Remembering the Sabbath

Romans 14:1-9New International Version (NIV)

1Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

We are at week five of our sermon series on Rituals, Rites, and Holy Days, where we slow down and consider the meaning behind some of these days that we may take for granted, moving too quickly on to the next thing. I promised last week that I would light these thirty-minute menorah candles at the beginning of my sermon today and quit speaking when they burn out, and I’m going to use this practice as an intro to our next holy day.

I mentioned last week that there is one candle on the menorah that is set aside, taller, or out of line from the rest, which is called the Shamash. The Shamash, the servant candle, is used to light all of the other Hanukkah candles. Here is why it is important. The Hanukkah candles are not to be lit until the sun has gone down and since Hanukkah is eight nights long, at least one night will fall on the Sabbath. The Hebrew people celebrate the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown Saturday. And Exodus 35:3 says, “Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”

So during Hanukkah, the Shamash is lit on Friday before the sun goes down. After sundown, when it officially becomes the Sabbath, the other Hanukkah candles can be lit by using the Shamash because you aren’t lighting a new light, you are passing on an existing flame.

I can think of a number of these seemingly-strict Sabbath Day restrictions. Did you know that some of the more conservative forms of Judaism prohibit the use of technology on the Sabbath? This isn’t just about putting down your iPad or smartphone. This means operating any device that runs on electricity. But please note that there is a difference between operating an electric device and taking advantage of an electric device that is already operating on its own. For instance, I’ve mentioned the Sabbath elevator in a sermon before. In Jewish communities it is common to find an elevator with a Sabbath setting. The elevator will stop and open its doors on every floor from bottom to top, allowing people to get on and off without ever pushing a button. If it is going to be stopping at the fifth floor anyway, why not just go along for the ride?

One of you mentioned a few years ago that your refrigerator has a Sabbath mode on it and I have since learned that this is common on both refrigerators and ovens. When you open a refrigerators, what normally happens? The light comes on. Ours doesn’t, but they are supposed to. There is a switch that flips when you open the door and the light comes on. Some rabbi has decreed that opening the refrigerator door is considered operating an electronic device, so when you put it on Sabbath mode, the light won’t come on and the compressors won’t kick in. The Sabbath mode on an oven is essentially a timer that you set before the Sabbath so the oven will come on at a certain time and then turn off by itself without you having to operate a switch.

Whether or not a person can adjust the temperature on an oven on the Sabbath is a hot debate right now (pun intended!). Some claim that a traditional dial is not the same thing as operating a switch so as long as there isn’t a digital readout that changes. Others require a delay after the temperature change is called for by the user before actual temperature change is initiated so that the change wasn’t a direct result of the person’s action.

Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

My default mode is to go directly to sarcasm. I really want to make some jokes, poke some fun, and laugh at these strict practices. For me, this feels a lot like what I seen in the Amish communities near my childhood home. Phones are forbidden in the Amish community, unless it is a cell phone. You know, because it doesn’t have wires. There are some people making decent money in Holmes and Wayne Counties, Ohio, picking up cell phones at the end of the day, charging them, and returning them to their Amish customers in the morning. The phones aren’t the only thing being charged!

Why do we observe the Sabbath? Or should we? I think that it is important to take time for Sabbath, but I also think that some people are a little legalistic about the Sabbath. That applies to Jews and Christians. So today we will look at the reasons for observing the Sabbath, reasons not to, and what this practice might look like today.

The origin of the Sabbath goes all the way back to the beginning. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and everything therein. Genesis 2:2-3, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

God rested, but God does a lot of things that we don’t do. And you have to think that creating the entire world is going to take a lot out of you. There really isn’t reason to think that people observed the Sabbath until the time of Moses and the Exodus.

When Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt they stop at Mt. Sinai where Moses receives the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:8-11 we find the first time that God’s people are commanded to keep the Sabbath: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

Don’t work. Don’t make your children work. Don’t make your servants work. Don’t even make your animals work. And if there are non-Israelites living in your town, they aren’t supposed to work, either.

The Sabbath laws will be laid out a little more clearly throughout the Hebrew Bible, and more clearly in the Mishnah, a commentary written by the Rabbis. The Mishnah names 39 categories of prohibited actions on the Sabbath, with hundreds of subcategories. And according to the Hebrew Bible, breaking the Sabbath is punishable by death.

When you consider all that the Old Testament had to say about the Sabbath, you soon realize that the Sabbath Day was meant for one thing: rest. Before I started research for this message, I would have said that the Sabbath was for two things: rest and worship. But looking at passages like Exodus 20, is there any reason to think that worship is to be a major part of the Sabbath?

Now I will admit that was a bit of a trick question, because in ancient Israel, worship was a part of every day. The Temple was always filled with people reading and studying the Torah, giving sermons and lessons. The priests offered sacrifices and prayers every day. So worship wasn’t just something that was done on the Sabbath. It was done every day. For sure, worship was a central act that took place on the Sabbath; attendance and participation was higher when people were forbidden to work.

Make no mistake about it, the Sabbath was meant as a day of rest. The Hebrew word Shabbat even means to cease, to end, or to rest.

