This was a talk I gave a month or so ago as part of High Council Sunday.
In preparation for this talk, I read through Elder Nelson’s April Conference address on the Sabbath, in which he stated, “I am intrigued by the words of Isaiah, who called the Sabbath “a delight.” Yet,” he continued, “I wonder, is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?” Well, Joseph Smith revealed that the Lord’s day should consist of “confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord” (D&C 59:12), so here’s my confession: the answer to Elder Nelson’s question, for me personally and on average, is a big No. My Sabbath experience has often been far from a delight. Maybe some of you can relate to this. For one, I work every other weekend. Half of my Sabbaths each year are typical workdays. But even those I have off don’t fend much better. I end up leaving church with an Elders Quorum-induced headache (though that has decreased ever since I became finance clerk and get to skip the third hour), while the rest of the day is agreeable, if unexceptional. However, the Sunday afternoon boredom tends to be coupled with a modest level of anxiety over what we are actually allowed to do. Even growing up, I saw Sunday as the day I had to go to church and couldn’t do anything else. Despite these misgivings, I recognize that the Sabbath is meant to be more. It is not an arbitrary commandment; an item waiting to be marked off of some gospel checklist that will for whatever reason grant us access into the celestial kingdom. While simple obedience to the commandment is a start, obedience without understanding or purpose is limited at best. Obedience for the sheer sake of obedience is not inherently virtuous and never has been. What’s worse is that believing obedience is the end game can lead to a habitual pawning off of personal responsibility on to others. In the Book of Moses, God revealed his “work and [his] glory”—his end game–to be our “immortality and eternal life” (Moses 1:39). Therefore, God’s commandments are intended for the mass flourishing of his children and the Sabbath is no exception.
There are two major strands of thought found in the scriptures regarding the reasons for the Sabbath. The first largely dominates the books of Genesis and Exodus and hearkens back to the Creation. As we read in Exodus, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:8,11; cf. Gen. 2:2; Mosiah 13:16). Scholars have recognized for some time that the sequence and literary structure of Genesis 1 parallels that of ancient Near Eastern temple building, thus depicting the Creation as a cosmic temple (for fruitful scripture study, try comparing Genesis 1 to the building and dedication of the Tabernacle or Solomon’s temple). Within this context, God resting makes much more sense. “Deity,” explains Wheaton professor John Walton, “rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for [in the ancient Near East]. We might even say that this is what a temple is—a place for divine rest.” With Genesis 1 as a temple text, it is worth noting that the Sabbath is the first mention of “holiness” in scripture and was later put on par with the temple itself: the Sabbath became a sanctuary or temple in time, while the temple became a Sabbath in space. This is why the temple and the Sabbath could be profaned in similar ways. In summary, the first interpretation of the Sabbath entails Creation, divine rest, and holiness.
The second train of thought is found mostly in Deuteronomy and the later prophets. The Deuteronomist version of the commandment reads, “Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it…And remember that thou was a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out of thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:12,15). This follows an admonition in which the entire Israelite household is told to cease from labor, including servants, foreign guests, and even animals (vs. 14). The reminder and celebration is that of liberation and the Sabbath itself acts “as an affirmation of human freedom, justice, and equality” by providing rest for all living beings. Therefore, the second interpretation is about remembrance, deliverance, and (given its connection to other practices such as the sabbatical years and Jubilee) social justice.
These two approaches are not in conflict, but are instead complementary. The story of the Exodus draws heavily on creation imagery. As one scholar puts it, “Israel’s day-to-day life is a re-creation. God saved Israel to be a new creation community whereby all things would become new…As God ordered the universe in Genesis 1, he is now giving Israel order in its existence amid the chaos of the world around them.” On a deeper level, however, we see that creation and liberation are two sides of the same coin. To be liberated from evil is the way the creation was meant to be. This hope of re-creation and liberation among the ancient Jews was equated with their hope in the long-awaited Messiah. According to New Testament scholar Ben Witherington,
The Sabbath [in Jesus’ day] had become a symbol of the eschatological rest…that God would one day provide for his people when…Messiah came and brought in the age to come. The longed-for Sabbath was the coming of the dominion of God…a time when creation would be relieved not just of the toil and turmoil of a fallen world but of disease, decay, and death as well. From this perspective, there was no better time to heal a person than on the Sabbath as an indicator that the ultimate Sabbath was coming.
For the earliest Christians, the resurrection of Christ–“the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45) and “the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20)—was the beginning of that new creation and the ushering in of the messianic age. Even Joseph Smith’s revelation on the Sabbath in section 59—which followed the dedication of the temple land in Missouri–weaves together creation and millennial imagery, the principle of consecration, and the concept of Zion. Like most rituals and observances, the Sabbath remembers the past (Creation, Exodus, Resurrection), looks forward to the future (the Millennium, paradisiacal glory, our own resurrection), and attempts to–in some degree–bring those experiences into the present. If the temple is meant to provide a taste of heaven, so also does the Sabbath. Abraham Heschel, one of the most celebrated Jewish theologians of the 20th century, put it this way: “All week there is only hope of redemption. But when the Sabbath is entering the world, man is touched by a moment of actual redemption; as if for a moment the spirit of the Messiah moved over the face of the earth…The Sabbath comes like a caress, wiping away fear, sorrow and somber memories.”
