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Shepherding can be a 24 hour-a-day, 7 days-a-week, 53 weeks-a-year job (even in years when there are only 52) because sheep always need a shepherd. Most pastors or priests or church ministers could testify that caring for people involves constant work and diligence just like shepherding. So how can a shepherd Sabbath? The instruction in Exodus 20 can be jolting for shepherds who hear God say, “Remember the day of the Sabbath for its holiness.” While an important instruction from God, remembering the day of the Sabbath is difficult for a number of reasons.
Remembering the Sabbath can be difficult for those of us in busy societies. Some societies have a hectic pace that requires constant production. Taking a whole day away from the grind can be difficult and against the habits we have developed. With much on our minds, remembering the Sabbath may not be deemed as important as paying bills or producing results. Mandatory meetings and important tasks should be remembered, but Sabbath can easily slip our minds. Perhaps this is why Walter Breuggemann writes, ““In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative”. Remembering a day that goes against the business can seem unnatural and pointless, but choosing to remember the Sabbath is a positive way to resist the business and re-center our lives on a better alternative.
Remembering the Sabbath can be difficult because it “resists” productivity. Addressing heads of households, Exodus 20:9-10 mentions that work should be for six days while the seventh day is “for the LORD your God.” Since the day is for the LORD, it is wrong to work or require other members of the household to work. This refusal to work contrasts notions like “Work hard to get ahead” and “Have others do the work.” The Sabbath resists such pressure “because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods”. The Sabbath is not about production but rather trusting the LORD.
Remembering the Sabbath can be difficult because it requires trust. The ceasing of work really tests how much a person trusts that God will provide. According to Breuggemann, the Sabbath offers an alternative in “the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.” If we truly think that God will provide enough for us, then we could cease working for one day during the week. This is what the Israelites discover in Exodus 18:22-27. In the passage God sends bread from the skies for the people who were to work for six days to gather the food. The seventh day, however, God mentions that no bread will appear, which means that the people are to gather more on sixth day to have enough. Lamentably, some of the people did not trust God’s instructions and went hungry. When we trust God’s instructions, we are willing to do what is required because we believe that God has already provided what we need. Thus we can spend the Sabbath time doing what God has for us.
Remembering the Sabbath can be difficult when we do not know what God has for us. According to Abraham Heschel, the Sabbath reminds us that for “six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” In Genesis 2:2, God ended the work being done on the seventh day and took a Sabbath from the work. While many have connected Sabbath with rest, the Hebrew word actually means to cease or stop an activity, which in this case is work. Perhaps the reason many connect Sabbath with rest is because many of us only cease working so that we can rest and recover; such a view does not work with the depiction of God as Sabbathing because God does not need rest or rejuvenation. Instead Genesis 2:3 mentions how God blesses and sanctifies on that day. According to Exodus 20:11, God gives us an example of what our Sabbaths should include by keeping the Sabbath for blessing and sanctifying. The acts of blessing and sanctifying actually are both what we receive from God and what we do during the Sabbath.
Remembering the Sabbath can be difficult when we are self-focused. Heschel writes, “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all”. The acts of blessing and sanctifying are actions that require interactions with others. This is what the Levites did in Nehemiah 13:22, what Jesus did in Mark 1:21, what Paul and his companions did in Acts 17:2, and what we can do as well. The Sabbath frees us from trying to gain for ourselves or our families and redirects us to loving God and others! We too can choose to bless on that day with a blessing that is not for ourselves or our family but for God and others. We too can sanctify the day, which means giving ourselves completely to God for God to use however God chooses. Rather than doing what we want in order to benefit ourselves, like the rest of the week, remembering the Sabbath is an act of giving that day to God for blessing and sanctification.
So how can a shepherd sabbath well? First, every shepherd, whether in vocational ministry or not, can remember that God is the one in charge of the sheep. Each of us are commissioned by God, but God is the chief shepherd. Second, every shepherd can remember that we are all God’s sheep! That means that when God calls us to remember the Sabbath, we like sheep heed the voice of our shepherd. If we ignore that voice, we can wander away toward harm. Third, every shepherd can pray for blessing and sanctification. A great prayer is Psalm 92, which is connected with the Sabbath. The psalm gives thanks for God’s work and reminds us that it is God’s work that causes us to prosper and flourish. Fourth, every shepherd can trust that whatever God does for us, in us, or through us on that day is enough. If we are letting God’s Spirit guide us, we can be content no matter the circumstances like Paul declares in prison according Philippians 4:11. Fifth, every shepherd can prepare for the Sabbath. Hebrews 4:9 declares, “There remains, therefore, a Sabbath for the people of God to keep.” The Sabbath in Hebrews is both something observed weekly and something that will come at the end of time when the entire world, and everyone in it, ceases its work. Sixth, every shepherd can remember that Sabbath is a gift. When talking to the shepherds of his day, Jesus reminds them in Mark 2:27 that the Sabbath is given for humans not humans for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was never intended to be chore that adds pressure and rigorous expectations; God always intended the Sabbath to be a gift that could help and benefit humans. Seventh…well since there are already 6 ways we Sabbath well, perhaps the list should cease as we let God communicate what that seventh way is to keep the Sabbath well for you. After all, God did set that example by ceasing on the seventh, so why not…
Questions for Consideration:
How have we remembered the Sabbath and how could we remember it?
How can we receive blessings and sanctification from God on the next Sabbath, and how could we bless and sanctify on the next Sabbath?
What does God want our next Sabbath to include?