Regarding the discipline of practicing Sabbath (Jews prefer the Hebrew word “Shabbat”), I have read and written many sermons and articles. But nothing brings this floating, vague theological notion down out of the clouds like spending time with real, living, breathing Orthodox Jews who lovingly practice their faith.
In February, I was privileged to travel to Israel with a group of U.S. pastors. Besides visiting the historic sites of our faith, we spent some valuable hours with our hosts, who keep Shabbat faithfully. One of our guides, Michael, took the tour bus microphone and announced, “This is my bus stop. It’s Friday afternoon. Shabbat begins at sundown. I am headed home to clean house and prepare food for my family’s celebration. And I am so excited!” Now honestly, ladies, how often do you see your man excited about cleaning house and cooking?
As darkness arrived Friday evening, things got interesting. Since Michael was out of commission, our guide needed to contact one of our other hosts, Abraham, also an Orthodox Jew. But a part of his Shabbat discipline is abstaining from the use of electronic devices, so his cell phone was off. Miracle of miracles, we managed to meet up with him anyway and all was well. News flash to all hurried, harried Western Gentiles: The world can keep spinning without texts, tweets and voice mails.
Later, I asked Abraham what it is like to live without electronics during the 24 hours of his weekly Shabbat observance. I’ll never forget his reply. “It’s freeing.” Freeing! And then I recalled the context of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5) — liberation! God freed the slaves and then gave the Law to assist them in staying free. The best analogy I know for the joy and freedom described by my friend Abraham was the giddiness produced by an unexpected snow day here in the States. You don’t have to work. You don’t have to make excuses or agonize over what you ought to be doing. The snow gives you permission to play and rest. In the case of Sabbath, God gives the permission (and here’s a hint: Sabbath comes around much more often than blizzards).
Perhaps the greatest Sabbath challenge we faced that evening was trying to get to our hotel rooms in the Friday night rush. At first, I assumed that the lines to the elevators were due to heavy tourist arrivals at that hour. But further investigation revealed that two elevators had been marked “Non-Shabbat” (available for anyone to push the button for any floor) and two others were labeled “Shabbat” (because of the Shabbat injunction prohibiting work, no Observant Jew was allowed to push a button, so the elevator was preprogrammed to painstakingly stop at every other floor).
Those of you who know me are aware that patience is not one of my virtues. Admittedly, my first thought was NOT “What would Jesus do?” It was more like, “This is crazy! I’ll never get to my room on time!” But another miracle occurred. In hardly any time, the lines to the elevators cleared. To my knowledge, no one missed an urgent appointment or died. In fact, the only casualty I know of was the spiked blood pressure of an uptight, balding Baptist preacher from Missouri.
The great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel wrote that we should not live as if all time is alike, as if every hour is just like all others. Some hours and days are special. “The Shabbats are our great cathedrals of time,” he declared. Just as we enjoy cathedrals of space, so we should revel in this great edifice of time.
Are we required to keep Sabbath in order to be saved? Of course not. As Christians, we are saved by grace, not works. And Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. But just as the other nine commandments offer us ways to remain free and enjoy life, so does the fourth one — keeping Sabbath. What’s more, the next time I am stuck on an elevator that seems to be taking forever and stopping on every floor, I can now proudly say, “This is nothing. Let me tell you a story about a hotel in Jerusalem.”
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.