Would we be better off for observing Sabbath?
The Sabbath and its observance are deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian belief. Many of us were raised with the belief that the Sabbath is based on the 10 Commandments and that those still apply to mankind. After all, didn’t we also believe in the concept of not murdering (sixth commandment), not stealing (eighth commandment) and not lying (ninth commandment), which are also part of the 10 Commandments?
There are more commandments but these are good illustrations. In many churches, the commandments seem to provide the moral code for adherents to follow.
The fourth commandment deals with the Sabbath. It’s very explicit: “Remember the Sabbath day, to 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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-12 ESV)
From that beginning, the Sabbath was known and practiced as a day of rest and worship. Literally, this was a God-ordained break from most human activity. In all my church-visiting activity in Anchorage over 10 to 12 years, I can think of no local church I’ve visited that truly follows the biblical injunction in Exodus 20:8-12. Most Christian churches in Anchorage have one- or two-hour worship services, some offer Sunday school, which few members attend, and some offer Sunday evening services, which reflect a tiny cross section of members. For the most part, the rest of Saturday or Sunday, depending on the worship day observed, is business as usual. Consequently, most local Christians spend the Sabbath working, shopping, watching television, fishing, hunting, hiking, snow activities and thousands of other activities.
From the development of Christianity in the early church it is obvious the apostles and early believers worshipped on the Sabbath following the same practices as the Jews before them. But it goes even deeper. Well-known theologian Walter Brueggemann observes in his latest book, “Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now”: “In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods. Such an act of resistance requires enormous intentionality and communal reinforcement amid the barrage of seductive pressures from the insatiable insistences of the market with its intrusion into every part of our life from the family to the national budget. … But Sabbath is not only resistance. It is alternative. It is an alternative to the demanding, chattering, pervasive presence of advertising and its great liturgical claim of professional sports that devours all of our ‘rest time.’ The alternative on offer is the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”
The 24/7 mentality in our society is ruining our inner health and peace, intruding upon those sacred things many of us grew up with. The practical observance of Sabbath would provide some of what’s missing. This profoundly felt lack is being documented by many who are even beginning to take secular Sabbaths.
An intriguing article by Mark Bittman detailed this approach in a 2008 New York Times article, “I Need a Virtual Break. No, Really.” Bittman documents his struggles with technology and its controlling nature, especially apparent after he checks his phone messages and email on a flight, discovering he’d surrendered his last sanctuary. “Thus began my “secular Sabbath” — a term I found floating around on blogs — a day a week where I would be free of screens, bells and beeps. An old-fashioned day not only of rest but of relief.” Bittman has been joined by thousands who are seeking and finding relief in “secular” or “biblical” Sabbaths. And they are benefiting greatly from the experience.
It’s time for churches to dust off the 10 Commandments and teach about the power of true Sabbath observance. Moral relevance is still powerful, and the observance of the Sabbath offers powerful benefits when rightly presented by clergy who should know. As important as 10 Commandment observance is, I’d love to hear my first sermon from Anchorage clergy on Sabbath.
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits, at adn.com/churchvisits.