Tag Archives: Sabbath

Do You Keep Sabbath?

If you have the sort of job that requires you to work on Sunday, you may have long ago abandoned any notion that that you can observe a Sabbath. For starters, you probably already understand that Christ’s death and resurrection fulfilled all the ceremonial law for making people righteous. You already know that to be a fanatic about no work on Sunday is to be Pharisaical about your faith. You already know that Sabbath isn’t about Saturday or Sunday or any other day.

So forget about it. Right?


Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching us how to observe Sabbath, but people often miss that teaching because they focus on other aspects of each story. The teaching about Sabbath gets lost in the diatribes against the Pharisees. That is sad, because many twenty-first century Christians enjoy feeling smug about not being Pharisees, but in the process, they lose the real lesson Jesus was teaching.

The truth is also often buried in arguments about why we worship on Sunday rather than Saturday. It may suffer through arguments over watching movies or playing sports on Sunday, or on whatever day we consider to be our Sabbath. Should people cook on Sunday? Should they eat out on Sunday, thereby motivating restaurants to operate on the “Sabbath?” There are many discussions about Sabbath that are not about Sabbath at all.

Jesus taught that Sabbath was a gift from God intended to be a blessing for humankind, because God knew that people will make themselves crazy if they don’t rest. People need rest. Probably no adjective could be so universally applied to contemporary humans as the phrase “stressed out.” Many common diseases are rooted in or exacerbated by stress. People are extremely stressed because when they stop stressing about work, they start stressing about how to optimize their playtime. Jesus said that God never intended for us to dash madly in all directions.

God’s gift was presented to humans wrapped up in the Ten Commandments, and that is part of the reason people fail to see the blessing. People think it is a commandment to be obeyed, and they worry how to obey instead of simply enjoying the release from stress. It is, indeed, a commandment, but when Jesus talked about the commandments, he said, “Blessed is he …” and it helped people to understand better that obedience to God’s commandments is like eating the right food; you do it because of the blessing, not the anger at disobedience. When people think of any desireable behavior as a legislated behavior, they also think of ways to avoid it without penalty. When people think of something as a prize, they crave to do what it takes to obtain it. The first thing people should think about Sabbath is that rest is a prize human beings should desire, and they should be willing to shed anything that is an obstacle to obtaining it.

People who are not stressed are so unusual that they stand out, and that explains a second good reason to observe Sabbath. When someone feels free to let go and get off the contemporary merry-go-round, it is noticeable. It could be a Wednesday for a person whose days off from work are Wednesday and Thursday. Someone who works split shifts or a rotating schedule, may not have a single day that can be a Sabbath, but Jesus says, “Sabbath was made for people. People were not made for Sabbath.” Sabbath is a conscious choice to accept God’s gift of time to rest even if that time is on Tuesday this week and Friday next week. If that time does not coordinate well with established worship schedules, keeping worship may require some intentional and counter-cultural behaviors. Remember that Jesus observed worship and Sabbath on the same day, but if you simply can’t do it, Jesus has set you free to do it a different way. Your peaceful, grateful testimony may be the way you weave Sabbath and worship and faithful living together in the midst of the same frenzy that engulfs everyone else.

A cab driver whose territory included a city grocery store was well-known for his laid-back attitude, because whenever anyone came bustling up to his cab in a fizz, Joe always said, “Take your time. I’m in no hurry,” and he meant it. He either helped to load the trunk or stood quietly by as his passenger rooted through her purse looking for her billfold or her phone. He never appeared to have anything more important to do than to serve his customer. A Christian who never puts people off because of being stressed out, or overloaded, or simply distracted by too many commitments will be noticeable. A peaceful, patient individual invites comment and questions. People want to know how he or she does it. A Christian who keeps Sabbath, on whatever day, gives a testimony that people notice. The fact that this attitude stands out opens the door for a spoken testimony of gratefulness to God for rest and peace.

People certainly notice if a person is out the door and off to church every Sunday, and this is part of the testimony that develops when a Christian keeps Sabbath. It is just as powerful if worship is some other day. Happy greetings in passing, maybe the invitation, “Want to come to church with us?” testify to happy gratitude for God’s blessings. Of course, judgmental comments or scathing criticisms only fuel rejection of Christ’s message of love. Gracious, peaceful behaviors say that Christ matters, that Christ in the heart of a Christian overflows in the blessing of rest, not the stress of being driven to be religious.

Jesus pointed out that the gift of Sabbath did not preclude kindness and actual exertion on behalf of other people. Every one of the healings that took place on Sabbath angered the religious establishment, because to them, the legalities took priority. Healing someone was defined as work, and work was to be done in the other six days. Jesus reminded us not to stress over the definitions of “rest” and “work” so much that we became too stressed to be kind and loving.

Above everything else, Jesus taught that faithful Sabbath-keeping is a testimony that God comes first. In today’s culture, religion is being shunted out of the public view, because of a cultural perception that obedience to God ought not to interfere with important cultural objectives. A Christian who keeps Sabbath on any day whatsoever testifies that God is important. One way to say it is that the First Commandment demands that God take priority in the lives of believers while the commandment to keep Sabbath actually sets aside one day a week just for God. That day that is “separated,” which is to say it is “holy,” is a testimony to God’s priority in someone’s life.  A better way to understand it is to say that the God who wants to be first in people’s lives loves them so much that he ordains one day in seven for rest. As the psalmist reminded us, God knows that humans are dust. God knows that people disintegrate when they are stressed; they need rest.

