Day of Rejoicing

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In Germany there is no Sunday trading. In France there is technically Sunday trading but the employment of workers is not allowed. In Spain you can trade on four Sundays in the year; but regional authorities can allow additional trading. In America the rules vary from state to state. In the UK if you are a shop with a floor area greater than 280 sq metres you can only be open for six hours on a Sunday. But you must be closed on Easter Day and Christmas Day. In Sweden you can do as you like. What do you say to all of that? Well, in the UK Britain's High Street retailers are stepping up their campaign and are calling for a further liberalizing of Sunday trading laws. But North East MPs are united against these calls.

And what do you say to the extension of professional sport to Sunday? I can remember when professional cricket began to be played on a Sunday. I can also remember what the great Gary Sobers - one of the greatest cricketers of all time - said a year or two into this new regime. He said words to the effect that the grind of non-stop, seven days a week cricket had taken the joy out of the game and made people stale. The question, of course, this morning for us all as we come to the fourth of the Ten Commandments, is not "what do you say?" but "what ought you to say?" And the answer is there in Exodus 20 verse 8:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

And my headings now morning are, first, THE COMMANDMENT; secondly, ITS ABUSE; and, thirdly, THE RESPONSE.

But may I first say something by way of introduction.

The teaching of Christians down the centuries is that the Ten Commandments are relevant in every generation. They are not some time conditioned pieces of advice for primitive people but for all people in every age - the 21st century included. The Bible seems to be saying, they are like the makers' handbook. When you get a new car, you have a handbook. It tells you how to put in anti-freeze and oil; and how to jack the car up if necessary and when to have the car serviced. Of course, you are free to ignore those instructions. But that can be very expensive and if you ignore the instructions long enough, you will permanently damage the car.

The Bible teaches these are God's instructions here in the Ten Commandments. They are simply teaching basic behaviour patterns that are essential for a life of fulfilment and contentment. And they are the result of God's love for men and women. He wants them to experience the good life. Keeping his commandments - living morally and spiritually in accordance with the way the world is designed - is the way to that good life.

But perhaps you are saying, "I thought Christianity was all about grace not about law." Well, that is where people can go so wrong. God's law - here in the Ten Commandments - shows you undoubtedly the best way to live. And Christians want others to know that. But there is a tragic reality. That is that all in some ways ignore or defy God's law - that maker's handbook. And the result is human failure and misery. But there is then good news. And that good news is about the grace of God. If the law is like the driver's handbook, the gospel of God's grace is like the repair manual. It tells you, on the one hand, of the work of Christ for you on the cross for pardon (for the sin of ignoring and defying God's law). And, on the other hand, it tells you of the gift of the Holy Spirit for power (so that you can begin to live as God intended which is in line with his basic law). And Jesus, who was full of grace, did not come to destroy God's law but to fulfil it. He even said ...

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Mat 5:18).

What Jesus destroyed was not the law but false interpretations or expositions of the law - as we shall see. And Jesus wanted no mere external adherence to the letter of the law. He wanted people to get to the heart of its meaning - as we shall also see. So much by way of introduction.

Now my ...

First, heading - THE COMMANDMENT itself.

Some one has said that this is the most controversial of all the commandments.

First there is the question about when the Sabbath is to be observed - the seventh day of the week (Saturday) as Jews observe it and Seventh Day Adventists, or the first day of the week (Sunday) as mainstream Christians observe it. The Jewish Sabbath in the Old Testament celebrated God's creation and the Exodus from Egypt. But the early Christians in the New Testament celebrated God's new creation of Jesus' Resurrection on the first day of the week - the Lord's day of Resurrection.

Then there is the question of how it is to be observed. Look at verse 8. The commandment says first of all, "Remember." That implies it is so easy to forget to keep the Sabbath holy. But what does "holy" mean? Basically it means being separate or different or special. So the name of the campaign to oppose Sunday Trading some years ago, Keep Sunday Special, was a good one. (And note verse 9: it is telling you that work is a good thing. That, too, is God's command - "six days you shall labour.") Then verse 10 tells you that the "specialness" of the Sabbath is in its being special "to the Lord". And at the least that involves ceasing to work. Look at the second part of verse 10:

On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.

