Topical Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11
The game show Jeopardy was conceived in 1964 by Merv Griffin in the dining room of his apartment. Griffin also composed that music they play while the contestants think. The show now employs four full-time researchers, ten writers, and is viewed by 32 million people.
This is the game show Marine Corps. Think about it: on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? contestants answer ten questions and win a million dollars. A Jeopardy winner must answer upwards of 40 or 50 questions to win a few thousand dollars.
To make things even harder, you don’t really answer questions—you question answers. They give you the answer, and you think of the question. If you ask the wrong question, you cannot get the right answer.
That’s how life works as well. If we ask the wrong questions, we get the wrong answers. If psychologists, counselors, and statistics are to be believed, that’s happening at epidemic levels today. We’re asking the wrong questions—how can I do more? Make more? Have more? Be more? We’re spinning plates, and they’re falling. We are in “jeopardy” to stress and time pressures.
The fourth commandment can help us. Let’s study it together.
Who needs a Sabbath?
“Sabbath” translates the Hebrew shabbath, which means to rest from labor. Who needs that?
In my office sits a desktop computer, running at 500mhz (whatever that means). I have a notebook computer I carry with me, and a pocket-sized personal digital assistant I have with me at all times. I wear my pager every day, and have my cell phone and voice processor with me all day long. And I’m no technology guru. I don’t know a “dos” from a “macro” file. This is just the stuff I need (or think I need) to do my job.
Technology promised us modern conveniences which would make our lives easier, but the pace of work has increased, not diminished. Americans on average worked 167 more hours last year than the year before. Driving in a car used to be time off, but not with cell phones, cars with e-mail, and palm-top voice-activated computers. Lunch in a restaurant used to be time off, but not with phones and pagers. Being at home used to be time off, but not with home computers, e-mail, pagers, and phones. We go faster, harder, longer than ever before.
Campbell’s Soup has discovered that people will not use microwave meals which take longer than six minutes to prepare. McDonalds reports that the typical customer spends an average of seven minutes eating one of their meals.
The Personal Assistant, someone who schedules your day, handles your chores, runs your errands, and generally helps you with your time demands, is a new growth job market. Jeanne Edwards in my office called one of them here in Dallas to find out what her job is like, but the person was too busy to talk to her. She needs her own personal assistant, it seems.
The three greatest killers of Americans are not cancer, heart attacks and accidents, but computers, pagers, and telephones.
The annual cost of running red lights, in medical bills, car repairs, etc., is $7 billion. The average amount of time saved by running a red light is 50 seconds. We’re asking the wrong questions.
Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot, wrote his autobiography a few years ago. In it he told about an unusual event at Edwards Air Force Base in the late fifties. A pilot testing a Mach 2 fighter actually outraced the shells from his cannons and shot himself down. I’ve done that, running too fast for my own good. Haven’t you?
Who needs time away, time alone with God? Jesus did.
He spent forty days alone with God in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.
When he began that ministry, one of his first actions was this: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed” (Mark 1:35).
Later in Mark’s Gospel we read, “because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'” (Mark 6:31).
Still later in his ministry we read, “After Jesus had dismissed the people, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23).
All through his life and even the Gethsemane before his death, Jesus practiced the shabbath.
Who needs time away, time alone with God? I do. God has revealed himself to me most fully when I was alone for an extended time with him.
The night I spent alone in a hut in Malaysia, lonely and hurting, crying out to God. Then singing in Malay, “Jesus loves me,” only to look up and see twenty children from the village sitting around me, singing with me. God was there in them.
The retreat I took in college where I spent a day walking with God, clarifying my call to ministry.
The silent retreat in Atlanta nearly five years ago when I rediscovered my soul, my personal walk with Jesus.
Our staff’s silent retreat last fall, where God renewed my call to follow Jesus alone.
I have learned this fact: we cannot be much for God until we have been much with God. Stephen Covey is right: the issues is not how to prioritize our schedule, but how to schedule our priorities. We must put first things first, for the sake of our souls, our homes, our marriages, our lives.
How? Let me show you how not to keep a shabbath. This may surprise you.
What is not a Sabbath?
Look at the fourth commandment with me.
