I have a confession to make: I’m not a great Sabbath-keeper. Don’t get me wrong: in 40 years as a Christian (that’s 2,080 Sabbaths), I can count on my fingers the Sunday services I’ve missed. I just don’t rest a lot. I haven’t had a vacation since 2011. (The language of vacation, by the way, is the language of privilege and wealth more so than of the poor and oppressed. Even our 2-day weekend is historically new, started in 1908 at some New England mills to accommodate Jewish workers and, then, the depression (1930s) institutionalized the 2-day weekend as a way to “solve” underemployment). I rarely take a full day off. Sundays are not rest: there are hospital visits, visiting families whose loved ones have died, and visiting those in drug rehab programs. And, of course, Hill birthday parties. There goes my ceasing to work. I’m more a John 9:4–We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work–kind of Christian.
In parts of Africa, water is scarce. Women and children must travel, on foot, carrying containers, to retrieve their daily water for cooking, drinking, cleaning, and bathing. Most travel far and even up to 3-hours on foot to find water–that can be a 6+ hour journey, every day! Most of the water is not potable (not clean); it is stagnant and filled with things you’d never allow your kids to put in their mouths. I think of this when I think of church planting, building a church, Sunday worship: how do these women stop and go a day without water so their families can join church worship and affirm our confession to keep the Sabbath?
So, this leads me to ask: what is our Sabbath responsibility toward the under-resourced in Bridgeport or the Hill, those working 2 to 3-jobs, car-less, food-less, shelter-less, those who need to work on Sundays . . . ? Our text, Isaiah 58, is not a pleasant one and can be seen as rather harsh. Isaiah 58 will forever be a judge of our form (institutional and local) and our religious practices (habits), reproving our intentions and reminding us, as God’s people, the gathered-church in this place, what is important, what should be assumed about our habits, and what we should be famous for.
I’d like to do three things this morning:
- Enter into the Isaiah 58 indictments
- Reflect on the original Sabbath command and why this is important in Isaiah 58; and, then,
- Ask how our own Sabbath-keeping ensures that the most vulnerable, under-resourced populations among us can discover rest and Sabbath as their good pleasure?
I. The honest accusations of Isaiah 58 on Sabbath-keeping
“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
The prophet indicates that, although the people think their behavior should win them favor with God (look, we’re keeping Sabbath!), its real purpose was to gain prominence, power, position, and, of course, possessions. With obvious sarcasm, Isaiah chides: they seek me daily and delight to know my ways . . . they delight to draw near to God (v. 2). We can outwardly be keeping Sabbath, even justifying what we do as somehow keeping Sabbath because we are seeking God, reflecting on God and his creation.
What truly drives our Sabbath-keeping, this day of rest experience? We can easily turn our Sabbath-keeping experience into PR and acquisition. Isaiah 58 is an indictment poem against Israel who, despite having the form of Sabbath-rest, had forgotten the landless—the poor, the homeless, those who could not enjoy the benefits of living in the land—and, thus, enjoy God's rest.
Isaiah 58 is an indictment poem against Israel who, despite having the form of Sabbath-rest, had forgotten the landless—the poor, the homeless, those who could not enjoy the benefits of living in the land—and, thus, enjoy God's rest.
Here is the problem—the beginning and end of the poem bookend the issue:
3b “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
Are we, today, trampling the Sabbath because we have missed the whole point of what it was to meant to "keep" the Sabbath holy? What are we, CPC Fairfield and CPC in The Hill, doing with our freedom in Christ? Are we guilty of trampling on the Sabbath because the focus is on our own pleasure . . . on our position and status in the community . . . on some declaration of our spirituality . . . on our acquisition of processions? How do we even begin to ensure we are not guilty of fake Sabbath-keeping?
II. A look back at the original Sabbath commands and how they play a part in Isaiah 58
While in the Air Force, on July 10, 1978, I received Jesus as my Lord. And, I was on fire. I hung with other Airmen who were on fire. We liked to fast. It’s in the Bible, you know. Fasting was for serious Christians. We were serious Christians. Usually just a day, skipping a few chow-hall meals, you know, to get spiritual. Then we got the bright (“spiritual”) idea of fasting for three days––three whole days. We did. And we let everyone know it, too . . . sorry, can’t go to the chow-hall, I’m fasting. Skipping lunch to read my Bible . . . I am fasting, you know, three days. When the three days were over, we met up at the chow-hall and downed a lot of food. Hey, we had just fasted for three days, you know. Some mature Christians took us aside, “Guys, that’s not how it works. If you tell people you are fasting, it’s not fasting—it’s just skipping meals.” The fasting was about us. I’m glad they had the boldness to confront the future Pastor of CPC in The Hill.
It’s worth noting the original Sabbath commands. The 4th commandment to keep the Sabbath does not focus on YHWH as the first 3 words do. This command centers on the extend of those who are to keep the Sabbath. However, our institutional mind plays tricks on us, hearing Moses as if he said, we are go to church, set the whole day aside to reflect on God—that’s how we keep the Sabbath, you know, we're serious Christians! But these commands say no such thing. Based on Exodus and Deuteronomy and, here, Isaiah 58, we are to keep the Sabbath holy by ensuring that our children, our neighbors, female and male slaves, even livestock (someone’s means of work), and the non-Israelite sojourner cease to work. Nothing about worship. Nothing about going to the beach or a park or pulling up a chair in the backyard to read a Christian book and contemplate God's good creation. Nope. Not a word.
