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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Keep the Sabbath Day Holy

We continue our Lenten series on the ways in which we violate God's covenant and this week are looking at how to keep the Sabbath Holy. I've included the Leviticus text where God instituted this as law, and then a text from the book of Mark which offers a different perspective on the Sabbath as a day of rest.

Leviticus 23:3

So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

Mark 2:23-28

23 One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields, and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food, 26 how 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?” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath, 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

In the first creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, we are told, “So, God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it, God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” From this, the people of Israel had a sense that there was a time for work and a time for rest.

While wandering in the desert after being extracted from Egypt, God give Moses a long laundry list of things that the people of Israel should do and not do; all accompanied with consequences. Leviticus 23:3 reiterates God’s proclamation that the Sabbath is Holy. It then admonishes the people to keep it holy; to set it apart from the rest of the work week as a day of rest. What isn’t in the text, however, is a proscription to worship on the Sabbath.

Originally, the seventh day of the week was calculated as Saturday, which also became the day of worship and rest for the Israelite people. The concept of 39 melachot (rules that must be observed on the Sabbath) were developed as a way to assist the Israelite people in maintaining the Sabbath observation and maximizing rest. These rules include any kind of field work, the making of curtains (cloth or leather), writing, erasing, building, demolishing, extinguishing a fire, kindling a fire, striking a final hammer blow, and carrying. In strict Jewish homes, devices have actually been created in order to aid those who want to follow these laws to the letter.

While all of this is fascinating, and maybe even necessary to be completely at rest, this does nothing to address the issue of the Sabbath being Holy. What does it mean for us to set aside a day; a whole day to devote to God? And what are the consequences of not doing so?

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a protest observer who actually devotes their whole Sabbath to rest and worship. Call me cynical, but we have constructed our lives in such a way that there is always more to do. Our work lives force us to pile our daily household chores, such as laundry and grocery shopping, to the weekend, on our day off; the day that is meant for rest. We can look at the structure of our lives as one more example of how put God last all too often.

What might bring you some relief, though, is that Jesus, in his words to the religious leaders of his day, sounds as though he is contradicting the law when he claims his actions are not in violation of God’s covenant. How are we to know, in this instant, what is right and what is wrong.

Since Jesus claims that he is the new covenant sent by God, then Jesus’ interpretation of the law should take precedent. Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath,” reminds us that the Sabbath is actually a gift. God created this day of rest to remind us that we all need to take care of ourselves. When we make rules to govern how we rest, we may actually be making more work for ourselves. Those who still follow the letter of the law and observe the 39 melachot do so understanding that this is their best way of being in the world.

As followers of Christ, we are called to the same devotion, we just observe the Sabbath differently. What would it mean, though, if we could limit our activities on the Sabbath to those that really do bring about restoration of mind, body, and spirit? When we observe our own state of being, we are in turn honoring God. Our Sabbath may be filled with things that we love to do, or even things we have to do, but in the midst of all that we can still honor God.

I have learned the hard way, though, that the consequences of not honoring the Sabbath, of not taking care of yourself mind, body, and spirit…you wake up one day unable to present to yourself and to others. What God is trying to teach us in this creation moment is that everything needs time to lay fallow. When down time is incorporated into your regular routine, there is always time to recharge, to restore one’s mind, body, and spirit.

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