When I was in seminary, my Hebrew professor invited a Hebrew professor from James Madison University to come and give a guest lecture one day. My Hebrew professor was a Mennonite. The visiting Hebrew professor was a Hebrew.

I remember one thing from this lecture that this very serious professor said that we thought was a joke, and I remember one student laughing out loud and slapping his desk even after the professor assured us that he was not joking. The professor said that he gets a little annoyed at Christians for keeping the Sabbath because the Sabbath was not meant for us, it was meant for his people, the Jews.

And you know what? In a way, he is right.

Exodus 31 lays it out pretty clearly as God speaks to Moses. Beginning in verse 13 and jumping around a bit: “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed’” (13, 16-17, emphasis mine).

After we realized that the professor wasn’t joking, the immediate response of our class was that we Christians had been grafted into the covenant that God made with Israel. But he wanted to know why we didn’t keep all the commandments then. We were cherry picking.

Again, he was right. We are never commanded to keep the Sabbath in the New Testament. And in the famous discussion among the early church about the requirements for Gentiles to enter the church, known as the Jerusalem Council, we can find the teachings of the early church: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things” (Acts 15:28-29).

So was Sabbath keeping commanded of the church in the New Testament? Nope, but they did it anyway. Just a few chapters later in Acts 20:7 we read, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” That may be a reference to the disciples coming together for Communion, an act of remembrance and worship.

Even though Sabbath keeping wasn’t commanded, the disciples knew that it was a good thing. We all need rest, and that it abundantly clear in the New Testament. What we don’t need are all of the rules governing how we are to rest and what is and is not acceptable.

We always need to go back to not only our Lord, but also our perfect example, Jesus. Jesus regularly broke the Sabbath laws by doing such heinous things as…healing the sick. Come on, Jesus. That paralytic can wait until after sundown!

I think that one of the best examples is found in Mark chapter 2. In this chapter we find the story of Jesus’s disciples walking through a grain field, plucking a few heads, shaking out the grain, and eating the seeds on the Sabbath. This act was considered harvesting and was strictly forbidden. The stealing of the grain was okay, but the harvesting was a big no-no.

Jesus’s response in verse 27 sums it all up: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

You are missing the point. The point isn’t about what one can and cannot do. The point is that we need rest. We physically need to change things up on a weekly basis, and I would add that we need the mental break as well.

Throughout the Gospels we find stories of Jesus feeding large groups of people, and then going away by himself to rest and pray. At one point Jesus is healing the sick and the lame, and he takes off to go rest. There were still people to feed. There were still people to heal. I don’t know if it is intentional or not, but Jesus is setting an example for his followers to set aside time for rest and worship. Call it Sabbath, call it taking a break. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we need it.

There will always be hungry to feed and sick people to care for. But if we don’t care for ourselves, we won’t be able to care for others.

So what are we to make of our scripture from Romans for this morning? Paul seems to be addressing two different yet similar issues: eating meat-perhaps meat sacrificed to idols or unclean meat, and those who consider one day of the week more sacred than another. The second one seems to be a debate among the Roman Christians about when they should be observing the Sabbath. Is one day really better than another? I mentioned the Acts 20 passage earlier that said the Apostles gathered to break bread on the first day of the week. Act 3 says that they met together every day. So when should we meet?

10:30 am on Sundays.

We meet and observe the Sabbath on Sundays when God is said to have rested on the seventh day because Sunday is the day of the resurrection. And in Revelation 1:10, John refers to Sunday as “The Lord’s Day.”

There was a pretty big debate in the early church about when Christians should observe the Sabbath. It was such a debate that it took an edict from Emperor Constantine in 321 AD to settle the matter, when Constantine declared Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath.

I’m glad that’s settled! No, we still have churches that debate this. The real Sabbath should be Saturday, the 7th day! No, it’s Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Resurrection Day!

No!!!! Don’t miss the point. The point is that we need to rest. We need to step back and say Today I will not chase the almighty dollar. Today I will spend time with my family and friends. Today I will worship my Lord and Savior. Today I will sleep in a bit and eat pancakes.

A few years back a group was scheduling a golf outing for a Sunday and a dear lady (not from our church) overheard these men and came to me with a concern. “They shouldn’t be golfing on the Lord’s Day!” she told me.

It is a lot easier to just make rules and say what we should and should not be doing. It is easy to say, “Don’t operate an electronic device.” “Don’t walk more than x miles.” “Don’t heal or pluck heads of grain.” And for some people, that’s okay. Paul says to those people, If you are doing it for the Lord, that’s great. And we aren’t supposed to judge people who do it differently.

But Paul also calls those people weak.

It is a lot harder to simply say to make sure to rest. How much? When? Where? What can I do? No, just rest. God rested, Jesus rested, and so should you.

For me, golf is very stressful. I spend way too much time in the woods looking for a ball. But if playing golf is restful to you, play golf for the Lord.

I’m not interested in a list of do’s and don’ts. I’m interested in one question: Are you finding time to rest? One the seventh day, God rested, and set the day aside as holy. As people created in the image of God, we are hardwired to need rest on a weekly basis too.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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