Remember the sabbath day...
| Exodus 20:1-20
||Sun, October 6, 2002
|We have been journeying together since late summer with the people of Israel, from their bondage in slavery in Egypt to their dramatic liberation by Yahweh (I am what I am up to) to their pilgrimage through the desert to Mt. Sinai. As often happens, our reading today of the Ten Commandments, although a familiar one to many of us, plops us right into the middle of the action. We have a little catching up to do...
Last we heard, the people, in their ravishing thirst, quarrelled with Moses for bringing them out into this godforsaken desert in the first place - they may have slaved until they died in Egypt but at least they did not face dying of thirst. How quickly they forget the manna, the bread rained down from heaven, when they ran out of food. Their fears are once again unfounded as sweet water pours from the rock at Horeb. Their thirst quenched and their trust once more established, the people are called to move on for three more months to their destined meeting with God at Mt Sinai. Remember, at the beginning of this adventure, Moses encounters God in a burning bush on Mt. Sinai. God instructs him that God has heard the people’s cry and is sending Moses to free them. Moses asks who he is that he should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt. The sign, God replies, that God will be with Moses and is the one who sent him is that he should bring the people to worship God on Mt. Sinai. And so Moses returns, full circle, with the people of Israel, to the foot of this holy mountain. The people are about to meet God; God is coming down to them. Heaven enters earth, holiness enters Israel, and neither earth nor the people are ever the same again.
This is not a casual meeting. There is much preparation: the people must be consecrated, they must wash their clothes, limits must be set as to where they can go on the mountain, what they can touch, they must prepare for the third day when Yahweh will come down upon the mountain. There is so much danger for the people that they are given a second, stern warning...to beware not to try and break through to peek or they will perish...Yahweh will break out against them. The message is clear - Yahweh is wild, untamed, undomesticated and not to be taken lightly. This is a theophany - a visit or revelation by God. The language of theophany “is required in order to speak adequately about the character of this holy God who intrudes dangerously and disruptively in order to transform. This God lives neither in easy intimacy with us nor in remote sovereignty over us, but in odd ways comes and goes, seizing initiative and redefining reality.”1
Trembling at the trumpet blast that signals their time to approach the mountain, which is covered in thick cloud, thunder and lightening, the people await their fate. But the God “who threatens to break out in inexplicable rage instead breaks out in magisterial command.”2 It is important to note the context of grace in which these commands are made. The first words of this awesome God remind the people that Yahweh is their God, the one that brought them out of slavery, from bondage to freedom. This is a God they can trust - One who loves them and seeks a loving response in obedience to those things which will keep them free from chaos and slavery. These commandments are good news - they are sweeter even than honey.
The ten commandments are typically viewed as dividing into two “tablets.” The first tablet consists of commands relating to God - the recognition and worship of Yahweh alone and the invoking of God’s name only for proper purposes and not for agendas outside of Yahweh’s own. The second tablet consists of commands relating to neighbour, all of which are prohibitive - at the very least “do not” do these things - except for the first about honouring one’s mother and father. The commands of the second tablet rest upon the commands of the first tablet. The way we attend to God determines the way we attend to neighbour.3
This code of commandments shares many similarities with other codes of its time, except for two commandments - the command to not make any idols and the command to keep sabbath. Most of the commandments are short and to the point but these two are each extensively expanded upon. They are unique to the code of commands given to Israel.
The fourth command, to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, holds a decisive and important position, linking the two tablets of relating to God and relating to neigbour together:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall
labour and do all your work. 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 Hebrew word, ‘shabbat,’ means ‘rest.’ The sabbath day is a day of rest - an all encompassing, equalizing rest. A complete work stoppage that applies to everyone within the household and even to those foreigners staying with you. No laundry, no dishes, no homework, no accomplishing, no producing, no shopping, no “to do” lists...does this not sound like good news?! It did not take the children of our household long to catch onto the idea of not having to unload the dishwasher or do their homework! The picture on the bulletin is descriptive of one of the best sabbath activities - napping. Notice how it extends even to the animals, especially the “beasts of burden,” of the household. Sleeping surrenders us into silence and trust that the world will not fall apart while we are held, healed and refreshed by our slumber (I tend not to make my bed on sabbath so that it is easier to crawl into at any time during the day). The reason for the command is rooted in God’s own need for rest after the exhaustive work of creation. If God has need for rest, then even more, humanity, made in God’s image, also has need for rest. The people of Israel have already been receiving training in this keeping of sabbath even before the command is issued. In their instructions for gathering the manna which God provides for them on their way to Mt. Sinai, they are told to collect a double share on the sixth day so that on the seventh they may rest. It takes them awhile to get the hang of it (16: 27-30).
