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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How to live in Heaven now

Let’s say you have a great trip coming up. You’ve planned something you’ll really enjoy and you’re excited. The closer it gets the more pumped you get. If this trip is a vacation from a bad job, you’re even hungrier to see it hurry up and get here. This is your mindset every day when you go in to work: This daily grind is something I have to endure until I get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. This is now, but that thing I’m waiting for … that is great.

Somehow, we’ve allowed the salvation message to morph into that kind of message. This life is something we have to endure so we can get to the thing that is going to be the best thing ever. Almost like Heaven is a vacation from a bad job, or another way to check out of real life.

Let me be clear: standing in the presence of the most loving Being in the universe has got to trump standing in line at Kroger. Eternal life is a treasure. But practically speaking, we tend to treat it more as an escape. The bigger truth is that eternal life is God’s kind of life. It is this life the way it is supposed to be lived … now.

When we talk about eternal life, we’re talking about sharing in the life of God.* God makes life happen and God’s kind of life is designed to be eternal. It has a beginning (in God) but no end. This is what characterizes the life He gives.

If I choose to share in the life of Christ, then I’m sharing in that life now. I’m living my eternal life now. Eternal life begins now. I don’t know of any other truth that has power to bring more peace than this, nor any other truth we seem so remarkably incapable of embracing.

So here’s a question: If I fear death, how does that manifest in my choices about lesser things? Because if I believe this — if I really believe that my biggest questions are answered — that ought to make a difference in all the other choices in my life. In the same way, if I still fear death then that also will affect my choices about lesser things.

To say I am not afraid of death means I am also not afraid of anything less than that. This way of thinking is the path to peace, which means that peace is a choice I make every day. It is a choice to live as if my biggest questions are already answered.

Does my thought life prove my belief in eternity? Does yours?

 

*I got this idea from Billy Graham’s newest book, Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, And Life Beyond.

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The Gate of Heaven is Everywhere

I’d just finished a memorial service when a man I’d not met before walked right up and said, “I know just what you were talking about up there. I couldn’t hear a word you said, even though I have my hearing aids in (at which point his wife said, “But no batteries”), but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I have been there. I have seen him.”

I said, “Seen who?”

“Jesus.”

“Really? You saw Jesus? For real?”

“Yes. Eight years ago, I died in a car accident. The medic cut a hole between my ribs and stuck an oxygen tube into my collapsed lungs and I died. Jesus met me. I didn’t see his face but I know it was him because I saw the holes in his hands. I have seen things we can’t even imagine on earth.”

“Like what?” I said, because I’ve just preached a funeral and times like that, these conversations seem less crazy, more relevant. I’m not about to let him go without finding out what he has seen.

“I saw a light,” he beamed, “that was about ten times brighter than the sun, but it didn’t hurt your eyes to look at it. You know how you can’t look directly into the sun? Well, you can look directly at this light but it doesn’t hurt. And it was golden. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

“Did you see any other people?”

“There was one person at the end of the tunnel.”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know. I never got there.” And then he waved his hand in the air as if directing someone to turn around, and he said, “Jesus sent me back here before I got to the end of the tunnel.”

“Why do you suppose you got sent back?”

“He didn’t say, but I think it was because my mother was sick and needed me to care for her. I can tell you this: I can’t wait to go back. I have absolutely no fear of death now. It is so beautiful.”

I stood there in the doorway of that little chapel and let that conversation sink in. I looked at that man who seemed to glow with faith and I let the truth of Heaven wash over me. I wondered to myself: how many normal, every-day, average people have died from heart attacks and snake bites and allergic reactions, only to see Jesus and taste that golden light before being sent back here to live another life? How many have seen those hands with holes in them? Have been handed the gift of assurance in the form of a car crash they didn’t survive, then did?

I suspect it’s more than we think. As Thomas Merton has said, “The gate of heaven is everywhere.”

How would I react if I died and went to Heaven then lived to talk about it? Perhaps more relevant is this question: would I recognize it if Heaven came to me?

In Luke, chapter nine, there is a line that grabs my imagination and stirs me to look for heaven. Jesus has just been talking with his followers about the connection between his glory and our faith, and now he is heading up a mountain to pray with Peter, James and John. As he is praying, the appearance of his face changes and his clothes become as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appear in glorious splendor to talk with Jesus. They talk about his departure from this earth, among other things. Peter, James and John are sleepy but the story says, “When they became fully awake, they saw his glory” (Luke 9:32).

“When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.”

Meditate on that line for a moment. When they became fully awake, they saw his glory.

I am both educated and exposed by that line. I recognize myself in the state of Jesus’ disciples. What must I be missing, because I’m not fully awake? If I am not seeing God’s glory is it because God’s glory is absent, or is it because (spiritually speaking) I am slogging through life half asleep?

