In this weeks sermon on the Sabbath, Rev. Peg Bowman uses a Star Wars analogy to frame her exploration of how the concept of the Sabbath evolved in the Old Testament period. Just as the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back, connects the beginning and end of the original trilogy while having a different tone, Rev. Bowman explains that this sermon connects the Sabbath’s origins at creation to Jesus’s teachings about it by examining its development in between.
Rev. Bowman then discusses various expansions of Sabbath laws and practices in the Old Testament, including gathering manna, prohibiting work and fire, instituting Sabbath years, and requiring debt relief. She explains that properly observing these Sabbath commandments brought prosperity, while later abandoning them brought exile and harm.
Rev. Bowman concludes by praying for understanding of the Sabbath as a gift and commitment to honor it in anticipation of next week’s sermon on how Jesus related to Sabbath practices.
So how many here remember the very first Star Wars movie? Most of us? Okay, good. Yes. The very first Star Wars was like nothing that had ever been seen before. Big screen, big special effects, great heroes.
And the third movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, was a lot like it. Big special effects, local hero does good, good guys win in the end. But the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, wasn’t quite the same. It still had the great special effects, but the storyline left a lot of questions unanswered.
Empire Strikes Back connected part one to part three, but it wasn’t quite the same as the other two. It was sort of just that connecting issue. Today’s sermon is kind of like that. This is part two of our sermon series on the Sabbath, and like the Empire Strikes Back, in many ways, this is a connecting tissue between parts one and part three.
Part one, we saw God creating the world and blessing everything in creation. Part three, Jesus will bring a new meaning to the Sabbath. But here in part two, we find the original Sabbath being changed, first by God and then by God’s people, And eventually, the people of Israel give up trying to keep the Sabbath at all, which brings harm to the nation of Israel. So in part one, we saw the Sabbath is a day of rest, a day when we remember God’s work in creating the world.
We also saw that all people are equal on the Sabbath, that the Sabbath was good for friends, children, foreigners, workers, even farm animals. Everybody gets to rest on the Sabbath. And then in the Sabbath, we also remember the time when Israel was set free from slavery in Egypt. Sabbath was a way of saying we will never be slaves again.
So that was part one. Today in part two, we look at how that idea of Sabbath grew and expanded in the Old Testament. The first example of this comes from our reading in Exodus 16. And in this reading, Moses is telling the people how to observe the Sabbath.
Now keep in mind, remember, the people of Israel were still living in the wilderness. They were sort of wandering, or they were not in the promised land yet. They’re out in the wilderness, and God is providing them manna to eat as they travel through the wilderness. And God gave them instructions on how to handle this heavenly food, this manna.
God said, Gather it every morning. Don’t save it for later, because the manna will go bad, and it will stink, and it will get worms in it. OK, I think what they say– what did you– maggots. There we go.
That was– you get the idea, right? So that was God’s instructions. And by doing this, they had to gather fresh every day. And by doing this, they learned to trust God for their provision for every day. But of course, there were always a few people who thought to themselves, well, this doesn’t apply to me.
So they saved extra manna overnight anyway. And like God said, it went bad and stank and got maggots in it, right? But on the Sabbath, things were different. God said no work should be done on the Sabbath, and that included gathering the manna. So on the day before the Sabbath, the people were supposed to gather twice as much manna, food for two days.
And God said it would not go bad or stink on the Sabbath, and it didn’t. But again, some people didn’t pay attention, and they went out on the Sabbath anyway to get some more manna. And there wasn’t any. So they learned to gather manna every day, except on the Sabbath.
God was not happy about that, but they managed to settle this and keep going. So I think there’s three lessons here. First off, when God speaks, people need to pay attention. God knows what God is talking about.
God doesn’t usually get things wrong. Secondly, hoarding is not good, whether it be manna or anything else. And third, doing things the way God says to do them is good not just for us, but for others around us. In the second reading from Exodus today, God tells the people again not to work on the Sabbath.
And God adds two new things to the Sabbath law. God says the definition of not working includes not starting a fire on the Sabbath. And secondly, God says that disobeying the Sabbath law is now a capital offense. I did some research on that.
According to the Jewish scholars, the death penalty for breaking Sabbath was rarely, if ever, enforced, because it was very difficult to prove in court. You needed to have at least two witnesses and all these different conditions. And what’s more important, really, both to the Jewish people and to us, is that the definition of work now includes starting a fire. It’s amazing when we stop and think of how many things starting a fire might include.
I mean, at the time of Moses, it would have included not gathering firewood, not stacking firewood, not lighting a flame, which would also mean not cooking, not forging iron, any of that kind of stuff. In our time today, our Jewish cousins still debate amongst themselves over the meaning of this commandment. But they do agree that not starting a fire on the Sabbath is important. What they disagree on is what it includes.
Many Jewish people believe that not starting a fire includes not turning on a light switch. Think about that. You know, these little– the minute you move that thing up, a little spark happens inside the wall, and electricity happens, right? So that’s a fire. I would not have thought of that, but they did.
So in today’s world, many Jewish families have their house lights on timers so they don’t need to turn things on and off on the Sabbath. Not starting a fire also means not using a stove. So many Jewish people cook Sabbath meals in advance. Some eat cold food, some keep food warm in crock pots or in the oven, and all of these things are turned on before Sabbath begins.
Not starting a fire also includes not driving a car. Think about it, internal combustion engine, that’s a fire. But I should also quickly add that the Sabbath law can be set aside in times of emergency. So if a person needs a ride to a hospital on the Sabbath, then driving the car is okay.
So we begin to get the idea of what Sabbath looks like on a daily basis for the people of Israel, both then and now. There are two other groups of Sabbath laws that are not in our readings today, but I should mention them because we’ll probably come across them at some point. The first has to do with planting crops. Leviticus chapter 25, God tells the people to give the land a Sabbath.
