Nehemiah is angry. He’s threatening to lay hands on people. He’s shutting down a city. He’s making a big scene. And over what? Sabbath.
I don’t know the last time I saw someone get that angry about Sabbath.
But Nehemiah’s not alone. In the book of Numbers there is this horrifying little story about a man who went out to gather sticks on the Sabbath and the people have to stone him to death because of it. Apparently there’s a history of people getting worked about Sabbath.
Which seems a little bit strange, because Sabbath on paper sounds like this very nice thing. One day of rest each week as commanded by God. Who wouldn’t want a day off of work each week? What’s the purpose of getting so upset?
Yet here’s Nehemiah, forcibly removing people from the city, shoving them out, telling them that no, they cannot work that day. They cannot sell their fish in the market, they cannot carry their burdens in.
Reminds me of someone else who once got pretty upset about a show of consumerism in a holy place. Remember that story about Jesus storming the temple, flipping tables, and clearing all of the merchants out of the place of worship?
That’s the revolution there. The people who awaited Jesus, the Messiah, were hoping for someone to come liberate the people from Roman rule, maybe raise an army, use a little aggression to save the day. And yet Jesus didn’t do that, but did seem to let loose when it came to protecting the place of worship. That was worth getting angry about.
That’s Nehemiah. He’s been cleaning out the house of God for a while now. Throwing out anything that did not focus attention properly back to God. And so, just as protectively as he dealt with sacred space, Nehemiah is brutally defensive of sacred time. The time of Sabbath was meant for the worship of God and could not be like any other time. Worship was worth that kind of effort and protection.
We don’t spend much time getting angry about the loss of Sabbath time, but maybe now is the time to start.
Jesus and Nehemiah remind us to turn in and to take the time to pay attention to the interior. Not just that, but Jesus and Nehemiah both testify to the amount of energy and effort and emotion we should divert toward protecting what is holy.
Whenever I’ve talked to people about Sabbath this summer I’ve heard many stories about the way Sabbath functioned in our lives a few decades ago. Many of you remember the days of blue laws, when stores were forbidden from opening. These laws sound sort of like what Nehemiah is trying to put into place, so maybe you heard this story and thought this is going to be a message about utilizing governmental power to establish Sabbath for all people. But, that’s not going to work anymore. It’s true that we’ve lost some of this governmental protection of Sabbath, but it’s because we live in a society with neighbors who aren’t Christian or aren’t religious. And really, just forbidding commerce on the Sabbath is the cosmetic, the superficial part of Sabbath. Maybe that’s why Sabbath didn’t work when it was decreed by the American government.
And it can seem like all Nehemiah is doing is exerting governmental rule. But Nehemiah didn’t just clear out the merchants. He cleared out the merchants and then turned to God and talked back. He said once he was done, Remember me, O God. That’s the key. That’s the promise at the center. Nehemiah was sure to tell God, see? See what I’ve done? And that’s because Sabbath is about the relationship between humans and God.
I want to take a moment to connect this to the difference between Sabbath and vacation. Because at the heart of vacation, it’s about us. It’s about humans tending to ourselves and to our families and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I love vacation. But Sabbath is different. Sabbath is about this promise we have with God. That’s my theory why Sabbath didn’t work when decreed by the government. Because it became this shell of what it should be when it was missing the faith and the relationship with God Sabbath needs for it to function.
I want you to remember that when Clover comes back from Sabbatical in a couple weeks. A sabbatical is basically an extended Sabbath, the two are related. For Clover, this has been a time to refresh. But I don’t want you to make the mistake of assuming this was a vacation. It may have some shared characteristics–namely, the stopping of work. But when Clover comes back you can ask her if she had fun, but ask her about where she heard God. Ask her about her faith. As her about the state of her spiritual life and where her commitment to God has been renewed.
When Nehemiah referenced this commitment, this covenant, he was drawing on a long tradition that understood the intensity of the promise between the people and God. There’s this really curious story in the book of Genesis in which there’s a flaming pot and animals cut in two that never really made sense to me until this year. In this story, Abraham and God take part in this ritual that establishes this covenant between God and Abraham’s people. Scholars who know more about these things than I do say that these animals represented the consequences of breaking this covenant. Essentially they were a promise that said if I go back on my word, may I be like those animals.
So it’s a gruesome, but it gets the point across. God takes God’s relationship with us seriously and we should do the same.
