Sabbath Laws? (Nehemiah 13:15-22)


Jerusalem had been destroyed.  The best and brightest Jews had been carried off into slavery in Babylon.  The prophets said God sent Israel into exile because they neglected their covenant with God, especially the Sabbath - the sign of the covenant.  Jeremiah tried to prevent the exile.  He warned Israel: 
“If you obey me, says the LORD, and do not carry on your trade at the gates or work on the Sabbath day, and if you keep it holy, then kings and their officials will go in and out of these gates forever.  There will always be a descendant of David sitting on the throne here in Jerusalem. ... But if you ... refuse to keep the Sabbath holy, and and if on the Sabbath day you bring loads of merchandise through the gates of Jerusalem just as on other days, then I will set fire to these gates.  The fire will spread to the palaces, and no one will be able to put out the roaring flames.”  (Jeremiah 17:24, 27)
Later, while Israel was still in exile, Ezekiel explained that bad Sabbath practice lay at the root of Israel’s troubles for many generations.  Listen as God speaks through Ezekiel:
I gave them my decrees and regulations so they could find life by keeping them.  And I gave them my Sabbath days of rest as a sign between them and me.  It was to remind them that I am the LORD, who had set them apart to be holy.  But the people of Israel rebelled against me ... They wouldn’t obey my regulations even though obedience would have given them life.  They also violated my Sabbath days  ... I swore I would scatter them among all the nations because they did not obey my regulations.  They scorned my decrees by violating my Sabbath days and longing for the idols of their ancestors.  I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life.  I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them ... so that I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am the LORD.”  (Ezekiel 20:11-26)
For the prophets, there were some clear connections here that may not be obvious to us.  First, Israel’s relationships with God was a blessings/curses covenant.  Obey the covenant, and God will bless Israel.  Disobey the covenant, and God will curse or punish Israel.  Second, keeping the Sabbath was the sign of keeping the whole covenant.  Not keeping the Sabbath was like abandoning God and God’s covenant.  So then, third, for the prophets before and during the exile, there was a clear connection between keeping the Sabbath and experiencing God’s blessings or curses.  
But exile didn’t last forever.  Eventually, Israelites started to return home.  With the leadership of godly governors like Ezra and Nehemiah, there was a great organizational, structural, moral, and religious revival in Jerusalem.  But then, Nehemiah was called back to Babylon for several years.  We don’t know who the governor of Jerusalem was at that time, but he wasn’t very good at running the city according to God’s rules.  When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem several years later, he had to begin several reforms all over again.  Listen as Nehemiah describes with shock what he found:
But in those days, I saw men of Judah treading out their winepresses on the Sabbath.  

They were also bringing in grain, loading it on donkeys, and bringing their wine, grapes, figs, and all sorts of produce to Jerusalem to sell on the Sabbath.  So I rebuked them for selling their produce on that day.  Some men from Tyre, who lived in Jerusalem, were bringing in fish and all kinds of merchandise.  They were selling it on the Sabbath to the people of Judah - and in Jerusalem at that!  
So I confronted the nobles of Judah.  ‘Why are you profaning the Sabbath in this evil way?’ I asked.  ‘Wasn’t it just this sort of thing that your ancestors dis that caused our God to bring all this trouble upon us and our city?  Now you are bringing even more wrath upon Israel by permitting the Sabbath to be desecrated in this way!’
Then I commanded that the gates of Jerusalem should be shut as darkness fell every Friday evening, not to be opened until the Sabbath ended.  I sent some of my own servants to guard the gates so that no merchandise could be brought in on the Sabbath day.  The merchants and tradesmen with a variety of wares camped outside Jerusalem once or twice.  But I spoke sharply to them and said, ‘What are you doing out here, camping around the wall?  If you do it again, I will arrest you!’  And that was the last time they came on the Sabbath.  Then I commanded the Levites to purify themselves and to guard the gates in order to preserve the holiness of the Sabbath.   (Nehemiah 13:15-22)

