A day to remember - Exodus 20:8
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(On the screen to be revealed one line at a time)
A Prayer for Serenity
When I die, may I die quietly in my sleep like my Grandfather
And not screaming and shouting
Like the other three maniacs
Who were in the car he was driving at the time.
We have to admit that we live in hectic world with deadlines to meet, pressures to resist and agendas which drive us such that to have a little serenity would be a welcomed thing. The old adage that we are ‘to work to live’ has been turned on its head so that many of us in fact ‘live to work’. A whole host of families today have been robbed of the weekend because parents are expected to be working non stop or ‘shop until they drop’ with the result that genuine family time gets squeezed out or what is left of it feels hardly worth having, because now one day pretty much feels like any other. But that is not what the loving God who made us intended and why, in part, he gave the fourth commandment to his people- ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.’
This commandment is clear and yet controversial. It is simple yet strange. It is relevant yet often rejected - even by Christians.
The commandment is clear, we are to have one day in seven when we cease from our regular work. That is what the word ‘Sabbath’ means- ‘to cease’. Cease from what? Our labour. It is to be regarded as holy, which means to be distinct. Distinct from what? Well, distinct from what we do the rest of the time, which is work- paid or unpaid. You can’t get it any clearer than that. And yet it is so controversial. The workaholic won’t hear of it. Sure, he may pay lip service to having ‘quality time’ with his kids on his day off, but you see him walking down the street holding a little boy with one hand and checking his text messages on his phone in the other. What is that saying to the child? ‘My Dad’s work matters more than me.’ The Pharisee won’t have it because he is concerned with avoiding it and so he asks, ‘What defines work? If I am an English teacher does this means I can’t read a novel on my day off, but if I am an engineering student I can – so long as it has pictures!’ Then there are the Christians. Is the Sabbath Day the same as the Lord’s Day-a Sunday? Many of the Puritans in the 17th century thought so. Here is Thomas Watson who wrote a whole book on the Ten Commandments: ‘This commandment was engraved in stone by God’s own finger and it will be our comfort to have it engraven in our hearts. The Sabbath day is set apart for God’s solemn worship; it is his own enclosure, and must not be alienated to common uses…Christian, the more holy thou art on the Sabbath, the more holy thou wilt be in the week following.’ No messing there. But then we have other Christians who say that the Sabbath was a sign for the Jews under the Old Covenant and since we are Christians of the New Covenant it no longer applies to us.
The commandment is also simple, God’s people are to stop working one day in seven- which means what it says, whatever you normally do- stop it. But it is strange, because unlike the other commandments which are focused on people, this is extended to animals and others who might be working for you. And the reason given for keeping it is stranger still, v 11, ‘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.’ What’s that all about, God taking a rest?
And given what I said at the beginning of the way people are simply being worn out and stressed out with work, can you think of a commandment any more relevant than this one which says, ‘take a break’? And yet it is widely rejected- ‘rest is for wimps’ and so on we go with the daily grind until we occupy an early grave- or fall asleep at the wheel while driving!
Tonight I hope to show you that this commandment is still applicable today and is not as remote as it may first appear. So let me lay out my case like this: Having a special rest day is rooted in creation, fulfilled in redemption and concerns our restoration.
First of all, this commandment is rooted in creation. That is the reason given in verse 11, ‘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.’ You see, a lot of confusion about the meaning and application of this commandment stems from a confusion about the meaning of some of the words used. Take the word ‘Sabbath’. It basically means ‘to cease’. So why not say that, ‘Remember the day you cease?’ The question is ‘cease from what?’ Well doing what you had been doing the other six days, namely, work. And by so doing you make this day distinct, or to use the Bible word- ‘holy’. So how is it that God is said to have ‘ceased’ or ‘rested’ from work which means we should too? Surely, for God to cease from work would mean everything falling into chaos or disappearing altogether- someone has to keep the universe going! Well, to answer that question takes us back to the climax of the first part of Genesis, which ends at the beginning of chapter 2 where we read: ‘By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.’ That’s the word ‘sabat’. There is a cessation from a certain activity with which one had previously been occupied. When you cease doing that, then you are taking a ‘Sabbath’. But there is at least one other word linked to this which means ‘entering into a position of stability and security’ (nuha/menuha) and this is the word used in Exodus 20:11, it is not ‘God rested on the seventh day’ (sabat) – as in Genesis 2-but ‘God entered into a position of stability on the seventh day’.
