The third commandment: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)
What is this?
We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it. (Luther’s Small Catechism)
Dear People of God,
Ever since the first Covid-19 cases were identified in our state, we have been in an almost constant state of crisis. In the space of just a few days, we went from normal daily life to the most significant societal disruption in our lifetimes. All of a sudden, every human interaction posed a risk of disease, and every public space carried invisible danger. Those of us with kids tried to figure out how to do school from home. Those of us who were able to keep our jobs either scrambled to work remotely or accepted the new risks our jobs now carried. All of us were isolated from our communities, and all of us carried the pain of that experience.
Of course, we were already in extraordinary times when all this started. The effects of climate change were being felt in horrific wildfires here and around the world. We had just witnessed the third-ever impeachment of an American president and were entering what promised to be one of the most contentious presidential elections in our lifetimes. Cultural changes were calling into question the future of many of our political, religious, and civic institutions. Cable news and social media offered new reasons for outrage on a daily basis, and they demanded everyone take a side.
All this only amplified during the pandemic. Suddenly, the majority of Americans had very little going on in their day-to-day lives, and our preoccupation with rage-inducing media became an obsession. We saw this rage boil over in the protests and riots which followed the murder of George Floyd. We saw it in the conspiracy-driven violence of January 6th. We see it continuing in the vitriol and death threats aimed at school boards and public servants and in the demand to judge harshly those with unpopular views.
Every news story is now an opportunity for righteous anger, and every current event is now a test by which to prove ourselves. In this current climate of outrage, there is little room for middle ground, and there is no waiting for all the facts to come in. Even things we should be able to agree about, like the humanitarian disaster of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are made into pretexts to attack our political and cultural enemies and to establish ourselves as being on the side of all that is right and good.
This constant tension, this drive to be always up to date, in the right, and full of righteous anger is killing us. The stress of it weakens our bodies, hardens our hearts, and deadens our souls. We need a break. We need a rest. We need a sabbath.
There are two parts to keeping sabbath. The first is obvious: we rest from our labor. By refraining from work for a time, we conform to natural patterns of creation: activity and recovery, wakefulness and restfulness, work and play. This time of recovery strengthens us and makes us ready to once again go about our work. The second part is more often overlooked: we keep it holy. We do this by filling the day with holy things, most especially God’s holy word. Luther’s explanation of the third commandment focuses on this when he says we should “not despise preaching or God’s word,” but this insight does not begin with him. For millennia, both Jews and Christians have gathered for worship on their sabbath days in order that they might be centered again on God’s holy word to them.
In this way the sabbath is a day of rest not only for the body and mind, but also for the soul. For just as our daily labors wear down our bodies and weigh on our minds, so too does life in this world burden our souls, pulling us away from the comfort of God’s promises and tossing us about with the cares of the world. And just as our bodies and minds need time to rest and recover, so too do our souls need to be replanted in the nourishing soil of God’s life-giving word.
In a world of 24/7 news coverage and constant debate, keeping sabbath is decidedly countercultural. While our always-on culture teaches us to be perpetually active, the rhythm of sabbath conveys the truth that our activity is always secondary to the activity of our Creator. We can rest because “the keeper of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” (Psalm 121:4) Moreover, by setting aside time for the hearing of God’s word, we confess that the words of the world, however good and necessary they might be, are secondary in importance to God’s word to us. As Jesus himself quotes, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
After such an extended time of crisis, I encourage you to take an extended time of sabbath. The world will not vanish if you stop paying attention, and despite what those Facebook posts say, clicking that share button has no reflection on your worth. Take a sabbath from the outrage that has captivated our society. Take a sabbath from staying up to date on all the news. Take a sabbath from taking a stand on the issue of the day. Spend the next week or month taking a rest from those voices that would focus your attention on what is of secondary importance. Fill that time instead with scripture or song or the wonder of God’s creation. Or better yet, don’t worry about filling it at all! Instead, simply rest in the certainty of God’s promise to you: that you are God’s child, God’s chosen beloved, and that God delights in you.
Your Brother in Christ,