Monday, March 08, 2021

Secularism and the Sabbath

I preached on the Fourth Commandment yesterday - you can get the video and audio online if you feel so inclined.  As I prepared the sermon, I was struck by how little I've heard about the Sabbath in recent years, and how truncated a view of Sabbath has been presented in what I have heard.  As far as I recall, most of the teaching I've heard on the Sabbath has gone along these lines: as Christians we're definitely not obliged to keep the Sabbath anymore; but the Commandment is still useful for us, because it enshrines the wisdom of taking time off and rest; so it's not in force as a Commandment per se, but it definitely still holds as a piece of advice (from the Creator, so properly wise advice which you ignore at your peril) about the limits of humanity and how to avoid burnout.

But the Sabbath can't be primarily about the need for human rest, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the model for Sabbath is God's rest.  It is God's rest into which the people are to enter by keeping Sabbath, the rest which we see at the end of the first creation account in Genesis.  God was not weary; God was not in danger of burn out.  Neither, in fact, did God entirely cease his activity (or the creation he had so recently called into being would have collapsed back into nothingness).  If the Sabbath is modelled on God's rest, it cannot be primarily addressing the problem of human exhaustion.  Then again, to make the Sabbath primarily about human rest ignores the positive content of the Sabbath - it was to be a sacred assembly, a day holy to the Lord.  It had positive content, not just negative.  Not just stopping work, but seeking worship.

So here's the thing.  I think we've secularised the Sabbath.  I don't think we should be observing a Jewish Sabbath; I do think the New Testament changes things.  (Listen to the sermon if you're curious to know how).  But what the NT doesn't do is remove the God-centred, worship-centred vision for human life which is presented to Israel.  To enter into God's rest is not merely to cease working; it is to be in God's presence, to worship, to delight in God.  I wonder if we react so much to the Roman emphasis on holy places, holy days etc. that we end up removing part of the biblical emphasis.  I wonder if we might be well advised to desecularise our Sabbath.

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