This morning we heard about God giving Moses the 10 commandments at Mt. Sinai. They detail how wee are to live our lives with both God and our neighbor—leading Jesus himself to say the entirety of the law could be distilled to those two things: love God and love your neighbor. Yet of those 10 we read today, there is only one of the ten commandments that people will readily break without batting an eye. It’s the one in the middle: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.
For added clarity, God gives a bit more to Moses: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” It stops there in the reading appointed for this morning, but if you looked closely you’d see that some verses were left out of the reading. What’s missing from this commandment is this: “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” The logic is that just as God rested from all the labors of creation on the seventh day, we as creatures formed in the image and likeness of God should also rest from our labors.
So let me ask: when was the last time you had 24 hours of uninterrupted non-vacation time in which you did neither work for your career nor domestic work around your home? And when did you last mention how busy you were to someone else, discussing the amount of work on your plate, the extra-craziness of it all, and how it’s hard to keep it all going? Yeah, me too.
Dan Allender, in his book simply titled Sabbath gives us this reality check: “Ponder this thought,” he writes, “it is as wrong to violate the Sabbath as it is to steal, lie, and kill.” It is one of the ten biggies, right? We heard them this morning all listed out, and while it’d be easy to focus on how well we’re doing with the others most of the time, I can’t help but highlight the one that I know I struggle with on what seems like a weekly basis. Many of you know that Friday is my designated Sabbath day, and yet I will often log on to check my work email to see if there’s something I need to be aware of or respond to prior to Saturday. Theologian and church historian Dorothy Bass responds to those like me: “To act as if the world cannot get along without our work for one day in seven is a startling display of pride that denies the sufficiency of our generous maker.”
Because that’s the highlight of this commandment in Exodus 20, that we rest because God did way back at the beginning of Genesis on that seventh day. After God had created all things culminating with the creation of human beings on the sixth day, God looked at what had been created and declared it was good. The writer of Genesis puts it like this: “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.” But it wasn’t just God plopping down into a recliner with feet up for an afternoon snooze. Theologian Jurgan Moltmann writes, “If we sum up the commandment and the reason for it, we get the following picture: God creates and shapes a rich and colourful world in order to celebrate the feast of creation with all his creatures on the Sabbath. Therefore the Sabbath is the consummation of creation; without it creation is incomplete and remains insignificant.” Sabbath rest is the fulfillment of creation; a time to celebrate and enjoy all that has been created. God tells us to do this each week, to set aside one day out of seven in order to joyfully engage with God and all of creation.
For many of us the stodgy implementation of this commandment in days past has led us to ignore it altogether. There were those blue laws restricting hours businesses could be open on Sundays to which products could be purchased. Add to that the fact that some had childhoods where they had to sit quietly on Sunday both at church and around the dinner table in itchy clothing. Sabbath keeping really entailed a lack of joy, and the sooner it was over the better. I don’t think that’s what God had in mind.
Throughout his book on Sabbath keeping, Dan Allender focuses on this simple premise: “What would I do for a twenty-four-hour period of time if the only criteria was to pursue my deepest joy?” That’s the essence of how the Hebrew word for “rest” can be translated he suggests, that on the seventh day God “delighted.” What would you do for a twenty-four hour period if you were told simply to pursue delight?
We brush a question like that off pretty quickly, right? “I’d like just twenty minutes of delight,” we say as we roll our eyes and not change anything. But it’s easy to dismiss this concept, and much harder to dig in to it. What is it that could lead to your deepest delight? And what would your life be like if you engaged in those delights over one day each and every week? Would it be a meal with your family, or an afternoon playing board games? Would it be pulling out that instrument you once played, or the paint brushes, or sitting down to write a poem? Would it include sleeping in clean sheets—I know someone who makes clean sheets a marker for his sabbath keeping—or reading the paper? What about a long walk, or a picnic, or a bike ride, or a paddle? Maybe a nap or a cracking that book you’ve not had time to indulge or sitting on the patio or intimacy with your spouse? Might you spend the day in deep gratitude for the innumerable blessings God has given you? I think God’s invitation is for us to imagine deep joy and chase after it.
The only thing I’d caution against is spending an inordinate amount of time on our electronic devices. In last year I read a tremendous article in the Boston Sunday Globe by Tiffany Shlain titled “The case for a tech Shabbat in a too-connected world.” Shlain describes how she and her family happened upon this break from technology as a new way to understand the Jewish call to keep shabbat. She writes that she, her husband, and two kids “started turning off all screens from Friday night to Saturday night for what we call our Technology Shabbats.” “This did exactly what I hoped, creating a work/life border and slowing the pace, at least for a day. I think of Einstein’s theory that time is relative to the motion of things. When that smartphone is on, everything is sped up. When you turn it off, time seems to slow down. When you make a ritual of turning it off each week for a full day, you can actually rest, truly, deeply, and in a restorative way we rarely get in our 24/7 culture.” Her family—including two teens—has been doing this for a decade, and it has made a profound difference. She noticed they were “happier and calmer” almost immediately. And, she concludes, “For me, it’s restorative in a way that nothing else is. You get back much more than what you give up.”
Which sounds exactly what God wants for us. I think we yearn for this sort of deep renewal, rest, and delight more than we truly know. We hunger for it. So let me ask Allender’s question again, “What would you do for a twenty-four-hour period of time if the only criteria was to pursue your deepest joy?” That’s what God intended when Moses was given the commandment to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, to keep it free from being just another day of work. How might you begin to keep this commandment which is so vital for our souls?