OK, so Nehemiah obviously takes the Sabbath very seriously.  He has listened to the prophets, and he has believed their message.  If Israel keeps the Sabbath and the covenant, God will bless them.  If Israel works on the Sabbath and rejects the covenant, God will punish them.  It’s pretty straightforward, so as governor, Nehemiah uses his power to force Israel to keep the Sabbath whether they want to or not!
Whatever we think about his tactics, we have to respect Nehemiah’s courage and commitment to helping Israel follow God’s laws.  However, now, thousands of years later, unless we’re ready to have the police shut down grocery stores and arrest the people in the noodle trucks, we have some work to do to figure out how to actually live the Sabbath in today’s world.  
First of all, we don’t live in a “theocracy” - that is a society governed by a single religious group.  The only remaining theocracies in the world are a few fundamental Islamic nations, and they aren’t exactly models we want to follow.  So whatever we do will be somewhat different from Israel.  
Second, our world is far more complex than Nehemiah’s world.  Not working for a day - except in cases of emergency - was fairly easy to define back then.  But what about today?  Does anyone want to give up doctors, nurses, policemen, or firefighters on Sundays?  Well then, what about soldiers, critical government personnel, the folks who run the electric grid, or weather forecasters?  If they can work on Sunday, then what about people whose less urgent jobs require some work on Sundays - people like newspaper reporters, professional athletes, bus drivers, and pastors?  And is Sabbath even Sunday, or is it Saturday?  This Sabbath stuff gets really complex really fast.  
With all of this difference and complexity in mind, I want to go out on a limb and offer ten basic rules for healthy Sabbath practice.  You might call these the Sabbath Ten Commandments.  Just to complete the picture, I’m even going to use the old English, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.”  Before you get freaked out, listen to the first one.

Sabbath Command #1: Thou shalt not be legalistic.  The New Testament makes abundantly clear that we are freed from legalism.  A legalistic practice of the Sabbath becomes a tangled spiderweb of a thousand laws from which there is no escape. Think back to that passage from Ezekiel 20.  God kept saying that he gave Israel his laws “so they could find life by keeping them,” but finally after generations of disobedience, he said: “I gave them over to worthless decrees and regulations that would not lead to life.  I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them” (20:11, 26).  God’s laws were supposed to give life, but eventually they became dead rules.  Eventually, the people began to worship the rules instead of God.  
So, don’t try to make a whole bunch of rules about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath.  This may seem like a strange thing for a list of The Sabbath Ten Commandments.  But the first rule is basically that there are no rules.  The Ten Commandments thing is a cheesy preacher’s gimmick, hopefully to help us remember this better.  These are guidelines, principles, proverbs of wisdom.  But don’t get legalistic with the Sabbath because that leads to a dead spirituality.  

Sabbath Command #2: Thou shalt not judge.   When we really get a vision for how important the Sabbath is, it’s really easy to condemn those who disagree with us.  But Paul says, “So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths.  For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come.  And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 3:16-17).  As much as we may or may not believe in Sabbath, we have to let others work out their own Sabbath practice for themselves.  That is between them and God.  

Sabbath Command #3: Thou shalt not be lawless.  As Christians we find our selves between the two extremes of legalism and lawlessness.  Some people are quick to throw out the law: “The law is so Old Testament.  We are New Testament people.  Just be loving and everything will be OK.”  Others see where that leads (to a slippery-slope of anything goes), so they embrace legalism.  “On every issue we have to define a clear right and wrong that is the same for everyone.  If you break those rules, then you’re out.”  
The Bible teaches a middle path here.  The same Paul who said, “no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law” (Galatians 3:11), also said, “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery ... [ and 10 more things] ... and other sins like these ... anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).  We aren’t made right by keeping the law, but we still need the law.
How does this work?  Well, to be honest, this is one of the hardest questions of the New Testament, but I understand the law in terms of wisdom.  The book of Proverbs says: 
Tune your ears to wisdom, and concentrate on understanding.  Search for them as you would for silver; seek them like hidden treasures.  Then you will understand what it means to fear the LORD, and you will gain knowledge of God.  For the LORD grants wisdom!  ... [Wisdom] will guide you down delightful paths; all her ways are satisfying.  Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; happy are those who hold her tightly.  (Proverbs 2:2-6, 3:17-18)
The Bible is centuries and centuries of collected wisdom.  Only a fool ignores this.  This is the pathway of life.  The rest of the “commands” or “rules” we’re going to talk about are my attempts to express a basic wisdom about the Sabbath.

Sabbath Command #4: Thou shalt differentiate.  Exodus 20 says God “blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy” (20:11).  To begin their Sabbath, Jews light candles, say some prayers, and have a long family meal.  During this meal, they try to have some special foods, something that will be a treat for the family, to celebrate to importance and goodness of the day.  Whatever you do on your Sabbath day, try to do something that sets it apart from other days.  Maybe you’ll have a Sunday Sundae or go for a long walk or unplug from the internet.  Just make sure it’s different and “set apart.”

Sabbath Command #5: Thou shalt rest.  This is one of the basics, right?  Don’t do any work or anything that feels like work or smells like work or tastes like work.  Some rabbis say that we shouldn’t even think about work because that is a form of working.  This requires us to get proactive in our resting.  Read a book that is just for fun or just to help you connect with God.  Go for a long, gentle walk.  Play a game.  Do whatever it is you do that helps you to relax and to connect with God.  Also, make sure you get plenty of sleep at night, and maybe take a nap too!

