Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ October 30, 2011 ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
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13Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:12-15, NRSV)
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When God first gave the 10 Commandments to his people, the Israelites, they had just endured the last 400 years as slaves in Egypt. That’s over 20,000 weeks without a single day off. And you though you needed a vacation! The consequence of this was that when God finally set these people free, they had been absolutely stripped of their humanity and dignity. They had become work units. Machines. Mere equipment for the making of bricks and building of pyramids. Generation after generation they had only been valued for what they could produce.
Recently our oven at home gave up the ghost. After 30 years of casseroles and chocolate chip cookies it just up and died one day. And that oven, which for years had been a valuable asset in our home for years, ceased, the very day it died, to have any value for us whatsoever. We did not keep it around for decorative or sentimental reasons. Immediately, we had it hauled to the dump. Because, after all, a household appliance only has value if it can produce or perform. Once it can’t, it’s worthless.
A working definition of a slave is a person who is treated like an appliance. That person’s value is derived only from what he or she can produce or accomplish. For 400 years the Israelites were told they were appliances. That’s a long, long time to hear that message. So long that even when they were finally set free, even when they were far, far away from Egypt, the well rehearsed words of their former Egyptian taskmasters rattled around in their heads and their hearts for centuries to come, “Your value as a human being has everything to do with what you can produce.”
Just beyond the borders of Egypt, however, in the middle of the SinaiDesert, God put some new words into the heads and hearts to his people. “Never forget,” God told them, “never forget that you even though you used to be slaves inEgypt, I have now used my mighty hand to set you free from slavery. No longer are you valued only for what you can produce. Never again do you have to go 400 years without a break. In fact, I command you from this day forward to set aside every seventh day, every Saturday, as a day to cease all your work. On that day, I do not want you to accomplish or produce anything whatsoever. In the same way that I rested on the seventh day of creation, I want you to rest. And I want you to do this Saturday, after Saturday, after Saturday, after Saturday.”
You see, God gave this 4th commandment for this reason. In his love for his people, God knew that they could not go longer than even six days without being reminded that their value as human beings was, in no way, tied into what they could or could not accomplish or produce. Over and over again they needed to reminded that their value, instead, was rooted in the unalterable truth that they were God’s beloved and chosen people, created in his image. Every seven days, the Sabbath was to be this constant reminder.
Unfortunately, I think God knew that as soon as he gave the Sabbath commandment, his people, down through the ages, would neglect this particular commandment as much as any other commandment he has ever given us.
Let’s be honest. I would be surprised if there were more than a handful of us sitting in this room right now who consistently obey this fourth commandment. We take days off from our paid work, sure. We take vacations during the year, yes. But very few of us, if any of us, do what God has commanded us here to do. Very few, if any of us, take a whole day every single week to produce or accomplish nothing at all. Am I right?
How can this be? I mean, it’s not like this is some obscure commandment buried in footnotes of scripture. This is one of the 10 Commandments! The Sabbath commandment is at the very heart of God’s Law. Furthermore, it’s probably the most specific and detailed of all the Ten Commandments. Understand, God didn’t say that every once in a while we should take a break. God didn’t say to make sure you get your two weeks vacation every summer. With great specificity, God commands you to take one day every seven days for the remainder of your life to rest. There is very little wiggle room here.
And yet, which of the other Ten Commandments do we treat with such indifference? When do you ever hear it said, “Yeah, if you can keep from murdering people, and stealing from people, and cheating on your wife, that would be nice. That thing about only worshipping only one God, that was really more of a suggestion than anything else.” It’s not that we don’t break the other nine commandments in some way or another. All of us do. But not in the same blatantly nonchalant way most of us regularly, weekly, break God’s 4th Commandment to keep the Sabbath.
Why do we do this? I’ll tell you why. We so easily neglect God’s command to keep the Sabbath because all these years later, the voices of the Egyptian taskmasters are still whispering their seductive lies to us and we are, for the most part, swallowing them whole. “You are valuable only if and when you are produce something. Your worth is always measured by what you can accomplish. Therefore, you simply cannot afford even a day to sit around and accomplish nothing.”