The reference to "within your gates" probably refers to the city gates. That means this is a commandment for all the people. Society as a whole needs a break. It is no good, therefore, a super-store saying they believe in the Sabbath principle by giving the staff off one day in seven but only one seventh off on any one day. There is the need for everyone - for society as a whole - to rest together. But if being special means negatively not working, what positively are you to do "for the Lord your God"? How do you answer that? Well, surely you should seek to follow Jesus and his use of the Sabbath.

The New Testament shows us that he spent the Sabbath joining in the worship of God at the synagogue (his church). He also did what was necessary on the Sabbath. In Mark chapter 2, as we heard in our New Testament reading, he did what was necessary, even if it offended the legalistic Pharisees. He was picking grain to eat. Some work on Sunday is necessary as slaves in the early church found. But they still tried to meet together for worship if possible early on Sunday morning. And then in the first part of Mark chapter 3 you read how Jesus healed and acted mercifully on the Sabbath.

Of course, in addition to worship and acts of necessity and mercy, Jesus would have had it as a day of rest and refreshment. And today that comes neither by making Sunday a second Saturday every week, nor by seeking to make more money (which is inevitably at the cost of someone else's lack of rest and refreshment - see Amos 8.4-6); nor by preventing other people enjoying themselves if that can be enjoyment "to the Lord". No it comes by making Sunday a day positively different because it is being self-consciously lived for God. As Isaiah 58 says the Sabbath is to be a "delight" - it is to be a "day of rejoicing". But, says the Bible, that comes "by not going your own way and not doing as you please" (Is 58.13). Rather you think about how God would want you to use it. So much for what the Commandment says.

But sadly the Commandment, of course, can be abused - that is my second heading ...

Secondly, ITS ABUSE;

And it can be abused in two ways - first, by a wrong sort of "liberalism" or "licence"; and secondly by a wrong sort of "legalism". What do I mean by "liberalism" or "licence". Well, in the Old Testament times and today it is ignoring or disobeying this command. At the heart of such a rejection of God's Sabbath principle is, on the one hand, the idea that people know better than God. And, on the other hand, there is the idea that God is some sort of spoil sport who just wants to stop you having a good time. People do not believe that God is good and our loving creator who knows what is best for us. At the time of the French Revolution in the attempt get rid of Christian beliefs and practice, a rest was tried every ten days, not every seven. It failed. God does know best.

The reference to creation in this commandment reminds you that the rhythm of six days on and one day off is part of the created order. How everyone, therefore, needs to observe that rhythm. The word "Remember" in the commandment suggests that the Sabbath principle was nothing new. Actually, earlier in their wilderness wanderings the Israelites experienced the provision of manna. But that special food wasn't provided on the seventh day. So the people had to collect twice as much on the sixth day. No! The Sabbath principle is certainly older than the Ten Commandments. It is there in the nature of things. And you need a Sabbath rest to be healthy - in body and mind but also in your soul - and in your relationship with God. So much for the wrong sort of "liberalism" or "licence".

But there is also the opposite abuse of "legalism" - of people who do not seek to take away from the commandment but to add on to it and go beyond what God says. Look at Mark chapter 2 and verses 23-27. Here you have the Pharisees condemning Jesus and the disciples for going through a grain field, enjoying themselves and picking "some heads of grain." You see, the Pharisees in their concern to protect the Sabbath decided to define "work" themselves. They said there were 39 categories of work and the third of these was reaping. In their book what the disciples were doing was reaping. As Jesus said elsewhere, they were tying "up heavy loads and put[ting] them on men's shoulders" (Mat 23.4). At the heart of this adding to God's law and being stricter than God is again people thinking they know better than God. These Pharisees (and their modern counterparts) were so strict to ensure that they never possibly could be transgressing the commandment. It is called "putting a fence around the law". Strict Jews still begin the Sabbath earlier than sunset to ensure they don't accidentally stray over and do anything wrong after sunset when the Sabbath begins. It is clear that Jesus didn't agree. He saw this as another abuse of the commandment. No doubt he saw that it would bring the Sabbath principle into disrepute. Moses in Deuteronomy 12.32 was crystal clear:

See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.

