EXODUS 20:8-11; MARK 2:23-27


Play Audio


           There is a wonderful scene in the movie version of “Fiddler on the Roof.”  The scene unfolds in a little Jewish village in Czarist Russia.  All work has stopped and the best linen and dishes are on the table.  Food prepared before sunset is set out.  The Sabbath candle is lit.  The entire family, young and old, gathers.  The father begins the Sabbath observance with the words, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, creator of the universe.”  The camera then pans the entire village, house after house, and every house has a Sabbath candle in the window.   

            In most places, among most Jews, those days are long gone.  I think of the book The Search for God at Harvard.  It’s written by an Orthodox Jew who was the religion reporter for the New York Times.  The Times gave him a year’s paid sabbatical leave to study comparative religion at Harvard’s Divinity School.  In the book the author shares what he learned about other faith traditions and he tells about his own faith tradition and what it means to him.  Here’s how he described the importance of the Sabbath during his childhood.  His parent’s were divorcing, and here’s what he remembers,


            Despite the turmoil, however, there was one constant in my life that proved critical - the practice of Orthodox Judaism.  Whether in my mother’s apartment in Jackson Heights or in the Hartford home of my father, I knew that on Friday night we would gather around a table covered in white.  For twenty-five hours, from sundown Friday until the stars came out on Saturday night, we observed a kind of limbo time, where, in effect, everyday life came to a halt.  We observed the same set of rules in both homes:  no watching television, no turning on electric lights, no talking on the telephone, no riding in cars and no writing anything down, not even homework assignments.  The Sabbath was instead a time for attending synagogue, reading a novel, taking a leisurely walk to the park or reflecting on the week past.

            To someone not brought up with these rules, all the Sabbath restrictions might sound onerous.  But, for me, the faithful practice of Orthodox Judaism proved to be the one comfort in my childhood, the one act that was filled with the possibility of redemption.  I clung, I continue to cling, to it like a raft in a turbulent sea.


            That world is foreign to us.  For us our Sabbath, Sunday, is like any other day, a holiday, a day off for sure, but scarcely a holy day.  The blue laws that once kept stores and amusements closed on Sundays have pretty much all been repealed.  Everything is open to what anyone wants to do on a Sunday, and the majority of Americans do it.  And many agree that this is how it should be.  These folk say it was improper in the first place to take the Jewish observance of the fourth commandment and make it binding on the Christian celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  In fact, they say we should not even speak of a “Christian Sabbath” at all.  They say that like the rest of Jewish ceremonies - the feasts, the burnt offerings, the whole system of sacrifices - the Sabbath has been done away.  John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, was of this very opinion.

            And I certainly do not want all the old legalisms, the lists of what one can do and not do on the Sabbath, brought back.  Even Jesus had difficulty observing Sabbath legalisms as our reading from Mark’s Gospel pointed out.  In fact, it appears as if Jesus deliberately set out to break some of the Sabbath legalisms to make his point that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath.

            But in what way is the Sabbath for us?  In what way is this commandment good for us?  What do we lose in ignoring the Sabbath?  Well, the Sabbath was given to us for three reasons: for rest, for remembrance, and for refreshment.

            Let’s begin with “rest.”  The word “sabbath” literally means “quit.”  “Stop.”  “Take a break.”  “Cool your jets.”  The word itself has nothing devout or holy about it.  It primarily has to do with time, not worship, and this concept of ceasing, resting, stopping remains as relevant today as it was three thousand years ago when it was first given.

            Listen to these words entitled “An Antithesis to Psalm 23.”


            The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.

            It makes me lie down only when exhausted.

            It leads me to deep depression.

            It hounds my soul.

            It leads me in circles of frenzy for activity’s sake.

            Even though I run frantically from task to task,

            I will never get it done.

            For my “ideal” is with me.

            Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.

            They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.

            They anoint my head with migraines.

            My in-basket overflows.

            Surely, fatigue and time pressure will follow me all the days of my life,

            And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration forever.


            Could that be your psalm?  Or how about this.  It’s entitled “Epitaph for the Worn Out.”


            Here lies a woman who was always tired;

            She lived in a house where help was not hired.

            Her last words on earth were: Dear friends I am going

            Where washing ain’t done, nor sweeping, nor sewing.

