The Sabbath and Service

We live today in a most exciting and yet paradoxical age. We can tune our radio and TV receivers to sounds and pictures coming from outer space or across the ocean, and yet many persons fail to tune their souls to God and to hear His voice. We can race the sun across the sky with supersonic jets, and yet we often fail to reach the needy across the street. We live and move among large crowds, and yet many persons are afflicted by a deep sense of loneliness or by an identity crisis. Many seek for rest and inner peace by taking vacations, tranquilizers, drugs, alcohol; and yet often restlessness, tension, and anxiety remain in their inner souls. We can dial a few numbers and talk instantly with someone living in the farthest continent, and yet we sometimes fail to communicate with our closest kin: our husband, wife, and children. We can harness many types of natural resources to ensure our modern comforts, and yet our very existence is being threatened today by the depletion and pollution of the natural resources. To sum it all up, we might say that we live today in a paradoxical age where on the one hand we enjoy increased knowledge, goods, communication, and comforts, while on the other hand many are experiencing increased physical exhaustion, emotional frustration, social neglect, inner restlessness, and loss of assurance in God's existence and in a divine solution to the problems that afflict this world and our personal lives.

In the light of this existing dilemma, it is well for us to consider what contribution the values and the celebration of the Sabbath can make toward solving some of these pressing human problems. To guide our reflections on the vital function of this divine institution for contemporary human needs, I invite you to consider with me four specific areas of service which the Sabbath is designed to provide to us as individual believers and to our society as a whole. We shall call these four areas of service (1) service to God, (2) service to ourselves, (3) service to others, and (4) service to our habitat.

I. The Sabbath As Service To God

The Sabbath is first of all designed to provide us with time and opportunities for serving God. Repeatedly the Scriptures remind us that the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord (Exodus 31:15; 16:23; Leviticus 23:3; c.f. Exodus 20:10; Mark 2:28). Obviously we serve God every day of our life. But our everyday service to God differs from the Sabbath service. Why? Primarily because during the week we offer to God what may be called the Martha type of service, in which we acknowledge our Savior while serving an employer and meeting the many demands of life. On the Sabbath, however, we offer to God what may be called the Mary type of service, in which we desist from gainful employment and from secular pursuits in order to fully and wholly honor our Savior.

The deliberate act of resting on the Sabbath for God is a most meaningful act of worship because it signifies our total response to God. It is an act of worship that is not exhausted in the one-hour attendance at the divine service but lasts twenty-four hours. In a sense, here lies the basic difference between Sabbath keeping and Sunday keeping, namely, in the understanding of the value, significance, and validity of resting as an act of worship to God. Sunday keeping originated primarily as an hour of worship followed by ordinary activities. In spite of later attempts made by church councils and Puritans to make Sunday into a holy day of rest, Sunday has remained essentially an hour of worship. The recognition of this historical reality has led religious leaders such as Christopher Kiesling, a leading Catholic liturgist, to urge in his book The Future of the Christian Sunday, "the abandonment of rest on Sunday as a Christian practice," and the retaining of Sunday as an hour of worship. Some even propose shifting the hour of Sunday worship to a more convenient time of the week that would not interfere with Sunday leisure.

On the contrary, Sabbath keeping is presented in the Scriptures as service rendered to God through the consecration of the 24 hours of the seventh-day Sabbath. It is noteworthy that the Fourth Commandment does not say, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy by attending Sabbath School and church Service," but rather, "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy" by working six days and resting on the seventh day for the Lord your God. What this means is that the essence of Sabbath keeping is the consecration of time, the act of resting for God on the seventh day. This act of resting for God on the Sabbath is most important because it makes all the activities of this day -- whether they be the formal divine service or the informal fellowship and recreation -- a worship offering to God, because they spring from a heart which has deliberately decided to honor God on His holy day. To worship means basically to acknowledge the worthiness of God by offering Him our prayers, praises, adoration. The act of resting for God on the Sabbath represents our tangible recognition and acknowledgment of God's worthiness, and thus it is a most meaningful expression and experience of worship.

