17 August 2010

God and Sabbath

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the
Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the
Lord has spoken.
Isaiah 58.13-14
The question was raised tonight at Bible Study: "How does God keep the Sabbath?" Christians and Jews tend to understand the commandment to "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" as a commandment designed to elicit worship out of God's creatures - and since God is, well, God, worship of Godself seems nonsensical at the least, not to mention in some ways impossible.

We are not merely playing with semantics here: Genesis 1 describes the first Sabbath, and it is God doing the observing, not us. Obviously, Sabbath is important to God - but we know precious little about what God actually does with God's Sabbath.

Sabbath weighs heavily on the Old Testament and Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary this week. Isaiah 58, quoted above, reminds the hearer that the Sabbath is a day in which one's own interests are put aside and one's affairs take the back seat. In Luke 13, Jesus heals a near-crippled woman on the Sabbath; this act of healing brings condemnation from the leader of the synagogue, who insists that the woman could have been healed on any other day of the week. It is the third of four Sabbath controversies in Luke's gospel, and in all of them Jesus calls the strictest Sabbath observances into question. The question that arises is, "What is Jesus saying about the Sabbath and its purpose? How does God do Sabbath, and how should this transform our observance as well?"

One wonders if the issue is not work or not-work, but rather delight or drudgery. In his commentary on the lectionary this week, Dan Clendenin wrote,
"When religious rituals like sabbath-keeping and fasting — or our Bible studies, sermons, church attendance, and retreats — are divorced from human health and wholeness, whenever a believer "turns away from your own flesh and blood" (Is. 58:7), then our religion has gone very bad indeed."
When the things we do as religious people become more important than our delight in the One who calls forth work and play and Sabbath, we have missed the point of Sabbath altogether. When God had finished a "hard week" of creation, God rested on the Sabbath; what do you suppose that rest looked like? Here's one possibility: imagine you have slaved all week on an outdoor patio or backyard retreat like the one pictured above. Once you've finished all that work, what will be the first thing you'll want to do? Take delight in that which you have wrought. Was this what God did on that first Sabbath? Moreover, is delight what God asks of us when we ourselves observe Sabbath?

I am coming to believe that delight is indeed the first and most important point of Sabbath: delight in the presence of God, delight in the company of our fellow sinner/saints, delight in the promise, made in baptism, through preaching and in the Lord's Supper, that Christ has lived, died and risen again for you. Sabbath is a time to put down the laptop, to stop looking at the clock, to deny the omnipresent modern desire to produce and consume and simply be in the good creation which God hath wrought. Walter Bruggeman insists that the modern pre-occupation with production and consumption is a metaphysical equivalent of Pharaoh's yoke. Let the reader note that when Jesus explains himself in Luke's gospel, he points back 1300 years to the time of slavery in Egypt and says, "Ought not this woman...have been released from her bondage on the Sabbath day?" Call it a date night, call it a backyard retreat, call it what you will - the call to Sabbath is not about satisfying God's need to be praised, but rather about the sheer joy of taking delight in God, of being shaped by God's grace, of hearing regularly "You are My beloved child, fearfully and wonderfully made."

That's my answer, at least: what's yours?

Grace & peace,


  1. Great thoughts. I really like the notion of Sabbath and delight, of finding joy in the Lord. I would be concerned, however, if that morphed into sabbath as "fun" or recreation. I do get irked when my pastor colleagues speak of taking Sabbath to go play golf on their day off. Playing golf is a great thing, I'm sure, but I'm pretty sure it is not Sabbath in any biblical sense. It is rest, but Sabbath is more than rest/recreation, it seems ... Here are some of my thoughts on Sabbath as I prepare for this Sunday (thoughts gleaned mostly from the New Interpreters Bible commentary on Genesis 1, Exodus 20, Exodus 31).

    I'm struck by the injunction to do no work on the Sabbath (yes, that is not directly in the readings for this Sunday, but in the background, for sure - Exodus 20:8-10; 31:12-18). In ancient culture, the injunction to cease from working for one day/week was radical. Giving up 1/7 of your work time represents a huge opportunity cost, and forces those who practice sabbath to trust in God to provide, since they themselves do not work. Indeed, in a culture in which our work can become our god, the Sabbath is directly connected to the first commandment - it forces us to put down our idols and look to God our Creator. It's very similar to the commandment to tithe - giving up 10% of your crop and livestock, the first-fruits and first-born, to be destroyed (burned) on an altar is an act of faith that God will provide, that we depend not on the work of our hands, but on the work, grace, and mercy of God.

    Another interesting note: Ex 31:17 states that "on the seventh day the LORD rested, and was refreshed." Refreshed? Was the LORD really tired, worn out, fatigued after the work of creation? That is, do we catch a glimpse of our God who, like us, is vulnerable and needs rest? What does it mean, what does it look like, for God to be refreshed?

    Finally, Genesis 2:2 suggests that God finished the work of creation by resting ... Rest is part of God's creative act, not simply something that comes AFTER the creative act, and is part of the rhythm of creation. Creation is not complete until there is rest.

    Well, just a few thoughts. Thanks for getting me thinking!

  2. Chris - you and I are on the same page. Sabbath is not just a day off to do whatever. IMO, that would be more of the "pursuing your own interests" against which Isaiah is warning his listeners (and by extension we ourselves). I think the image of God needing to be refreshed tells us this is more than just time off to pursue a hobby or just watch a movie.

    Last night in Bible Study Kris and I talked about our date nights as parents: they are chances for us to be apart and renew our relationship without the distractions of kids, dog, cats, etc. Is this maybe the "delight" with which one might approach God in Sabbath? I think so.

    Thanks for weighing in - hope this helps as you prepare for Sunday.