Exodus 20:8-17 (Watch on YouTube)
Today we continue our look at the verses that are left out of this year’s reading of the Ten Commandments as we find them in the 20th chapter of Exodus. This week, the left-out verses come right after some you probably know by heart: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” The passage continues with these left-out verses: “But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or your female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
I asked myself the same questions about these left-out verses as I did about last week’s. Why were they left out? And, what makes them important enough for the writers of Scripture to include them in the first place?
I have no answer to the first question. Maybe the lectionary committee just thought that the commandment to keep the sabbath was sufficient in itself and didn’t need any more elaboration. How much instruction do we need, anyway?
Remember that we learned last week that these words are supposed to be words that God spoke directly to the Jewish people at the foot of Mount Sinai. I suspect that they are based on a divine and very realistic understanding of human nature. When it comes to following rules, we are masters at figuring out ways around them. We rival Houdini in our ability to find a way to escape what we’re supposed to do. If a rule’s not spelled out, we’ll interpret it to suit ourselves.
Mask and distancing rules are a great example of this. I ran into a restaurant the other night to pick up a take-out order, and behind the counter the workers were all “wearing masks.” But some just had their mouths covered. Some just had their chins covered. On Thursday, Governor DeWine reported the growing numbers of COVID cases in Ohio, and he said that contact tracers have found that the new cases came mainly from weddings, funerals, church services, and backyard gatherings where people “adjust” the rules to suit themselves, sometimes with tragic consequences. What’s happening in Washington, D.C. is the same thing on a grander scale. God knows that we need to have the details spelled out for us.
So, that’s what God does in the left-out verses. God explains in detail what keeping the sabbath means and why it’s important. We need to look carefully at those details so that we can keep the sabbath as we’ve been commanded to. Because, sabbath-keeping isn’t a casual thing to God. It’s part of the covenant between God and God’s people. It’s so important that almost every time the covenant comes up in Scripture, sabbath-keeping is specifically mentioned.
When God spoke through the prophets, God spoke of how the Israelites had broken God’s ordinances and profaned the sabbath. No “you-broke-my-ordinances-and-disrespected-your parents.” No “you-broke-my-ordinances-and-stole-something.” No “you-broke-my-ordinances-and-lied-about-someone.” Every time, it’s “you broke my ordinances and profaned the sabbath.” Sabbath-keeping is a sign that the people of God are set apart from the rest of the world. Keeping it is a mark of our faithfulness to our covenant with God. Sabbath-keeping is serious business.
Over the centuries, we’ve come to equate the sabbath with the day when we formally worship God together as a community. But in this passage, there’s no mention of worship. The sabbath is consecrated—blessed by God. It’s a holy day—a day that is to be different, special, set apart from the normal routine. But what makes it unique is that it is a time set apart for rest—physical rest. Leviticus spells it out even more clearly: sabbath is to be a time of complete rest.
Now, you may already be feeling under the gun here. How can I take whole day off from doing any work? I have a full-time job. I have volunteer commitments. I have family and friends who need my help. We’ll get to how we can remember the sabbath in our present-day world, I promise. Just bear with me.
God’s words about sabbath-taking are addressed to the people who are in charge of their households and community. They would have been land-owning men. The guys at the top may have no problem taking a day off. After all, they had kids, and wives, and servants to take care of what needed to be taken care of. But the left-out verses are specific. the sabbath commandment applies to everyone—sons and daughters, slaves male and female, even residents who aren’t locals.
It’s the responsibility of the guy in charge to ensure that everyone is able to keep the sabbath, from his family to his employees to the aliens in the community. The commandment to keep the sabbath is for the covenant people of God. The gift of sabbath is for everyone, and it’s up to the person who dictates how time will be spent to make that gift available to everyone. Sabbath isn’t a privilege for a few. It’s a requirement—and a right—for every person.
Moreover, the sabbath is not for human beings alone. Sabbath was to be a day of rest for animals as well. And, if the animals aren’t working in the fields, that means that the land is getting a sabbath rest, too. According to Leviticus, God actually told Moses that the land was to have its own sabbath. Every seventh year, the land was to be given a “complete rest” from sowing and pruning. Even what it produced on its own couldn’t be harvested for profit, although it could serve as food for anyone who wanted to eat of it. Just as God made all of creation, all of creation is to enjoy a rest blessed by God.
Does our sabbath have to be on a Sunday? No. Genesis tells us that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Whether you understand that literally to be the seventh 24-hour day or you see it as a metaphor, nothing in scripture says that God’s week begins on a particular day of the week as we know it. Many people’s jobs require that they work on Sundays—first responders, nursing home caregivers, hospital personnel, not to mention employees of businesses and services that never close. The point isn’t what day of the week we choose to set aside as sabbath time. The point is that, once every seven days, we do it.