            For everything there is exact to my wishes;

            For where they don’t even eat, there’s no washing of dishes.

            Don’t mourn for me now, don’t mourn for me ever,

            I’m going to do nothing forever and ever.


            God commanded us to cease, knock it off, rest because if we don’t come apart, we will come apart, and God not only commanded it, but also he modeled it for us.  On the seventh day of creation, God rested.  Was God tired?  Was God spent?  Was God’s tongue hanging out after hanging all those stars?  No, elsewhere in the Scriptures we learn that God never tires, never slumbers, never sleeps.  No, God rested not because God was tired, but because God wanted to model this behavior, this rhythm of work and rest, this periodic maintenance schedule for us.  He wanted to announce to all of history that after six days of labor, enough is enough.  Cease.  Knock it off.  Rest.

            So first of all the Sabbath was given to us so that we will rest.  Second, it was given to us so that we will remember. 

            Turn with me to the fifth chapter of Deuteronomy.  This is another account of the Ten Commandments, not as famous or as well known as the list of the Commandments in the Book of Exodus, and here in this secondary account of the Ten Commandments the Fourth Commandment reads just a bit differently.  The difference comes in the fifteenth verse.  I’ll begin reading, however, in the twelfth verse:


            Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy - then skipping to the fifteenth verse - 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.


            Pretty clear.  One of the things we are to do on the sabbath, the ceasing day, is remember.  Remember who God is and what God has done in our lives.

            A friend of mine, Fred Kalvalege, has a pilot’s license, and when he still lived in Omaha he would take me up in a little four-seater plane, and I loved it.  I loved the rush and peacefulness of being in that little plane, and being with Fred I learned something about life.  You see, Fred’s plane had two compasses on the instrument panel.  One was a conventional, floating ball kind of compass.  Maybe your parents or grandparents had one on the dashboard of their car.  Now, many cars have them integrated into the GPS system of the car, but maybe your grandparents or aunt or uncle had one of the those old, floating ball kind of compasses.  Then there was the other compass on the instrument panel of Fred’s plane.  It was a gyro-compass.  A gyro-compass, according to Fred, was a lot easier to read and a lot easier to use in navigation.  There was, however, a drawback to the gyro-compass, and that is every fifteen or twenty minutes a gyro-compass wanders, and it has to be re-calibrated with the main compass in order to be of value.  Recalibration - you always have to remember to do that when you are flying or you will end up drifting off course.

            And let me tell you, even though I have been a Christian for forty-four years, my life, my behavior, my attitudes, my values, my emotions are a lot like a gyro-compass.  That is to say, they require regular recalibration.  I’m amazed at how quickly I begin to drift, and I work in a church!  I can only imagine how tough it is for those you who work in more combative types of environments, and how often you must have to re-calibrate so that you stay on course with Christ.

            Those of you old enough may remember the haunting words of Jeb Magruder when he stood before Judge Siricca during the Watergate trial.  He said, “Judge, somewhere along the way I lost my moral compass and with it the ability to navigate my life.”   Some of you remember his story of how he ended up committing a crime that embarrassed him, our nation, and led to his being sent to prison.  I wonder what his life would have been like if he had been observing the fourth commandment?  If once a week he paused to remember who God was and what God had done and what God wanted him to do?

            Then, finally, God gave us the Sabbath not only to rest and remember, but also to  refresh ourselves.  You don’t need to turn there, but I do want you to listen what God says at the end of the thirty-first chapter of Exodus.


            Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant.  It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.


            Personal refreshment is a very important part of the Sabbath day experience.  God not only commands us to close shop and remember, but God also wants us to refresh ourselves every seventh day, and it will vary from person to person.  For some that may mean a long walk.  For others it might mean taking a bike ride, or riding a motorcycle, or going sailing or fishing, for others a long nap, or reading a book, whatever it is that reenergizes us and rejuvenates our body and mind, we are to do it on the Sabbath. In a sense in this fourth commandment God says to us, “I want you during a portion of the sabbath day to figure out what it is that pours life into your spirit and I want you to do it.  I want you to be thoroughly refreshed and rejuvenated.”

            And this final step makes the sabbath all that God intended it to be for us.  And to tell you the truth, when I step back and look at this fourth commandment I think to myself, “What a wonderful God we have.” 

            Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.  God gave it to us for our well being.