To appreciate the profound religious significance of the Sabbath rest as service to God, we need to remind ourselves that our life is a measure of time, and the way we spend our time is indicative of our priorities. We have not time for those toward whom we feel indifferent, but we find time for those whom we love. To be willing on the seventh day to withdraw from the world of things in order to meet the invisible God in the quietness of our souls means to show in a tangible way our love, loyalty, and devotion to God. It means to be willing to tune out the hundreds of voices and noises that clamor for attention, in order to tune our souls to God and to hear His voice. It means not merely to sandwich in one hour of worship for God in a hectic day spent seeking for selfish pleasure or profit but rather to serve God wholly during the Sabbath; it means to offer to God not only lip service but the service of our total being.

II. The Sabbath As Service To Ourselves

Sabbath keeping means not only service to God but also service to ourselves, because the very service we offer God on the Sabbath by resting and worshiping Him is designed not to add strength or power to God but to enable God to strengthen and empower our personal lives. God does not need our Sabbath rest and worship, nor does He need our weekday work. What He wants is a receptive heart, mind, and soul, willing to receive and experience His peace and rest that only can fulfill the deepest longing of our hearts. A vital function of the Sabbath is indeed to provide us this opportunity to find rest in God. We read in Hebrews 4:10 that on the Sabbath we are to cease from our daily work in order to enter God's rest. In other words, we stop doing our work on the Sabbath in order to allow God to work in us more freely and fully and thus to enrich us with His peace and rest. How can we on the Sabbath enter into God's rest and experience divine rest and peace in our lives? For the sake of brevity, let us focus briefly on only two significant ways in which the Sabbath can enrich our life with divine rest and peace, namely, through the time and opportunity it offers us for meditation and renewal.

1. Sabbath Meditation

On the Sabbath we can experience divine peace and rest by taking time to meditate in the climate of stillness and free reception the day provides. According to some social analysts, the lack of reflection is a fundamental cause of our restless culture. Many live today intensively active, restless lives without understanding their true selves, and thus they are ever sensing an inner emptiness and disillusionment. Some will often go from one round of activities to another in an attempt to find peace and joy by forgetting their inner tensions. But inner peace and harmony are to be found not in forgetting oneself by doing an endless round of activities, but rather in discovering ourselves by being still. The psalmist expresses this truth eloquently when he says: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). For many of us this ideal remains largely unfulfilled during the week.

The Sabbath, however, by releasing us from the pressure of our daily work, provides us with time and opportunities for meaningful reflection, and meditation. Harvey Cox, a distinguished Harvard University theologian, tells in his book Turning East how he discovered the Sabbath meditation in Boulder, Colorado, while researching on Eastern meditation at the Buddhist center. While there, he accepted an invitation from a rabbi to celebrate with him "a genuine, old-fashioned Sabbath, . . . appreciating the world rather than fixing it, . . . just savoring being rather than doing." Through this experience he discovered that "meditation is in essence a miniature Sabbath." In other words, he found that what Eastern meditation promised to offer, namely an experience of divine realities, could readily be experienced by observing another Eastern-Biblical institution, an old-fashioned Sabbath: experiencing being rather than doing, appreciating God's world rather than fixing it up. He noticed, however, that Sabbath meditation is superior to Oriental meditation, because it does not encourage detachment from the realities of this world (a contemplative life instead of an active life), but rather it provides a one-day interlude that enables a person to live in this world while looking forward to the better world to come.

I firmly believe that we need to discover more fully the Sabbath as a time for reflection and meditation. We tend to fill the Sabbath with so many programs and activities that little time is left for enriching reflection and meditation that can give texture and quality to our life. I would like to propose to all of us to include a time for meditation in our Sabbath planning. Some of you may wish to meditate by yourselves; others may wish to join in a group meditation. Others may prefer to meditate while reading devotional literature or while contemplating the beauty of nature. We must allow for diversity in our spiritual exercises because we do not all experience divine realities in the same way. The important thing is to take some time out during the Sabbath to meditate, to let our mind dwell upon spiritual realities. The time spent in thoughtful meditation enriches our moral and spiritual perceptions, more so perhaps than, for example, the time spent on Sabbath afternoon listening to a panel discussing a controversial theological topic. Chances are, in fact, that listening to a polemical discussion may trouble our mind and thus destroy the very peace and rest of the Sabbath.