Would I recognize the gates if they were opened to me? Would you?

When they became fully awake, they saw his glory. I dare you to walk through this day looking for the gate of heaven as if it might actually be real, might actually show up. I challenge you to develop that kind of eyesight — the kind that can see corners of the Kingdom exposed for our benefit, our pleasure, to build our faith and prove again that what we talk about is true.

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Brokering Hope in a Barren World

“Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! 20 But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” – Luke 1:18-20

I just love Gabriel’s grittiness. I love his righteous indignation, and even the hint of impatience with Zechariah’s inability to see beyond the room in which he stands. Gabriel does not appreciate being questioned. You hear echoes in his response of God’s conversation with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you know so much.” Evidently, citizens of the Kingdom do not suffer ignorance or short memories well.

Do you realize who you are talking to? I am Gabriel! I have announced some of the greatest cosmic moves in the history of the world. And now you are going to doubt me? Just who do you think you are?

A good question, because Zechariah is a priest. He should know better. He surely knows the scriptures well enough to have detected a theme of barrenness and late-life births as one of the more prominent themes. God has used barrenness over and over to hint at great reversals designed to move his cosmic plan forward.

Consider these:

  • Sarah was nearly 100 before she had a child.
  • Rebekah was barren until Isaac prayed.
  • Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was was described as barren until she finally had Joseph, who delivered Israel from the barrenness of a famine.
  • Manoah’s wife was barren until she had Samson, who delivered Israel.
  • Ruth, Boaz’s wife, was barren (widowed) until she had Obed, who begat Jesse, who begat David who was the king out of whose lineage Jesus would come.
  • Then there was Moses, who was barren of speech. And the Shunnamite woman who had no oil or food.

And then there was Hannah. Her husband was Elkanah and he had two wives. Hannah was his favorite but she had no children, and it was killing her. She cried out to God in her despair. She wrestled with God over this. She hated her situation. But she hung in there with God. She refused to let go of him. Eventually God gave her the desire of her heart. She had a child named Samuel who would grow up to become the prophet-priest who would anoint Saul to be king. Saul would raise up David in his household and David would eventually become king. Out of his lineage the Messiah would be born.

Hannah’s hope became Israel’s salvation.

In God’s economy, barrenness always points toward hope. Barren people who bear children are breeders of hope. Barren people who wait prove the power of hope. Barren people who never conceive prove that God is faithful even in the deserts. By their willingness to hang in there with God, never mind the circumstances, they prove there is life in the desert … purpose in the desert.

Even more, barrenness has the potential to reframe our hunger so that it leads toward something other-worldly.

I am part of a group walking through the book of Revelation and this week, we spent time white-boarding everything the final chapters of Revelation teach us about the character of Heaven. We listed the kinds of things we love most, along with the awe and wonder of John’s vision. It stoked our yearnings and led us back to barrenness. What if one of the purposes of barrenness is to show us how to hunger for something we can never realize in this life?

What if barrenness can be redeemed by being reframed?

Those who have suffered the deep, aching loss of life without children, or the deep, aching loss of a child taken too soon from this life, may know better than most how to hunger deeply for something we won’t see this side of Heaven. Others of us may have children but still suffer from unfulfilled dreams, lost loves, thorns in the flesh we can’t fix. What if the redeemed purpose of those deep longings and unfulfilled dreams is to stretch us more earnestly toward the Kingdom of God, where all pain and tears have ceased, where all longings are finally, fully realized?

What if barrenness is redeemed when the hunger it produces is refocused on Heaven?

Isaiah seems to hint at this idea when he writes, “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy …” Paul picks up on this line from the prophet when he talks about the “Jerusalem Above” and our place in God’s family as children of the promise. There is certainly the sense in the biblical narrative that hungers can become holy when they turn toward the Kingdom.

If John’s charge was “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” then perhaps this is the substance of readiness: to become so hungry, so thirsty, so moved by the thought of the Kingdom to come that nothing short of that can possibly satisfy us.

Nothing.

As Advent begins, we are in the position again of making ready a people prepared for the next coming of our Lord. Remember that. Our work is to side with those waiting to catch a break, with those frustrated by unfulfilled dreams, with those grieving losses, and to cast among them an imagination that reframes their hungers so that the Kingdom is exposed, so that the second coming becomes their passion.

This is the work of the Church at Advent. It is to become what Carl Medearis calls a “hope broker.”

In your writing, preaching, living, testifying, may you so expose the hope found in Christ Jesus that those on this side of Heaven can’t help but yearn past the temporal toward the eternal.

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