This is the longest of the ten commandments, 48 Hebrew words by my count (in contrast to two for the sixth command, “Not shall you murder”). The shabbath clearly matters to God.
So we are told to “Remember the Sabbath day.” “Remember” means to observe, to venerate, like “Remember the Alamo.” This is something we choose to do, intentionally and consciously.
“Keeping it holy” means to make it separate, different, distinct. A day different than the rest of the week.
They worked “six days,” from sunrise to sunset, thus a typical 70 hour work week. Labor was part of God’s will for us in the Garden, before the Fall, and will be as we worship God forever in heaven.
But on the shabbath, we are not to work at all—and neither is anyone else. Everything alive, even animals, need this time away.
This is so important to God, he set the model for us. The God who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:3) didn’t need a day off. He observed a Sabbath to teach us to do the same. This is the only commandment of the ten for which God has set a personal example.
What does God not mean? First, the Sabbath is not a legalistic religious requirement.
The ancient Hebrews were so concerned with the Shabbath that they devised 39 ways of breaching it, each divided into 39 ways, for 1521 different Sabbath rules. A scribe could not carry a pen; a person could not kill a flea; they could not wear clothing it was possible to carry (because they might get hot and carry it).
It’s fascinating to me that of the Ten Commandments, this is the only law not renewed in the New Testament. All the others are repeated in the Gospels or Epistles for us to live by today, but not this one. So it retains not the force of prescription, but principle. What does it mean in principle, today, to keep the shabbath?
A second wrong answer to the question: the Sabbath is not church attendance.
The first Christians worshiped God on Sunday. This was the day Jesus rose from the dead, and the day Pentecost birthed the church. Jesus chose to rise on Sunday; the Spirit chose to fall on Sunday. This is the “Lord’s Day” (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).
But the Roman Empire did not observe this day as special in any way. And so the Christians would worship, then go to work. This was a normal day for their culture. They would observe a shabbath, a day or time of rest with God, separate from their church attendance.
Unfortunately, things began to change in AD 321 with Constantine, who laid down the first law that work in the cities must stop on the Lord’s Day. In 585 the Council of Macon forbade all work on Sunday. Alcuin (d. 804) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) erroneously identified the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. The Reformers separated them; in fact, Luther (in his Larger Catechism) and Calvin (in the Institutes 2.8.32,34) were very adamant that they are two completely different concepts. They were right.
Going to church is not keeping a Sabbath. You may make this your shabbath day, your day to be alone with God. But church attendance is not the same thing as the Sabbath.
How do we keep a Sabbath?
So, how do we practice the shabbath? First, get alone. Make a time and a place where nothing else in your life can intrude. Your office at work or living room at home are probably not the best places. Find a solitary place and use it for your shabbath.
Second, get alone with God. Read the Scriptures, asking God to speak to you. Write what he says in a spiritual notebook. Keep a prayer list you work through with him. Read devotional literature which helps you draw closer to Jesus. Listen to him.
Fosdick was right: “We need a day when we can hear such a voice as His. A day when we give the Highest a hearing.” Jesus stands at our hearts, wanting to come in and eat with us, but we must be quiet enough to hear his knock at the door.
Third, get alone with God daily. One day a week isn’t enough food for our bodies, or our souls. Listen to Abraham Heschel: “The Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the companionship of all other days.” Make a daily appointment to be alone with God, in your shabbath. When is your next appointment with your Father?
Last, get alone with God daily, and retreat regularly. John Stott needs an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year in shabbath with the Father. What do you need? What’s your strategy for this week? This spring?
Abraham Ibn Ezra said in the Twelfth Century, “I keep the Sabbath, God keeps me: a covenant eternally!” Have you made that covenant with him?
A newspaper in Tacoma, Washington once carried the story of Tattoo, the racing basset hound. Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.
A motorcycle officer named Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something dragging behind it. As he passed the car he saw that the something was Tattoo.
“He was picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could,” said Filbert. He chased the car to a stop and rescued Tattoo, but not before the dog reached a speed of 20 mph and rolled over several times. Tattoo was fine, but asked not to go out for an evening walk for a long time.
Who has your leash today, you or God?