God’s Gift of Sabbath Rhythm… The Command for Holy Rest

Text:  Exodus 20: 1-17 Lent 3b

The Ten Commandments: so basic, so well-known, so often overlooked as we read our Bibles! Everyone knows the ten commandments, the LAW, but it never hurts to go back to basics!

I’d like to suggest that the Ten Commandments,  spoken to the newly freed people of Israel by God in our passage from Exodus this morning, is not JUST law, but surely good news for our lives today! As they were spoken by God, the Ten Commandments are unlike any law code in existence… in fact, they sound more like part of a covenant.

God speaks to the people saying: “I am the Lord YOUR God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”

This is the MOST IMPORTANT part of the whole passage, but is often overlooked to get to the part that we think of as the actual first commandment: “you shall have no other gods before me.” But God starts these words of love with a declaration of relationship. God says I am YOUR God, we have a relationship, we have a history, you can trust me because I am the one who redeemed you from slavery… I am your God, the one who loves you, the one who heard your groaning under oppression, the one who had compassion on you. I’m the God who freed you, I’m the God who is gracious and merciful toward you, and so this is how I’d like us to live in relationship.

These are not a law code at all as we typically think of laws, but rather a relationship covenant. God acted first in love and grace, and so God outlines the appropriate ways to respond to God’s grace and to live in relationship with God.

The first three commandments teach us how to appropriately live in relationship with God, while the last 7 teach us how to appropriately live in relationship with one another. I’m afraid, this morning I just can’t preach on ALL ten commandments.

So today we’re going to talk about the one we perhaps take the most for granted in our society today, the one that bridges our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbors:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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 female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident of your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

The Sabbath is a gift and a command from God –one we don’t take seriously enough in our culture of constant busyness- to the detriment of our own and our family’s wellbeing.

We Americans in particular have an unhealthy relationship to work. We define ourselves by our work and as a culture we take pride in the virtue of working hard, so much so that resting is often viewed with contempt. We take the fewest vacation days of any country in the industrialized world! According to an article in Forbes just last year, only 25% of Americans actually use their paid vacation time! The most commonly cited reason for this is that we dread returning from vacation to a mountain of work. We feel that no one else can do what we do. We’re indispensable.  And so, we tell ourselves we just can’t take off. We toil and toil under our slavery to productivity and success.

While Pharoah commanded toil, the God who freed our ancestors from oppression STILL commands that we rest and worship.

In his 1951 classic, “The Sabbath”, Rabbi Abraham Heschel  said “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal of embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will continue to survive without the help of man.”


The sin of neglecting to take a Sabbath is rooted in a dangerous pride, a pride that says “I’m too important to take a day off!” In Exodus, the command for Sabbath is rooted in God’s activity at creation. God did not consider  God’s self “too important” to take a Sabbath, and neither should any of us!

We humans are created in God’s image and there are a lot of ideas about what exactly that means. One popular understanding is that we reflect God’s image in our capacity for creativity. God created everything and we humans mirror that in our innovative spirit. We toil and work trying to advance further and further in our careers, constantly trying to invent the best and newest thing. We are obsessed with being busy. To be busy is to be important, so we tell ourselves. Even during our times of leisure, we fill our calendars so full that our days away from formal work still feel like work.

But God rested on the 7th day and so God commands God’s people to enjoy the health and wellness that comes from living a balanced life. Sabbath keeping is a challenge because it means stepping away from our places of self-importance and remembering our rightful position in relationship to God. It means leaving projects unfinished for a day. It means that the world can and will keep turning without you as you take a Sabbath rest.

Like the season of Lent, the Sabbath is a holy reset button. It offers us the holy space and time to drop the chaos of our weekly grind and to draw near to God and to draw near to one another.

In our world today where we’re always willing to take on one more project if it means more success, the idea of living a life in Sabbath rhythm is a countercultural one!

In his book Sabbath as Resistance, theologian Walter Brueggeman asserts that Sabbath observance as an expression of our faith and identity as people of God is an act of resistance and alternative. He writes: It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods…” He says that living a Sabbath rhythm offers an alternative to the clamor of advertising that so often leads to discontent with our lives. It offers an alternative to the overscheduling that eats up all our “leisure time.” And he says that the alternative it offers is this: “the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

The command to rest in God is indeed a gift, one worth celebrating! And so, we do come together as people of God and celebrate our rightful relationship to God in community each week! We celebrate and humbly appreciate that no matter what we will always be the recipients of God’s grace and God will always be the giver. God is God and we are not.

The Sabbath is one of God’s gifts to us, but it’s certainly not easy to faithfully receive this gift. God expects that we take 1 day out of every week to fully rest and renew ourselves. This is not as easy as it sounds. I will be the first to confess that I usually start my Sabbath by cleaning my whole house from top to bottom… which is not exactly in the spirit of what God commands. Similarly, the Sabbath is not intended to be a day when you run errands or do things that you HAVE to do. The Sabbath is a day for doing things you WANT to do, a day for leisure, even a day for doing absolutely NOTHING productive. The Sabbath is a day when we set that which we’re enslaved to aside –say an iphone that pops up with a new email every 2 minutes-  and delve deeply into relationship with God and with our friends and family. Depending on your schedule, it doesn’t even have to be Sunday, but we do all absolutely need 1 day a week for renewal!

Like a weekly Sabbath, Lent is time set apart during our liturgical year to rekindle our relationship with God and with one another. We take on new disciplines during Lent like the discipline of study. Many people use this time to deeply experience and commit to heart and practice the basics of our Faith. The 10 commandments are an inexhaustible source for study. Rooted in God’s relationship with us, they are a gift and also a challenge. When you get home today, take this challenge with me: open your Bibles to Exodus 20 and select just 1 commandment to study deeply and work on for the remainder of Lent. I will tell you right now, mine will be intentional Sabbath Keeping. I will no longer set a bad example by cleaning my house and rushing around on my day off. I will no longer toil under my slavery to productivity, but will rejoice and celebrate the freedom I receive from God. What will you work on?  Amen.

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