:10-11)

Yet God rested. How strange! A God who never sleeps, who is allpowerful and ever-present, decides to take the day off. We can hardly imagine it. What does God do on God’s off day? Bake cookies? Do a little gardening? And because God rested, God directs God’s people to rest (Exodus 31:17). The word sabbath actually comes from the Hebrew verb for “he rested.” God instructs his people to keep the sabbath holy as a perpetual sign of the covenant between God and Israel. In fact, God takes the day of rest so seriously that the community should put to death “everyone who profanes” the sabbath (31:14). While it is unlikely this happened often (it does in Numbers 15:32-36), apparently rest is serious business! Serious enough that God rested.

The truth is we all die, regardless of how we spend our time. When we die we will leave behind unfolded laundry, unchecked items on our to-do lists, unkept appointments on our calendars. Our business will not be finished. Staring at our datebooks, we realize our entire schedules should be written in pencil, because it all depends on the second-by-second beating of our hearts, tentative, subject to change at a moment’s notice. A sabbath rest gives us a chance to become conscious of the eternity in our time, to live mindful of the presence of God. Our time here is too precious not to take a sabbath rest.

Keeping the sabbath is like tithing our time to God. We give to God the first moments of the day, or the first day of our week. Because we are made in the image of God, we imitate God’s rest after a busy week of doing and creating. Doing so reminds us that all time is God’s time. We make time for a little slice of eternity, and give that time as an offering to God in the same way that we put money into the offering plate. People who keep a sabbath, whether it is Saturday, Sunday, or some other regular day of rest and reflection, often say that it helps them value their time during the week even more. There’s a paradox at work in the spiritual discipline of keeping a sabbath. Just as people who give generously never seem to run out of money, people who make a habit of carving out time for sabbath rest never seem to run out of time. Actually, we have more than enough time. Although time is finite, God somehow gives us minutes as fast as we spend them. Look! You’ve just received another one. God promises us eternal life, a joyful life without end, an abundant life where seconds and minutes, weeks and years are simply the beats and rests of an amazing symphony that never stops. We mark time within this music, playing our instruments with the skill God has given us, careful to pause during the rests, so that we may play on cue. God is generous with God’s time. We have more than enough time, so we tithe that time back to God.

Imagine your life with a regular sabbath rest. What do you do with those twenty-four hours if God forbids work? Nap in a hammock. Swing on a porch swing, sipping lemonade. Talk with friends. Catch crawfish in the creek with the kids. The Bible tells us that the sabbath is a foretaste of the kingdom of God, where children play in the streets and everyone sits in the shade of their own vineyard. Imagine: God wants such a life for us! An endless summer afternoon, spent in the company of people we love. God says, Why wait for heaven? Start doing it now.

Week 2: A Just Sabbath

Leviticus 25:3–26:35

Last week’s sermon was about keeping sabbath time as individuals. But there is another aspect to sabbath rest that is just as important. God doesn’t only tell individuals to rest. God tells communities to keep sabbath time. God commands Israel to let their fields have a sabbath, to let their animals and servants have a sabbath, and once every few years, to let the whole economic system have a sabbath.

The world needs a vacation. Lord knows, the earth needs a rest. We have been extracting her minerals, damming her rivers, pumping toxins into her atmosphere, tearing holes in her ground, and stuffing her with our trash. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a floating island made of our plastic garbage has grown to the size of a continent, reaching out long tendrils of six-pack rings and shopping bags to trap, kill, and devour fish and birds. We feel the earth reeling, staggering under its burden of our human societies. We call her Mother Earth, but we have treated her like a slave, working the world to exhaustion.

The world needs a sabbath. The world’s people need a sabbath too. The resources we extract from the earth go to factories staffed by eight-year-olds sewing the soles onto sneakers in steaming sweatshops, working eleven- and twelve-hour days, forbidden from taking a break even to use the bathroom. Oh, sure, it’s tough to do anything about those problems on the other side of the world; especially when Christmas rolls around and we really need to buy our children toys made by other children on the opposite side of the planet. I know people need to buy things. Money makes the world go round. People who are dirt poor cannot afford a sabbath. But perhaps that’s the problem because the world’s people—especially the half that lives on less than a dollar a day—desperately need a sabbath.

God declares a sabbath for all creation. God tells us to give the world a break. God gives Moses instructions for a radical holiday, telling him that not only should the community take a break from work for a day out of every week, but every seven years they should give the land a sabbath. Although they may eat whatever perennials grow in their fields by themselves, they may not plant or harvest (25:3-7). The land itself gets a break and then God declares yet another sabbath. Once every fifty years, the economic system gets reset. All indentured servants will be released, all debts will be forgiven, and all land will revert to the original families who owned it (25:8-12). They call it the jubilee year; a sabbath for all creation. While it is unclear if they ever actually carried it out or not, it is an idea that crops up again and again in the Hebrew Bible. Release for the captives, letting the debt prisoners go free. Isaiah and Jesus called it “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2; Luke 4:19), and it was to them a little glimpse of that final Great Day when God will judge the world and set it to rights. God declares a sabbath for all creation.

Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue? Imagine going to your mailbox and tearing open your mortgage statement and reading, “Total balance due: $0.” Imagine hordes of children leaving the sweatshops to go on their first summer vacation, splashing in the river, riding squeaking bicycles down the road, playing soccer in an abandoned lot. Imagine the panic on Wall Street as tractor-trailer trucks stand abandoned on the freeways, their cargos of iPods and $50 distressed-denim jeans sitting idle, inventories in retail stores across the nation gathering dust. The economy would collapse! Payday loan places would go out of business. But you’d also have no more car payments, no more student loan debt. Not only that, but the redistribution of property back to its original owners? That’s scary language. Imagine Native Americans or Australian Aborigines leaving their reservations and staking claim to Manhattan, Wall Street, the Sydney Opera House. It’s absurd! Our gods, the gods of the market and conquest, would never allow it. This kind of language scares us, makes us think of socialism or terrorism or communism or some other “ism.” Just imagine the chaos that would ensue.

But nobody ever said God was practical. God stubbornly insists on a sabbath for all creation. In fact, God has pretty strong words for anyone who profanes the sabbath. God tells Israel that if they do not give the land a rest, they will be invaded and carted off in exile. God’s tone of voice sounds sarcastic, even vindictive: “Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath years as long as it lies desolate. . . . It shall have the rest it did not have on your sabbaths when you were living on it” (Leviticus 26:34-35). Seen from this bigger perspective, we see what’s at stake in God’s harsh command that Israel execute those persons who broke the sabbath. It’s only a short step from ignoring the sabbath yourself to imposing your work, your agenda, and your interests on the land and its people. As written in Isaiah 58:13, we tend to put the pursuit of our own interests above everything else, setting up our own businesses as petty gods that we serve and worship. We sacrifice our relationships, our children, and our health on the altar of busyness. We sacrifice justice for the poor on the altar of economic practicality. The sabbath is a kind of nonviolent resistance to the creeping tyranny of wealth and power. Nehemiah says that even if everyone around them is buying and selling on the sabbath, God’s people will not (Nehemiah 10:31). God calls them to be a different kind of community.

Imagine a sabbath for the world. Picture a break for God’s creation and all God’s people. Sure, it may seem impractical, but God calls us to be a different kind of community, a people set apart, a royal priesthood. God has a better vision of life for us and our world, a life that includes rest and enjoyment. Thanks be to God!

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