“And God Rested”

February 17, 2019


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 17, 2019

“And God Rested”
Exodus 20: 8-11;

Many of us are old enough to remember when Sunday was a day the sidewalks were rolled up, stores were closed and the city slept. The only thing open was churches. And they were full. Grandmas all over the country fixed roast beef or fried chicken for a family gathering after church and extended family gathered around the table for a big meal. Sundays were days of worship and family, rest and relaxation. At least that’s the way the story is told.

A version of that story was true in my childhood home, although I don’t remember it with much fondness. I remember it as a day of “no’s” and “you can’t’s” from sunrise to sundown. It was a day of restlessness and boredom. We kept the letter of the law about Sabbath, but it wasn’t until I went to seminary that I understood that Sabbath keeping wasn’t about keeping the 4th of the 10 commandments – “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it Holy” – but about finding freedom and joy in life. But I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Here is the 4th commandment as it is found in Exodus 20: 8-11: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”

We always hear that the creation of humanity was the crowning event of creation. Some theologians argue that the Sabbath is the pinnacle of the Genesis creation story, because it is the Sabbath that reveals God’s true character. In the story of creation, when God is finished with creating, God takes a Sabbath day to rest. This demonstrates God’s freedom, love, and desire to enjoy and associate with the creation. Sabbath was the beginning of an eternal covenantal relationship between God and humanity! And, it is the first divine event that the man and woman are privileged to witness.

You probably know that the Hebrew people understand days differently than we do. Our days typically begin with an alarm clock ripping the predawn darkness. Our days often end after dark when we turn off our lights and electronics and shut our eyes. But you may remember in the creation story that the phrase “evening and morning, one day” is used to describe time. Day is the basic unit of God’s creative work and evening is the beginning of that day.

The Hebrew evening/morning sequence conditions them to the rhythms of grace. When they go to sleep, God begins work. When they sleep, God develops a covenant. When they wake, they are called to participate in God’s creative action. They respond in faith, in work during the daylight hours. But God’s grace is always previous to the daylight. In other words, they wake into a world they didn’t make and into a salvation they didn’t earn.
• Evening: God begins, without human help, God’s creative day.
• Morning: God calls humans to enjoy and share and develop the work God has initiated.
As this Biblical rhythm works, there is something else to discover: when we quit our day’s work, nothing essential stops. We may prepare for sleep, but it is not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin!

The holy Sabbath day appears in 15 books of the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus and in Leviticus, the Sabbath is mentioned 14 times each. In Deuteronomy, the Hebrews have been in Egypt for 400 years working day and night with their hands making bricks and building pyramids. Because of their work, they were no longer even considered persons, but slaves. Hands. Work units. Not persons created in the image of God… but equipment. Their humanity had been defaced because they had no Sabbath.

If we are to keep the Sabbath day “holy”, what does that mean? Does it mean that we simply don’t do what we do other days? Does it mean we avoid spending money? I actually used to know people who refused to write checks with a Sunday date on them, preferring to date the check one day before or one day after, even if it was actually written on Sunday! Does it mean we avoid buying things or eating out so that others don’t have to work? Does it mean we don’t use our ovens or cook on Sunday?
I would say that those legalistic things are up to the individual who is trying to observe the day. But I think we get caught up too much in the technical aspects and not in the spirit of the day.

The Hebrew word, shabbath literally means “cessation”. It means to quit. Take a break. Cool it. Stop. Waste time. So a Sabbath day is a day of physical, mental and spiritual leisure. It is an attitude different than the rest of the week. This is true even if you are retired. Retired people need Sabbath days as well! Sabbath taking is an attitude of the mind; a condition of the soul. It involves ways of being – not being busy, but letting things happen. It involves quiet, silence, just being.

The Sabbath is not a time of boredom or watching TV. It could be reading a book or taking a walk. But it is different than other days when you read or walk. On a Sabbath walk, you don’t speed walk and time yourself or measure how far you walked – you roam to new places. When you read on your Sabbath, you don’t take notes or highlight, you just imagine and dream.

Like us, the Hebrews got confused about the Sabbath. They eventually forgot the sense of the freedom of the Sabbath day and made it into a legalized concept, which specifically forbid work of any kind. Here is the story in Mark 2:23-28:
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

Jesus understood that the idea was to be spiritually renewing. He told the Pharisees that the Sabbath day didn’t have much to do with religious laws about harvesting grain or physical needs, like food. He said, “The Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath.” In other words, keeping strict laws about doing things on the Sabbath is missing the point. The Sabbath means a state of mind, a sense of being, a spiritual renewal.

I know people, both clergy and laity, who observe a Sabbath day each week. They are some of the most energized, attuned, authentic and creative people I know. I am drawn to them and inspired by them. They accomplish more during the other six days than others do in a month. If I didn’t know them well, I would never have guessed that they were Sabbath people – because they didn’t share that part of their quiet interior lives openly.

One minister I know wrote into the church contract that for every funeral he conducted he received a personal day off. It gave him time to reflect and renew his spirit before coming back to work. He was one of the most grounded and deeply thoughtful persons I have ever known. I credit it to his Sabbath keeping.

Of course, Sabbath keeping doesn’t have to be on a Sunday. It might be a Wednesday or a Monday. It is time to re-tune and re-new yourself. Will you take time to enjoy a regular Sabbath?

Brother Roger, the Prior of Taize wrote,
“Rest your heart in God,
Let yourself float
On the safe water,
Loving life as it come,
With all the rough weather
It may bring.
Give, without counting
How many years are left,
Not worried about surviving
As long as possible.”

Resources Used:
Bergland, John. “Abingdon Preacher’s Annual, 1994” Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1994.
Eskenazi, Tamara C., editor. “The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions”. New York: Crossroad Publishing. 1991.
“Weavings, Woven Together in Love, A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life.” Volume VIII, Number 2; March/April, 1993. Nashville: The Upper Room. 1993.