“Back to the basics: Remember the Sabbath day”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Back in April of 1991, Ann Landers published a letter she had received from one of her readers, called “No Excuse Sunday.” It went something like this…
“In order to make it possible for everyone to attend church next week, we’re planning on having a special ‘No excuse’ Sunday.
“Cots will be placed in the chapel for those who say, ‘Sunday is my only day to sleep in.’
“Eye drops will be available for those whose eyes are tired from watching television too late on Saturday night.
“We will have steel helmets for those who believe the roof will cave in if they show up at church.
“Blankets will be furnished for those who complain that the church is too cold, and fans will be on hand for those who say the church is too hot.
“We will have hearing aids for those members who say, ‘The pastor doesn’t talk loud enough,’ and we’ll have cotton for those who say, ‘The pastor talks too loud.’
“Score cards will be available for those who wish to count the hypocrites.
“We guarantee that some relatives will be present for those who like to go visiting on Sunday.
“There will be TV dinners available for those who claim they can’t go to church and cook dinner, too.
“One section of the church will have some trees and grass for those who see God in nature, especially on the golf course.”
And last, but not least, “The chapel will be decorated with both Christmas poinsettias and Easter lilies to create a familiar environment for those who have never seen the church without them.”
Excuses, excuses! It seems as though we can never have enough of them!
But in the face of all our excuses, whatever they might be, come the words of Exodus chapter 20. I’ll start at verse 1: “And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:1-4, 7-8).
So far in our time together on “Back to the Basics,” we’ve looked at the first two commandments--”You shall have no other gods before Me” and “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” And in that time, we’ve learned that there is no other god but our one, true God, and that we should hold His name most dear. Now we turn our thoughts to a third commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
Unfortunately, whenever we think of God’s Ten Commandments, we can’t help but think of them as a long list of “do’s” and “don’ts.” “Do this and don’t do that, or else!”
But rather than thinking of them in terms of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” think of them instead as a love letter from a husband to his wife or a wife to her husband, maybe something like this--”Since God has loved us with an everlasting love and sent His Son to die for us, we’ll honor Him above all else, we’ll praise His name, we’ll worship Him, we’ll show respect for those who watch over us, we’ll protect life, we’ll honor marriage, we’ll be honest and truthful, and we’ll be satisfied with all the gifts that God has given.”
As Martin Luther once wrote, “In like manner, the Commandments teach a man to know his illness, so that he feels and sees what he can do and what he cannot do, and what he can and what he cannot leave undone, and thus knows himself to be a sinner and a wicked man.” And he wrote, “[The Ten Commandments] are the true fountain from which all good works must flow.”
Now when we come to the third commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” we might begin to wonder why it’s even there.
I mean, think about it! Who doesn’t want to rest, or to take time off of work or school?
Imagine, for a moment, that your boss called you late one night and said, “You know, you’ve been working really hard, and we here in the company really appreciate it! But we also want you to know that we’re afraid you’re going to wear yourself out, working so hard all the time. So let me tell you what you’re going to do--I want you to take tomorrow off. And don’t worry about not getting paid--it’s all on me!”
So what would you say? What would you do?
So you see, this command to “Remember the Sabbath Day,” isn’t simply a command. It’s a gift meant for us to recoup, to relax, to recharge and to enjoy.
But suffice it to say, over time, there have been quite a lot of people who got it wrong.
Take the Jews, for example. Back in Jesus’ day, Jewish rabbis made a list of 1,521 things you could not do on the Sabbath, like plucking out a gray hair or killing a flea that happened to land on your arm or lifting anything more than a dried fig.
Even today, it’s not any better. In fact, Orthodox Union has an entire website dedicated to “Sabbath Work Prohibited by Law.”
And on that site there are thirty-nine categories, (that’s right, I said categories!), of things you cannot do on the Sabbath, things like Carrying or Burning or Extinguishing or Writing or Erasing or Cooking or Washing or Sewing or Tearing or Plowing or Planting or Grinding or Sifting... You get the idea!
And if all that’s not enough for you, in Scotland, in the 1600s, a man was arrested for smiling on the Sabbath. Eighteenth century preacher Jonathan Edwards refused to tell a funny story on the Sabbath. And in the nineteenth century, a group of enraged pastors met the first train to run on a Sunday with the words, “At the cost of a few shillings, you may be booked for hell.”
And many of us are old enough to remember what are called “Blue Laws,” where certain kinds of stores were closed and certain kinds of sales were forbidden, dating all the way back to the Puritan days. In the 1930s, in Pennsylvania, it was illegal to play professional sports on a Sunday. In Texas, up until 1985, it was illegal to sell housewares like pots and pans on a Sunday. And in several states, it’s still illegal for car dealerships to sell a car on a Sunday.