I was impressed while studying in Rome to see the impact of prayer and meditation on some of my professors and classmates. I saw them taking time for prayer and meditation not only in the early morning but also during the 15-minute interval between classes. Some of them would take advantage of those few minutes to withdraw into the little chapel for a few moments of prayer and meditation. The effect of these spiritual exercises could be seen in their peaceful and serene dispositions. While prayer and meditation is possible and necessary every day, it is the climate of stillness and free reception provided by the Sabbath that enables us to truly meditate, that is, to discover God and ourselves; to truly experience an awareness of God's presence; to freely "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8).

The time we spend on the Sabbath resting, worshiping, and meditating enables us to restore order and harmony to our fragmented lives. It enables us to restore equilibrium between our bodies and our souls, between the material and spiritual components of our being. During the week as we work to produce, to sell, to buy, and to enjoy things, we tend to become materially conscious, to view our material wants as more important than our spiritual needs. Our bodies seem to become more important than our souls. The Sabbath is designed to restore the equilibrium between bodies and our souls.

The story is told of some African workers who were hired to carry pieces of heavy equipment on their backs to a remote post in the interior of Africa. After several days of marching, one day they refused to pick up their burdens and go any further. They sat by the side of the road turning a deaf ear to the appeals of the man in charge.

Exasperated, the leader of the expedition asked them: "But why you don't want to go on?"

One of the workers replied: "Sir, we are waiting for our souls to catch up with our bodies."

This story well illustrates the function of the Sabbath, which is to give a chance to our souls to catch up with our bodies; to give a chance to our souls, through worship and meditation, to be enriched with new moral and spiritual values. This spiritual renewal that comes to us on the Sabbath through worship and meditation enables us to turn a new page in our life, to start a new week with a fresh provision of divine wisdom and grace.

2. Sabbath Physical Renewal

A second way in which the Sabbath enables us to experience divine rest and peace in our lives is through the time and opportunities it provides for physical renewal. We experience physical renewal on the Sabbath, first of all through the special rest the Sabbath offers to our bodies; that is, rest not only from work but even from the thought of work. On the Sabbath our bodies can rest better than during the weekdays, because our mind is at rest, and our mind is at rest because it rests in God. Second, physical renewal comes to us on the Sabbath not only by resting but also by engaging in joyful activities. A question members often ask me during the Festival of the Sabbath seminars, is, "What do you consider appropriate or inappropriate Sabbath activities?" I always refrain from offering a standard formula for two reasons. First, because physical needs vary considerably according to age and profession. For example, the physical Sabbath needs and activities of a teenager bubbling over with energy are likely to be different from those of a middle-age bricklayer. Second, I believe that any attempt to classify or specify "legitimate" Sabbath activities may encourage legalistic attitudes that stifle the very spirit of freedom and joy of the Sabbath. Thus, rather than classifying appropriate or inappropriate Sabbath activities, I will venture to suggest three basic principles to guide us in selecting suitable Sabbath activities.

First, our Sabbath activities should be God-centered rather than self-centered. They should be not an end in themselves but rather a means, as explained in Isaiah 58:13, 14, to express the delight in the Lord, to celebrate the goodness of God's creation and redemption. Personally, I feel that in our fear to break the Sabbath, we tend to discourage our children and youth from engaging in any form of activity on the Sabbath. I hardly believe that the Lord is more delighted in seeing our youth sitting still on the Sabbath rather than in being engaged in some activity. It would seem to me that what honors God on the Sabbath is not the action or inaction of our young people, but rather the intent and purpose behind their Sabbath activities or inactivities. A Bible game can be played on the Sabbath for the sake of scoring and winning or for the sake of fellowshipping together in honor of the Lord of the Sabbath. The challenge that I see is to teach our youth not how to be paralytic on the Sabbath, but rather how to choose and to engage in Sabbath activities in a way that will enable them to express delight in the Lord, appreciation for His creative and redemptive love commemorated on this day.

Second, Sabbath activities should promote freedom and joy. They should contribute to celebrating and experiencing the redemptive freedom offered to us by the Savior on and through this day. Sometimes the same activity can be an experience of freedom or of restraint. For example, a Sabbath picnic in our backyard or in a park can be a joyful and delightful celebration of the goodness of God's creation if adequate preparations have been made before the Sabbath so that everyone can participate freely in it. On the other hand, if some persons have to spend hours preparing the food, the picnic becomes an expression of selfishness, since it deprives some persons of the freedom and joy of the Sabbath.

