The Weekly Holiday
The holidays are now behind us. What lies ahead is the rest of the cold, dark winter months. If you need something to look forward to, the next holiday to celebrate or the next vacation to get some real rest, then I have some good news for you. The next holiday is never more than a week away.
God established the weekly holiday in Genesis 2:3. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” And it was included in the Ten Commandments, the fourth of which is: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exo 20:8). The Sabbath day, the day of rest, is a divine holiday that shows up every week.
It is unfortunate that many Christians want to argue about whether this commandment remains obligatory in the new covenant. Because of our confidence in the gospel of Jesus, to argue about whether we must observe the Sabbath or not completely misses the point, for we understand that none of God’s commandments are meant to condemn us or shame us or burden us. It would be better for us to consider again what the Sabbath is, why God established it in the first place, and how observing it just might be the gift of grace we desperately need.
A Day Full of Memories
The fourth commandment is one of only two that are not cast in the negative. There is no, “Thou shalt not” here. What God wants for his people in keeping the Sabbath is entirely positive, a benefit he wants us to have.
So much of the conversation about the Sabbath day centers on the “thou shalt nots,” things that we cannot do on this one day of the week. To be sure, in the words that follow the fourth commandment, Israel was told to “not do any work,” and the legalistic rules that developed around the prohibition is the stuff Jesus so frequently confronted. Perhaps we would do better to ask, not “What can I not do on the Sabbath,” but instead to ask, “What is there to look forward to on this day? What kinds of things can we do?”
That’s why thinking of the Sabbath day as a holiday is so helpful. We do not (usually) ask, “What can I not do on Christmas Day?” We often ask each other, “What are your favorite Christmas traditions?” We like to know what people do on holidays, not what they don’t do. It’s what we do on holidays or on vacations that make memories. And it’s what we do on these days that all but eliminates any discussion about what we don’t do.
The Sabbath is meant to be a gift for the people of God, one day every week to look forward to, one day of the week that sets the tone for the rest of the week. How might it do this? What can we do on the weekly holiday to make it something to look forward to?
A Corporate Holiday
Our catechism states that the fourth commandment requires, “God’s people together to set apart for rest one whole day in seven as a holy Sabbath to God” (Q87). Notice the corporate nature of the Sabbath. It is to be observed by “God’s people together.” The Sabbath will be enjoyed far more if the church celebrates it together. Just imagine what Christmas Day would be like if only you and your family observed it on December 25. What if that day was just like any other day for everyone else around you? Part of the enjoyment of Christmas is the fact that so many of us set aside that one day to celebrate it together.
This is why the weekly corporate worship service ought to be the centerpiece of what we do on the Sabbath. When we ask, “What do you do on Christmas Day?” most of us know that the centerpiece of the celebration is that time in which we share gifts with one another. There are other things we do, of course, but this is the one distinctive about the Christmas holiday. In the same way, the assembling of God’s people together for worship is the most important activity of the Sabbath. If we don’t look forward to that, it’s not because our worship service needs more entertainment; it’s because the heart has lost its delight in God.
And without delight in God, the Sabbath will never be for us the delight that God intends it to be. The goal of Sabbath, according to the catechism, is to “restore the soul’s rest in God and zeal for his name” by giving us “physical refreshment” to “equip” us “for a week of devoted service to Christ” (Q88). There’s more to the Sabbath than corporate worship, but worship is the theme of the day. It is the way we find rest. The Sabbath is a day of rest, not so much to sleep, but to find the refreshment and equipment our souls will need for the week of work ahead.
I long to see myself and all the church see the Sabbath not as a day to be dreaded, but a day to look forward to. I am convinced that the Sabbath is to be the best day of the week, not because we hypocritically and self-righteously say that it is, but because we really do enjoy it, cherish it, and anticipate its arrival.
The Sabbath, when experienced as God intended, is the best day of our lives. Without question or thought, it is the best day of the week. . . . Sabbath is the holy time where we feast, play, dance, have sex, sing, pray, laugh, tell stories, read, paint, walk, and watch creation in its fullness. Few people are willing to enter the Sabbath and sanctify it, to make it holy, because a full day of delight and joy is more than most people can bear in a lifetime, let alone a week (Allender, Sabbath, 4-5).
I hope Christians can see Sabbath as a great gift of grace from an extravagantly generous God. After all, as Jesus himself declared, the Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around (Mk 2:27).