January 29, 2023
You may have noticed that our Old Testament reading this morning sounded suspiciously like we already read it two weeks ago. And that’s not just your imagination! It’s recounting the third commandment—honor the Sabbath and keep it holy—both times. But two weeks ago, we were reading when God first gave the commandment on Mount Sinai. It was given just as the Israelites were about to go wandering in the wilderness for forty years. God put the emphasis on creation because God was about to make a new people out of the Israelites out there. This week, we’re reading from when Moses was repeating the commandments to Israel before they finally entered the Promised Land. And there’s a different motivation here.
See, in the days to come Israel was going to cross the Jordan River, enter the Promised Land, and settle down as God’s people in the land they were promised. They were going to be the rulers, owning the land and making the decisions. And this was a whole new generation—no one but Moses, Joshua, and Caleb were alive when the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt. No one had any experience of the hardship that their parents and grandparents endured under the Egyptians. And it would be really, really easy for them to go into this new land and replicate the same injustices that were inflicted on them in Egypt. Pay attention to the last line of how God delivers this commandment: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
Even before the Israelites entered the Promised Land and set themselves up as rulers of it, God was demanding that they remember their collective humiliation in Egypt. Their parents weren’t given a day of rest—so instead of inflicting that on whoever landed at the bottom of the social ladder in their land of promise, God commanded that they do better. Everyone, from the highest and most important priest to the lowest and most rejected slave, would benefit from the Sabbath. Even the livestock would be included. The Israelites were being barred by God from replicating the injustices they experienced in Egypt. No one would be exempt from the law that Sabbath rest would be woven into the fabric of this new society.
Then, about a millennium later, Jesus found himself in arguments with other Pharisees about the Sabbath. We read so many parables that hinge on Jesus doing something he wasn’t supposed to on the Sabbath. He healed someone. He picked grain. He performed some miracle. And Jesus wasn’t even getting the worst of the flack for not treating the Sabbath the way the legalists thought he should. What had been a gift from God for the people of Israel, an organizing principal for a whole society to breathe in the sacred gift of rest, was turned into just one more way for people to shame and put down others they saw as “less holy” than themselves. But really, it would be all too easy for us to do the same.
How many times have young families been criticized when their kids go to a sport that potentially could land them a college scholarship, rather than attend a church event? How many times have people been shamed for sleeping in on the one Sunday they have off this month, because their bodies physically cannot handle one more thing after working two full-time jobs simply to stay afloat? How many people catch grief from both sides when they finally scrape together and take that vacation? How easily could our desire to honor the third commandment—God’s gift of rest—turn into shaming people for not following it who have no real ability to do so?
It’s why Jesus comes in and says, “come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus is not interested in shaming people for their exhaustion when no one is addressing why they are exhausted in the first place. Instead, he expects those in power to create room for everyone to rest, and opens his arms to receive us. He blesses us with relief from the pressure of constant work, of overwhelming stress, of the cloud of shame, and asks only that we lay down our burdens at his feet.
Because we have heard these past couple of weeks about the Sabbath. We know that God has ordered creation around the blessing of rest. We know that Sabbath is a gracious gift for us, meant to make us whole and give us the strength to do what’s in front of us. And from that, I hope we also know that the Sabbath is not meant to be hoarded only by those who have the means to take advantage of it. Sabbath is a gift, as God reminded the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land, that it is meant to be for everyone in society. It means that pursuing the justice of providing Sabbath rest for everyone is part of our calling as Christians, so that everyone can hear Jesus’s gracious words to come and rest.
So how can we make sure that everyone gets to enjoy God’s gracious gift of rest? For one, we can model it. We can demonstrate to the world how important rest is by stewarding our own time, showing our friends and neighbors that rest is part of God’s good created order and gracious gift for our needs. We can take our day off with joy, not feeling guilty or feeling shamed for actually letting our bodies and souls recover from the work of the week. For those of us privileged to have them, we can take vacations and holidays where we receive extended periods of rest and re-creation. We can be the defiant voice in a culture that demands our constant, endless, unceasing productivity, planting our flag in the ground and declaring that we will not give in to the idol of work. And by being that public, defiant voice for rest, we can serve as an inspiration to others to imitate that restfulness.
But we are also a lot more like the Israelites, readying to shape the laws and customs of their society as they prepared to cross the Jordan River. We can heed God’s call for us to provide the justice of sabbath rest for all, and ensure everyone has the means to be able to take the break they need—that has been gifted to them by God. We can demand just wages for all, so that no one feels like they need to refuse Jesus’s gracious gift to lay down their burdens for fear that they won’t be able to provide for their families. We can pressure political leaders to craft laws that make rest possible for everyone, no matter their place in society. We can use our position of power to make a society that listens to the third commandment by making it possible for everyone to honor the Sabbath, and graciously accepts Jesus’s invitation to rest.
Sabbath is about more than just our individual need to be renewed. God made it clear when the commandment was read to the Israelites all those years ago that Sabbath is our collective treasure to steward for all people. There is no reason that anyone should be left without the gift of Sabbath rest, when God so clearly named everyone in society when giving the commandment. There is no reason anyone should feel the need to refuse Jesus’s invitation to lay down their burdens and take his rest. God has gifted us the Sabbath, and it is our calling to steward that rest for everyone. God works through us to ensure that the Sabbath is a gift that everyone can receive with joy. Sabbath is the way that God has ordered all of creation. Sabbath is God’s gracious gift for our mortal, finite souls. Sabbath is an act of God’s justice. Sabbath is for everyone.
Thanks be to God. Amen.