Why should we care about Sabbath-keeping?

The notion of “sabbath” is mentioned 172 times in the Bible, and 60 of those occurrences are in the New Testament. Why do you suppose that of all the 613 laws, Sabbath-keeping gets so much attention? Here is my theory. I believe Sabbath matters to God because it is like a stake in the ground for people freed from slavery. Sabbath is a call to rest, and rest is not the right of a slave. It is the habit of a free person. After being freed from slavery in Egypt, Sabbath became an every-week opportunity for an Israelite to proclaim his freedom. It was also how God’s people got in rhythm with God’s heart for the least, the last and the lost.

Should we still care about Sabbath-keeping today? Not as legalists … no. But as beings made in the image of God, Sabbath is  central to our design and worth our attention.

Sabbath-keeping restores us to our factory settings. Remember that Sabbath-keeping is the fourth of the ten commandments. When God gives the Israelites the ten commandments the first time, he pairs it with creation. “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rests on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” Sabbath-keeping reconnects us with the rhythm of creation and God’s creative nature. It aligns us with holy work. Remember that work was part of the Garden of Eden before the fall. In the same way that God worked to build creation, we were given creative work to fill our days and give us purpose. Work at creation was good, and rest wasn’t required. It was designed. A good, perfect and loving God designed rest as a mark of completion in the work of creation. At the conclusion of creation God rested, and we lived inside his completion. Rest for God was completion, not weariness. And when we rest, we are putting faith in God’s ability to finish the work and make it holy.

Sabbath-keeping is an act of worship (love God). Notice this, in Genesis 2:3. “God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it, he rested.” This is the first time the word “holy” is used in the Bible. Holiness — to be whole — is first used in the Bible to talk about rest. That teaches me something about what it means to be whole. It means being at rest, at peace. It turns out that holiness means we have the right to put our work down and rest, because God — not our work — is what makes us whole.

There are two other Hebrew words that strike me as being related to the notion of Sabbath. Shalom means peace, or wholeness. When Jews are approaching Sabbath day, they say, “Shabbat Shalom.” The common meaning is “Have a peaceful Sabbath.” But the deeper meaning is something more like, “May you find wholeness as you cease your work.” This is what happened with God in creation. When he finished, he rested.

The other Hebrew term is shema, the Hebrew word for “hear.” It is the first word of the greatest commandment: “Hear O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema is the first and last word of a Jewish Sabbath.

Now, go with me on this for a minute. The last thing God created before he rested was us. Which means our first day on earth was God’s Sabbath. Which means the first thing we did as creatures was to take a day off with God! Not because he was tired (or us), but because that’s what he called whole, holy and good.

As I contemplate this profound idea of Sabbath being the first whole day of humanity, the image that comes to my mind is of the birth of my own child. When our baby was born, the doctor lifted her from my body and handed her directly into my arms. I immediately laid her on my chest, so that the first thing my child heard (shema) was her mama’s heartbeat and her mama’s voice. And her whole job in that moment — the whole job of a newborn child — was to listen, rest and attach. Which is to say that on our first day on earth when God ceased his work — Shabbat shalom — our whole job was to listen (shema), rest and attach.

And that is still our sabbath work today. My, how beautiful is this gift of Sabbath (and we thought we were just getting a day off)!

Sabbath-keeping teaches us not to “harvest to the margins” (love others). This idea seems woven into the fabric of Leviticus. It begins as a habit of the harvest. The Israelites are told not to harvest their fields to the edges (Leviticus 23:22), so there would be food enough left for the poor to come along behind and glean. Leave room at the edges of your field so people who don’t have can eat, too. In Leviticus chapter 25, where we get a more detailed description of Sabbath years and Jubilee years, all through is sprinkled a reminder to take care of the poor. This, I believe, is what distinguishes someone who just wants a day off (or who doesn’t even want a day off and resents the time they have to take for others) from someone who has laid his head next to the Father’s heart — who has heard God’s heartbeat for the least, the last and the lost. It is that there is room in their lives for others.

Hear this: When we harvest to the margins, we have no energy left for the poor and the ones who require extra grace. When we harvest to the margins, it is hard to be present to the people in front of us. When we harvest to the margins, there is no patience left, no bandwidth for the things that break God’s heart. Jesus himself said it is okay to do good on the Sabbath, but we can only do good when we have room left at the margins when those moments for mercy emerge. Sabbath gives room to be present to people.

Sabbath-keeping is an invitation to resist the culture of Egypt. The ten commandments are listed twice in the Old Testament, and the one about Sabbath is the only one with an explanation attached — both times (almost like, “Okay, we know why we shouldn’t kill people, but we’re not really sure why we need a day off”). The first time, the Sabbath is explained as part of creation and the second time it is explained as a freedom principle. God tells his people they must not do any work on the seventh day. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Sabbath by this definition is a memorial and a mark of freedom. We get a Sabbath because we are not slaves. The daily grind is not what we were created for. It is a call not just to cease working, but to take on the mindset of a free person — not just the behavior of Sabbath-keeping but the spirit of it.

