A Sabbath Mood

As part of the Wendell Berry Weekend, Dr. Fred VanDyke delivered the following message at a worship service on our campus on Sunday, July 22:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11

Moses here, in providing a reason for Sabbath observance, takes the argument all the way back to the creation itself. God, having created space, matter, and time, and a world, the earth, in which all these things are present and operative, chooses to place Himself within them. His “rest” is not to recover from exertion, for the Scripture tells us that God never “grows weary or faint,” but that He ceases from a need to endlessly create. Creation is not in the full sense “finished” on the seventh day. A lot of things are going to happen after this. But creation is “launched.” It has a trajectory. It is “going somewhere,” and the somewhere is where God intends it to go. It is good and it is to be enjoyed. God “rests” in appreciation and enjoyment of its own goodness, and in His good accomplishment. And His image bearers in the temple of this world, Adam and Eve, are called to rest with Him, sharing His enjoyment even as they also share His effort. God is then the focus of the Sabbath’s “attention,” which is worship, and at one and the same time God makes us His fellow participants in the enjoyment of this world.  As N. T. Write puts it, the Sabbath opens a door in the world that “contains a rhythm within which God’s own rhythm of life somehow seems to be mysteriously intersecting with ours.”

Wright also points out that the Scripture is then silent on the Sabbath until Exodus, when it returns, as Wright puts it, “with a bang.” Again, it is a command to observe this intersection of rest and rhythm, and this observance or lack of observance of the Sabbath comes to be considered one of the clearest measures of genuine devotion to God. Bad things happen to the nation of Israel when they fail to keep the Sabbath, or when they fail to give the land its Sabbath (rest from cultivation every 7th year, as described in Leviticus 25). Good things happen, blessings flow down, when the people repent and keep the Sabbath. Everyone knows what the Sabbath is. The only question is whether you keep it or not. To fail to observe the Sabbath is to profane it, and to profane the Sabbath is to profane sacred time. And, in this reality of sacred time, the Sabbath grows and progresses in the Old Testament to become not merely a sacred time of observance for worship of the one true God, but a time to establish justice and right wrongs. Not only the Israelites are to rest, but their slaves, the sojourners (who had no “rights” that belonged to the citizens of Israel), the animals, and eventually the land itself. The Sabbath then becomes the basis for the Jubilee, when every 50thyear all debts are forgiven and all slaves set free, all land reverts to its original owners, all who have been displaced return to their true home. For, as God says in Leviticus 25, “the land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is mine. You are but aliens and sojourners with me.” The Sabbath becomes the sign of God’s justice and care. The Jubilee is to set things right, according to God’s original intention for his good creation, which was the basis of His restful enjoyment of His, and our, very first Sabbath. We are now to share not only in God’s rhythm of time, but in God’s intention of redemptive purpose.

The Sabbath is then a call to humility, the recognition that our work is not the substance of our life, nor it is the basis of its provision. And Moses addresses this in his more general exhortation to Israel in Deuteronomy 8. “When your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become lifted up and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves [Deuteronomy 5]…You may say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth. But you shall remember the Lord your God for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant, which He swore to your fathers, as this day.” The Sabbath is an intentional remembrance of who owns the world, who runs the world, and who provides for every creature in the world. Overwork, expressed by failure to observe the Sabbath, is not only a correlate of loss of faith in God, it is usually the cause of it. Of all those I know who have lost their faith few did so because of some compelling argument for atheism. They simply got too busy. And their work now provides them their own reward, a life wholly dependent on their own efforts, their own abilities, their own insights, with the frightening realization that such efforts, abilities, and insights are fragile, limited, flawed and temporary. The Sabbath is not something that Christians are to impose on a sinful world, but something Christians are to present (offer) in sharp and piercing contrast to the world. But where the world sees no contrast, the world gives no attention.

What is that contrast? In the New Testament, nine of the 10 commandments are in various ways affirmed. One is not. And that is the command to keep the Sabbath. Jesus is always running afoul of religious leaders because He doesn’t keep the Sabbath. He does the work of healing. His disciples do the work of harvesting grain. And He, Jesus, has the audacity to declare that He is not subject to the Sabbath, that He is Lordof the Sabbath, and then, to add to the scandal, asserts that the Sabbath itself is intended to serve human beings.The Sabbath, He asserts, was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. For Jesus is proclaiming and ushering in a new age in which the Sabbath’s intentions will be fulfilled, and He is and will be the fulfillment of it. God’s time and human time are coming to an intersection in Jesus Christ. God’s redemptive power and the brokenness of sinful human lives is about to intersect in the life and work of Jesus Christ. So the New Testament authors like Paul and Peter and James and John, writing their letters after the events of the gospels, consider all that the Sabbath pointed to, rest in God’s provision for people and creation, redemptive justice, and hope for restoration, to have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Turn off the alarm clock. The morning sun is flooding the room. 

When we return to the land Sabbath of Leviticus 25 we discover that its purpose was not simply to give the land rest, though it was that. It was to lead people to believe that they could live in this world through provision provided by faith alone. If you say, says God, through Moses, anticipating the obvious objection, what are we going to eat if we do not sow our fields or gather in our crops in the 7th year? I will so order my blessing for you in the sixth year that the land will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eight year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating until the ninth year, when its crop comes in.

The curse of the Fall was that man would eat bread by the sweat of his face. The blessing of the Sabbath was that God’s people would receive God’s provision without sweat, and, with that, the freedom to devote themselves to the joy of the worship, adoration, and service of God. So the New Testament writers do not talk about the commandment to observe the Sabbath, but rather the fulfillment of the Sabbath’s observance and purpose. In fact, the New Testament devotes a whole book to this theme, the book of Hebrews, in which all the work that Jesus has done is for the purpose of permitting God’s people to enter into perpetual Sabbath rest of living life by faith in the purpose and provision of God. The author of Hebrews recapitulates the story of Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, a condition they imposed on themselves because of their repeated unbelief and refusal to trust God, and so, the author concludes, “we see that they were not able to enter [not simply the Promised Land, but, more importantly, the state of rest in God’s provision] because of unbelief. Therefore, let us fear, if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, anyone of you may seem to have come short of it…So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His [God’s] rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore, let us be diligent to enter that rest…”

So we can see, if we understand this, how naturally, how seamlessly, the first Christians would transfer the observance of the Sabbath from Saturday, to Sunday, for in Jesus’ resurrection, the rest of God, the true, lasting and eternal Sabbath, is at last fully and completely realized. 

No one here today is a slave. We can choose the best means to observe our Resurrection Sabbath Day (and Sunday should be recognized as a celebration of both) in ways that make our lives most congruent with the reality of this new Resurrected Sabbath. We should gather with the saints and celebrate that the true Sabbath has come in Christ. We should step back, refrain from, taking up our own human efforts to make provision for ourselves, and for most of us that will mean not only not working, but not giving, on that day, any attention to our financial affairs, or making any effort to add to them. Six days a week I get up, and before breakfast, check the balance in the checkbook, the savings accounts, the unpaid bills, and make a plan for the day of what, if anything, should be done with my money. On Sunday, I don’t. I make the conscious decision that, whatever provision we have today, it’s enough, and I pick up a check, previously written for some of the money, take it church, and give it away, a small sign of my faith in God’s provision.  I change my morning prayer and remove all elements of intersession. I look back, with the help of my calendar and day timer, and review my memory to recall what I accomplished this week by my own effort, as well as what God did for me with no aid at all from me, and then I take time to thank God each one of these provisions. When I was a college student, I made the choice not to study on Sunday, that I might practice the faith of trusting God for the outcome of my efforts on the Monday exam. And even in those matters of my own effort, I remember Deuteronomy 8. It is He, God, who is giving you power to make wealth (or to have any effect in this world at all), that he may confirm His covenant.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap, 
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

I find it significant in this poem Berry chooses the phrase “Sabbath mood,” and not “Sabbath day.” God’s work of grace is not opposed to our effort. He graciously permits us to work with Him and contribute to this great redemptive project of creation. God’s grace is opposed to our earning. There are no entitlements in the kingdom of heaven, nor the burdens that must be borne to achieve them. Thank God for that. God is not our therapist, and the Sabbath is not prescription for our exhaustion. God is our Savior. The Sabbath is an invitation to enter and practice salvation by faith through living by faith. We are now invited to enter that life. My hope and prayer for you is that you leave here embracing the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Jesus Christ, resting, confident, in His finished work for you, entering fully into the blessedness of His rest, and the co-labor that He offers you for others, and for all creation to attain it, sharing His efforts toward redemptive purpose. Let us be diligent, with every effort, to enter that rest.