First Mennonite Church
September 22, 2019
Observing the Sabbath
Texts: Genesis 1:31- 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Matthew 12:1-13
God’s resting on the seventh day, after he created all things, set the ground for the fourth commandment in Exodus 20. The Genesis story portrays God’s completed work of creation only after God had rested on the seventh day. In that regard, the Sabbath is part of God’s order for his creation. The Sabbath cannot be legislated nor abrogated by human beings because it is an integral part of God’s created order. Work and rest are God’s order for life. Work without rest is not God’s design for human life nor for any part of his creation.
The commandment to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest, according to Deuteronomy, was given to Israel as a sign of their belonging to God. No other nation nor religion, at that time, required a day of rest. But the Israelites were commanded to observe the Sabbat, beginning on Friday at sunset and ending at the same time on Saturday. On the Sabbath Day, the Israelites were not to engage in any physical activity considered work. They should not even light fires (Exodus 35:2-3), which meant, no cooking was to be done. That specific instruction was clearly directed to prevent women and children from having to prepare meals, while the men were resting.
When God gave the commandment, the observance of the Sabbath day was something completely different to what had been the Israelite experience. The Israelites had been enslaved, overworked, and been used by the Egyptians as a machine of production. They had had no rest. Therefore, when the commandment was given, taking a day of rest was not only a blessing and a time of needed respite from arduous labor, but a holy and consecrated space of time to honor their Liberator. If we look at the way the commandment is presented, it not only breaks the pattern of prohibition found in the previous commandments and like those that follow after—You shall not… ., but is presented in a way that encourages and appeals in a positive manner what should be done. The idea of keeping a day “holy” onto the Lord was not simply the abstention from doing work, but of a time to be dedicated for prayers, thanksgiving, and worship. It was about a time that should be kept apart—holy, to acknowledge the One who freed the Israelites from bondage. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out with mighty hand . . .,” God instructed the Israelites. Therefore, the holy day of rest was to be a constant reminder of God’s grace and freedom to his people. The commandment to observe the Sabbath made no distinction of gender. Male or female, slave or free, everyone gets to rest on the Sabbath, including the aliens living among the Israelites. In other words, the Sabbath day was a gift, not an imposition. The Sabbath was an invitation to celebrate life, freedom, and to give thanks to the one who gave the Sabbath.
By the time Jesus was born, many other rules had been devised as safeguards from breaking the fourth commandment. And although many other rules had been developed to avoid breaking the Sabbath, the Jewish people had a positive feeling about the observance of the Sabbath day. Keeping the Sabbath was not taken as a superficial matter. In times of duress, faithful Israelites had preferred to die than to break the Sabbath, thus profaning the holy day. The Sabbath was a festive day of rest, celebration, and one in which fasting never should be required. Some Jewish religious authorities only allowed the violation of the Sabbath day if it was for the purpose of saving a life. If a doctor had to care for a person in a life-threatening situation, he could do even on the Sabbath. If an animal falls in a pit and needs to be rescued, the owner could do whatever was necessary to rescue the animal from dying. But not all Jewish authorities agreed on what should be allowed and what should be prohibited. It is within that debate that Jesus seems to enter and in which he gives the final interpretation of the reason the Sabbath was given.
Matthew is very clear when says that the “disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.” The picture Matthew gives of the disciples is not one of a well-fed bunch of people who were having a snack. These were people who were hungry. These were men who had left everything to follow Jesus. These were poor and hungry folks. To people as such and in situations such, the law permitted to do what the disciples were doing: picking up some grain and eating it. But the Pharisees took offense at what the disciples were doing. They accused Jesus of being complicit with his disciples. “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” But Jesus referred them to the David story, according to 1Samuel 21. There David ate what only the priests were allowed to eat. The preservation of life overruled what was the standard ritual for the holy bread and of the house of God. And then Jesus added: I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. Jesus’ point of argument against the Pharisee’s charge is: If the bread is holy because it is in the house of God, please understand that here is something greater than the temple. That something could refer to himself or the kingdom he was proclaiming or that mercy is greater than the commandment of the Sabbath. But taking from what Jesus says in verse eight, he is not only superior as the son of David or the temple, but he is even “Lord of the Sabbath.” The healing of the man with a shriveled hand illustrates Jesus’ lordship over the Sabbath. By healing the man, Jesus proved that it is indeed “lawful to heal on the Sabbath.” But the zealous legalistic observers of the Sabbath, Matthew says, “went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
The big question for us is: Are Christians also commanded to observe the Jewish Sabbath? We should remember that the question as to what can be done on Sunday was not an issue until Constantine’s time in the fourth century. It was after Constantine that the Jewish law of the Sabbath was applied to the Christian observance of Sunday as the Lord’s Day. And that happened not without doing forceful interpretational maneuvers. The Christian institution of the Lord’s Day, on Sunday, has a different purpose than that of the Jewish Sabbath. The Lord’s Day has the purpose of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, while the Sabbath Day is for the purpose of resting from work, eating, drinking and worshiping the Lord.
So what are we to do? Let us remember that the Sabbath day was not intended to become a set of prohibitions, but a time to celebrate God’s liberation from oppression. It was a time for God’s people to enjoy and to rest. The Sabbath, as Jesus said, was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Therefore, if God established the Sabbath as an integral part of his created order, then the spirit of the commandment still applies to us. In that regard the issue is not whether or not we should observe the Sabbath but if we are taking the necessary time to rest according to God’s plan for our lives. Are we taking time out to rest enough? And if not, why?
I guess the main reason why people do not rest enough is that they are scared of becoming poor or of suffering scarcity. People are scared of not having enough and therefore see work as the only way they can avoid becoming poor or in need. Work has become the god that sustains life and work is a way the god of work is worshipped.
The other reason why people do not rest enough is that they want to be in control of their future. If they bow down and worship work, they will have all their needs supplied. “If you bow down and worship me, all these I will give you,” Satan said to Jesus.
According to an infographic compiled by Rick Morley, among other statistics:
Americans leave 429 million vacation days a year unused.
40% of Americans check their work email on vacation. 50% check it in bed. 38% at the dinner table.
In his article, Three Signs We’ve Made Work and Idol, Jeff Haanen puts exhaustion as the number one in his list. Haanen says, “Always busy, always tired. That’s the way Americans live out their lives. Their souls are exhausted as their bodies. The reason? Work has become all-consuming.”
Fear is second in Haanen’s list of three. What will happen if I do not produce or provide? What will happen if this or that? Fear often drives us to overwork.
And the third in the list is pride. Haanen writes: For so many, work is not just a job. It’s a chance to prove myself, my worth, my value. Then Haanen asks the question: Why is “busy” the #1 American answer to, “How are you?” It’s because we want people to know how important we are. It’s the heart’s never-ending quest for self-justification.
When work becomes an idol, we are not only breaking the fourth commandment of resting, but we are also violating the second commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make an idol to bow down to it and worship it.
When we rest we acknowledge God as our Creator, Provider, and the Giver of life and everything necessary for life. When we rest, our souls can find rest also. Resting is not only necessary for the one who rests but also for those around him or her. When fathers and or mothers take time to rest, families can have the opportunity for quality family time together. Families and individuals can take time to have fellowship with others to celebrate the gifts of God. When we take time to rest, we give witness to the faithfulness of God who takes care of us.
 Morley Rick. A Day of Rest: An Infographic on the 4th Commandment (rickmorley.com)
 Haanen, Jeff. Three Signs We’ve Made Work and Idol. The Marketplace MEDA January/February 2019.