So what is this new situation God has entered into? Well, it is this: In the first chapter of Genesis you have God being depicted as setting everything up in the universe so that things work together properly. So, God provides time (which is what the separation of light from darkness is all about) the weather-(the separation of the waters) and food-vegetation. Finally, God makes men and women in his image to look after the earth on his behalf. So by the end of chapter 1, everything is ready to go. It’s like having someone put together a computer, the hard drive is in, the software is there, it’s plugged in and waiting for the operator to get going on it. God is pictured like that here. He ceases from setting things up (he has done that in Genesis 1) and now enters a new phase, this special kind of ‘rest/ stability’ of Genesis 2. God can really now get going because everything is in place. You see, in the ancient world, of which Israel was a part, temples were not primarily seen as places where the gods were worshipped, but places from which the gods ruled. They were the divine ‘control centres’ if you like. So when a temple was built by the pagans and a god was said to ‘enter his rest’ in the temple, it wasn’t that the god kicked back and put his feet up to be waited upon. No, it was now time for the god to start doing his stuff, sending rain, producing crops and the like. Well, the true God doesn’t have a man made temple, he doesn’t need one because the whole universe is his temple, his control centre; he is ruler over all things and rules through all things. And that is what God is portrayed as starting to do on day 7.
Now hopefully, we can begin to see why God commands his people to have a special day of ceasing work. They can ‘rest’ in the normal sense of the word- cease from work (small ‘r’), because God has entered his ‘rest/ state of stability’ (big ‘R’) in having taken up the controls so everything is going to be alright. By stopping work on the seventh day, the Jews were reminding themselves of a very important truth which we need to remind ourselves of- namely, the world can survive without us thank you very much because God is running the world. It is affirming the belief in his kingship and that he is a kind king and an almighty king. God’s ‘Rest’ means he is in charge. Our rest is making a statement that we are not in charge and can relax and rejoice in the fact that the world is in good hands. Do you see? And what better thing to do on that day for God’s people, than to worship God together, so it becomes a day ‘to the Lord your God.’ This is their ‘down time’ if you like, not to use the time to be self-indulgent, but engage in joyful and thankful praise. And so the rest day for the Jews is a praise day- of course, for they remember that God is Creator and has the whole world, including their well being-in his hands. So here is the first reason why we should take one day off in seven- because it is a powerful reminder to ourselves that the world will not stop if we stop, that we are not God and so not indispensible. That may be humbling but it is healthy. It is meant to encourage us to pause and think, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that God is in control, in his ‘Rest’, doing what God does best, lovingly ruling over everything he has made, and that although he chooses to use me in his service (6 days out of seven) he can get along fine without me, and this day proves it!’ The rest day is rooted in creation. We can ‘rest’ (relax- small r-) because God is at ‘Rest’ (at the controls- big R) - two different words for two different but related things.
But not only is the special rest day rooted in creation is finds its true fulfilment in redemption. In Deuteronomy 5 we come across Ten Commandments again but with one or two differences. And one major difference relates to the fourth commandment about taking a rest day, for here the reason given for the Jews to rest was the fact that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. So when they took their seventh day off from hard work, not only were they to rejoice in the fact that God is Creator but also Redeemer. In their minds they were to think back to the time when they did nothing but work as slaves in Egypt, they didn’t have any days off then. It was work, work, work all the time and it was miserable. And so by stopping work it was a powerful aid to have some ‘thank time’, to take time out to say, ‘Lord we think work is hard now, but it is nothing compared to what it was like for us in Egypt, and how kind of you to so care for us that unlike the despotic Pharaoh, you do want us to rest and refresh our souls and bodies- you are a glorious God.’ But, in another way, the fact that when they entered the Promised Land, because they refused to listen to God’s Word and trust his promises and worshipped idols instead, God never gave them complete rest, they were always having to battle with folk who had it in for them, until eventually as a punishment God took them out of the land of rest for 70 years or so into Exile in Babylon. That is what that reading from Hebrews 4 is about. In this sense, the rest day points us to a bigger and better rest day to come, a bigger and better rescue to come.