The wrong sort of liberalism takes away from the commandment; the wrong sort of legalism adds to it. So finally and ...


First, how did Jesus respond to this legalism?

The first thing he did was to point out to the Pharisees other parts of the bible that suggested their interpretation was wrong. They were just taking one text, Exodus 20 verse 10 - "you shall not do any work" - and filling it with their own meaning. But God's word is not just one verse or passage taken that ignores other parts of the Bible. As the Church of England puts it in Article XX of its Thirty-nine Articles, you may not, I quote ... "so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

So Jesus simply pointed out an instance from the life of David that showed the Sabbath was never meant to be an unnecessary burden. People should not be so strict.

And that principle of expounding one place of Scripture in the light ot others applies to licence as well as legalism. Today, for example, people can take a verse like Colossians 2.16 where Paul says:

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.

And they use that to say they can do as they like on Sunday. But that is to ignore the rest of the teaching of the Bible on the Sabbath. That makes it more likely this verse is referring to the criticism of Christians who were now keeping Sunday special and not Saturday or who were not so strict as some Jews wanted. Jesus clearly endorsed the Sabbath principle. He didn't ignore it. But at the same time he got to the heart of it. Look at Mark 2.27 and 28:

Then he said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.'"

Yes, says Jesus, keep the Sabbath. But it is not meant to be a burden but a blessing. And Jesus Christ as Lord of the Sabbath can, of course, change the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday - the day of Resurrection. That was Jesus' response.

Secondly, apart from keeping biblically balanced, there is to be our response of imitating God himself. Look back to Exodus 20 verse 11. That says you are to follow the Sabbath principle because that one-in-seven principle was somehow followed by Almighty God in his work of creation. Verse 11 of Exodus 20, referring to Genesis chapter 1, says:

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. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

So if you want to be God-like or "godly", you will try to act like God and have a Sabbath day's rest - one-in-seven. You say, "But God is outside time, as the creator of time. And only on the fourth day when he created the sun was there an earthly "24 hour daily cycle". So how can God's days and his rest on his seventh day have a meaning for me and my time frame of a regular seven day, twenty-four hour week? How can God's rhythm of six and one days be mine?"

The answer must be we do not know - nor can we ever know this side of heaven. God's ways are higher than our ways. Creation is a mystery. Yes, Genesis is referring to an event. But we must not "so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."

The New Testament, for example, suggests that that creation Sabbath-day never had an ending. Certainly alone of the days in Genesis 1 the seventh day lacks the words that marked the end of the other days. It did not have "there was evening and there was morning - the seventh day." Jesus in John 5.17 and the New Testament writer to the Hebrews (in Hebrews 4.3) seem to imply that that original Sabbath day - the seventh day of God's rest - is co-existent with all of history after God's creation work, not just one 24 hour period.

And the length of those days was a mystery to Moses himself who was recording these very words of this fourth commandment. Psalm 90 - the Psalm we said earlier - was, we are told, a "prayer of Moses". And verse 4 of that psalm says:

a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by or like a watch in the night."

And that is what the early Christians believed. So 2 Peter 3.8 says:

With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

Surely we need a reverent agnosticism with regard to God's days of creation.

But also surely, whatever happened at that momentous creation event, and however long or short in our time frame was the period covered by those seven days, the fourth commandment means this. It means that as God somehow had a rhythm of six and one in the time frame of the creation of the universe, so should you and I have that rhythm now in our time frame in 2006. That surely is how we imitate our God.

I must conclude.

The underlying principle of the fourth commandment is clear. And that is that we must honour God not only with our loyalty, as in the first commandment, and through our thought-life (as in the second) and by our words (as in the third) but also with our time. We must work for six days and have one day for worship and focusing explicitly on God to remind ourselves that all our time is his. Yes, we are to be stewards of our money and our talents. This commandment to keep the Sabbath is a reminder that we are also to be stewards of our time. So Paul says:

Look carefully then how you walk ... making most of the time because the days are evil" (Eph 5.16 ESV).

Of course, there is forgiveness through Christ when we fail "to make the most of the time", if we confess our failure. But may we all pray for the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in our stewardship of time as we seek to "walk carefully" and be good stewards.

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