Encountering Sabbath

“People who keep Sabbath live all seven days differently.” – Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now

My first post on this blog was about Unexpected Sabbath. Specifically on how Sabbath comes in different and unexpected ways – and also how we need Sabbath to both begin and to end. Over the last months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sabbath. I have been surprised at the different ways I have encountered Sabbath.

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. – Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (NRSV)

Several times over the years in various classes and Bible studies, the subject of Sabbath-keeping has come up. In our busy, suburban lives – often with kids and two jobs in the family – we lament our inability to keep the Sabbath. We can probably avoid shopping or doing wage-related work, but it’s almost impossible not to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry, or finish up the yard work on a Sunday. We’ve discussed doing these things but with an attitude of rest and worship (rather than the drudgery they usually are).

But usually, everyone seems to fail.

As someone who “works” on Sunday, I may be able to keep Sunday afternoon work-free but the whole day cannot be set aside as a Sabbath to the Lord. While I try to engage in activities that keep my heart and mind light, there continues to be supper to make and dishes to wash.

Sunday is a hard Sabbath to keep.

I have a Jewish friend who observes the Sabbath. For her, this includes no electronics and no driving. She hasn’t been to a football game to watch her daughter on dance team, because these games are on Friday night and Sabbath is sun down to sun down. She works in a hospital environment, we’ve talked about what happens when she is on call. Because she is faithful about her Sabbath-keeping and can usually find someone to cover for her. On the rare occasion she is on call, she must violate the electronics fast to monitor her pager. She only goes in if the issue is life-threatening and there is no one else who can respond.

These are allowed within the boundaries of Sabbath-keeping because they represent life. We usually give the Pharisees a bad rap in the Gospels because they have a problem with Jesus healing on the Sabbath. However, in practice – at least today – there is always an allowance for life. And that’s what I’m finding in my encounters with Sabbath these past months: encountering Sabbath is encountering Life.


There are two sides to the Sabbath coin: what you refrain from and what you actually do. When we look at the Ten Commandments, they are largely negative commandments telling us what we should not do. I think this is what we generally focus on when we engage in Sabbath-keeping. We can’t ignore these negative commandments, but I don’t think they should be our focus.

I think part of Sabbath-keeping is what it frees us to do and how to be. God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. God encourages us throughout Scripture to choose life (c.f. Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Jesus came so that we could have abundant life (John 10:10). Somehow, it seems that Sabbath-keeping must be about life in order for it to be a Sabbath to the Lord.

“Sabbath-keeping is a way of making a statement of peculiar identity amid a larger public identity…Understood in this way, Sabbath is a bodily act of testimony to alternative and resistance to pervading values and assumptions behind those values.” – Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now

I just finished reading Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann. In addition to helping us understand how we can keep the Sabbath, Brueggemann also makes the theological case of Sabbath-keeping in our 21st century lives. Ceasing to be productive for a period of time is resistance to the anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multi-tasking our culture of acquisition creates. If you are wondering where to start in bringing change to our consumer-culture, I recommend this book and Sabbath-keeping.


“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (CEB)

One of my discoveries has been that we are called to many Sabbaths. In my own experiences and in conversations with others, I see God calling for us to cease something (the verb root of Sabbath means “to cease”). It might be to cease holding a grudge, to cease worrying, to cease being afraid. Sabbath rest comes in many forms. It is not bound to a certain day of the week or the work we do.

A second discovery is how easy it is to miss the Sabbaths God provides. What we perceive as unending waiting or a “no” to prayer may actually be a Sabbath rest to prepare us for what will come next. As we embrace the abundant nature of Sabbath rather than its scarcity, we may find renewal in periods that we would otherwise see as wasted.

Sabbath is much richer than simply doing nothing. It is the burden we lay down at Jesus’ feet; it is the fallow ground being readied for the next spring. It is about trusting in God rather than ourselves (or our money). Sabbath is one of the ways we are in the world without being of of it. By keeping the Sabbath – in the many ways we encounter it – we choose a life of trust and abundance.

Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. – Matthew 6:33 ( CEB)


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3 Thoughts to “Encountering Sabbath”

  1. […] mentioned in Encountering Sabbath about the reflection I have been doing on Sabbath over the last seven months and how I have […]

  2. Nancy Ponstein Disabato

    My dad, a theology prof, always taught me to think of Sabbath as “resting in the Lord”. I may rest from working (at my job) but more importantly is the decision to “rest in the Lord”.

    1. Remarkably hard to do sometimes – it’s an act of faith.

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