Our sermon this morning was on keeping the Sabbath and I’ve been thinking about it all day. In the fall of 2012, I led a small group at our church through a book by Lynne Baab on keeping Sabbath – and then proceeded to keep the Sabbath ZERO times. Sabbath is hard.
There’s also a book on the Sabbath by Walter Brueggemann I would really like to read (oh, also the one by Abraham Joshua Heschel) called Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It was released in January so I haven’t had time for it, but since its Brueggemann I know its worth reading. The title connects to the thoughts I’ve been having today on the Sabbath.
During the sermon, our pastor described the Sabbath as a law that brings freedom; a kind of protective cage that gives us space to rest and be replenished emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It made sense to me, but I don’t think it goes far enough. Is Sabbath just a matter of regularly marking off space in our lives for rest? Surely that would be a good thing but, as the title of Brueggemann’s book suggests, Sabbath runs deeper than “discipline”.
Sabbath is about identity.
We see this clear as day in the Deuteronomic version of the Sabbath command:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deut. 5:12, 15).
The Sabbath command is directly linked to Israel’s memory of how God liberated them and thereby transformed their identity from oppressed slaves to God’s covenant community. 1 Peter 2 brings this identity forward and applies it to an early Christian community: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.” God’s Sabbath-people that is.
Sabbath-keeping cannot be merely a discipline that we apply to ourselves externally – as if it were something that existed outside of us that we could grasp. Sabbath is who we are – not just something we do.
This is what makes Sabbath so hard for me (and maybe you too). If it were just something I could do, I doubt I would have much trouble with it. I struggle to keep Sabbath because Sabbath means letting God be God and recognizing that I, ultimately, do not and cannot sustain my own life. Sabbath is realizing that only God can save me and set me free for new creation life.
It’s a change in identity.
This change happens in two dimensions. We’ve seen the first already. Sabbath is being set free from the sin that keeps us enslaved to evil and death. There is no rest in Egypt; we are commanded to produce (or consume?) more and more with less and less. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, God is leading all creation out of this restless, suffocating slavery in Egypt. We’re headed to the promised land. God’s liberation is for a purpose: to create – or re-create – covenanted community.
We’re freed from the forces of sin and evil but we’re freed for covenanted community. This takes us back to Sabbath’s first appearance in the Bible: creation. Sabbath was, first and foremost, something that God did which is perfectly reflected in God’s being. God’s created the world and then God stopped and rested and thereby named (created) the Sabbath. God kept Sabbath because God wanted to enjoy communion with creation, to take a stroll as it were through this new home. Being-Sabbath means being a creature, specifically one created in the image of the triune God who exists as a personal community of Parent, Christ, and Spirit. Our promised land is the new creation, the reign of God, in which humanity fulfills its original vocation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).
Sabbath people are liberated slaves who cultivate and sustain flourishing community with God and all creation.
Yes, Sabbath is something we do and maybe that’s where we have to begin. Lord knows we need help stopping and resting. As we do that, let’s not forget that Sabbath-keeping is not just a “discipline” that we can choose to practice – it’s who we are.