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?