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The Practice of Sabbath Time: The Joy of Embracing

July 11, 2011

Inagrace Dietterich

In 2011, I am blogging on the theme “The Simple Life: God’s Quiet Revolution of Love, Forgiveness, and Unity”

The commandment in the Decalogue to “remember and keep the sabbath” does not immediately bring to mind joy and rejoicing. In fact, for many people the practice of sabbath has a bad reputation. Rather than glorifying God and abiding in love, sabbath observance has all too often degenerated into routine and drudgery.  Sabbath keepers have appeared to be “killjoys.”


My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15: 8-11).

The commandment to remember and keep the sabbath does not immediately bring to mind joy and rejoicing. In fact, for many people the practice of sabbath has a bad reputation. Rather than glorifying God and abiding in love, sabbath observance has all too often degenerated into routine and drudgery. Sabbath keepers have appeared to be “killjoys.” For example, stressing worship and upright behavior, the Puritans of New England developed the most detailed and the strictest sabbath in Christian history. Enforced by legislation (called “blue laws” because they were first printed on blue paper), the compulsory observance of sabbath became oppressive. While initially intended to enable everyone to rest from work, worship God, and enjoy family and friends, the practice of sabbath became an end in itself. As contemporary congregations begin to develop ways to remember the sabbath and keep it holy, Martin Luther’s advice is timely: “If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day’s sake, then I order you to work on it, ride on it, to feast on it, to do anything to remove this reproach from Christian liberty!”1

All the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored in our Sabbath keeping. Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of God’s grace. Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope—the Joy of our present experience of God’s love and its foretaste of the Joy to come.2

THE JOY OF EMBRACING. As with many of the really important aspects of life, what is meant by the term “joy” is not always clear. “Usually, we employ this word to communicate our intense satisfaction, our sense of well-being and our underlying contentment at having experienced something for which we have earnestly longed, something that we have deeply desired.”3 In order for sabbath time to be a time of joy, it is important to be clear about that which is to be desired, the way of life which is to be sought and embraced.

The experience of joy is often associated with happiness. Happiness is usually related to the possession of the “good things” of life. Within modern cultures the pursuit of happiness has become identified with the relentless pursuit of personal pleasure. And that which will give pleasure is more and more shaped by the marketing and advertising professionals. Over and over again consumers are told that buying and using certain products will meet their deepest needs and desires. What is promoted, and what is bought, is not the particular material object, but friendship, intimacy, love, beauty, adventure, well-being—happiness. The problem is that none of these products actually fulfill human desires, and so more and new products are sought to do the job. Pursuing happiness for its own sake leads to anxiety and frustration, not to joy and contentment.

Scripture offers a different perspective. Genuine joy is shaped not by the desire for happiness, but by the desire for God. More than the superficial pleasure connected with human circumstances, joy is found in relationship with God. “Joy does not depend on emotions but reflects the will’s awareness that all is well when we are God’s.”4 Being with and belonging to God involves desiring that which God desires. God’s commandments, rather than legalistic demands, are the expression of God’s desire for God’s people. Thus it is by obediently embracing God’s commandments that true joy is known: “Let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God;  let  them  be  jubilant  with  joy”  (Ps. 68:3).  Abiding  in God’s love, bearing fruit as disciples, keeping God’s commandments, and experiencing joy are all bound together. The Christian community is called to be holy, to glorify and desire God, as it finds in God’s commandments a life worth living, a life of “indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 1:9).

EMBRACING INTENTIONALITY. In the busyness of daily life it is easy to fall into the patterns and habits of the world. Caught up in the pressures of work, family, leisure activities, civic duties, and even church responsibilities, there is seldom the opportunity to be careful and deliberate about choices. Embracing intentionality means taking care about where energy is expended and how attention is focused. Sabbath time can provide the opportunity for reflection and discussion about the choices which must be made in order for the disciples of Jesus Christ to glorify and desire God. Intentionally ceasing from work and worry and being deliberate about participation in grace-full rest says clearly that the Christian community is not going to do what everybody else does.

While Christianity does not provide an elaborate set of instructions for the practice of sabbath time, it is vital that each faith community be intentional about how it is going to nurture and support a distinctive people living a distinctive lifestyle. What is at stake is a different ordering of priorities, a different mindset about what is important. Embracing God’s commandments and guided by the Spirit, the community of faith deliberately rejects and intentionally embraces a particular way of life. “In a society that chooses promiscuity, we intentionally pursue faithfulness and chastity. In an age that chooses materialism, we deliberately seek to share with those in need. In a world that chooses violence, we take care to build peace and to be agents of reconciliation wherever possible.”5

EMBRACING CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY. Christians often dismiss the Jewish practices of sabbath as legalistic and ritualistic. Yet during the years of exile the insistence on behavior that set them apart from their culture may well have prevented their faith and its particular commitments from being swallowed up by the hostile surrounding culture. Without a temple within which to worship, they were forced to develop an alternative—keeping the sabbath.