It’s been said that slavery ended inAmericain 1863 when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. How I wish that were true. Though it has taken a very different and subtle form, slavery is alive and well in our culture. What’s more, it is just as brutal, at least as confining, and far more widespread. These days, in fact, there are slaves everywhere. Many of you here this morning, whether you know it or not, are slaves.
Theologian Marva Dawn once observed, “One of the ugliest things about our culture is that we usually assess a person’s worth on the basis of his or her productivity and accomplishments.” Not only have most of us resigned ourselves to slavery, we do our best to keep everybody else shackled up as well.
Let me tell you something that is as true about you as it is about me. There exists in you a great and unrelenting desire to demonstrate that you are a person of worth by proving yourself with your accomplishments. To some extent you have believed the lies which have been whispered to your soul, lies that tell you are only of value if you can produce, if you can accomplish, if you can win, if you can accumulate, if you can succeed.
Brothers and sisters, there are 1,001 ways we do this. Though earning a good income, or at least a better income than others we know. Through a successful career that garners for us the esteem of others. Through children who ultimately turn out right, whatever that means. Through buying, furnishing and maintaining a beautiful home we hope others will admire. Through the car we drive or the toys we own. Through a grade point average at school, or a degree we can hang on our wall, or the possession of knowledge that others don’t have. Through success on the athletic field, or even, sadly enough, through the success of teams on the athletic field for whom we root.
Am I hitting close to home yet?
Marva Dawn cuts to the brutal truth when she writes, “Most of our inferiority complexes come from the fact that we haven’t done or accomplished everything we think we should have or that we haven’t been as productive as somebody else. No matter who we are, we can always find somebody who has accomplished more than we have, so we are doomed always to feel second rate…The root of all these yearnings to produce is the struggle for security.”
What’s most tragic is the cancer of these lies spreads down into our very souls, into our very relationships with the One who made us. You see, in our faith so many of us stand before God believing that we only can earn our place before him and with him if we can prove ourselves to him. The cunning whispers of the taskmasters have conned us into embracing this Gospel-less religion where we show up at church on Sunday mornings, help out the poor as we can, give some of our money away, try to be as genuinely kind to our neighbors as we are able, in hopes that at the end of the day it will be enough to earn favor with God. But tragically, it all is a one-way ticket straight into the chains of the most vile, hell-invented slavery the world has ever known, a slavery that imprisons people in the lie that God loves you and accepts you because of what you can accomplish or produce, because of how good you can be.
I pray God will give you the grace to be brutally honest with yourself this morning. Because it is only if we face the truth at this point that we can make our way towards freedom. We must face the facts – every single one of us, to some extent, has been enslaved by this lie.
All this takes us back to God’s beautiful gift of Sabbath. Out of his deep and abiding love for us, God commands us to take great care in setting aside one day, every seventh day, to cease all of our work, to shut down the production line of our accomplishments, and simply rest and enjoy Him and the blessings he has poured out on us. When we do so, it is God’s intention that we would be plainly reminded each and every week of the taskmasters lies which are stripping us from what makes us most human. We are not valued for what we can produce or accomplish. We are valued, rather, each one of us, because each one of us has been created in the very image of God as his beloved son, his beloved daughter. We are loved and found to be people of indescribable worth for that reason, and that reason alone.
Listen to me very carefully.
The very Son of God came to earth and suffered and died upon a cross because not a single one of us, on our own, could work hard enough, accomplish enough, produce enough, make ourselves righteous enough to ever even come close to justifying ourselves before God. Deep down, in the very core of who you are, you have turned what God made to be good and holy into a sinful, rebellious, self-centered man or woman. Sin has infected you and me to such an extent, in fact, that it took nothing less then the very death of God to make us clean.
And yet, God did die. Christ went to the cross because, in spite of your sin, your Heavenly Father loves you and finds you to be, as his son, as his daughter, a person of such value that such an unthinkable sacrifice was made worth it.