And many of us were raised just that way--no swimming on a Sunday, no dates on a Sunday, no television on a Sunday, no outdoor sports on a Sunday and no newspaper on a Sunday. Hardware stores were closed on a Sunday, and so were department stores. If you needed it on a Sunday, it was just too bad. You had to wait until Monday.
But unfortunately, today our Sunday observance is nothing like it used to be in America. As one author put it, while “our great-grandparents called it ‘the Holy Sabbath,’ our grandparents called it ‘the Sabbath’ and our parents called it ‘Sunday,’ we call it ‘the weekend.’”
So where did this whole idea of a Sabbath come from? Believe it or not, it goes all the way back to the very beginning, to the very first week of creation.
Remember? On the first day, God created light. On the second day, He created the atmosphere. On the third day, He created grass and trees. On the fourth day, He created the sun, the moon and the stars. On the fifth day, He created winged creatures and water creatures. And on the sixth day, He created animals and man. And when He was done, He said it was all very good.
But there was one more thing He chose to do before He was done. As it says in Genesis chapter 2: “And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done” (Genesis 2:2).
Did He need to rest? Not at all! He is God, after all! But He chose to rest to remind us that we need to rest.
Even Jesus, who was both God and Man, took time to rest. The Bible says that, time after time, He got away from the busy crowds to regroup, relax and refresh. And even though He often took time off, still at the end of His life, He could say to His Father, “I have brought You glory on earth by completing the work You gave Me to do” (John 17:4).
So as strange and so often misunderstood as this commandment often seems to be, its purpose is to take us back to Eden, back to life as it was meant to be. On the Sabbath, we’re set free from deadlines, demands, projects, payrolls, memos, timelines and all the rest. For one holy and sacred day, we remember that what we are is more important than what we do.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).
Suppose for a moment that, in your mail tomorrow, you receive an invitation to meet, in person, the queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II herself! What an honor! What a privilege!
So now that you’ve received that invitation, what are you going to do?
It’s my guess that you’d start preparing right now--polishing your shoes, taking your best suit to the cleaners, getting your hair done, practicing your bow or your curtsey. And the night before, you’d spend time making sure that everything was ready, just so you could be sure to be at your best and brightest to meet her. After all, she is the queen! The dignity of her office demands your utmost respect.
And if that’s what you’d do to meet the queen, how much more should you do to meet the Lord, the King of the universe! As it says in Malachi chapter 1: “For I am a great king, and My name is to be feared among the nations” (Malachi 1:14).
To quote Luther once more: “Remember how much freedom the gospel has given you. You are now no longer obliged to observe innumerable holy days; you can pursue your work. And besides, how much time do you spend drinking and swilling? You don’t count that! But spending as much time on the Word is boring to you? Woe to you who scorn this treasure on account of your greed! For you will not give your household a free hour to hear God’s Word. Give them an hour that they may come to know themselves and Christ more fully.”
The Archbishop of Paris told the story about one night, many years ago, when three young men set out to sample all the sinful delights of Paris. For hours, they consumed themselves in every possible pleasure, holding back nothing, sampling everything and indulging their wildest fantasies.
Early the next morning, they found themselves lying on the steps of a great cathedral recounting their exploits, until a strange idea hit them. Why not go inside, find a confessional and “confess” to a priest all that they had done? They meant it just as a joke, the ultimate insult after a night spent in sin.
Fortified by the laughter of his friends, one volunteered to go in. Then he entered the confessional and began to confess his sins--loudly, one by one, in long, lurid detail. And as he did, his friends outside began to laugh.
When the priest realized what was happening, he interrupted the young man and said, “Young man, I’ve heard enough. You needn’t confess anything else. But if you’d like to be forgiven for all your sins, you only need to do one thing. Outside this confessional is the chancel, and in that chancel is a statue of Christ on the cross. Now go into the chancel, kneel down, look at Christ on the cross and say these words, ‘Lord Jesus, I know all that You have done for me, but I couldn’t care less.’”
Even in his intoxication, the young man was shocked. So the priest repeated his instructions--”You can be forgiven if you’ll simply look at the cross and say, ‘Lord Jesus, I know all that You’ve done for me, but I couldn’t care less.’”
Unsteady, the man stepped out of the confessional. His friends hadn’t heard the priest’s words, so they wondered what was wrong with him.
Saying nothing, he walked into the chancel and knelt down before the cross. Then he looked up at the dying Christ and said, “Lord Jesus, I know all that You have done for me…and I ask You to forgive my sins.”
When the Archbishop of Paris told that story, he ended it with these words: “I know that story is true, because I was that young man.”
How do we keep this day holy? “Remember,” God said. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
You have given us this one day, dear Father, to rest, to recoup and to relax. Help us to remember it as we seek to, above all else, honor and worship You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen