A sermon delivered by David Hughes, FirstBaptistChurch, Winston-Salem, Nc., on August 8, 2010.
In 1924, a young Scotsman named Eric Liddel entered the Olympic Games. Liddel was a terrific sprinter, and England was thrilled to have him on its team. But there was one problem. The race for which Eric was best known (100 meter dash) was being run on Sunday. And Eric wouldn’t run on Sunday.
English officials were stunned at Eric’s decision. Naturally, they did their best to change Eric’s mind. Eighty years later, an Academy Award winning movie named Chariots of Fire depicts a scene in which the future Prince of Wales and other English dignitaries try to prevail upon Eric to run on Sunday. But he will not, because Sunday is the Lord’s Day, and it must be kept holy. At first the Englishmen are amused by Liddel’s Sabbath scruples. But when he resists their arguments, they get angry. They say he should sacrifice his precious principles and run for the King of England. He will not, he says, because his first loyalty is to the King of the Universe.
It is a tense moment, with no apparent solution, until another English runner graciously volunteers to let run the 200 meter race—which is run on a day other than Sunday. Liddel agrees, and incredibly, even though he never trained for this particular race, Liddel wins the gold medal.
This story sounds too good to be true. Which is harder to believe: that Eric Liddel won an Olympic race for which he never trained, or that he refused to run a race on Sunday? Why did Liddel refuse to run? Because he thought running would violate the fourth of the Ten Commandments, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Later this month (August 27-28) we’re having our second annual church-wide spiritual formation retreat. The topic this year is Sabbath. As we prepare to enter into an experience where we remember the importance of the sacred rhythms of Sabbath and rest, I want to draw our attention to a passage we know well as the fourth of the Ten Commandments.
As God dictates the Ten Commandments to Moses on the top of Mt.Sinai, he doesn’t suggest the Hebrew people observe the Sabbath—he commands it! To be more specific, God commands the Israelites to set apart the seventh day of the week, or Saturday, as a day of rest that belonged to the Lord. Technically, the Israelites were not to work from sundown on Friday till sundown on Saturday.
Two thousand years ago, after Jesus Christ was raised from the dead on the first Easter Sunday, early Christians changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. What’s interesting is that the fourth commandment is the only one of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament. Furthermore, Jesus never taught anybody to observe the Sabbath. In fact he seemed to always be getting in trouble by breaking the Sabbath when he healed people on Saturday.
So technically, Christians shouldn’t have to be concerned about the Sabbath, right? We can head to the golf course or mall on Sunday morning and not worry about the silly old fourth commandment, right?
You see, Jesus didn’t react to the use but abuse of the Sabbath. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had taken a blessing and turned it into a heavy burden. By the time Jesus came along, the Pharisees had defined 39 categories of work that were forbidden on the Sabbath, and 1521 ways the Sabbath could be broken. And so, for example, if you wore shoes bound together by iron nails on the Sabbath, you were breaking the Sabbath because iron was considered a burden, and walking with a burden was considered work.
Jesus says to this, “Baloney! You’ve missed the whole point of the Sabbath, and turned it into something that delivers death rather than life.”
So, today we’ve gone in the opposite direction. We’ve decided we’re too sophisticated for the Sabbath. We’re 21st century people with places to go and people to meet and projects to complete, and we don’t need this quaint Sabbath rule.
And once again, Jesus says, “Baloney! You too have missed the whole point of the Sabbath. You ignore the Sabbath at your own peril. You need it more than you know!”
Christians, you see, are not bound by the letter of the Sabbath law. That’s why I personally admire Eric Liddel more for the courage of his conviction than the conviction itself. But, on the other hand, Jesus and the New Testament preserve the spirit of the Sabbath, and so should we.
How do we as New Testament Christians observe the Sabbath in a way that keeps it holy?
First, we set apart a time to rest.
Listen again to 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…For in six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day (Exodus 20:8-10a,11a).
Why do we carve out a time to rest in our manic, frantic lives? Because God rested after six very busy days creating the universe and everything in it. Did God rest because he was tired? No. He rested to create a rhythm of work and rest that every living creature in the universe is subject to—including us.
To us, this business of taking a breather one day out of seven may sound confining. But imagine how it sounded to those Israelites, fresh out of slavery in Egypt. For hundreds of years, they had worked day after day without a break for their Egyptian masters. When they heard that they, and their families, and their servants, and their migrant workers, and even their animals could take a day off a week, that surely sounded like a gift from heaven!
At the very core of Sabbath is resting easy. In fact, the Hebrew word Shabat means to rest, or to cease activity. You probably expect me this morning to harp on how we break the Sabbath when we miss church—and we do. But I’m convinced that our fundamental breach of this commandment comes when we miss rest.
