LD 38, Exodus 20:8-11, Deuteronomy 5:12-15 "Holy Time"
Recently Time magazine named Albert Einstein its "Person of the Century." Curiously the name of the magazine points you to the subject about which Einstein had his greatest insight: time. Before Einstein people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. "Time marches on," the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as the wood of this pulpit. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein's classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lighting strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lighting ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. If you are in your car waiting for a train to pass, you hear the crossing bell go ding-ding-ding-ding, always the same tone. But people on the train don't hear it that way. As you move toward the bell and then away from it, the pitch changes. So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning--you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you're moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn't work that way. The phenomenonal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed--you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth's center of gravity than the one at the top!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That's why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
That's why the fourth commandment as spelled out in the Old Testament takes care to mention that Sabbath is not just for the well-off who can afford to take a break--for that matter it's not just for people. The commandment says that your donkey and your ox need a Sabbath, too, and so do your servants, your staff, your employees, and even the out-of-town guest who happens to be with you at any given time--Sabbath is for you and your children, for your friends and animals, for the stranger who is within your gates. Every seventh year the Israelites were even supposed to give the soil a sabbatical year off!
Of course, the very fact that God had to make this into a law shows how foolish we are. In the Garden of Eden God did not command Adam and Eve to take a Sabbath rest. Adam and Eve were smart enough to recognize a divine gift when they saw one. But we're not so wise anymore. Now God needs to command us to take a Sabbath! But if you think about it, that's about as ridiculous as giving a child a chocolate ice cream cone and then needing to make it a rule that the kid start licking it! But God does need to put Sabbath in commandment form. Worse, even with this commandment most of us do a pretty sorry job at taking the concept of Sabbath very seriously.
We've even come to view Sabbath in therapeutic and utilitarian terms. We run ourselves ragged every week, arriving each Friday or Saturday at the brink of exhaustion. The weekend then becomes a time to catch up on all the errands we didn't have time to get to in the throes of our busy work week. If we're lucky, maybe we'll also have a chance to re-charge our batteries just enough to re-enter the rat race come Monday morning.
Recently I mentioned that we've allowed the concept of Sabbath to be conquered by the comparatively recent invention of the two-day weekend. No one used to talk about a weekend, but now it's an institution. Sunday is just one-half of the larger weekend unit--it's just a sequel to Saturday. But to use Sunday as a day to catch up and calm down just long enough to prepare for another week of work, work, work is wrong.
What Sabbath is really all about is not a "day off" to catch your breath, it's about completely re-orienting your thinking. Sabbath means entering into God's grace and God's story and God's rhythms in ways that will not prepare you to re-enter the rat race but that will make you exit the rat race for good. Truly to recognize Sabbath for what God intended is to change your life every day. To use the Sabbath as a launching pad for the same old destructive routines of busyness is to profane the Sabbath--the secular "weekend" is for recharging your batteries. The Sabbath is for transforming your mind.
You can sense some of this just by noting the different ways by which Sabbath gets grounded in the Bible. As we read both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 a few minutes ago, you should have noticed what we've highlighted before: namely, the fourth commandment is different in those two passages. In Exodus 20 God commands Sabbath rest based on creation. "For in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth . . . but he rested on the seventh day." Creation has something to do with Sabbath. But in Deuteronomy the reason is different: "For remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that God led you out of there." This time it is redemption that reminds us of Sabbath rest.
Creation and Redemption are the two big themes of the Bible. Strikingly, both have something to do with Sabbath. The way we were made by God and the way we've been saved by God aim us in the direction of Sabbath. But if, as I just said, Sabbath is far more than just a day off, then what is it? What lies at the core of this and how could it affect our lives if we really both understood and practiced Sabbath?
We can begin by tying back into Creation and Redemption. Creation tells us that in the end as in the beginning (and so at every point in between) God alone is the Creator. God has taken care to create a fitting world and home for us. Far from being some remote Deity who set the universe to spinning but then left it alone, we believe that God is still vitally close to his creation. He takes care of us. Because God alone is the sovereign maker and caretaker of everything, all that we can do is enter into a work God already has under control.
Of course it's important that we have jobs and tasks and that we do them faithfully and diligently. There is such a thing as the deadly sin of sloth, after all! But the creation perspective on Sabbath reminds us that we can never do it all and that we don't need to, either. If we really are faithful workers who carry out our God-given vocations as best we can during the week, then with relative ease we ought to be able just to leave that work for a while, too. Since we are merely participating in God's larger creative work, we can be assured that when we leave off for a bit, we are not abandoning our work to mere idleness but we're leaving it in God's hands, where all our work is all the time anyway!
But suppose you are thinking right now, "That's all very fine, but if I leave my desk and don't take any work home on my laptop, the fact of the matter is that God is not going to fill out the unfinished month-end statements that need to be done by Monday!" True enough. Yet I am going to be bold enough to suggest that if any of us have jobs that are so all-consuming we can never leave them and so nestle into God's abiding providence, then something is wrong. Sabbath tells us to fix it. That may take time, patience, and creativity, but Sabbath tells us not to just put up with as "normal" 70 hour work weeks of high stress.
A similar point can be made about the Sabbath connection to Redemption, and here we can hark back to last Sunday morning's sermon. To save us God crucified us with Christ Jesus. We were dead. We could not do a thing but could only have something done to us. The gift God gave was resurrection. Grace sets the tone. Grace means we can stop running, stop performing and know that we still are fully loved and accepted. Grace tells us that who we are in Christ is more important than what we do in life.
