In the Large catechism Luther writes about the initiative each individual must make in order to observe the Third commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. He writes: “It is through you that it becomes holy or unholy depending on whether what you do on that day is holy or unholy.” Lest we come to the mistaken belief that our gathering for worship and singing the best songs we have and offering the best prayers we have is what makes the day holy for God, Luther makes clear that the day is holy in itself regardless of what we do. God wants the day also to be experienced as holy for us as well. In other words keeping the Sabbath is so important not because God needs us to keep it from him, but because we need it so greatly.
Luther also writes that we worship God by resting better than by working. The Sabbath observance allows us to relax in body and soul and cast our care on God.
How do we experience the day as holy, and how do we allow this gift of rest and renewal to extend to everyday of our lives? This is the question for us to consider as part of the body of Christ: How we experience the Sabbath as holy for ourselves.
To answer this question I believe it will help to first define what is the Third commandment is describing. To those living in the immediate Old Testament context of the journey through the wilderness as found in the book of Numbers, keeping the Sabbath meant keeping God’s command to rest. God’s people were instructed to rest because God rested on the 7th day. Resting on the Sabbath in this sense is part of God’s design for creation. We are made in the image of God and so we are to live following God’s pattern of rest.
Secondly the third commandment was a foreshadow of the rest that the Messiah would bring. Resting on the Sabbath was a way for God’s people to experience how God’s perfect love and forgiveness would come in Christ. To rest is to receive the gift of God’s provision for all that is needed in life, body and soul.
Third the Sabbath was a foreshadowing of the ultimate rest that God’s people would possess in heaven. Rest on the Sabbath was a way in which the people of Israel could know that the purpose of life is not for toil and labor, but instead the ultimate purpose is in resting in God’s future eternal salvation.
As the Church we do not quite experience the commandment the same way. We are not bound to a particular day that we must rest from work. Instead we celebrate that Christ has fulfilled the promise of the Sabbath rest. We have Sabbath rest in Christ every day.
For this reason the Small Catechism describes the Third Commandment not in terms of refraining from all work on one particular day, but in the positive sense of filling one day in particular with the renewal and refreshment of God’s Word. “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but gladly hear it and learn it.”
With this context we have established for the Christian use of the Third Commandment we can now answer the question of how we keep the Sabbath holy in our own lives.
To start with the practice of keeping the Sabbath brings us true rest. It brings true rest that lays down our burdens and helps us to resist following our muscle memory indications that we are made for work and work alone. When we allow ourselves the opportunity to stop making provisions and plans we can experience mentally, emotionally, and physically that our lives mean more than work. We put the focus back where it should be in receiving the gift of the gospel.
Our Lutheran Service Book hymnal contains on the very first page even before the numbers start a list of prayers for before and after worship. These are valuable because they provide opportunity for us to transition from the busy and problem filled world of our lives to the ordered and simple restful space of worship.
The very first line of the prayer on entering a church says: “Lord I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” In entering this church we can turn our thoughts from our own lives to that of focusing on God’s very nature and presence among us. Sabbath rest is the luxury of knowing that when we are in worship there is nothing else we would rather be doing, or should be doing.
Another important aspect of keeping the Sabbath is receiving God’s Word actively. Remembering the Sabbath is not about making sure we are at church no matter how sleepy, or distracted , or winter blues down we may feel. We are called to more than just showing up and passively taking in worship. We are called to actively listen to God’s Word in all the forms it comes to us in a worship service and in our daily lives, actively listening for how our old sinful nature can be once again drowned, actively listening for how we can abide in Jesus.
In our sinful fallen nature we struggle with all of our energy to fulfill the daily duties of life. As a result we come to associate what we have accomplished in life and the blessings we have in life as that which we have earned.
We can all too easily lose sight that God alone holds are lives together. Sabbath rest helps us put in perspective that we have limits, that we cannot continue to work day after day without rest. God’s Word also helps us to see the meaning of our toils and labors. We discover that our work is part of the vocation of service in the world that the Lord gifts us with. In this purpose we circle back to the joy of the gospel that we first came to know through Sabbath rest.