What would happen if Christians were forced to give up their church buildings? What would hold congregations together? How would the distinctiveness of Christianity be expressed? In this vein, one theologian comments: “I have images of what a church ought to look like, not necessarily a building with a steeple, but a group of people who are committed, long-suffering, courageous in witness, and bonded together in love.”6 Such a vision may not require the demolition of church buildings, but it does focus attention in the right place, on the formation of Christian community.

The sabbath gathering of Christians is not simply a way to strengthen the commitment of individuals. A distinctive and intentional common life is itself the way of life of the Christian faith. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost brought into being a particular kind of togetherness, a new social reality. By becoming God’s beloved children in Jesus Christ, Christians also become brothers and sisters of one another.

A Picture of Community. Acts 2:42-47 describes the qualities of Christian community: (1) a continual and steadfast commitment to the formation of community; (2) a desire to have their lives guided by the instruction of God’s Word; (3) knowing and sharing deeply in each others’ concerns and carrying one another’s burdens; (4) breaking bread and thereby “discerning the Body of Christ” which transcends all human boundaries; (5) time spent in earnest prayer for one another and for the whole of God’s creation; (6) holding possessions in common and thereby increasing resources to share with those in need; (7) meeting regularly in temple and home to share meals with gladness; (8) experiencing the signs and wonders of God’s transforming presence in their midst. 7

This description is both comforting and challenging. It is comforting because in a world of lonely, isolated, and competing individuals, many persons hunger for the love and support of community. It is challenging because participation in such a community calls for basic changes in commitments and life style. To embrace Christian community means that people are devoting significant time to, for, and with one another. It takes time to become “of one heart and soul” (Acts 2:32). Observing the sabbath (in worship and prayer, song and conversation, study and reflection, play and enjoyment of one another), provides the intentional time for the deepening of communal bonds  with God and with one another.

EMBRACING THE WHOLENESS OF SHALOM. Usually translated as “peace,” the Hebrew word shalom cannot be captured in a single word or idea. A cluster of words is required to express the various dimensions and subtle nuances: well-being, harmony, love, loyalty, truth, grace, salvation, justice, blessing, righteousness. Shalom indicates the wholeness of God’s creation, a vision in which a disordered, unproductive, and unfulfilling world becomes a joyous and peaceable kingdom. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke boldly against the social and personal disorder of their time. Yet they were concerned not simply with isolated ethical violations, but with the disruption of God’s intention for shalom. Within the New Testament, the rule or reign of God inaugurated in Jesus Christ incarnates  the wholeness of shalom. “His acts  of healing the sick, forgiving the guilty, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry are all actions of reestablishing God’s will for shalom in a world gone chaotic by callous self-seeking.”8

In a world committed to the thinkable, the manageable, and the measurable, sabbath time is an expression of vision, hope, and imagination. Abiding in God’s love, the people of God declare that the fragmentation and alienation of human life are not the final word. In Jesus Christ the power of hurt and hate, the force of death and destruction, have been overcome: “he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). It is on this  basis that the community of faith is given the courage and the capacity to be amazed and surprised by the God who declares: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). As its life and lifestyle is shaped by God’s commandments, as it desires that which God desires, as it bears the fruit of discipleship, the community begins to embrace and to embody the joy of shalom.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

1. When you hear the word “joy,” what comes to mind? What shapes the modern definition of joy? How does this understanding relate to what the Bible has to say about joy?

2. Why is it necessary for congregations to “embrace intentionality” in regard to the practice of Sabbath time?

3. How significant is the church building in your congregation’s understanding of itself? What are some other ways to have a distinctive identity?

4. In the picture of community, what catches your attention?  What is intriguing? What is challenging?

5. In what ways can the practice of Sabbath challenge the consumerism of our culture?

6. What would be involved in embodying the joy of shalom? What would be given up? What would be embraced? How would behavior and attitudes be changed?

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

1 Quoted in Dorothy Bass, “Keep Sabbath,” Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (Jossey-Bass, 1991), p. 83.

2 Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting  (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 203.

3 Philip D. Kenneson, Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community (InterVarsity Press, 1999, ) p. 58.

4 Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Eerdmans, 1989), p. 11.

5 Ibid., p. 115.

6 William H. Willimon, What’s Right With the Church (Harper & Row, 1985), p. 8.

7 Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, p. 116.

8 Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward A Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom (United Church Press, 1976, 1982), p. 16.

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