But how? How can we tap into this weekly holiness? How do we move beyond the mere motions of Sabbath day observance into a heavenly state? How can the Sabbath lead us to flourish as individuals and a community?
One way I’ve seen the Sabbath described is that of resistance: resistance to anxiety, to coercion, to exclusivism, and to multitasking. It is resistance to the idea that you’re not enough and is instead a reminder that “the worth of souls [including yours] is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). It is a chance to put aside the anxieties of output, of production, of deadlines, of being and doing more than you are right now; to put aside busyness and exhaustion as symbols of your self-worth. While I by no means intend to downplay the importance and value of industriousness, our meritocratic culture of “bootstrapping” can make it difficult to even acknowledge dependence. But this is what the Sabbath asks of you: to let go of “make your own way” and receive God’s gracious gifts; to remember that creation, liberation, atonement, and resurrection are given to you because God loves you. It provides a chance to cultivate a sense of gratitude in the here and now. The equality of rest should allow us to drop self-comparison with others and competition between the saints along with the coercion and abuse that can accompany it. Throughout the week, we have different successes and failures, jobs and careers, worries and problems. Unfortunately, we sometimes step on each other in competition for status. Here, however, we are all at rest and at worship. Here, we begin to build Zion, a people of “one heart and one mind” with “no poor among [us]” (Moses 7:18). Furthermore, the equality of rest should be inviting. It should break down barriers of glib judgment, prejudice, and bigotry. The Sabbath should provide safe haven and rest for all. I have sometimes heard it said that church (and by extension the Sabbath) is “for the sacrament” and “not a social club.” While I understand the meaning, I would stress that if the sacrament is taken without its communal context intact, then I’m afraid we’ve missed the point. To cherish the sacramental emblems and not each other is a gross violation of the covenant the ordinance represents. C.S. Lewis, as always, provides much wisdom on this subject:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
(Remember that the next time exclusion seems like a good idea.)
Finally, the Sabbath is a chance to give up control. The world can spread us thin throughout the week as we attempt to be and do more than we likely can. Between secular and spiritual worries, we enter the Sabbath with our hands full. But the Sabbath reminds us who created the universe, who liberated us from sin, and who conquered death. It invites us to drop our burdens, “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).
The Sabbath is ultimately a day of vulnerability. It is a day to connect with and be truly seen by others. It is a day-long meditation and reflection. It is day of being instead of doing. It is a day of belonging; a day of enough. It is a day in which we can get a taste of the celestial and to participate in the kingdom of God. But only in as much as we seek to build it. May we all seek to make the Sabbath a delight, for ourselves and for each other.
- Russell M. Nelson, “The Sabbath Is a Delight,” Ensign (March 2015): https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/05/sunday-afternoon-session/the-sabbath-is-a-delight?lang=eng
- See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009).
- Ibid., “Proposition 7” (Kindle).
- See Jared C. Calaway, “Heavenly Sabbath, Heavenly Sanctuary: The Transformation of Priestly Sacred Space and Sacred Time in the “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” and the Epistle to the Hebrews,” Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2010.
- Arthur Waskow, “Rest,” 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought, eds. Arthur A. Cohen, Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 795.
- Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), Kindle edition, “Exodus 20:1-21.”
- Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 100.
- This features prominently in the work of N.T. Wright. For example, see his Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperCollins, 2008) or Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005).
- “Though terminally ill, [Polly Peck Knight] had nonetheless made the journey to Missouri, hoping to be buried in Zion’s blessed soil. She died shortly after her arrival in [the newly consecrated] Zion…After the funeral Joseph received Doctrine and Covenants 59…The revelation reiterates the law of consecration, which, simply put, is the two great commandments: [D&C 59:5]. Then follows a review of the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, to which the Lord adds commandments to thank God in all things and to offer him a broken heart. He gives a specific purpose for observing the Sabbath: [D&C 59:9]. The Sabbath is for offering oblations–that is, time, talents, and material resources–for the establishment of Zion” (Steven C. Harper, Making Sense of the Doctrine & Covenants: A Guided Tour through Modern Revelations. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008, “Doctrine & Covenants 59,” e-book). As for millennial and creation imagery (which are often one and the same), the revelation speaks of those who “inherit the earth” (vs. 2) and “receive for their reward the good things of the earth, and it shall bring forth in its strength” (vs. 3). Later, “the fulness of the earth” is promised along with “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which climbeth upon the trees and walketh upon the earth; Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth” (vs. 16-17).
- Though likely dated in some respects, Mircea Eliade’s Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959) is still helpful in getting a feel for ritual, myth, and sacred time.
- Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 ), 56.
- See Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 45-46.
- This draws on Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City: Hazelden, 2010).