Read: Isaiah 58
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day, if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable…then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…. (Isaiah 58:13-14, NRSV).
Passages like this really ought to come with some sort of warning attached. “CAUTION,” it might say. “Reading this passage out of context may be hazardous to your theology.”
In isolation, the language of these verses from the end of Isaiah 58 sound like a simple transaction. If you do this, then I will do this. Honor the sabbath, and I will give you prosperity.
This is language a good consumer capitalist can get excited about. What could be simpler? It’s like a cross between “Let’s Make a Deal” and the “Back to God Hour.” (Sorry if my media illustrations date me.) This is where the CAUTION label needs to kick in, however. God is not some cosmic vending machine that dispenses blessings in exchange for good behavior.
For a full-length seminar on the dangers of this kind of transactional theology, see the book of Job. Although it takes Job’s character 42 chapters to figure it out, he finally learns that honoring God is worth doing for its own sake, and not as a guarantee of health and happiness. For a short course on a similar theme, see John 9:1-3. There, when Jesus’ disciples ask him whether a man’s blindness was a result of the man’s sin or the sin of his parents, Jesus responds with an authoritative “neither.” The essence of his answer is to remind the disciples—and us—that there is often more going on than is dreamt of in our theology.
So, those are some cautions from the Bible’s broader context. It’s worth looking closer to home as well, however.
Even if we read no further than the rest of Isaiah 58 we will learn some important things about sabbath and the dangers of seeing it in isolation.
Most of the rest of this chapter is about justice. It turns out that God is not much interested in religious observance without it. I’m not sure this was the response that the seriously religious of Isaiah’s day were expecting, and I’m not sure it’s what we’re expecting either. But ready or not, listen to this:
Is not this the fast that I choose;
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your houses;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Isaiah 58:6-9, NRSV
If we read only verse 13’s warnings about “trampling the sabbath” by pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day, we might well come away with a rigid code about what’s allowed on the sabbath and what’s not. When we read in as the climax to which the chapter’s crescendo has been building, however, we are much less likely to limit it to mere legalism.
If you have been following this series for the last several weeks, you may have given some thought to what celebrating the sabbath will look like for you. Isaiah 58 reminds us that whatever our sabbath observance looks like, it needs to drink deeply from justice’s spring. It’s worth doing even if there isn’t anything “in it” for us. But if we do, there will surely be ways in which God will make our lives “like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (Is. 58:11). Perhaps justice itself is the source of some of that living water.
Prayer: Teach us how to drink deeply from justice’s spring every day of the week, so that our sabbath celebration may truly honor you.
Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:
Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.
Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!
Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.
In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.