Our relationship with God is at the heart of Sabbath. Sabbath is a way to honor that relationship. This is an important part of how we understand God that’s easy to forget if we’re only New Testament people. Christians who only look at the New Testament get caught up in the wonderful gift we have received from God, and really lean into the idea that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Grace does mean no matter what you’ve done, God will love and accept you. But. Grace also means that we were welcomed into this covenant with God. We do not have a passive relationship with God, where all we do is lay about and let grace rain upon us. Christians are not overgrown slugs. Sabbath is us remembering God and honoring the covenant that promises that God will also remember us. This idea of us having a covenant with God is just as important today as it was thousands of years ago. It challenges the idea that God is a distant, intellectual idea and makes it clear that we are still to make a commitment to a God that makes a commitment to us. I think to us it even sounds a little arrogant and self-centered, because it is one of those things that gives us permission to stand in front of God and say remember me. Look at me. You are having a relationship with me. But it’s not arrogant, it is simply reflective of this important relationship we have with God.
This promise is what I believe Nehemiah is referencing. Promises with God are serious business. And there’s something very tangible and real about them. I don’t know what it does for you, but when I think about God in this way, it changes the way I seek to connect with God. It’s so easy to only think of God as this abstraction, but this brings things to a level I understand. Remember me, O God. Remember what you have promised. Look on what I’ve done.
This sort of relationship with God reminds us that what we do matters.
Much of church programming comes from this desire for connection and commitment. We want to know people, we want to be relational, we want to have a faith that matters. We want to believe things that make sense, that transform us. This can lead churches to do. To come up with cool programs, engaging staff members, clever classes, and an endless litany of goals and mission statements. I’ve really seen that here at Forest Hill. You guys care about church. You’re involved, you seek after justice. And you do a lot. But what would happen if one day you woke up and Forest Hill was gone? What if there were no more bible studies. No more preaching. No more ministries. Everything just came to a halt. Where would your faith be?
That’s the challenge for people like you. You’ve got a good church. You do incredible work. You are busy and engaged and it’s marvelous to see. I’ve been so privileged to be welcomed into that for a time. But what would happen if you stopped? What would happen if you were forced to stop?
That’s the important context of the book of Nehemiah. Because Nehemiah was talking to a group of people who had been in exile and were dealing with a whole lot of anxiety. The center of their faith had been shaken. And now, they had chosen to come back to Jerusalem together to rebuild. It might not have been an easy decision to come back. But what seems to have happened is they got back, and they started to fill their time in space. With good things even. Eating fish, buying food, not such a bad thing really. It was easy to fill their anxiety with empty activities, because it felt good to have things on the schedule again. It was nice to preoccupied. But that made it all the more important for Nehemiah to remind them to protect their relationship with God. Nehemiah’s task as the leader of this group was to keep them on task and to put back at the center what belonged at the center. Remember me, O God.
We get complacent, not in a bad way, because we as Christians trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And that’s true. No matter what you do, God will love you. But Sabbath gives us a chance to pick up that love and turn it into a commitment, something real, something actual. That’s there’s something at the heart of our relationship with God that makes God accountable to us. And we crave that kind of depth of relationship. We care about promises. Just look at the debate about marriage our society is in. We want our promises to count and to matter. Sabbath speaks to that. It is fundamental because it returns to this deeply held belief that reaffirms weekly that we are God’s and God is ours. Pretty much everything from there is icing. This promise is really what defines who we are.
Sabbath means when there’s nothing else left, we will know that we belong to God and God belongs to us. We each have a relationship with God that mandates our actions.
Sabbath means when everything falls apart, we have a experience of being with the One who never leaves us.
Sabbath means that we aren’t just tied to one sacred space, but we understand that sacred time goes with us wherever we go.
Sabbath means that Forest Hill isn’t the center of our faith, but God is.
Taking time to remember that is worth getting defensive about. It’s worth forcefully clearing out time. It’s worth throwing out the things that distract us and want to take hold of us, like the never-ending drive of consumerism.
So I want to invite you to practice Sabbath. By that, I just mean taking time each week to stop and listen to God. Not because it’s some hip thing your cool summer intern is bringing, but because it is an ancient practice that keeps you grounded in God, not just Forest Hill. I want you to practice Sabbath because it forces everyone to stop and see where your commitment really is. I want you to practice Sabbath and to invite those around you to practice it as well because sometimes we need someone to chain the gates shut to give us permission to rest.
Remember us, O God in your favor.