Here’s just a piece of that commandment. God says, The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘When you enter the land that I’m giving you, the land shall observe a Sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard. But in the seventh year, there should be a Sabbath of complete rest for the Lord, for the land.
Now, keeping this law would require a lot of trust in God because the family would be without crops basically for two years, the year of the Sabbath, and then the second, the next year when the new crops are growing. But this is also wise farming. And an echo of this teaching is still seen in our world today in the idea of crop rotation, The land does not grow the same thing year after year. And many farmers today, not all, but many, rotate their fields and allow one field to rest while the others rotate.
So giving the land a Sabbath actually increases what the land produces, which brings blessing to the people of God. In addition, in the Old Testament, people themselves were given a Sabbath year, specifically a Sabbath from debt. This law, which is found in Deuteronomy 15, would be almost impossible to do in our society today. It would turn a capitalist system upside down.
But here’s what the law says. Imagine this in real life. Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debt. Every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, because the Lord’s remission has been proclaimed.
There will be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you. And when the Lord your God has blessed you, you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow. You will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you. If there is among you anyone in need, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.
You should rather open your hand willingly, lending enough to meet the need, and be careful you do not say to yourself, The seventh year is near, and therefore give nothing. Your neighbor might cry out to the Lord, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally; be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work. Since there will never cease to be some in need in the earth, I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and the needy.
All of this, all of this is part of the Old Testament Sabbath law. So basically, God’s people are told every seven years, all debts are cleared. I don’t think our society could handle this. Car loans, mortgages, I mean, what would you do? (laughs) It was just, we have to revamp the entire system.
But it’s interesting to think what our world would be like if no one was ever in debt for more than seven years. All these laws give us a picture of how important Sabbath is to God. Not just a day to remember God’s creation, not just a day of stopping work, but also rest for the land and freedom from debt. There’s a little bit more to the Sabbath law in the Old Testament, but these highlights give us the idea, now all Israel has to do is do them.
So our last reading for today is from the book of Nehemiah. And before we look at this, I wanted to add a small quote from the prophet Amos. Amos was the prophet before Jerusalem fell, before the exile to Babylon. Nehemiah was the prophet after they came back from Babylon.
So this little snippet fills in the gap. Amos gave these words to Israel. He said, Hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, when will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat. The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob, surely I will never forget any of their deeds.
This is what caused the people of Israel to go into captivity in Babylon. They oppressed the needy and the poor by denying them Sabbath rest and overcharging them for goods. Because we saw a Sabbath stands for equality, for peace and for rest for all people. And the Sabbath year meant that no one could fall into debt, but the people of Israel ignored the Sabbath and trampled the poor, and they would not listen to God.
And so God sent them from the promised land into captivity in Babylon. Nehemiah was one of the prophets who helped rebuild Jerusalem and the temple after the people came back from Babylon. And so in our scripture for today, the prophet says, I saw in Judah people treading wine presses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain, and loading them on donkeys, and also wine and grapes and figs and all kinds of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And Nehemiah says to the people, basically, What are you doing? Don’t you remember this is how we ended up in Babylon in the first place.
And when they still wouldn’t listen, Nehemiah saw the gates of the city were shut and barred on the Sabbath, and still the merchants camped out outside the city walls until he chased them away. And so Nehemiah told the Levites to purify themselves and guard the gates and keep the Sabbath holy. The average person in the days in Jerusalem after Babylon had forgotten the Sabbath. They had forgotten God’s laws.
Some of them had never actually even heard God’s laws. I mean, back in those days, people didn’t have Bibles in their houses. So God’s word was scarce in Babylon all that time. They were there, what, 70 years? So most of the laws had been forgotten.
If they’d not been passed down, they’d been forgotten. So one of the very first laws that Nehemiah teaches the people is the Sabbath law. And he prays, Remember this in my favor, O my God. Nehemiah knew that success of the Second Temple and the success of the rebuilding of Jerusalem rested on obeying God’s law, beginning with the Sabbath.
So a quick review up to this point. Week one, we saw that Sabbath reminds us of God’s creation, calls us to enjoy that creation and all the beauty that God has made. Sabbath is for everyone regardless of age or nationality or what we do for a living. We also saw that Sabbath is related to freedom, freedom from slavery, freedom to say no to anyone in power over us once every seven days.
This week in week two, we saw that God used manna to teach the people to trust in God’s provision and not hoard. We also saw that Sabbath takes planning. We need to have our fires started and our lights lit so we’ll be ready when the Sabbath comes. And we also saw that the Sabbath involves caring for the land.
God commands those who grow food to let the land rest every seven years. And we saw that Sabbath law applies to money, particularly debt, which is to be wiped out every seven years, basically a financial Sabbath. In the Old Testament, when the people of Israel kept the Sabbath, everything went well with the nation. When they threw the Sabbath away and ignored it, war and exile were the result.
One Jewish website says, More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel. Next week in part three, we will see how Jesus kept the Sabbath even while people are accusing him of breaking it. And we’ll take a look at a few ideas as to what Sabbath-keeping might look like in the 21st century. I’d like to close today with another part of another Sabbath prayer.
Last week I closed with the opening of Sabbath. This prayer is sort of similar to a grace. It is traditionally said at the beginning of the first meal on the Sabbath. Let’s pray.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and given us in love and favor his holy Sabbath as an inheritance, as remembrance of the act of creation. For this day is the beginning of all holy days, a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt. For you have chosen us and you have blessed us from among all the nations. Blessed are you, Lord, who sanctifies the Sabbath.
Lord Jesus, please bless to our understanding this gift of Sabbath that you have given us, and inspire us to observe and honor this gift. Amen. [BLANK_AUDIO].