Finding the Sweet Spot of Sabbath

Welcome to the third week of Embracing God’s Rest. Are you full of questions about how to best embrace a day of rest? Are you struggling with a legalist view of the Sabbath or wrestling with the desire to completely throw out the commandment to rest? Does it just feel too hard? Today Brianna Hines reminds us that Jesus tread that thin and rewarding line between rejection and suffocation of the Sabbath, and she encourages us to ask two simple questions when deciding how to spend the Sabbath.

By Brianna Hines

When my uncle Brian was 20, he moved to Israel, converted to Judaism, and changed his name to Ami, which means “my people.” He found a beautiful wife, started a family, and became extremely devout in his faith. He went from a kid raised in a Christian home in Portland to a strictly religious Jew. He embraced all of the Jewish laws with sincerity, and whenever he would visit us in the states, we all knew what to expect on shabbat (the Hebrew word for sabbath). From Friday evening at sundown until three stars could be spotted on Saturday night, our world changed. 

My uncle began preparing for the Sabbath on Friday morning by stopping by the store for fresh-baked bread, wine, and flowers, which he would give to the woman of the house. When dusk fell, we would all gather around the table for the reading of Scripture. I always loved hearing the Bible read in Hebrew and the exotic melody of the Sabbath songs he would sing. Then we would pass around the loaf of bread and tear off pieces to dip in a little bowl of salt before eating them. This was always followed by the passing of the wine cup. It was what I imagined Jesus doing with His disciples at the Last Supper. When all of the prayers had been said, the feasting began, and the next 24 hours was a time at home, hearing stories, relaxing on the couch, and eating leftovers. It was something new, something different. 

Ami was an interesting guy. I watched him change dramatically over my lifetime. When I was young, he was much more zealous and strict about the Jewish laws. He bought his own pots and pans to cook food in our kitchen, was extremely careful to not do anything that could be conceived as work on the Sabbath, and practiced each religious holiday, even making himself an outdoor shanty for the Festival of Booths. He was all in. Once, when I went to visit him in Israel, I wanted to cook the family a meal to show my gratitude for hosting us on our trip. My aunt helped me figure out which pots to cook which foods in, but I accidentally got some cheese in the meat pan. You would have thought I had killed someone. He was livid and threw the pan away. Needless to say, I didn’t set foot in the kitchen after that. 

In those early years, his practice of the Jewish laws was rigid and unmoving. Later, as time and experience wore down his zealousness, Ami became relaxed, jovial, and much more flexible. Sometimes, on shabbat, Ami would jokingly ask my dad, “Hey Barry, is your ox in a ditch?” and then they would spend the day tinkering on house projects together. He would eat foods that didn’t come with the little kosher symbol on the packaging, and he even let my mom cook him meals in our own pans! Life became less about following the rules and more about loving God and people. 

I think there are two unhealthy directions we can go with God’s sabbath command: we either ignore it altogether, or we overthink it. In Ami’s case, and that of many of the religious Jews of Jesus’ day, they fell prey to the latter. Sabbath became stressful, and even though they weren’t “working,” the Pharisees filled the day with a thousand rules that they had to work to follow. Sabbath wasn’t restful, it was stifling. 

In contrast, many modern Christians have done away with the practice of sabbath altogether, reasoning that because we are no longer under the law of the Old Testament, sabbath is an antiquated, outdated remnant of Judaism. Christ has freed us from the backbreaking expectations of the law, so we throw off sabbath like an old coat and leave it in the dust. However, sabbath was instituted by God long before the law came into play. Sabbath was even in existence before sin came into play! God Himself practiced sabbath. I think we shouldn’t be quite so quick to throw out or ignore the sabbath, as if we are spiritually superior to God Himself. 

Jesus had a better way. Jesus tread that thin and rewarding line between rejection and suffocation of the sabbath. He simply enjoyed it. He hung out with His buddies. He ate snacks. He went on walks. He healed people. He did things that were both restful and restorative. As He says in Mark 2:27, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” The first half of His statement reminds us that sabbath is a day created for our benefit. We need it. Rejecting sabbath is rejecting a gift God made specifically for us. The second half of the statement reminds us that we don’t have to earn sabbath. It shouldn’t be another load we have to carry. Jesus walked the sweet spot, right down the middle. We should seek to do the same.

Sometimes Lew or I will ask each other, “Do you think I am allowed to ______ on the sabbath?” We fill that blank with all kinds of things like “watch a movie,” “go shopping,” “mow the lawn,” etc. It is the legalist within us trying to figure out what the rules are for sabbath and if we will somehow be breaking them.

But thankfully, we have started to filter all of these questions through two main criteria:

1) Is it restful?

2) Does it bring joy?

Sabbath is a day to rest and enjoy God’s good gifts to us. Sometimes mowing the lawn would be a restful and joyful thing to do. Sometimes it wouldn’t. For some people hiking Mt. Pisgah would be both restful and joy-filled. For me and my four young kids, it would be nothing of the sort. My sabbath will not look like your sabbath, and neither of our sabbaths will look like that of someone in Jesus’ day.

So instead of trying to figure out the rules, or model your sabbath after some smart person who wrote a book, or worse yet, give up on sabbath altogether, try to ask yourself, “Is it restful?” and “Does it bring joy?” Let’s try to walk that sweet spot with Jesus and always remember, the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.

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