Sunday is set apart for its own purpose. It’s the day when we gather as the one Body of Christ to worship together. We gather one Sunday in honor of the day of the week when Jesus rose from the dead, because our Christian tradition holds that Jesus was crucified on Friday and raised on the third day—Sunday. In our Sunday gatherings, we celebrate “little Easters,” joyfully remembering the good news of the resurrection. We may choose to make this part of our own sabbath observance. But God designed the sabbath not primarily as a day of worship, but as a day of rest for our bodies and spirits.
So, how do we faithfully fulfill this commandment in our 24/7 world? How do we prevent sabbath-keeping from becoming just another item on our already over-burdened to-do lists?
First of all, we can take comfort in Jesus’ words according to Mark 2:27: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” Our sabbath time should be a time we enjoy and look forward to, not a time defined by lists of do’s and don’ts. A quiet time of rest is a holy thing, blessed by God. It’s not self-indulgence. It’s not laziness. It’s God’s remedy for the wear and tear on our spirits and especially on our bodies. So, we need to find our own ways of keeping sabbath that do what it was created to do.
The first step is making a decision and a commitment to set aside weekly sabbath time. Put it on your calendar. You may need to start small, with just an hour or two. But that hour should be an hour when you can enjoy some freedom from routine demands. I like the way the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes sabbath: it’s some period of time when we live as though all our work is done. The to-do list will be there when sabbath is over, but for a time, we can live as though every item on it has been crossed off.
What do you do with your sabbath time? Maybe you’ll just want to take a nap, or sit on the porch and enjoy sunshine and the breeze on your face. Enjoy a meal with your family, but make it a simple one that doesn’t require lots of planning and preparation and clean-up. After all, one day a week, God gave the Jewish people enough manna for two days, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about meals on their sabbath.
Even though God didn’t specify the sabbath as a day of worship, the quiet of sabbath time can lead us into a place where we can grow closer to God. The quiet opens up space for prayer. I’ve found that my sabbath time is enriched by reading my Bible simply for the pleasure of its stories and poetry, and by reading works that help me grow in my knowledge and love of God. Take a walk, without your phone or iPod, and allow nature to fill you with reverence for the God of all creation and the peace that passes all understanding. Whatever you do, choose what allows you to breathe freely and relax your tense muscles.
We have a responsibility to help others have sabbath time, too. Most of us aren’t in a position to give someone a day off from their jobs. But, we can choose not to do things that make it necessary for someone else to work. Of course, too many people have to work multiple jobs or long hours just to make ends meet. Until everyone can make a living wage in five or six days of work, many will be denied the opportunity for sabbath-keeping. We may not be able to set working hours or pay scales, but we can insist that our lawmakers ensure that all people can make a living wage in a work week that allows for sabbath-keeping. The sabbath commandment tells us that we need to do what we can to ensure that all people can have some sabbath time.
God’s commandment to include the farm animals in sabbath serves several purposes. First, if the animals weren’t working, people weren’t working either. They were the engines that powered human labor, and they were shut down for the day. We may not have teams of oxen to put out to pasture. But we can let go of the things that enable and drive our labor. We can turn off our phones, or at least set them to “do not disturb.” We can turn off the computer. We can tuck our wallets and our calendars in a drawer. Giving a rest to the things that drive us results in more rest for us.
Second, a prescribed rest for animals reminds us that sabbath isn’t for human beings alone, but for all of God’s creation. Giving animals a day off gave the land a day off, too. Our environment desperately needs sabbath time. We’ve been driving it relentlessly as we gratify our desires for increased production and profits, and it’s in danger of dropping from exhaustion.
Our sabbath time allows the earth some sabbath time. We had dramatic evidence of this during the shut-down—a kind of enforced sabbath. As traffic declined, air quality improved. Fewer people outside led to less litter. As the world went quiet, the songs of birds looking for mates could be heard more clearly and for longer distances. Less traffic meant fewer wild animals became road kill. We can’t cure the environmental crisis on our own, but when we make our sabbath a time of walking lightly on the earth, we give the earth a little sabbath time, too.
Last week, we learned that the commandment against worshiping other gods was actually a declaration of freedom from other gods. In the same way, the sabbath commandment is not so much God’s claim on our time as it is a declaration of freedom from the world’s claims on our time. God has given us the freedom to say “no” to constant striving and “yes” to quiet and peace. We’ve been freed us to say “no” to the anxiety of too-busy schedules and “yes” to a time of rest. Sabbath frees us to say “no” to multi-tasking so that we can say “yes” to one task—refreshing our bodies and souls. When, for a time, we exercise our freedom to close the door on the world’s demands, we can open the door more widely to God’s presence.
The left-out verses show us just how seriously God takes sabbath-keeping. It’s important enough that all people are to have a time of rest. It’s so necessary that we need to put away for a time the things that drive our constant striving. And, sabbath is intended as rest for the natural world as well as for human beings. Sabbath-keeping is both a commandment and a gift. Remember the sabbath, and keep it holy, for the Lord has blessed it and consecrated it. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young