The next installment in our Lipscomb DMin Exodus Series was presented by Sheila Vamplin (see previous post for full explanation). -Sara
Sheila Vamplin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice who also teaches piano lessons for a change of pace. She has worked with churches in Italy and Croatia and returns there regularly with her Croatian husband. She leads “Saturday for the Soul”retreats for women at the White Station Church of Christ in Memphis and was thankful to be assigned the passage on Sabbath, believing it to be a spiritual practice as needed as it is neglected in churches today. Sheila blogs at www.folkflocksflowers.
Sheila’s intro: Speaking to a room filled with ministers, praying for wisdom to speak a word specifically to them, caused me to see this passage in a whole new light. . . . From Exodus 31:12 The Lord said to Moses: 13 You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
Hello. My name is Sheila, and I’m a workaholic. I hit bottom at age 18 and wound up in the hospital. Seriously. So I have been in recovery for almost thirty years now.
You know, this would be a hard thing to admit in front of you, except that I feel quite sure many or most of you are workaholics, too. We live in a time and place that encourages addiction to work. Work means power. Work means status. Work means worth. We get pats on the back and admiring comments for staying busy and appearing to be continually productive. We in ministry do work that makes us especially vulnerable to work addiction. Even if money and status are not our goals, souls are thought to be at risk if we don’t work ourselves to death. And beyond that….we really do care about souls!
The text today is addressed to Moses. Moses, a man who grew up in a palace as a son of the Pharoah, the mightiest man (in the eyes of men) in Egypt. Moses, who surely grew up with a sense of his own importance, probably being groomed for important work within the royal family. Moses, who felt such a strong desire to make a difference that he killed a man. Moses, who fled to Midian, letting go of the power and status he had been accustomed to those first forty years of life, and settling into life as a shepherd. Any unhealthy attachment he had to power and status probably lessened in those years. It was a time of recovery for him, a time of learning he wasn’t as important as he once thought. Not in the ways he once thought.
And now, at this point in the story, Moses has been called by God. He is once again in a position of power—only now he is much more aware of the power of God that makes his own role possible. On the mountain in the presence of God, he has just received extensive, detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle, the place where God will meet with his chosen people, instructions about worship. Very, very important work, this. More important than construction of pyramids or whatever he might have once done in Egypt. He has very important work to do. He has very spiritual work to do.
And here, right here, God brings up Sabbath. He says pointedly, “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths.” You yourself. In Italian if you want to say something is really beautiful, you say “bella, bella.” In the Hebrew here, it is the same, “You, you are to speak to the Israelites.” Something about this message is crucial not just for the Israelites but also for Moses. Could it be that God already knows Moses will take on more than he can handle, needing a Jethro later on? That he will take things into his own hands and strike a rock when he needs to rely on God? “You yourself are to speak to the Israelites,” God says, and then he goes on to give the longest passage in scripture about keeping Sabbath.
Keeping Sabbath. For many of us, we grew up hearing, “We don’t do that. That’s in the Old Testament.” And for other reasons related to Jesus’ words about Sabbath and the lack of a command for it in the New Testament. Industrialism, capitalism, and workaholism surely have something to do with it as well.
Keeping Sabbath. What would it even look like for us today? In recent Church of Christ memory, we have no rules, no models, no tradition. It may mean we have to work out our own Sabbath-keeping with fear and trembling.
The various passages on Sabbath relate it to various themes. What stands out in this passage is the relational language. Sabbath is a sign between me and you. Sabbath is for the generations to come. Sabbath is given so you will know that I , the LORD, sanctify you. It is holy for you. It is holy to the LORD. It is perpetual covenant, throughout the generations. Sabbath is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel.
Sign. Covenant. Between you and me. Holy, that is, set aside, for you and the LORD. There is something very intimate about this thing called Sabaath. It’s not just a day of rest because we don’t need to overwork, though that’s true. It’s not only a reminder that God is the one in charge of the universe, though that is certainly true.
Could it be that God wants to be sure His people, these people He has called and chosen and delivered and lavished longsuffering love on….longing love on…these people he has never forgoteen….will remember Him? So they will stop what they’re doing at least once a week and spend some time with Him? Could it be that He knows if they don’t do this, they will fall prey to the lure of power and status and greed, and they will wither away in the weariness of workaholism? Trying to fill that God-shaped hole inside themselves…. with their own effort and the sense of accomplishment it provides?
If so, this will eventually lead them away from Him, away from the commands He has given them to recreate a holy way of living, and will then simply add to the polluting of Creation, dishonoring His name and the covenant He made with them. And so by not keeping Sabbath, they will cut themselves off from life-giving community. By profaning Sabbath, they will themselves bring death to themselves and the community by alienating themselves from God, their only hope.
The word “keep” is important here. It is not just to observe, but to “protect,” “watch,” “defend.” Any of us in a marriage covenant know that it’s not enough to just notice the fact that we are married. We have to protect the covenant, watch out for it, be very intentional in making time for it. The same is true in our relationship with God.
Back before my freshman year of college, I fell in love with Madeleine L’Engle’s books. You know, those “children’s books” that say much more than a lot of literature for older readers does. In her book Meet the Austins, one of the characters shares a poem that I memorized back then and never forgot. Since I haven’t quoted any Hebrew, I hope you will indulge a bit of slightly older English. Because I think it speaks very poignantly to God’s hopefulness in ordaining Sabbath as a practice-and His sadness when it is ignored:
If thou couldst empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the Ocean shelf,
And say — “This is not dead,” —
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou,
And hast such shrewd activity,
That, when He comes, He says —
“This is enow Unto itself —
‘Twere better let it be:
It is so small and full inside, there is no room for Me.
Maybe Sabbath per se is not a command for us anymore. You’ll have to decide for yourself what to do with that. Or maybe you want to keep Sabbath, but struggle with that workaholic inside that says, “You’re wasting time!” Well, this may help—
A minister friend of mine hoped to pursue a doctorate. But out of nowhere, his 40-something year old wife became pregnant. At 57, he now has a two year old with significant disabilities and has no more hope of doctoral work. Recently he wrote a piece called “Church Is a Waste of Time” which concludes:
Sometimes as a father I have the chance to sit with my sleeping child, or even hold him. It is not terribly productive, and as I age it hurts my elbows and wrists. The sleeper does not bond with me; sleepers are notoriously oblivious to things. What does happen is we are together. Not talking. Not sharing. Just me loving you, little sleeper. The blessing is just being with God together, wasting time.
The thing is, it is “wasting time” moments that are sometimes the greatest moments. I think wasting time with God is a wonderful waste of time; wonderful and life-giving and tied up with the purpose of life. Maybe I am oblivious, too, as He holds me in His arms and just loves me beyond my knowing and experiencing. Maybe that makes God happy. If it does, then “wasting time” may not be a waste of time….