Third, Sabbath activities should encourage fellowship and communion and not competition. A complaint that I often hear from our young people, especially in our colleges and large churches, goes something like this: "It is very difficult to make new friends in this place." Apparently one reason for this problem seems to be that the school program offers limited opportunities for informal group fellowship. Most social events seem to be so structured as to presuppose a date, even though it may be blind. If a young man or young lady does not have a date, he or she may feel left out and thus may choose not to attend the program.

The celebration of the Sabbath should encourage informal group-fellowship. I treasure the pleasant memory of the many joyful Sabbath afternoons I spent as a teenager with the young people of our church in Rome or of our school in Florence. I always looked forward to Sabbath afternoon, when as a group we would go out to a park or hike to the mountain behind the school. We would stop in a convenient spot to sing, to discuss a relevant topic, to listen to stories and experiences, and to play and pray together. This informal group-fellowship inspired by the celebration of the Sabbath gave us a chance to get to know better one another and thus to establish lasting friendships. I believe that more can be done to encourage informal group-fellowship of our young people on Sabbath afternoon. These group-fellowships may be organized in a home, in the lounges of the residence halls or of the student center, or outdoors when the weather permits. These group-fellowships occasioned by the celebration of the Sabbath provide a welcome opportunity to our young people to share together their talents, experiences, and concerns and to establish lasting friendship.

III. The Sabbath As Service To Others

The Sabbath provides precious opportunities to serve not only God and ourselves but also others. After helping us to find God and ourselves, the Sabbath helps us to find others. After renewing us with a fresh understanding and experience of God's creative and redemptive love, the Sabbath challenges us to reach out unto others, to respond to human needs. To help us in remembering others, the Fourth Commandment gives quite an inclusive list of persons to be remembered on the Sabbath. The list goes from the son to the manservant, from the daughter to the maidservant, and it includes also the sojourner and the animals. This humanitarian function of the Sabbath tends to be neglected. We prefer to think of the Sabbath in terms of service to ourselves rather than service to others. Thus Christ took pains through His Sabbath teaching and ministry to clarify and emphasize the function of the Sabbath commandment. The Savior proclaimed the Sabbath to be a day "to do good" (Matthew 12:12), "to save" (Mark 3:4), to loose men and women from physical and spiritual bonds (Luke 13:12), a day to show mercy rather than religiosity (Matthew 12:7, 8). Let us consider briefly how the celebration of the Sabbath can be shared with others.

Time for the Family. First of all, the Sabbath provides time and opportunities for the immediate members of the family. The daily work scatters the family members in different directions: husband and wife to their respective work, and children to school. The rest of the Sabbath day brings us together by giving us time for God, for ourselves, for our families, and for others. The pressure of the weekdays can make even father a stranger to his family members. It is not uncommon to hear children say: "We hardly ever see Daddy. He is always away." On the Sabbath, free from the pressure of work, father has the opportunity to become attuned again to his children.

A most welcome moment in our home is Friday evening, when after the hustling and bustling of the week, our family of five gathers to welcome the Lord of the Sabbath by singing, reading, praying, and listening to one another. The arrival of the Sabbath serves to re-knit the family bonds of sympathy and affection. The challenge that we face as parents is to make the Sabbath for our children a day of joyful celebration instead of gloomy frustration. Adventist writer Ellen White tells us on this regard that "parents can make the Sabbath, as it should be, the most joyful day of the week. They can lead their children to regard it as a delight, the day of days, the holy of the Lord, honorable."

Time for One's Partner. The Sabbath provides time and opportunities to come close to one special person -- one's marital partner. The rapid pace of modern life, punctuated by different professional and social interests, contributes to the estrangement between husbands and wives and to an ever-increasing number of broken marriages. The Sabbath can function as a catalyst to solidify and strengthen marital relationships in at least two ways: theologically and practically.

Theologically, the sanctity of the Sabbath serves to safeguard the sacredness of marriage, because the Sabbath teaches that relationships are sacred. A Christian couple who take time on the Sabbath to renew their commitment to God through the consecration of the Sabbath time to Him, will inevitably renew also their commitment to each other. On the other hand, if a person willfully ignores the Sabbath, symbol of commitment to God, he or she will not hesitate, if the occasion arises, to ignore his or her marital vows of faithfulness to the marriage partner or to anyone else.

