Throughout my years of ministry, and even before, I have studied Sabbath. I have studied scriptural references, both Old Testament and New. I have read modern theologians writings about Sabbath. I have read how-to books about Sabbath. I have looked at our denomination's offerings on Sabbath. I have tried to live Sabbath, to have a Sabbath day, to encourage Sabbath practices in others. I have preached and taught Sabbath. So why is it so elusive?
We struggle with the tension between law and grace when talking about Sabbath. When the subject comes up, one quickly hears references to what we must NOT do on the Sabbath. One is reminded of Blue Laws; of stores and restaurants being closed; of the expectation that one would refrain from doing "work;" of the hoped for rest and renewal.
We remember the commandment:
"Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Ex 20:8-11).
We do it because God did it.
"Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day" (Deut 5:12-15).
We do it to remind ourselves that God has freed us from all that binds us, including work.
And yet we struggle with what sabbath is, and perhaps more importantly, how to "keep" it. Perhaps we need to listen more closely to what Jesus says and does when asked about Sabbath keeping, as in Luke 6:1-11 and other gospel texts. The question is not what do we do (or NOT do) on the Sabbath to keep it holy. This is law. It is instead to ask for what, and for whom, was the sabbath created. How is sabbath-keeping grace?
When we understand the difference between those questions, then we will come closer to keeping sabbath as God intended.