Sermon for 01-30-11: “The Ten Commandments, Part 4: Sabbath”

Sermon Text: Exodus 20:8-11

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The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Today we’re looking at commandment number four: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” This commandment was by far my favorite of the ten when I was growing up. It’s because my parents, who were not the most faithful churchgoers, and who didn’t experience a deepening of their Christian faith until later in life, were funny about doing certain kinds of work on Sunday, especially yard work. Yard work on Sunday was not allowed. This meant they wouldn’t let me cut the grass on Sunday, which of course was just heartbreaking to me.

No, it was great because they usually made me mow the lawn on Saturday. If it were raining on Saturday, however, this meant I was in the clear until at least Monday! My motto growing up was, “Why do something today that you can put off until later.” So the fourth commandment was my friend. But it was a little hypocritical because if there was work to be done inside—including homework—they didn’t have a problem with that. They just didn’t want anyone to see us working.

Obviously, the meaning and practice of Sabbath has changed over the millennia. Originally it wasn’t even a day for worship in the synagogue or “going to church.” It simply meant not working. The Hebrew word Shabbat, from which we get the word Sabbath, literally means, “To stop.” It didn’t mean they couldn’t have fun; it just meant they couldn’t work. And it applied to everyone in a community: rich and poor; slave and free; human and even livestock. Don’t work!

For decades after the birth of the Church, the early Christians, who were ethnically Jewish, observed the Sabbath on Saturday and then worshiped in church on Sunday—before or after they went to work. Because Sunday was both a work day and a day of church. Only over time did Sunday take the place of Saturday Sabbath.

I mention all this because there’s no room for any of us to be legalistic about observing one particular day as the Sabbath. Because we’re not doing it the way ancient Israel did it. For example, we couldn’t buy gas on Sunday on our way to church because we would be asking someone else to break the Sabbath by serving us. We couldn’t eat at our favorite restaurant for lunch after church because we would be asking other people to break the Sabbath by waiting on us and serving us. We in turn would be breaking the Sabbath. Of course, yours truly gets paid to work on Sunday—it’s often my busiest day, in fact. Remember that in Jesus’ day, Jesus was often accused of “breaking the Sabbath” by healing people. And he pointed out that we weren’t made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for us. In other words, we  are supposed to stop working periodically because working all the time is not good for us!

Sabbath rest is built into the very fabric of Creation itself. We who are created in God’s image ought to emulate God’s example. God himself, we’re told at the beginning of Genesis Chapter 2, took a break and rested. God was not a workaholic. And let’s notice something interesting: God was done with creating things at the end of Day 6. Right? We commonly refer to it as a six-day creation. But look what it says in Genesis 2:2: “And on seventh day God had finished the work that he had done.” Not “on the sixth day God finished,” but “on the seventh day God finished.”

What does that mean? It means that God’s work wasn’t finished until after he had rested. Our work isn’t finished until after we have rested! Which makes some sense: if we don’t take time to enjoy the fruit of our labor, what’s the point of all the labor? Listen, those days of working until we can retire—and then, then finally we can rest and relax and enjoy life—are probably behind us as a culture. Retirement might be a thing of the past. I’m sure I’ll slow down, but I don’t expect to retire. So I better not put off resting and relaxing—and waiting for a day that may never come.

And it probably goes without saying that if we want to be fantastically wonderful in our lives, we need to learn to slow down, to take a break, to rest and relax and reflect… If we can afford to take all of Sunday off—except for church—we should try, but that might not work for us. What’s more important than taking a day off is building Sabbath time into the rest of our busy week.

Among other things, the fourth commandment means for us today that we are not being faithful Christians—in fact we are disobeying our Lord Jesus—if we are workaholics!

Do you believe that workaholism is a sin? I’m sorry, do you believe that workaholism is a sin? Maybe you didn’t hear me: Good people of Alpharetta, Georgia, do you believe that workaholism is a sin?

Life is not about competing to see who can work the hardest and longest. No one on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office. I wish I’d spent more time on the road, away from my family. I wish I had done more work on weekends and vacations.” As one of you told me when I first got here, the “A” in Alpharetta stands for type-A. Just looking at the raw data, we are surely among the most ambitious, the hardest working, the highest-achieving, the most entrepreneurial people on the face of the planet. I mean, unlike all those blue-blooded Thurston Howell III types who live in Roswell, we work hard for the money! You know I didn’t mean that about Roswell… I meant Johns Creek.

No… The problem with us Alpharetta people is not laziness, that’s for sure. I bet our problem more often than not is is the opposite of laziness: not stopping, not resting, not relaxing and enjoying down-time.

Even when we do enjoy down-time these days, I wonder if it often becomes another form of hard work? Witness our obsession with exercise. I realized recently that I had turned my originally fun interest in running into something kind of obsessive. It was getting out of control. If I didn’t run every day, and a certain distance every day, I would feel guilty. I would resent it if I didn’t have time to do this thing I wanted to do. In fact, often when I get most frustrated, it’s because I feel like I don’t have time to do what I want to do.

Guess what? Sabbath also means that we don’t have time. I mean, we don’t possess it. It is not simply ours to do with as we see fit. Time belongs to God, which he gives us as a gift. God lets us use it, by all means, but it’s God’s time. Sabbath is a way of reminding us of that. Here’s how: In the Old Testament the first fruits of each harvest belonged to God. You would take the produce to the Temple and offer it to God. The first part of the harvest, in other words, stood for or represented the entire harvest. The whole harvest is God’s—he’s graciously letting you enjoy the rest of it for yourself and your family. It’s the same with time. Ancient Israel offered this one day to God, but it represent all the days. Isn’t that cool?

The point is I find myself getting very unhappy when something cuts into my time. “You’re wasting my time.” No—I have time for you to waste. Time belongs to God. Isn’t great that he let’s us enjoy it as much as he does?

So I’ve actually cut back on my running. I’m less stressed out about it. Sometimes I wonder if the way we push our kids into these hyper-competitive organized sports leagues, we’re not turning what is supposed to be a fun child’s game of resting and relaxing, after all, into just another kind of high-pressure work.

What happened to having fun?

You probably know that a group of missionaries from our church left yesterday to go to Honduras. Stephanie’s husband, Tim, is on the trip. Since he’s not here, I can talk about him. He said, “I feel kind of guilty about going Honduras.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, we do a lot of good work during the day, but we have a lot of fun together in the evening.” I said, “You feel guilty about having fun?” If we understand the meaning of Sabbath, we understand that fun is not only permissible under certain circumstances, it’s what God intends for us.

Two weeks ago, when the snow storm hit, we had a time of “fun” imposed upon us, didn’t we? Raise your hand if you enjoyed having at least a few days off. I did! It was nice having an excuse to not do anything. For at least a few days, I couldn’t do much of anything if I wanted! I got around to finishing recording a couple of songs I was working on—because music is an important part of my life, and it often gets shoved to the back-burner when I’m busy. It gave me an excuse to do that. It gave me an excuse to watch some of the Star Trek DVDs Lisa gave me over Christmas. It gave me a chance to play with my kids—and not think about other pressing demands.

So I took three unplanned days off that week, and you know what? Everything was O.K. The world didn’t spin off its axis while I was away. I was reminded that I’m not Atlas. I don’t have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. And neither do you.

Why do we feel like we’re so important, and our work is so important, that we can’t step away from it? Before I went into ministry, my job was to help program and engineer these large machines that literally put cans in cartons—like a 12-pack of Coke, for example. The machines would take a carton from a hopper, unfold it, shove cans in it, glue it, fold it shut, and send it down the line—as quickly as possible. Fascinating work, I know. I was often called in to provide engineering support when something weird and unexplainable was going on with our machines. One time a group of us engineers found ourselves getting stressed out about some problem we were having. One of the bosses said to us, “Guys, relax. We’re just putting cans in boxes. This ain’t brain surgery. We’re not saving the world here.”

From that day forward, when I found myself getting stressed, I would walk by that manager’s office and say, “We’re just putting cans in boxes, right?” And he’d say, “Putting cans in boxes. It ain’t brain surgery. We’re not saving the world.”

Sabbath finally means keeping perspective. Who’s ultimately in control here? Who’s in charge of our lives and our world? Who’s going to take care of us? Who’s going to make sure that the world keeps spinning on its axis? Who is more important than work? Who commands us to take a break? Who commands us to rest and relax and play?

Do you believe it? Do you really believe it?

Brothers and sisters in Christ, in the name of Jesus Christ, live your life like you believe it.

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