Practically, the Sabbath contributes to solidify marital relationships by providing husbands and wives with the time and inspiration to come closer and listen to each other. The celebration of God's creative and redemptive love motivates husbands and wives to give themselves unselfishly to each other by sharing together thoughts, concerns, joys, and necessary duties. My wife tells me that when I am away she misses me more on the Sabbath than on any other day. Obviously the same holds true for me, because the Sabbath is the day when we find time to worship, to walk, to visit, to play, to relax together. The togetherness and closeness of body and soul that husbands and wives experience on the Sabbath enable them to overcome any estrangement caused by the tension of the past week and thus to experience a renewed sense of unity and commitment to God and each other.

Time for the Needy. The Sabbath is the day to serve God by taking time to show concern not only toward our immediate family members but also toward the needy. It is noteworthy that the "stranger," or the alien, are specifically mentioned in the Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:10; 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14) as a beneficiary of our Sabbath concern. Jesus also, through His Sabbath ministry, taught that the Sabbath is not rules to obey but people to love; it is the day to share God's blessings with others. An important aspect of the preparation for Sabbath in the Jewish home was planning for possible visitors.

Similarly, in the Christian home we should prepare for the Sabbath, planning to share our food and our friendship with the visitor, the orphan, the single parent, the elderly, the estranged and discouraged, who are present in our church and in our community. During the week the many pressures may cause us to neglect needy persons. On the Sabbath, as we celebrate God's love and care we are motivated to share our concern and friendship with the needy. The service we render on the Sabbath to needy persons not only honors God but also enriches our lives with a sense of joy and satisfaction.

IV. The Sabbath As Service To Our Habitat

A fourth area of service provided by the Sabbath may be called service to our habitat. There is great concern today over the precarious ecological balance of our environment. Some social analysts regard the irresponsible exploitation of our natural resources as a major threat to the survival of life on this planet. As Christians, we share in this concern because we believe that God has placed us in this world as stewards of His good creation. The Sabbath offers us both theological incentives and practical opportunities to be good stewards of God's creation, to develop an ecological conscience.

Theologically, the Sabbath reminds us that we share with nature in God's creation, redemption, and ultimate restoration. It tells us that nature is our worthy partner not only in this present world but also in the earth made new (Isaiah 66:22, 23). Practically, the Sabbath teaches us not to exploit but to admire nature as an expression of the beauty and glory of God's handiwork (Psalm 19:1). When nature ceases to be an object of contemplation and admiration, it easily becomes an object of exploitation. If a person believes that this world is not God's creation but the product of spontaneous generation, there is little to stop such a person from exploiting its resources irresponsibly to ensure immediate comforts. The Sabbath teaches us to acknowledge God's ownership of this world ("The land is mine and you are . . . my tenants" -- Leviticus 25:23), by enjoining us to surrender the right to us gainfully on this day the land, people, and even animals. On the Sabbath we do not go to the forest to cut trees into firewood, but to admire the trees, the flowers, the birds, as expression of God's handiwork. By teaching us to admire nature as an expression of divine revelation, the Sabbath challenges us to act as curators, rather than an predators of God's creation.

Our brief meditation has reminded us how vital are the values and celebration of the Sabbath for our contemporary human needs. We have found that the celebration of the Sabbath provides us the opportunity to serve God by consecrating our time and life to Him, to serve ourselves through the experience of spiritual and physical renewal, to serve others by coming closer to our family members and needy persons, and to serve our habitat by becoming responsible stewards of God's creation. May these unique opportunities the Sabbath offers us to serve God, ourselves, others, and our habitat help each one of us to experience a larger measure of the Savior's rest in our lives.

-- written by Samuele Bacchiocchi

Additional Articles:

Why the Sabbath is Important, Part 1
When Does Your Sabbath Begin?
Keeping the Sabbath in a Non-Sabbath World
The Sabbath and Ecology
How to Keep the Sabbath Holy
The Truth About Sabbath and Sunday
The Good News of the Sabbath
Sabbath Facts
Jubilee and the Sabbath Year
The Sabbath: A Divisive Issue?
A History of the Saturday Resurrection Doctrine Among Sabbath-Keepers
Chronology of the Crucifixion and Resurrection According to Ancient Texts
A Look at The Pope’s Pastoral Letter, "Dies Domini"
Review: The Sabbath Under Crossfire
Sabbath Quiz

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Written by: Richard C. Nickels
Giving & Sharing
PO Box 100
Neck City, MO 64849
United States of America

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