Sabbath Command #6: Thou shalt worship together.  If there’s one thing that Christians and Jews have always agreed on, it’s that God’s people need to worship together at least once a week.  Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some do, but encourage one another.”  There is something about meeting together that makes us stronger in our faith and in our daily life.

Sabbath Command #7: Thou shalt feast together.  This connects back to the command to differentiate, but it gets a little more specific.  Christians are a little uncomfortable with celebration especially in excess, but Jews understand the value of intentional celebration.  They do it every week.  In Jewish tradition, every man is a king when he meets Queen Sabbath.  Of all days, this is the day for the special meal and the long, slow conversation with friends and family.  The first Christians, “worshipped together ... met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity - all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).  Make it a point to be joyful and generous on the Sabbath, and make sure to show hospitality to people who need some family and friends to celebrate with.

Sabbath Command #8: Thou shalt not hurry or “have to.”  This may be one of the hardest commands for our hurry up and have to cultures.  But we will all be healthier and happier if we ignore the clock a little more once a week.  We’ll get there when we get there.  We’ll be done when we’re done.  We’ll do it if we feel like it.  Last weekend Sarah said, “We have to write at least 20 Thank You Cards today.”  And I said, “There is no have to on Sabbath.”  I think we still wrote the cards, but it felt better to do it out of choice rather than have to.  
So the next time you’re running late for church, and you’re barking at your spouse or your kids for being so slow, just take a deep breath and say, “There is no hurry on the Sabbath.”  Take your time.  You’ll get here, eventually.  Just slow down and enjoy the journey ... that and start the journey a little earlier next week so you don’t feel rushed.

Sabbath Command #9: Thou shalt not worry about those who don’t keep the Sabbath.  Did you ever wonder why Nehemiah made the non-Israelites stop selling on the Sabbath?  (I know.  You’ve barely even read Nehemiah, much less asked questions about it, but just give me a minute.)  I know what those Jews were thinking.  “If those folks from Tyre are selling stuff on the Sabbath, then they’re making money on the Sabbath.  Our customers are shopping with them.  If they’re hauling stuff on the Sabbath, then their stuff will get to the market faster.  Their fruit will be fresher and their fruit will taste better.  Pretty soon, they’re going to get ahead and we’re going to fall farther and farther behind.”  I don’t think it is primarily greed that pushes people to work on the Sabbath.  It is fear and competition.  We are afraid of falling behind and losing out.
For the whole month of September, we’ve been reading Psalm 92 as our call to worship.  It is the only Psalm in the Bible in which the title line says it is “A song to be sung on the Sabbath Day.”  We’re a little uncomfortable nowadays with talk about the downfall of our “enemies,” and there are good reasons for that.  But I don’t think it’s an accident that the only Sabbath Psalm in the whole Bible talks so much about the downfall of God’s enemies and the success of God’s people.  It takes a lot of faith to rest when your enemies are working.  It takes a lot of faith to take a day of rest when the other kids are studying.  Psalm 92 says: 
Though the wicked sprout like weeds
and evildoers flourish,
they will be destroyed forever. ...
But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.
For they are transplanted to the LORD’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.  (Psalm 92:7, 11-14)
Every Sabbath Jews remind themselves of a basic contrast: weeds versus trees.  Do your own thing, live by your own rules, try to make it on your own strength, and you’re just a weed that is here today and gone tomorrow.  Sure you might grow high fast, but you’ll fade just as fast.  But, take the slow and steady route with God, live in God’s way even when others don’t, and you’ll have endurance for the long haul.  You may grow more slowly, but you’ll grown higher and stronger than any weed ever could.  
Don’t worry so much about what happens to other people or other people’s kids.  They aren’t your responsibility.  Just make sure you are faithful.  God will take care of the rest.  

Sabbath Command #10: Thou shalt trust God’s love in Christ.  It all comes down to this, doesn’t it?  Do we trust in God’s love that we see in Christ?  
We are sinners.  We have no hope of saving ourselves.  We have no hope of making meaning out of our broken lives without God’s help.  But God loves us even in our brokenness.  God died for us through Christ.  He took the death penalty for us, and he opens a new way for us to be forgiven, healed, and whole.  Christ give us life - not us.  Christ makes us valuable and important - not our work.  Christ makes us free - not our money or our power or our status.  God has made us alive in Christ, and all of this Sabbath discussion comes down to one point: living the life of Christ.  Everything about Sabbath points us to the one center of reality: Christ.
“And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him.  Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him.  Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6-7).