We forget that in our competetive society. Look at how we greet people when first meeting them. "Hi, Floyd, nice to meet you. I'm Scott. So, what do you do?" And if Floyd answers that he's an accountant or a plumber, we think that we already know a lot about him. But we don't know a thing yet. Were you ever to develop a true friendship with Floyd, his vocation would not figure terribly prominently in your interactions. Who wants to talk about work all the time? How we feel on the inside, what brings joy and what brings pain--these are the things that make individuals unique and precious. Maybe a Sabbath reveling in the prior grace of God will help us appreciate people for what they are, not for what they do.
Few 20th century writers thought more about the Sabbath than Abraham Heschel. Among his famous phrases is that "The Sabbath has kept the Jews more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath." Heschel saw Sabbath as a kind of cathedral in time that keeps alive our sacred identity. Stopping, resting, leaving matters in God's hands because we know they are always in God's hands anyway; pausing, pondering grace, just doing things which much of our world might chalk up as "wasting time"--these need to be the bright center of our lives.
Yes, Sabbath may "recharge your batteries," but not in the sense of giving you more juice to burn off on the professional treadmill everyone else is on. Instead, Sabbath recharges your batteries in the sense of mentally taking you out of that system which says work controls everything. In the film The American President we see workaholic presidential assistants living life every day going 600 MPH furiously flitting around the president in a non-stop treadmill of busyness. At one point one of these aides says to another, "Well, maybe we should knock off for a few to celebrate Christmas." The other aide replies, "It's Christmas?" to which the first man says, "Yeah, didn't you get the Memo?" Work is not everything. Sabbath ties us back into Creation and Redemption by reminding us of our proper place in God's world.
But a sermon like this one will not be worth much if it does not end on some very practical notes. So let me conclude with some very brief suggestions for us to ponder.
First and most obviously, the presence of Sabbath means having at least one day a week when we honestly don't think about work. We don't do any work but we don't think about it either. If you're in business, not only do you not bring a briefcase full of work home Friday evening, you also don't spend most of Sunday studying the Wall Street section of the New York Times silently plotting some of the moves you'll make at the office come Monday. Stop. And again, if you cannot stop, then ask why not and what you can do about it.
Second, use the time away from work consciously to call to mind the creation and the grace of God. This is why we need worship services on the Lord's day. We need to be reminded of grace. We are thankful for the work God gives us to do, but are equally thankful that God's Word tells us we do not have to do it all. Revel in grace. Worship the King.
Third, use the time away for the people in your lives. In some Jewish literature the rabbis mandated Sabbath as a time for spouses to make love. They also set the Sabbath as a time for feasting, for enjoying the bounties of God's fruitful creation. Stretches of silence restore our souls, too, but so do healthy conversations with loved ones and friends.
Fourth, get out into God's world if at all possible. Walk in the woods. Drive to Lake Michigan and stroll on the beach. Go to the park with the kids. Don't let videos, the mall, or the Internet be the main way you pass the time on the Sabbath. Exodus 20 tells us that remembering the Sabbath day means remembering creation. Do that. Hug a tree if you have to. Smell a daisy. Make a snowball. Have a swim. Remember creation.
Fifth, stop being so proud of your clogged Franklin Daily Planner. Just needing to have a daily planner is a mark of success in many people's eyes these days. And if you can flip open that daytimer to reveal a schedule so full that squeezing in a cappucino requires a call to your secretary to re-arrange things, well then you've really impressed your friends. Sabbath says such a pace is not impressive in the least. Let Sabbath transform your mind by allowing the prior grace of God to leak into the way you structure your week. Let people see the blank patches in your daily planner and be proud of that.
Sixth, resist the ways by which the company or whoever co-opts Sabbath. When Ronald Reagan was president, people used to ballyhoo his strict 9-5 schedule. Back then I confess that I looked down on that, too. Only a lazy man, we thought, would seek the most powerful post in the world and then insist on closing the door to the Oval Office every day precisely at five so that he could spend time with his wife. But as I've been reading the new biography of Reagan, I realize that he was not lazy but he was wise. Precisely because he was in such a powerful post he could call the shots. And he did.
If we try to do similar things in our lives, we'll probably come in for some criticism. "You'll never get ahead in life that way," co-workers will say. "If you want to move up the corporate ladder, you'll have to make sacrifices, you know! Your kids will understand! Just think of what you'll be able to buy them if you get that promotion! The person who had this job before you worked 80 hours a week, what do you mean you're not going to do that?! What are you, lazy!?"
God gave this cosmos the gift of Sabbath as a source of delight. But now we've fallen so far from what God teaches in Creation and Redemption that we actually chalk up Sabbath rhythms to laziness. As Christians, created in the image of God and now in Christ redeemed fully to bear that image once again, it's time to return to Sabbath as a wonderful gift.
Einstein told us that movement can affect the passage of time. It was a shocking revelation to the world that this is so. The Bible tells us that sometimes a lack of movement can affect time, too. The Sabbath full-stop makes the times of our lives sweeter. It is not empty time but full--full of grace and truth, full of creation revelry and redeeming joy, full of God and so also of shalom. People of God, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. If you do, the Sabbath of God's grace will keep you holy, too. Amen.