Sermon Illustrations on Sabbath
The Crucial Bridge in the 10 Commandments
Interpretation series editor Patrick Miller has shrewdly observed that the fourth commandment on Sabbath is the “crucial bridge” that connects the Ten Commandments together. The fourth commandment looks back to the first three commandments and the God who rests (Exod. 20:3–7). At the same time, the Sabbath commandment looks forward to the last six commandments that concern the neighbor (vv. 12–17); they provide for rest alongside the neighbor.
God, self, and all members of the household share in common rest on the seventh day; that social reality provides a commonality and a coherence not only to the community of covenant but to the commandments of Sinai as well. For that reason, it is appropriate in our study of the Sabbath commandment to begin with a reflection on the first commandment and, subsequently, to finish our work with a consideration of the tenth commandment that concludes the Decalogue.
Doing Rather Than Being
Sabbath is that ancient idea and practice of intentional rest that has long been discarded by much of the church and our world. Sabbath is not new. Sabbath is just new to us. Historically, Christians have kept some form or another of the Sabbath for some two thousand years.
But it has largely been forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West. The result? Our road – weary, exhausted churches have largely failed to integrate Sabbath into their lives as vital elements of Christian discipleship. It is not as though we do not love God — we love God deeply. We just do not know how to sit with God anymore.
We have come to know Jesus only as the Lord of the harvest, forgetting he is the Lord of the Sabbath as well.
Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God. We are too busy working for him. This is only made more difficult by the fact that the Western church is increasingly experiencing displacement and marginalization in a post-Christian, secular society. In that, we have all the more bought into the notion that ministering on overdrive will resolve the crisis.
Sabbath is assumed to be the culprit of a shrinking church. So, time poverty and burnout have become the signs that the minority church remains serious about God in a world that has rejected him. Because we pastor rarely practice Sabbath, we rarely preach the Sabbath. And because we do not preach the Sabbath, our congregations are not challenged to take it seriously themselves.
The result of our Sabbath amnesia is that we have become perhaps the most emotionally exhausted, psychologically overworked, spiritually malnourished people in history. Similarly challenging are the cultural realities we face.
Going Against the Grain of the Universe
When we fight this work-six-days, Sabbath-one-day rhythm, we go against the grain of the universe. And to quote the philosopher H. H. Farmer, “If you go against the grain of the universe, you get splinters.”[i]
I’ve had people laugh off the call to Sabbath with a terrible cliché: “Yeah, well, the devil never takes a day off.”
Ummm, last time I checked, the devil loses. Plus, he’s the devil.
The last time a society tried to abandon the seven-day week was during the revolution in France. They switched to a ten-day workweek to up productivity. The rise of the proletariat! And? Disaster—the economy crashed, the suicide rate skyrocketed, and productivity? It went down. It’s been proven by study after study: there is zero correlation between hurry and productivity.
In fact, once you work a certain number of hours in a week, your productivity plummets. Wanna know what the number is? Fifty hours. Ironic: that’s about a six-day workweek. One study found that there was zero difference in productivity between workers who logged seventy hours and those who logged fifty-five.[ii] Could God be speaking to us even through our bodies?
My point: This rhythm isn’t the by-product of human ingenuity—the ancient version of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—that we’re free to adapt or change as we see fit for the modern era. It’s the way a brilliant mind designed our souls and society to flourish and thrive.
Fight it, fight God.
Fight God, fight our own souls.
Adapted from The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: How to Stay Emotionally Healthy and Spiritually Alive in the Chaos of the Modern World. Copyright © 2019 by John Mark Comer. Used by permission of WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
[i] Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath, 11.
[ii] Bob Sullivan, “Memo to Work Martyrs: Long Hours Make You Less Productive,” CNBC, January 26, 2015, www.cnbc.com/2015/01/26/working-more-than-50-hours-makes-you-less-productive.html.