Now we are getting to the main point of the Sabbath- the rest day rooted in creation and fulfilled in redemption. The climax of creation in Genesis 2:2 is that God is seen to be God. The whole of creation is declared very good, something in which its Creator takes great delight. We, as the pinnacle of created beings are then to find our ‘rest’, purpose or fulfilment in relation to Him. Our purpose and significance, you may even say sense of well being which we associate with rest, is not derived from what we do-our work- but from who we are, made in God’s image, designed to have a loving relationship with him. Of course we have messed that up, and so God comes to our rescue. He did that with Israel. And one of the reasons why the prophets continually berate the Jewish people for breaking the Sabbath more than any of the other commandments and is given as the reason why they were sent off into captivity is because it exposes a dethroning of God in their hearts (Isaiah 58:13-14). By failing to remember the Sabbath day they failed to think about who God is, what he has done and how dependent they were upon him. And that is not only a foolish and dangerous thing to do, but a monstrously ungrateful thing to do. The rest they were meant to have- peace with God- was thrown away until the coming of Jesus.
Do you remember some of the most heart warming words Jesus ever said at the end of Matthew chapter 11? “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you…. rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The Jewish rabbis talked about the ‘Yoke of the Law’, the yoke is a contraption which you sling across your shoulders to enable you to carry burdens, like milk pails. But the law was actually burdensome; the commandments, although good, also condemn because we fail to live up to them and so our souls are weighed down by guilt and sin. And so the yoke of the law chafes the shoulders and weighs us down. And Jesus knows that. And so through tender eyes he sees us and with kind lips he invites us to stop striving, to cease working to save ourselves through our good works or ‘religion’, but instead to come to him and rest upon his finished work on the cross. In fact in the Lord Jesus, both of these roles of God are fulfilled, that of Creator-the one who sustains us, and Redeemer, the one who rescues us. Because Jesus in his life, death and resurrection did on our behalf what we cannot do- live for God and die for sin- he has now entered his ‘Rest’ in the Exodus 20:11 sense ( big R), for he is now seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven and ruling the world. He has taken up his place of Lord of the Universe occupying the divine control centre for the good of his people and the glory of his name. Through Providence his is at work in every twist and turn of our existence and by His Spirit guiding and sustaining us, proclaiming the Gospel and extending his kingdom. What is more, Jesus is the one through ‘whom and for whom everything was made’- he is Creator- until eventually we shall enter the land of rest where there will be no more pain or weeping because God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. In other words, Jesus is the true Sabbath, the Lord of the Sabbath, since the Sabbath was made for man it has been given by God for our well being. There is the wellbeing of the now, knowing God as Father and Jesus as Lord that gives real peace and rest, and there is the well being of the future knowing that death is not the end but a gateway into the everlasting Sabbath.
So what are some the practical outworkings of this for us today? Well, it concerns our restoration-physical, emotional and spiritual. Friends, it is good to have a rest day- a Sabbath. God thinks it is good, that is why he gave it. Jesus thinks it is good, which is why he affirmed it as something which was made for man. We do need to have a break from the usual pattern of life. So if like me, you mainly use your brain in your work, on your rest day do something physical or something involving manual skills. And while you are at it, thank God that he has made you in his image so you can and serve him and others in his creation. But also thank him that your identity and sense of self worth is not dependent upon your work, but your relationship with him-that he has saved you. What makes you really significant is not that you are a homemaker, a plumber, a student or a doctor, but a child of the King. Thank him that you don’t have to kill yourself working to prove yourself (though many of us do), because he has already accepted you in Jesus. And be disciplined with yourself –don’t check your emails or text messages from work on your rest day. If you are a student, even if there are exams looming ahead, still follow this gift of a command and take a rest day, making sure that there is a day when you do no academic work. (And for those of you who are at the other extreme, make sure that there are 5-6 days when you do work!). If you take a day off and keep your mind off your work, then invariably you will feel all the better for it when you do return to work and you will be more productive as a result.
But most importantly, that to which the Old Testament command pointed has now in one sense come and in another sense yet to be fully enjoyed in the future. This is what the apostle Paul says in Colossians 2:16, ‘Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.’ Now do you see what the fourth commandment is really about? Yes, it is of value to have a day of rest, but you can have a day of rest or a whole life of resting going on one cruise after another, one holiday after another and still miss out on the main point of the commandment and still remain restless and dissatisfied. It is all about the direction of your life, what you live for and who you are meant to live for. Is your life driven by what you can achieve, saying when only I get this qualification or that job or get married, then I will be at rest? Let me tell you now that you never will be. Or are you living with Jesus and for Jesus, who has entered his Father’s rest as the supreme ruler and saviour of the world and who wants you to experience his rest? That is the choice facing you and me tonight. Now which is it going to be?
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