The theme of this year’s Gospel Alliance gathering hosted at Faith Church was “Love and Justice.” The gathering consisted of sessions that encouraged church leaders to keep the call of the church to be inclusive of all ethnic groups (Revelation 5:9-10; Ephesians 2:13-16) and marked by love and justice while waiting continually for our God (Hosea 12:6). There was inspiration as church leaders shared stories of what God is doing in their midst, but there was also challenge as there were calls to recognize that we have not always stayed focused on mission in our church settings. The session I found most intriguing and have been pondering the most since that gathering has been the session led by Kevin Korver and Katie Peterson from Third Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa that discussed the Sabbath in relation to love and justice.
Isaiah 58 and 59
These leaders from Iowa looked at Isaiah 58 and 59. I had previously read these passages numerous times but usually had kept them separated as we tend to do when things are in different chapters. Verses 13 and 14 of chapter 58 speak about the Sabbath as the Lord says through the prophet: “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The focus on these words is how God’s people had failed to keep the Sabbath as a day devoted to God, and instead had taken it as a day devoted to themselves, as they were seeking their own pleasures rather than honoring God. They were treating it like any other day and thus doing their work on the day. Interestingly enough, in verse 14 God points out that keeping the Sabbath leads to delight in the Lord and blessings.
Isaiah 59 then looks at various ways in which the people have committed injustice, as their courts and law systems turn a blind eye towards those who are mistreated and there are lies and bloodshed within God’s people. Korver and Peterson asked the question if the lack of Sabbath practice among God’s people in the Old Testament was one of the causes of these rampant practices of injustice, or put more positively, “Could it be that Sabbath-keeping enables us to create and sustain a culture committed to love and justice?” They then similarly asked if the lack of Sabbath in our culture (both in general, but also in church life) might be why we do not see love and justice around us; being “always on” may be in part what leads us to treat others harshly.
Sabbath and Love and Justice
I have read books on the topic of the Sabbath and even taught on it and its importance before, so why was this now so intriguing to me? Sabbath is often connected with self-care; we need to have margin and boundaries to live as the people whom God has called us to be. This session, however, reminded us of the outward result of a centered soul and knowing the love of God – we will love our neighbors as ourselves, and thus live lives of love and justice. Not only that, but we will want to help others who live in contexts in which they do not have the space to think about Sabbath and rest because of the demands of this world. (An excerpt from A.J. Swoboda’s The Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World pointed out that people in lower economic states often do not get to practice Sabbath.)
In debates with religious leaders, Jesus taught that humans were not created for the Sabbath, but rather the Sabbath was created for humans (Mark 2:27). The goal of a practice of Sabbath — of ceasing from work and our daily endeavors — is ultimately to remind us of our finiteness, showing us that we need rest (following God’s example as shown in the Sabbath command in Exodus 20:8-11). It also points us to the redemptive work of God, how God has intervened in our lives and saved us from slavery to sin (see Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The Sabbath command in the Old Testament was not just for us to refrain from working, but to spread and give this gift to others in our midst as well. We should not get out of work by causing others to work, but by giving them the gift of rest as well (sounds like love and justice to me!). However, the Pharisees and others have a way of turning the Sabbath from a gift of God to a burden, and from being a day about seeing God’s love and justice and then living just and loving lives into a day about our own actions and works. It seems like the two natural tendencies we have concerning the Sabbath is to either ignore it — which is then all about me — or to create rules and boundaries of what we can and cannot do — which would still be human-centered. Both ultimately lead to a lack of love and justice in our lives.
Instead, Sabbath is a time in which we do not focus on ourselves and our lives but rather on God, and then we are directed to live as His people in the world. This requires an intentional pause in our lives.
So what does Sabbath keeping mean for us today? There is danger in prescribing and legislating a list of dos and don’ts, as those can become ultimate rather than the principle itself. At its root, the command to God’s people was to make sure there was time to pause from daily work to rest and remember God. There were Sabbath days, special celebrations within the year that were “sabbaths of sabbaths,” and even Sabbath years, so there seems to be a principle to have periodic pauses to remember what God has done — in hope that it leads you to love your neighbor as yourself (which is love and justice). In our world, would this mean a day off of social media, a day unplugging from various technology, a day not to think about the things that occupy your mind each day? This does not mean a complete abandonment of our responsibilities in life (parents can’t take a Sabbath from parenting!), but doing something that draws us into the love and justice of God so that we might live as His people of love and justice in our world. May we Sabbath well, and as we Sabbath, may we become people (and a community) of love and justice in this world that needs it.