The Real Significance of the Sabbath
St. Augustine was convinced that the real significance of the sabbath is this fact, that it provided a concrete sign of fulfillment toward which history yearns; because of the grace and decision of God, human history moves toward that fulfillment symbolized by the seventh day. He opened and concluded his Confessions with variations on this thought: “Thou madest us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in thee” (p. 3)- “O Lord God, give peace unto us …. the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath, which hath no evening.. . thou, Lord, ever workest, and art ever at rest” (p. 337)-
To Remember & Observe: Sabbath in a Jewish Home
We must begin by remembering. If you journey into a contemporary Jewish home prepared for Sabbath, you will likely encounter two candles lit by (more often than not) the woman of the home. On Friday evening, she waves the flames from the kiddush candles — setting the mood for restful intimacy — toward her face to symbolize the Sabbath entering her home. One tradition holds that these candles symbolize a room set for lovemaking.
But why two candles? They represent the two lists of commandments, one commanding us “to remember” (Exod. 20:8) and the second “to observe” (Duet.5:12) the Sabbath. Those two candles are a reminder, the rabbis insisted, that Sabbath observance depended on Sabbath remembrance. To do, one must first remember.
As said, contemporary Christianity has an acute case of Sabbath amnesia — we have forgotten to remember. We have become what the rabbis called tinok shenishba . Literally translated, this means “the child who was captured. ” Judith Shulevitz illuminates the image of the one who forgets the Sabbath: “The rabbis [ discussed] the legal implications of forgetting the Sabbath…
What would the penalty for such amnesia or ignorance be? And what kind of Jew could be so oblivious to the Sabbath? Only, the rabbis thought, a Jew who had suffered extreme cultural dislocation. Only a Jew who had been kidnapped as a child and raised by non – Jews.”
For Jews, forgetting the Sabbath was akin to forgetting one’s entire identity. A Jew forgetting the Sabbath was like an Israelite who was raised by Pharaoh. While Christians are going to enter into the Sabbath in a unique way, to remember the Sabbath is to remember who we are — children born of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. To keep a Sabbath is to give time and space on our calendar to the grace of God.
Sabbath: A Day Up
Sabbath is not so much about a day off as it is a “day up”—a day to remember that He is God and we are not. Without Sabbath, we forget who we are and lose sight of who He is, leaving us to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. When there is no Sabbath in our lives, we become intoxicated by the lie that the sum of our lives depends on our effort alone.
We get to the place where we truly believe that the outcome of the Story fully depends on us. But in truth, we are tiny, limited beings. Our biggest and best efforts still accomplish far less than what God can do in us, through us—or without us—in one breath.
Sabbath-Keeping and Legalism
For the most part, contemporary Christians pay little attention to the Sabbath. We more or less know that the day came to reflect, in U.S. culture, the most stringent disciplinary faith of the Puritans which, in recent time, translated into a moralistic prescription for a day of quiet restraint and prohibition.
In many, somewhat-pietistic homes that amounted to not playing cards or seeing films on Sunday, and certainly not shopping. I can remember each year debates in our rural community about farmers working on some few Sundays to harvest wheat in the face of devastating rains that were sure to come.
I can remember from my earlier days, moreover, that because of “Blue Laws,” Sunday home baseball games for the Phillies and the Pirates in Pennsylvania could not begin a new inning after 6:00 p.m. The sum of all these memories of restraint was essentially negative, a series of “Thou Shalt Nots” that served to echo the more fundamental prohibitions of the Decalogue. This context did not offer much potential for seeing the Sabbath in a positive way as an affirmative declaration of faith or identity. And, of course, as church monopoly in our culture has in many places waned or disappeared, the commitment to Sabbath discipline has likewise receded.
The Sabbath Reveals Economic Disparities
The discussion of the sabbath leads to an interesting reflection. Some of our economies and cultures actually are put together in such a way that the poor either struggle to get enough work or have no time to rest. A job that is fair allows the worker to rest a day a week.
Rest would also imply sleep, since the way God initially structured life provided time for sleep and human beings were created to need to be refreshed in this way. So the poor should have opportunity to work for a living wage-one that enables them to be self-supporting in their society—and should have opportunity for rest. How might a church create a means for the poor to rest in this way?
Taken from Practical Justice: Living Off-Center in a Self-Centered World by Kevin Blue Copyright (c) 2006 by Kevin Blue. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Sacred Day
The Sabbath day is a holy day. Interestingly, the only thing God deems as qadosh, or “holy,” in the creation story is the Sabbath day. The earth, space, land, stars, animals — even people — are not designated as qadosh. The Sabbath day was holy. Heschel speaks of the Sabbath as the “sanctification of time”:
“This is a radical departure from accustomed religious thinking. The mythical mind would expect that, after heaven and earth have been established, God would create a holy place — a holy mountain or a holy spring — whereupon a sanctuary is to be established.