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Keep it holy. These three words clarify that sabbath rest is not about us. We do not rest so that we can recharge our batteries in order to carry out our own agenda even better. To keep this time holy, time consecrated by God, is to devote it to God. This is rest that creates a space in time for us to focus on God. It is why worship, though not specified to be necessary for sabbath, has become a traditional part of the practice of keeping sabbath. In attending to God we are reminded who we are - beloved children of God, freed from slavery, not someone else’s ends to someone else’s means - and this frees us to see and respond to our neighbour in the same way.
There were two practices that distinguished the people of Israel from those around them. One was the practice of circumcision. But it was the visible, public practice of keeping the sabbath that made them stand out. Imagine how odd it would be in a culture of survival to take off a whole day to rest, every seven days! Imagine what that might say about who things really depend on.
The legalistic tone of the keeping of Sabbath in Jesus’ time has shifted the focus from why the sabbath is kept to how it should be kept. Over against this understanding, Jesus reminds of the request for mercy and not sacrifice (Mt.12:7). The sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath. To be sure, we have slipped into legalism at times in our Christian history - and not that long ago. Gerald told Margaret and I sabbath stories from his childhood of being allowed to sit on a swing but not to swing on it, of being able to walk but not run, and of being allowed to admire the river as part of God’s creation but not to swim in it! Thankfully, we are recovering a sense of the gift and delight that is Sabbath. Martin Cohen, when asked of what does Sabbath leisure consist, replies:
“We sit. We think. We say our prayers. We eat as a family. We drink wine.
We sing. We drink tea and discuss Things That Count. We make love. We sleep in.
We go to synagogue and hear Scripture read to us. We nap. We commune with
our families and our friends and ourselves. We play with our children. We rest.”4
Thankfully, legalism is not our context today - but slavery is. Our culture is a frantic one. Even our leisure is frantic...don’t stop for anything. Have you noticed that our standard and accepted reply to, “How are you?” is often, “I’m keeping busy.” A few years ago I noticed that every Christmas letter we received spoke of a year of busyness, all about what everyone had been up to. Heaven forbid, it seems, that to “How are you?” we might reply, “I am keeping idle.” Heaven forbid that we be still. Our franticness is only another mode for a brick quota.5 Our urgency, unrooted in the agency of God, affects the justice making we undertake in the world. Wayne Mueller, renowned for his social justice work, recently wrote a book on the recovery of the practice of Sabbath. One of the chapters is entitled, “Doing Good Badly.” Without sabbath rest, too often the good that was done was not thought through or done in relationship with those on whose behalf it was undertaken and the results only made the situation worse. This is all not even to mention the effect that our, especially North American franticness is having upon the Creation we are intended to steward.
The command to keep the sabbath appears again at the end of chapter 31. After Yahweh states the ten commandments to all of the people, the people are overcome by fear in witnessing the thunder and lightening, the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking. They tremble and tell Moses to speak to them instead so that they won’t die from this encounter with God. Moses reassures them and, now that the fear of God has been put into them, they withdraw a ways and Moses draws nearer to God for more instructions...eleven chapters long, ending with the reiteration of the sabbath command. Eleven chapters must translate into a long time for the people of Israel begin to think that Moses is lost to them. In the absence of Moses and God, the people become anxious and fearful and lose again their trust and their way ahead. They instruct Aaron to make a god for them to go before them and the golden calf is produced, breaking the first two of the ten commandments Yahweh has spoken to them.
I found it most intriguing to see where the themes of absence and sabbath arise again in this grand story which is our story. Sabbath traditional starts at sundown on Friday, sunset being the start of the new day in Hebrew understanding and practice. On one Friday Jesus hangs nailed to a cross. At noon, when his dying begins, darkness comes over the land. Jesus’ dying invokes the beginning of the Sabbath. His death cry three hours later speaks of his anguished experience of the absence of God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Exhausted from his redemptive work, Jesus enters the sleep of death - the ultimate Sabbath rest - falling into the trust of a God he can no longer sense. Nothing but the mercy of God can help him now. The Hebrew word for ‘mercy’ comes from the root word meaning ‘womb.’6 Jesus enters the womb of God where he is restored and then reborn in resurrection glory on Easter Sunday morning.
Sabbath keeping is not something we have to do to be saved...the hard work of redemption has already been fulfilled in Jesus. The good news is that Jesus’ burden is light. The good news is that Sabbath keeping is something we get to do - we can rest, it all does not depend on us. Halleluiah. Amen.
1 Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 838.
2 Ibid, 839.
3 Ibid, 840.
4 Martin Samuel Cohen, Travels on the Private Zodiac
5 Ibid, 925.
6 Ron Farr, “Sabbath Resting in God”, Weavings, (Vol.8, No.2, March/April, 1993 ), 25.