At the cross, our terminal inability to produce or accomplish that which could ever put us in good standing with God was made irrelevant. At the cross, our sin was turned into righteousness. What was ugly in you was made beautiful. Christ’s accomplishments became your accomplishments, his goodness your goodness. You were offered the benefits of what he produced. And there is nothing we have to produce or accomplish to receive this priceless gift. All we must do is let go and trust. All that is required is humble faith.
It was this good news which transformed the world 2000 years ago. One of the changes back then was that the first Christians, as you may know, changed the centuries-old tradition of celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday and began to celebrate it instead on Sunday. And they did this as a way to remember every week that it was because of what Christ did at Easter, dying and then rising to life again, that they had been set free from slavery forever. Now Sunday after Sunday was a day to cease doing all work and rest and simply enjoy God and God’s blessings. Work hard for six days, yes. But on the seventh day, let your rest remind you that your work is always in response to a gift God has given you and never a means for you to earn that gift.
I am convinced that if we would stop neglecting this loving commandment of God and begin to practice Sabbath ourselves, week after week after week, Sabbath would begin to change us in ways we never imagined it could.
Consider, for a moment, the sort of life which the practice of Sabbath might open up for you and for me.
*To view the video we watched at this point in the sermon, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhOUaszMGvQ
Listen to me.
Was there something in that piece that awakened a deep desire in your soul to discover a depth of life that you somehow know exists but so rarely experience yourself? How many moments of your life have you missed the grace of God because you’ve rushed by, chasing after the lie that whispers to you as you run, “Keep moving. Keep producing. Keep accomplishing. Keep working. You must prove yourself to be a person of worth.”
You and I have got to find a way to wake up, to have our eyes opened, to be set free. We have got to cease. We have got to stop. Week after week, you have got to rest, to rest freely in the truth that you are God’s beloved even when your life produces nothing at all.
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The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
~ Picture yourself lying in bed at the end of the day. On a typical day, what would have had to have happened that day for you to feel at that point that you have had a “successful” day? If that is hard to answer, ask it this way – could you ever have a day where you accomplished absolutely nothing and still consider that a successful day?
~ Read the 4th Commandment again in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Try and summarize what you think God is telling us to do here.
~ Do you obey or neglect God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath by taking one day, every 7th day, to spend a whole day ceasing from your work? (Not just your paid job, but also all the household chores, or school work, or yard work that have to get done.) Why or why not?
~ If the definition of a slave is a person whose value is defined by what he or she can accomplish or produce, are you a slave?
~ What specific accomplishments or achievements in your life do you depend upon to make you feel better about your value and worth as a person?
~ Read Isaiah 43:1-4 slowly and carefully, trying to see how these words are spoken to you and about you. What would change in your life if you came to truly believe that this was the way God felt about you?
~ The Christian Gospel (i.e. good news) is that God, in Christ, considers you his beloved son or daughter, a person of inestimable worth, and there is nothing you have to do or accomplish for this to be true. Do you believe the Christian Gospel, not just in your head but with your life?
~ Are you willing to find a way to love and trust God by practicing the Sabbath weekly in your life? If so, what steps will you take this week to make that happen? (The guides listed below would be a great place to begin to think about how we practice the Sabbath in our day and age.)
Further Scripture Readings for the Week:
Monday: Isaiah 43:1-4 – Beloved by God
Tuesday: Psalm 46 – Be still!
Wednesday: Hebrews 4:1-13 – Sabbath rest
Thursday: Matthew 12:1-14 – Lord of the Sabbath
Friday: Romans 6:1-23 – Slaves to Christ
Saturday: Psalm 23 – Rest by still waters
Trusted Guides to Help you Practice Sabbath
Mark Buchannan, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).
Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000)
 I’m stealing language from Euguene Peterson here in his excellent article, Rhythms of Grace.
 Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, c. 1989), p. 17.
 In particular, ceasing from our work each seventh day would lead us to love the Lord our God more deeply, with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, all our strength because it would remind us weekly that God is, after all, the one who set us free. The practice of Sabbath would also lead us to love our neighbors, all our neighbors far more deeply than we do, reminding us every week that they, just like us, are people of great worth in spite of what they do or do not accomplish. (Isaiah 43:1-4)