Sabbath-keeping is how we practice Heaven. While our human tendency is to want to escape, the Kingdom call is an invitation to rest. In other words, rest is the biblical corrective to our inclination toward escape. Paul told the Colossians that sabbath is a shadow, a vague glimpse, of what is ahead for us in the Kingdom of God. Which means that when we practice it well, we are practicing heaven. By practicing Sabbath we find what is most real … namely Christ. And when we practice Sabbath, we are proclaiming what is most real to us … namely Christ. It is the practice of becoming whole … the practice of listening to the heart of God … the practice of freedom.

 

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Is it possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?

The playwright Murray Watts tells the story of a young man who was convinced of the truth of Christianity, but was paralyzed with fear at the very thought of having to admit to being a Christian. The idea of telling anyone about his faith and being called a religious nutcase scared him to death.

For weeks he tried to run from these new thoughts of God, but it was no use. It was like once he got a taste of it, he saw it everywhere and heard it in every sound. It was Jesus repeating over and over again: “Follow me.”

Finally, he couldn’t take it any longer. He went to a very old man who had been a Christian for a very long time. He told him of this terrible burden of hearing the voice of Christ calling him to be a witness and how the very thought of having to talk about Jesus to someone else stopped him from becoming a Christian.

The old man just shook his head. “This is a matter between you and Christ,” he said, “Why bring all these other people into it? Go home,” said the old man. “Go into your bedroom alone. Forget the world. Forget your family. Forget these ideas of what you think it is going to do to you, how you think it will compromise your quality of life, and make it a secret between you and God.”

The young man couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You mean, I don’t have to tell anyone?”

“No,” said the old man.

“No one at all?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

No one had ever given the young man that choice before. “Are you sure? Can this be right?”

And the old man said, “It is right for you.”

So the young man went home, knelt in prayer and completely surrendered himself to Christ, after which he immediately (filled with such joy) ran down the stairs, into the kitchen, and exclaimed to his wife, father and three friends, “Do you realize it is possible to be a Christian without telling anyone?”

And the moral of the story is: No, it is not possible. How can a person be hit with the transformational power of Jesus without wanting to talk about it? Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, our first response will be to witness to his power (Acts 1:8).

When Jews write out the first sentence of the shema (the most important verse of the Jewish scriptures, which begins, “Hear, O Israel ..”), they make two letters bigger than the rest: the first letter of the first word and the first letter of the last word. Put those two letters together and you get the Hebrew word for “witness.”

Let that sink in.

What do witnesses do? They tell the story. Embedded in the shema is the logical follow-through to hearing. What you’ve heard, what you embrace, you give witness to. And then we’re told how. We do it by absorbing this truth, making it part of us — so much a part of us that we naturally, normally talk about it. We teach it to our kids. We talk about God at home and on the road. God becomes so much a part of us that it is like he is tattooed on our foreheads and posted on our doors so that whether we’re talking or not, people around us hear it coming out of our lives.

When we have been transformed, our lives speak.

The shema teaches us God’s story, the story that transforms us. Until we own our own stories of search-and-rescue, of rescue and redemption, it will sound fake and unnatural when we try to talk about it. When we own our own story, we won’t be able to restrain ourselves. It just comes out.

Does your life speak? Not just in the way you treat the waitress in a restaurant, but more obviously … in the ways your love for God naturally flows into your conversations? This is an important question because it has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person. That’s how the Kingdom comes.

Let me say that again: It has always been God’s design for his story to spread through the simple act of one person talking about God with another person.

How do the people around you experience your faith in Christ? Do you care about what happens to them when they die? I know that sounds so … you know … Baptist … but what if Baptists are onto something here? What if authentic faith is supposed to manifest as a compulsion of caring for others’ eternity? Have you yet developed a natural habit of talking about God? Maybe these tips will get you started toward sharing your story, once you’ve owned it:

1. If you feel uncomfortable, you can say so. You just tell a person, “It isn’t always easy for me to put my faith into words, but I do it because nothing has changed me more.” And then just tell them how. Tell them who you were before you knew Jesus, what happened to make the change, and who you are now that you follow Jesus. It is that simple.

2. You can use your own words. You don’t have to know all the right biblical terms or have all the right answers. In fact, one of the most powerful things you can say to someone is “I don’t know.” It lets them know you’re real.

3. You can leave the results to God. My friend Bob Tuttle says it takes about 25 different witnesses before a real encounter with God takes place. If you are numbers 1 through 24, you are just as important as number 25 because until you give your witness, the next person can’t give theirs. Learn to see yourself as part of the bigger picture, and learn to do your part.

Brothers and sisters, learn to tell your story of following Jesus in a normal, honest way and let God be concerned with the results.

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