Thursday, April 02, 2009

What is the Sabbath?

We heard a great message on "freedom from hurry" which asked, among other things, "What is the Sabbath?" Several definitions were offered, which I'll recap briefly, and then offer my current view. Here's a list:
  1. Sunset Friday to sunset Saturday;
  2. A day for religious stuff;
  3. A period when certain specified practices should not be done
    One of the old "blue laws," in some jurisdiction or other, prohibited the sale of soda water on Sundays. Apparently the ice cream parlors, not wanting to lose a whole lot of business, created something which had the ingredients of an ice cream soda, but without the soda; they called it an "ice cream sundae."
My own view is something like parts of #2 and #3, with some changes.
  • First, following Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16, a sabbath day is something you can observe or not. It's a good idea, even a great idea, to take a day off every week, but as Paul says, you don't have to.
  • It's a time to cease from our own work. A weekly day of ceasing is a picture of the lasting sabbath-rest mentioned in Hebrews 4:9-11: "anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his." Was God finished with creation when he rested on the seventh day in Genesis 2? Of course not! But on the seventh day he stopped: "Done for now."
I'd like to expand a little more on that one. At a recent men's retreat, we heard this brilliant and heretofore unpublished paraphrase of the first several commandments.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery--you are no longer slaves and your identity is no longer rooted in productivity, but in your relationship to me. Therefore, worship only me. Do not worship idols, Do not misuse my name. And to remind you that your work does not define you, I command you not to work one day a week. It will be for you a weekly reminder that you are no longer a slave. It will be a reminder that you are mine, you are made in my image, in the image of the one who rested secure in my own identity. It will be for you a protest against the world which wishes to measure your worth by your productivity. I am the basis of your identity, your work can never define you.
Chris James, 15 March 2009
And if the point is to remind ourselves of our identity in God (and not in our work) and to say, "work is done for now," it makes sense to say, if you're going to take a sabbath, why not have an ice cream soda, or a glass of wine? Why not listen to music you enjoy, take a long drive, or whatever else is aimed at enjoying blessings from God rather than being "productive"?

I think part of the controversy in modern times about what mustn't be done on the sabbath may be related to Isaiah 58:13-14, where God promises a reward
[i]f you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the Lord's holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words
This makes it sound like we should not just do what we feel like -- have an ice cream soda or glass of wine, listen to music we like, take a long drive or whatever. If that's so, how to reconcile that with what I wrote above? Do we say, "Old Testament, we can ignore it"? I don't think it's quite that simple, but more to the point here, I don't think that's what the passage is saying.

First, and you probably knew I was going to say this, let's look around that passage and see what the main point is he's trying to make. If we read the whole chapter, we see God complaining about people who follow religious rituals but do all sorts of evil: exploit their workers(3), quarrel(4), punch each other(4), do injustice(6), ignore the hungry and homeless(7), oppression and gossip(9), this sort of thing. That's the theme of the whole chapter.

Then there's that phrase "your own way." When Isaiah writes about someone's "own way", what does he mean? Have you heard the chorus in Handel's Messiah that begins, "All we like sheep"? It's from (no surprise) Isaiah, the 53rd chapter. People involved with the Navigators memorize Isaiah 53:6 as part of their "basic training." It says: "All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way, but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him" (New American Standard, approximately). The NIV has:
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:6 (NIV)
When each of us turns to "his own way", that's pretty clearly talking about sin. Here are the other places I could find where Isaiah used the phrase "own way":
  • They are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain
  • They have chosen their own ways, and their souls delight in their abominations; so I also will choose harsh treatment for them and will bring upon them what they dread.
The way Isaiah uses that phrase elsewhere suggests, but doesn't prove, that "going your own way" means "sin". But that plus the rest of the chapter is a pretty strong indication that it really does mean that here.

One more indicator, that came to mind as I wrote this: in another passage quoted by John the Baptist (and by Handel in The Messiah) Isaiah writes:
A voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Isaiah 40:3 (NKJV)
Here again, looking at all of chapter 40 (or NIV), the theme is a contrast between God and man. All flesh is like grass; the grass withers, but the word of our God endures forever (6-8). God is the master of the universe (12) with wisdom and justice (14), but men worship idols (18-20). God never tires (28) but men grow weary (30).

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that the contrast between the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3, RSV, NKJV) vs our "own way" (53:6, 58:14, etc.) is the major theme of chapters 40-66.

And so when Isaiah talks about not going your "own way" on the Sabbath, he means "not sinning"; he doesn't mean we can't have an ice cream soda! The important thing is to take time off of "work" -- and don't sin (and be especially careful not to abuse or oppress people).

So if you take a Sabbath, enjoy it! You really can celebrate and take a "joy day"! In Jesus' name.

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