Sabbath is not about Pharisaical definitions of what work is and what it is not. It is not about trying to fool self and God into thinking you are giving God the day for rest when you are completely indulging selfish ambition.  It is about living as a grateful steward of all God’s gifts, including the gift of rest. It is about taking time to say “Thank you,” to God and to do kindness and share hospitality with family and friends. Enjoyed this way, the command to observe Sabbath becomes an invitation to rest and joy and peace.

How do you observe Sabbath?

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

There are a lot of reasons to ask questions. If you are in school, and your teacher says, “Do you have any questions?” then you ought to speak up and say, “I don’t understand. Why do you call feel an intransitive verb?” If you want to meet a friend for lunch, it would be fine to ask, “Is Sweet Tomatoes on the right or the left side of the street if I am coming from work?” It might even be good if you are thirteen to ask you mother, “What do they mean when they say ‘go all the way?’” Sometimes people ask questions because they actually want answers.

Sometimes they don’t. Want answers, that is.

The book of Mark is a barebones gospel that wastes no details as it almost flings Jesus into ancient Galilee with his startling message: “The kingdom of God has come near.” This good news resonated with a lot of people who were looking for improvement in their lives. If God’s kingdom was emerging on earth, they wanted in on that thrilling development.

The religious leaders in Galilee and Judea were quite apprehensive about the meaning of such an announcement. They certainly looked forward to the Messiah promised by the ancient prophets, but some common laborer from Nazareth didn’t look much like a Messiah to them. They lurked in the crowds that mobbed Jesus wherever he went, and each time Jesus made a point with the people, some Pharisee or scribe or representative of the high priest asked a question.

They were really simple questions.

  • Jesus looked at a paralytic who wanted to walk, and before he said anything else, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” A Pharisee popped up and asked, “Why does he presume to forgive sins?
  • Jesus went to dinner with his new disciple Matthew, popularly known as Levi. Matthew invited his professional colleagues, other tax collectors and an assortment of people commonly classified by Jewish law as ‘sinners.’ Some Pharisee hanging around in the crowd outside asked, “Why does this fake rabbi dare to eat with such people – tax collectors and sinners? 
  • When Jewish religious leaders in Galilee and Judea fasted, they made sure everybody knew it by dressing and acting in ways designed to signal how they were suffering in obedience to God. They soon thought they had figured out that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting. One of the Pharisees buttonholed Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast?” 
  • Jesus went into a synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Jesus looked at the man and right away, he knew that the Pharisees were looking at him. Before he healed the man, he reflected the question he knew they would ask. He asked, “Is it okay to do good on the Sabbath?” 
  • As Jesus and the disciples were strolling somewhere on a Sabbath day, the disciples plucked some ripe grain, rubbed the husk off in their hands, and ate it. The Pharisees, who presumably had already concluded that the walk was not longer than a Sabbath day’s journey, seized the moment to ask, “Why are your disciples harvesting on the Sabbath?” 
  • On another Sabbath, Jesus was invited to read and speak in the synagogue in Nazareth. The scene sounds like “home town boy makes good” and they probably expected to hear a speech much like we might hear from a freshman home from college who is invited to speak on the subject, “How my home church helps me succeed in life.” Jesus gave a very different speech, and they all muttered, “Who does he think he is? Where did he get all this?” One day, the Pharisees n
  • oticed that Jesus’ disciples were eating something without washing their hands first. Funny they didn’t comment about that when the disciples were plucking grain out of a field, but it didn’t come up at that time. On this occasion, however, they were pained to observe such disrespect for the traditions. One of them had to ask, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?”

 The interesting thing about these questions is that they could all be answered the same way Jesus answered the last one. His answer was that our lives are not measured by the externals, but rather by the internals. His entire response to this question addressed the myriad of issues the Pharisees wanted him to attend to, because he and his disciples did not put on a mask of religiosity. Jesus healed the paralytic by attending to the internals first. Jesus chose to associate with people without judging their externals. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to give external signals when they were fasting, so nobody knew whether they were fasting or not. He didn’t think God would be dishonored by the fact that somebody observed a healing on the Sabbath. Jesus wasn’t willing to fret over external appearances that might lead somebody to think the disciples were working on the Sabbath. Jesus didn’t give his home town a “feel-good” message instead of the truth he came to preach. Jesus didn’t worry about exaggerated respect for traditions that expressed total disregard for God. Every time the Pharisees challenged Jesus, they demonstrated in one way or another that their point was to take the emphasis off the arrival of the kingdom of God and put the emphasis on things they could see and control.

The questions of the Pharisees were not designed to get any new information. Their questions were designed to change the subject away from the arrival of the kingdom of God and turn the subject to the things they controlled.

 A lot of us do that. We face Jesus and he rocks our world. We depend on the things we can see to define our reality. The guilty feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness that wells up when we see Jesus makes us think we need to fix our own externals. We think that if we could just say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, that ought to fix things. If we could just stop telling even little lies, maybe that would be the ticket. If we could just get to church every Sunday morning, maybe God would be happy with us. We keep asking the question, Will this be good enough? But our question is changing the subject from what God wants to do because he loves us to what we do to get God to love us.

The good news is that we don’t have to do any of those external things in order for God to love us and calm all those disturbing internal storms. God loves us, just as he loved the crusty, hidebound Pharisees who kept trying to change the subject. In Christ, God shakes up our internals, and like Nicodemus, we may creep around in secret trying to figure out why Jesus makes us feel so uneasy. In Christ, God reassures us that he loves us. On the cross, our shameful internals are washed away by the shed blood of Christ. Each time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Christ promised to heal what is wrong with us by giving his own body and blood for us. We receive an external gift and internalize the gift that is in, with and under the elements, remembering the Christ whose love heals and transforms. Like every human being, we continue to live in the tension of our internal/external dialogue. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit who battles for us against the evil internals that defile us.