One commentator of this passage compares many of us to gerbils running on exercise wheels—a constant whir of activity with no breaks. Thanks to cell phones and blackberries and laptop computers we can work whenever and wherever we are. And many of us are doing precisely that—seven days a week, 52 weeks a year—for companies (and even churches) who publicly tell us to take care of ourselves, but privately hope we’ll work 80 hours a week and never complain. The truth is, we’ve created a culture of workaholic productivity in America that is never satisfied with our efforts, and will always, always want more.
What is the work we should abstain from on the Sabbath? In Exodus 35:3, the Israelites are commanded not to light a fire on the Sabbath. That was to protect the women from having to cook on the Sabbath. Today, work has little to do with our lighting or not lighting fires. So what is work for us now?
Since Jesus delivered us from legalism on this matter, what constitutes work on the Sabbath for us may vary. Some of us, for example, might enjoy cooking on the Sabbath while others may experience cooking as work. Some of us might have lots of fun on our computers, while others may need to take a Sabbath from our ever- present technology. Some may find yard work relaxing, others may see it as drudgery.
On the Sabbath, we’re commanded to do what we love naturally just because we enjoy it, not because it serves a purpose. Many of us—myself included—constantly cut corners on this commandment. In fact, I would guess that we violate this commandment more than any other. And physically, emotionally, and spiritually, we are paying the price
God calls us to set apart a time to rest. And as we rest, we also need to create a time to remember.
Is it a coincidence that the fourth commandment begins with the word, “remember”? I don’t think so. The fourth commandment is all about remembering the important things of life. What I notice about many of us is that we have spiritual amnesia. We get so caught up in the sound and fury of everyday life that we slowly but surely forget what life is all about.
The great Jewish Old Testament scholar Abraham Heschel puts it this way: “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth. On the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to someone else (emphasis mine).”
Why does God create the Sabbath? Because once a week—at least—we are called on to remember who we are and whose we are.
In an alternative version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 4, God tells the Israelites to remember each Sabbath how he released them from Egyptian bondage. Today as Christians, each Sunday ought to remind us of how God rescued us from our bondage to sin and death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Jesus gathered in the Upper Room to celebrate the Last Supper with his disciples, what did he say? Eat this bread, and drink this cup in remembrance of me.
And as we remember, we also need to take time to reflect. John Ortberg makes a very insightful observation as he reads the creation story in Genesis 1. He notices that after God finishes with each part of creation, he doesn’t rush on to the next project. For example, God says, “Let there be light”, and there is light. And then the text says, “And God saw that the light was good.”
In other words, Ortberg says, God paused, reflected on what he had just done, and simply savored the moment. Isn’t that interesting? God took time to smell the flowers right after he created them. If he had been on our cost-efficient timetable, he would have raced ahead without comment to the birds and bees!
Read the gospels and you’ll notice that Jesus moved with the same leisurely pace. Jesus was extremely productive. He made a way for the salvation of the world in three years time. But along the way, he took generous times alone for prayer and reflection, not just on the Sabbath, but every day.
Gordon McDonald describes how this kind of Sabbath reflection saved one of my personal heroes—William Wilberforce—from going over the edge. Wilberforce, you may recall, is that remarkable 19th- century Christian and MP (member of British Parliament) who led the effort to abolish both the slave trade and eventually slavery in England.
Wilberforce may have been a Christian hero, but he was also a human being. When Britain elected a new Prime Minister in 1801, Wilberforce heard rumors that he was on the short list of possible cabinet members. Wilberforce became so obsessed with his possible rise to power that he could think of little else. Later, he would describe himself as “intoxicated (with) risings of ambition.”
It was a Sunday when Wilberforce finally confronted his ambition. At the end of a day of worship and solitude, Wilberforce wrote, “Blessed be to God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.” As Gordon McDonald observes, we don’t know what would have become of Wilberforce if he had not had this Sabbath breakthrough.
History shows that during his years as a public servant in Parliament, Wilberforce rarely deviated from his Sabbath commitment to reflection and private conversation with God. Somehow, Wilberforce understood that he desperately needed this built-in break from the wild scramble of public life. For this reason, Wilberforce also began his working days with a brief time of silence and solitude when he reflected on his life in God’s presence.
I have no proof of what I am about to say, but I honestly believe that what set William Wilberforce apart from most people in Britain was his steadfast practice of the sacred rhythms of Sabbath rest and reflection. And the primary reason Wilberforce persevered and finally prevailed in his decades-long battle to abolish slavery was not his political prowess or passion for justice. It was his weekly, even daily practice of the Sabbath.
So, my friends, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Doing so might save your career. More importantly, it will save your soul.