Risking Sabbath: The Dangerous Experiment in Play, Passion and Peace
Often, people use rituals and traditions to bring them a sense of stability, belonging and status. Society benefits from having ritual. Holidays, memorials, and feasts draw attention to events that tie people together and remind them of the bond that they share. Families do this. Towns do this. Nations do this. But interestingly enough, often the ritual loses its original significance and is replaced with a different meaning. The American Christmas has more to do with Santa Claus and consumerism than it does with the birth of Christ. Thanksgiving is more about eating and football than it is about pausing to express gratitude to God for a year’s worth of blessing. Memorial Day has more to do with picnicking and the first trip of the season to the beach than it does with honoring our dead. Our society builds routine upon these events even while the significance of these events is lost.
You know where I’m going. Sabbath was originally given to be this day that anchored us in all that was God. God as creator. God as deliverer. God as provider of health, wealth and family. God as savior and redeemer. God as counselor. It was a weekly reminder that we mattered to God and that our destiny was securely in the hands of God. And it was also a day to be at peace and rest with everyone–your family, your neighbors, your employees and even the pagan foreigners who were around (see the fourth commandment, if you don’t remember this). This is what the day has meant to Jews and Christians from time-to-time throughout Judeo-Christian history: peace with God and their fellow man.
But left to their own devices, they managed to hold onto the Sabbath day in practice, but the original meaning of the day became replaced with a different one. Instead of it being a day that peacefully anchored them in everything of God and everything treasured in their human relationships, it became a day where they honored their observance of the day and how it separated them from those who did not choose to honor this day. As a extension of this, it became one of the identifying marks that someone was part of God’s chosen people: if you kept Sabbath, then you were one of the insiders; if you didn’t keep Sabbath, then you were one of the outsiders, not part of God’s people.
What God gets on the Jewish people again and again about is that they kept putting their peace and security in their religious rituals and practices rather than in him. Jesus tears the most religious people up over the fact that their zealotry in relgious practice was a poor substitute for a genuine relationship with God. And that often, their religious practices and requirements became obstacles that kept people away from God and from each other rather than bringing them together.
Sadly, Adventists have fallen into this same trap. We have become so identified with the day of the week upon which we worship and the ritual behavior practices and fasts that we engage on during that day, that we have settled for a faux-peace. I love Eugene Peteren’s description of Sabbath-keeping that is defined on what we do and don’t do as a “bastard Sabbath”–not legitimate. It is like the lucky cross people wear around their necks, or the crossing done by countless baseball players before they take their batting stance, or the stick-on saint that people place on their dashboards of their cars–it’s a superstitious practice believed to provide blessing and protection. The “sacred” ritual or object gives peace and protection rather than God.
Looking for peace in the things we do and don’t do on the seventh day is such an inferior experience of peace that it always leaves us wanting. And at the same time, so much of our evangelistic fervor is invested in convincing people to keep the seventh-day Sabbath and when we have accomplished that, we feel we have done something of eternal significance. But all we’ve done is convince people to take pride in getting something right and biblical and have done nothing to heighten their awareness of the magnificence, beauty, love and salvation of God. We’ve given them the trinket rather than the treasure.
And our eschatology is wrapped up in whether or not people keep the seventh-day Sabbath. How messed up is that? A day that is all about being at peace with God and with everyone around us, friend or foe, is turned upside down into being a day of division. It becomes a determiner or whether someone is in or out of God’s family. Let me be clear: the biblical support of Sabbath as a mark of God’s chosen people is contrived at best. Adventist evangelists and theologians have jumped through so many hoops in order to take a gift of God and turn it into something upon which earth’s destiny hangs. Before you go all Revelation on me, let me remind you about the core question of Revelation: will you worship God and be swallowed up in his magnificance so that his glory shines through you or will you focus on yourself and your desires? Sabbath as the defining characteristic of those who are saved is wrong. The Sabbath as a vehicle with which to experience more of God and live out more of God’s purpose in the world is absolutely biblical. Sabbath at its best is a tool; Sabbath at its worst is a talisman. And God condemns idolatry.
Sabbath practice should mirror the priorities of God: reconciliation between the human and the divine and restoration of the peaceable kingdom of heaven here on earth. Sabbath should be breaking down the things that keep us apart. So for me, I want to see the churches I’m a part of become true partakers and distributors of the Sabbath-gift: experience the true peace and rest that can only come from God and bring that peace into the lives of others by relieving their suffering, freeing them from captivity, restoring their dignity and ending their loneliness. This is Sabbath-rest. This is Sabbath peace.
So do you get why I entitled this series “Risking Sabbath?” To sacredly play with God and his creation and taste, for a moment, heaven; to passionately engage in romance with God and his people; and to rest in God alone and bring that peace to others is truly risky behavior. It is much safer and more pious-looking to decorate the day with ritual and routine and develop a theology that re-emphasizes our importance in knowing and practicing Sabbath on the right day. But it is dangerous when the behavioral limitations, the rules and regulations are removed and you are simply called into experiencing life at its fullest and to help others experience more of kingdom-quality life. But when we do this, many “mature” adults will not understand what we are doing. We will not look cool. And we will not look religious. You risk misunderstandings when you play. You risk embarassment when you vulnerably express passion. And you risk losing status and power when you pursue peace.
I hope you’ll risk Sabbath. Because you understand the secret of all this: Sabbath is intended to spill over into all the days of your week so that God’s life is more and more your life. And living a risky life for God is far superior to living a safe life for ourselves.