Yet it seems as if to the Bible it is holiness in time, the Sabbath, which comes first.” This holiness of the Sabbath is one of the distinctive marks of Jewish theology, Heschel contends. Again, it is telling that there is no mention of a specific, sacred place in the creation story. There is only a sacred day. While space and location are significant, it is important to note that the exact location of Eden is omitted. Yet we know that the Sabbath day is holy.
Leaving the Letters up to God
There is a story told about a Jewish farmer, who ended up stuck in his field for the Sabbath. As the sun went down, the farmer realized he would have to remain in the field until sunset the next day, for according to the laws of the Sabbath, travel was prohibited. This resulted in him missing both the synagogue services and the family’s Seder meal.
Arriving home the next evening, he was met by his angry wife and a fuming Rabbi. The Rabbi began to lay into the farmer for not taking the sabbath more seriously. Finally, he asked, What did you do in the field by yourself all day? Did you at least pray?”
“Rabbi,” the farmer answered, “I’m not a very smart man and I don’t know many prayers. All the prayers I knew, I said in five minutes. What I did the rest of the day was simply recite the alphabet. I left it up to God to make some words out of all those letters.”
Stuart Strachan Jr, Source Material from Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart, The Crown Publishing Group. 2004, p.35.
Sabbath vs. Vacation
What differentiates a weekly Sabbath from a vacation? Quite a bit, in fact. When my son was four, he learned how to put his head underwater when swimming. Elliot can hold his breath for a good ten seconds, a feat indeed. Still, he cannot believe how long I can hold mine — upward of sixty seconds. When we both emerge from the water, we catch our breaths. It would be fascinating to watch someone go about their life holding their breath all the time and breathing only when they absolutely had to — a difficult life that would be.
A Sabbath is like breathing. Imagine a life where your breath once every sixty seconds. Or, can you think of what life would be like if we opted to breathe for only two weeks out of the year? It is interesting that God’s invitation to rest once a week is so hard for us to grapple with, yet we do not blink at the notion of breathing all the time. A rest is not the only thing that matters. What matters even more is the consistency and rhythm of rest that we enter into.
A Space Sabbath
Colonel William Pogue requested a day of rest from mission control for his overworked and exhausted space crew: “We have been over-scheduled. We were just hustling the whole day. The work could be tiresome and tedious, though the view is spectacular.” How spectacular the view and work must have been, but even a breathtaking view from space cannot relieve the human need for rest.
What happened? NASA refused his request. Subsequently, the crew went on strike in space, a first of its kind. Disobeying orders, the crew took a space Sabbath. In response, ground control was forced to change their policy. To this day, NASA now schedules time for rest on all space travel. Even NASA factors in rest.
Struggling to Rest
Rest has never been one of America’s greatest strengths. According to one study, only one in seven adults (14%) have set aside an entire day for the purpose of rest. For those who do set aside an entire day, can you guess how they fill their time? Mostly with work. Over 40% say they do enjoyable work, and an additional 37% say they will do non-enjoyable work, if it has to get done (Raking leaves anyone?). Out of the 14% who set aside a day of rest, only 19% say they will won’t work at all on their day of rest.
Stuart R Strachan Jr.
Only the Dead Go with the Flow
By illustration, I have been told that when a cow is born, she innately senses that her departure from her mother’s warm womb to a cold, scary, unknown world outside is upon her. In response, she will resist birth and try to stay in the womb. On the other hand, the absence of such resistance is often a sign of a stillborn calf.
Relating to our world of death, “going along” is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow. The Sabbath is subversive, countering so many of the deathly ways we have felt at home in. When we live the Sabbath, we slowly depart the womb of the status quo to a scary, unknown, new world. But that is okay. The world’s warm womb feels nice. But no one can grow up in there.
Sabbath Begins in Rest
Sabbath begins in rest. The Jewish people practice Shabbat sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. It begins and ends in the dark, where rest (not hustle) is the first word.
Taken from A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits by Ashley Hales Copyright (c) 2021 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com