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Keeping the Gift of Sabbath

Date: 
April 23, 2020

On Sunday we considered the Apostle Peter’s exhortation, “as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1:15). Peter then quotes Leviticus 19, which not only calls us to be holy and the Lord our God is holy (Lev 19:2), but gives us specific commands that define and direct our holiness. One of those commands is to keep Sabbath (Lev 19:3). During this time of separation and isolation, we’ve lost the regular weekly rhythm of our lives. The days are blurred. It’s disorienting and we don’t know how long it will last. As God’s holy people, we need to maintain the God-given weekly rhythm of work and Sabbath.

The significance of Sabbath is revealed by the literary structure of Exodus, which reflects the literary structure of the creation account in Genesis. In Exodus, the command to keep Sabbath is reiterated after the instructions for the tabernacle and then again before the construction of the tabernacle. The pattern is a chiasm: tabernacle (25:1-31:11), Sabbath (31:12-18), Sabbath (35:1-3), tabernacle (35:4-40:38). The pattern of tabernacle-Sabbath-tabernacle follows Genesis 1-2, where the account of God’s seventh-day rest is bracketed by his six-day creation of a cosmic tabernacle in Genesis 1 and his planting a garden sanctuary for Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. It’s a pattern of sacred space and sacred time. The tabernacle was sacred space, a renewed garden, where God was present. It was also the place of atonement. It was a sanctifying space.

Just as the tabernacle is sacred space, so the Sabbath is sacred time. Keeping Sabbath is a sign that the Lord sanctifies us:

And the Lord said to Moses: “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you...Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:12-13, 16-17)

Notice two things. First, the Sabbath is a sign that God has redeemed us for himself and set us apart as a holy people for his service and his glory. Immediately following this command concerning the Sabbath, Israel called on Aaron to make them idols for worship (Exodus 32). The demand for idols arose from a complaint about time: “Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” (Exodus 32:1). The timeline of Moses’s departure was uncertain and they turned to idols. We’re in similar situation, not knowing when things will return to normal.

The question is, were the people of Israel keeping the Sabbath when Moses was gone? The Lord commanded them: “keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). They may have turned to idols because they were idle in keeping Sabbath. The gift of Sabbath was a sign that the Lord sanctified them, but they wanted to sanctify themselves by making idols. Keeping Sabbath reminds us that it’s the Lord who sanctifies us. We don’t sanctify ourselves. Keeping Sabbath is abiding in grace.

Second, the Sabbath “is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). The Sabbath is a sign that the Lord created all things, “for from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Sabbath is a sign that even God rested and was refreshed after working six days. The Sabbath is a gift for our rest and refreshment. Our Lord reminds us, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Sabbath is a gift, given for our rest and refreshment and given as a sign, “that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13).

The present crisis has disrupted the weekly rhythm of our lives; however, God’s rhythm of work and Sabbath remains. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the day when God raised Jesus from the dead. I don’t want to prescribe a list of activities that define how we should keep Sabbath; however, Psalm 92, which is “a Song for the Sabbath,” provides some general instruction.We keep Sabbath by remembering and singing.

Remember the wondrous and mighty works of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit: “How great are your works, O LORD!” (Psalm 92:5) Study his great works of judgment and salvation in history, which are recorded in Scripture. Go outside and observe his wonderful works in creation. Remember his works in your own life:

“But you have exalted my horn like that of a wild ox;
  you have poured over me fresh oil” (Psalm 92:10).

We remember the great works of the Triune God and we sing:

“For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
   at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4).

We keep Sabbath by singing and playing music:

“It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
   to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning, 
   and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
   to the melody of the lyre” (Psalm 92:1-3).

Sing on Sundays. Listen to music on Sundays. Give thanks and sing praises to the LORD Most High.

Finally, I would add feasting to the sabbatical catechesis of Psalm 92. Sundays are feast days. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection highlight table fellowship. The risen Lord Jesus ate with his disciples. This is why we come to the Lord’s Table on Sundays, but it’s also a precedent for Lord’s Day feasts. During this time of separation and isolation, let’s declare his steadfast love and faithfulness by giving thanks, singing, and remembering his wondrous works, as we sit around our dinner tables.

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