IV. Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.
This commandment takes us back to the beginning. Not of the commandments this time, but the beginning of the creation. We need to remember at least a little bit about how it all happened. And whether you read Genesis one or Genesis two, you will find that after six days of hard work spent creating and breathing life into a whole world full of wondrous things, God chooses the seventh day to stop. To shavat. Literally, “to rest.”
Millions of years later, when God chooses to covenant with the people of Israel, God writes this same practice into the ground rules of how the people are meant to live together. Interestingly, if you read this rule carefully, you will notice that there is no mention of worship. There is no mention of prohibitions against cooking or cleaning or playing or talking or studying or any other of the myriad of rules that would end up existing one day.
Instead, God was the God of a people of hard labor. They worked with their hands. As did their children. As did their neighbors and their servants, and, yes, even their slaves. And God said you all must give yourselves a break. You must rest from the hard work you do all week. Rest. Play. Spend time with your family. Remember what God has done for you. Just breathe. That is a sabbath day holy unto the Lord.
But then… the humans got involved. They saw an opportunity and ran with it. And created rule after rule after rule. You may pick up your child, but not if your child is holding a stone – because that would be work. For example.
Eventually, it got to a point where the sabbath became such a burden to the people that their backs bent from the weight.
When Christ arrived, he challenged the rules. He reminded the people that the sabbath was created by God for the people, not the people for the sabbath. It was made to give us space to simply be. To rejuvenate. To re-create. To feed our souls, our spirits, our bodies. To reconnect with God and with one another. And with his resurrection, which meant the creation of the Lord’s Day (a very different day than the Jewish Sabbath), we were no longer tied to the old traditions any longer.
So what happened? Well, for the first four or five hundred years, Christians were in hiding. They couldn’t take the Lord’s Day off of work and, frankly, the old rules didn’t really apply to them anyway. As long as they made it to worship on the Lord’s Day, which was part and parcel of the Christian community from the get-go, then the rest was hunky-dory.
From there, slowly, work lessened on the Lord’s Day as the Empire began to control Christianity, or should we say the church sort of controlled the empires. But amusements still reigned and you were still allowed to do many other things on Sundays in addition to attending church.
When the Reformers arrived, Luther and Calvin believed that we all did indeed require a day of rest and refreshment, as God had instituted in the Sabbath practice of the Ten Commandments. However, because we were no longer under the old law, the particular day no longer mattered. And it was up to the individuals and the families to follow through on this practice.
Then the ghastly happened: the Puritans came to power in England from 1644 to 1656. You remember them, right? The ones who believed that Christmas was a heathen holiday? Not a very tolerant people. And while they were in power, the Westminster Standards were written and were taken back to Scotland. They came across the pond with many of the ancestors who helped to create our early laws. Like say, our blue laws. Which is how our understanding of the Lord’s Day being what it may or may not “should” be has arrived.
So then, now that you’ve learned the history of this very, very controversial commandment, and why a major chunk of the world thinks we’re nuts for still debating it, what do we do with the Fourth commandment?
Several years ago, I had the privilege of meeting an author named Maryanne McKibben Dana who wrote this wonderful little book entitled, Sabbath in the Suburbs. She and I have run into each other a few times since we first met and she is one of the more profound practical theologians we have. What her book illustrated, quite clearly, is that in all of our focus on the “correct” performance of the Christian sabbath, the Lord’s Day, in the last few centuries, we have lost touch with its original intended purpose. What she and her family found over the year-plus of research they did was that at the heart of the practice of Sabbath was drawing near to the heart of God: a place full of love. A place full of re-creation and recreation. A place full of justice. A place full of life.
The specific day we take that rest and seek God’s presence is less important. So is the way we worship – though being too far removed from a community of fellow believers for any length of time can very easily lead us down the rabbit hole of self-delusion. How we rest is also not so specifically spelled out, though it would seem that engaging in our usual labors and work would appear to be against the spirit of it all.
Instead, what God has always wanted for us is the opportunity, every single week for us, to love and be loved. To know and be known. To be a part of the creative process. To ensure our body’s wellbeing. To let our spirit find peace. To see our soul at rest, even if only for a time. And, for those of us who follow Christ, to follow in our ancient sibling’s footsteps from the early church: to recommit ourselves to the work of Christ that will see God’s love and justice done on earth as it is in heaven.
If we start by seeking to do these things, rather than getting all tied up in knots over who is right or wrong about how we are doing something perfectly, we will eventually find our way to the Sabbath rest our God desires for us.