⇛ that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.”
“You shall remember 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.”
Again, Isaiah sings with some irony and sarcasm: Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? (58:5). The way it is written (and to be heard) demands the answer: No that's not what that day is for. We claim the opposite as Sabbath-keepers; we claim it is a day to humble ourselves (again, nothing in the commands that point in that direction for the Sabbath day). Remember, our Sabbath–fast (the ceasing of our labor) is not about humbling ourselves (you can hear how Sunday can be turned into PR and self-fulfillment). Here’s how Isaiah 58 corrects us and what God desires:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,
The Sabbath was given to equalize, to level, for one day, every single person. In a horizontal world, the 4th commandment is to be applied vertically, equally to all. And, God's people were the ones to bring this into existence–to be a lived parable as it were.
Sabbath, the great equalizer: As Christians, we understand that sin is the great equalizer. Sin puts kings and paupers, the wealthiest and the poor, the CEO and the janitor, men and women, the powerful and the powerless all on equal footing before the God of heaven and earth. Sin is inherited (from Adam) and is in ever-present demonstration by all humans. There is, however, another equalizer. Yet, this one must be ensured by us. This is the point of the Exodus and Deuteronomy 4th commands. The Sabbath was given to man, and thus to His delivered people who have tasted His freedom, to equalize every single person, females and males, daughters and sons, male and female slaves, even the stranger and the sojourner (all who have no claim on the land and lack all security), and even the livestock and beasts of burden less someone must tend them and work . . . are all to cease from labor, all to rest, all to Sabbath. This makes Jesus’ word “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for every single human being” (cf. Mark 2:27) all the more powerful in a culture where social status and power is put each human being in her or his place. The Sabbath was given to equalize, to level, for one day, every single person. In a horizontal world, the 4th commandment is to be applied vertically equally to all. And, God's people were the ones to bring this into existence–to be a lived parable as it were. This is what it means to “observe the Sabbath” and to “keep it holy.” The Sabbath is a picture of the gospel, where everyone, strangers and unequals, are welcome at the Table of the Jesus Christ.
III. A Sabbath–Fast that Ensures the Least and Lacking Among Us Experience Sabbath-rest
Before returning to church ministry, I worked for 20 years as a community action grant-writer and program developer. We served the poorest of populations. One example: our population lacked good nutrition and underweight babies marked the population, but many could not get to the stores that had fresh produce (and if they could, travel back with all the groceries) nor could they afford food that was nutritious. Nothing in their neighborhoods. Bus routes didn’t reach where they lived. The system was against their well-being. As church, comfortable at our Sunday Sabbath-keeping, the very systems that allow us the privilege of a Sunday fellowship and worship might very well work against the well-being of the least of us. Isaiah 58 makes this connection for us.
In Isaiah 58, fasting and Sabbath-keeping was their vision, but it was something for their own pleasure; yet, God had a different vision. Cultic behavior, systems, habits . . . may be self-indulgent . . . or [they] may [even] be magical in mentality (Muilenburg). Our Sabbath behavior can be turned into a device for making God do our will or to demonstrate how spiritual we are (sadly, a public display). If we truly want to cease (fast or Sabbath) from something, let us put a stop (a cease) to oppression.
A) The equalizing intentions of the Sabbath will indicate God is in our midst
Sabbath was a sign, but what did it signify? Exodus 31:13, states, “. . . you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you . . . that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” The Sabbath-sign signified God was in their midst. Isaiah 58:8-9 affirms what the Sabbath-sign signifies: when the intent of the Sabbath is enacted (verses 6–7), then the present of God among his people is apparent:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn . . . the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard (v. 8)
B) Ensuring all have Sabbath pleasure, true rest, we will be the restorer of the streets
It should not surprise us: the first marks of the church in Acts are the sharing of resources so no one had need. Have you ever wondered how believing on Jesus produced followers and gathered-churches that—knew instinctively—their possessions were to be held in common for meeting the needs of any and all, literally, house to house.
all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
There was not a needy person among them . . .
1) First, we must ask: what is it about our institutional religion, our way of doing Sabbath that prohibits this?
2) Is our vision of Sabbath and fasting God’s vision or something that places us (places me) in the center? Something for our pleasure?
3) And finally, so, what are we famous for?
May our form of church, our form of Sabbath-keeping be such that we ensure that the poor, the homeless, the hungry discover God’s rest and find Sabbath pleasure. For then, we may be called the restorer of the streets.
|The preached version of this sermon (@ CPC Fairfield, CT, August 12, 2018)|
|File Size:||100665 kb|
I am the author of Wasted Evangelism: Social Action and the Church's Task of Evangelism, a deep, exegetical read into the Gospel of Mark. All royalties from this book go to support our church planting ministry in the Hill community of New Haven, CT. The book and its e-formats can be found on Amazon, Barns'n Noble, (and most other online book distributors) or through the publisher, Wipf & Stock directly.
For more information on our church plant >> Learning Local in The Hill