Sabbath Pleasure: A Day for Reflecting . . . on Justice for Our Neighbors (a Sermon on Isaiah 58)
Think about it: Think about all the people who had to work (income earning work) today just so you and I could keep the Sabbath. Do you hear how ironic this is?
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 a lot of 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, starting 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, et al. 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:
I. The honest accusations of Isaiah 58 on Sabbath-keeping
Ok, I won’t hold back! Religion, even Christianity, including our own church-life will take on form and over time will produce institutional structures and systems. These are inevitable. We have them (if you haven’t noticed). Now, these structures and systems must be maintained. Now, we need to appoint "maintainers" and give them authority that, will eventually, put the structures and systems over people. (This is what happens; it is mostly unavoidable.) That is the nature of structure and systems. And, there is always some who will have a vested interest in these “forms” and this clouds everything up--decision-making, budgets, and all the "who" which are overlords (managers) of the “forms.” Isaiah 58 comes as Israel faced exile and here the prophet speaks against how such institutionalized religion has failed to make a difference in human relationships, especially between the haves and have nots, between those of privilege and property and those of disadvantage and land-less (that is, those with scarce-to-no resources) . . . there are more possibilities, in our institution, of acquisition of things and the stink of pride that can attach itself to maintaining our Sabbath-keeping, which can drive our Sabbath experience and church-life maintenance decisions.
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.
If we take the order of Isaiah seriously, by the time we get to Isaiah 58, they have experienced the Servant’s redemption (Isaiah 53). They would have received drink and their fill of food they did not have to purchase (Isaiah 55). The foreigner and the eunuch who love God’s Sabbath would have been received into the covenant family (Isaiah 56) and those who are near and those who are far would have come to know the peace of God (Isaiah 57). So, the Israelites of Isaiah 58 have tasted the Servant’s freedom, the Servant’s deliverance. Yet, what are they doing with it?
Here is the problem—the beginning and end of the poem bookend the issue:
Isaiah is clear: the Sabbath-keepers were keeping the day or rest, the fasting of work, as a day for themselves, a day for their own pleasure. The New Revised Standard Version puts it well: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day (v. 13). Rather than keeping (honoring) the Sabbath, they were actually “trampling it.”
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.
[Nothing on what we are to do, but what we are not to do—and who “the not doing” extends to.]
And just in case you missed it, Moses repeats one specific people-group:
Moses repeats that even their “male and female slave” (come on, by now you know very well the term is “slave”), making for an emphasis on all, everyone are to Sabbath, not just the blood household. All were to cease to labor on the seventh day of the week. Then to offer the reason, Moses concludes in verse 15:
Let me offer a different reading for why remembering their slavery is important as a basis (i.e., the therefore) for keeping the Sabbath: It compliments the reminder, the repeat of “male and female servant" in the extend of who was to keep Sabbath. The history lesson underscores that Israel was oppressed and forced to work. The new association with YHWH, experiencing God's freedom, His deliverance, brings something new: the Sabbath command equalizes. The rest wasn’t just for the privileged and powerful.
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:
What are we doing to ensure all are equal and enjoy God’s rest? Isaiah 58 asks us, what are we famous for?
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 presence of God among his people is apparent:
This is set as an if-then scenario: If we pour ourselves out for the hungry, then God will be seen in our midst. A small reflection of this can be illustrated by our CPC in The Hill summer park BBQ ministry, called “In His Midst.” When we go to the park, God is already there (we didn’t bring him) . . . so we are “in His midst.” And, because we are church in the park, the people in the park are “In His Midst.”
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.
The ascended Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit brings about the deliverance and freedom for God's people, thus the call in Isaiah 58 becomes reality. The Isaiah 58 Sabbath rest is a call to restore the intentions behind the original Sabbath commands; this links the presence of God among his people to the flourishing of the City. So it was quite natural for God's people to be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail (v. 11b; see why I link the African water crisis to church planting) and you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in (v. 12b; and can you see why I connect the gospel to the flourishing of our neighborhood).
The true mark of keeping Sabbath is to find ways to fulfil the intentions of the command: to find ways to ensure everyone, especially the marginal, oppressed, and the poor—those who lack resources—discover God’s rest and to be included in Sabbath pleasure. What is it about our “Sundays” that ensure others are “ceasing to work” and finding God’s rest . . . ?
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.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.