“Pastor Eric, Pastor Eric,” a youngster chimed after the service one Sunday morning.
I looked down. “Yeah, buddy, what do you need?”
“We are not allowed to eat vegetables on Sunday.”
“You’re not?” I was confused. And was reeled in to his web of Sunday joviality.
“No, we don’t eat vegetables on Sundays. We get cake and drink Cokes on Sundays.” He was about to pop from the unheard of wonder of such an occasion.
Not only was there the keen anticipation of the forthcoming Sunday sugar rush and nutrition avoidance, but I also detected a warranted pleasure merely in the heralding of the privileged practice that happens in some version or another each 1 day in 7 at his lucky home where his parents were busy teaching the faith in remarkably concrete and impressive ways to him and his siblings.
While I may have a detail out of place here or there, I’m certain I grasped the gist of it. And that “no vegetables on Sunday” concept has been anchored secure in my mind, bolted forever in my brain as a beautiful encapsulation and practice of Lord’s day in our time.
The Festive Day of Rest
The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, while not as enlightened as the the thoughtful family mentioned above in their confectionary choices on Sunday, still, I’d bet, would approve of their practice.
After all, “festive day of rest” is the moniker the Lord’s Day receives in that consoling document. And that is what the little fella was telling me. They have a festive day of rest. They convene with God’s people to adore God himself in worship. They pig out on things sweet to eat, like at a birthday party. And they take naps. A marriage of Lord, festivity, and rest!
And that moniker and their Lord’s Day culinary habits recognize Jesus’ own unique seminar on Sabbath to the most strict Sabbath keepers that ever existed.
The strict ones understood the day as a day to rest, but rigorously so. Watchfully so. Thus, they were continuously spying out exactly what this strange new figure on the Palestinian scene was going to do next on the Sabbath.
Jesus clarified. “You’ve got the not-work part right. You’ve just misunderstood, umm, how can I say this, well, EVERYTHING ELSE about it!”
God’s Fiercest Finger Wags
In fact, this is why, peculiarly, we often find Jesus wielding the fiercest finger wags and verbal lashes toward, catch this, the most devoted practitioners of the things God has always asked folks to do. Tithers and Sabbath-keepers get the most heated mouthful from the Son of Man. But not because they are keeping the law right, but because they are keeping it all wrong.
I once came up with an axiomatic jingle to capture the sentiment:
“Law kept right makes love grow bright
but law kept wrong makes hate grow strong.”
This was my way of suggesting, inspired by perceptive instruction from Joe Novenson, that behind the apparent rigors of God’s requirements for us is rigorous provision and replenishing love. Propping up each command is a divine concern meant to prop up and propel our lives. Thus, “the Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath.”
But, schemers, swindlers and suspicious sneerers as we can be, (to borrow from Kierkegaard) it can be indigenous to some of our own hearts to try hard to be really good, not to please, but rather, to keep God away. In other words, as Ray Cortese says, “Our goodness can be a disguise for our distance from God.”
It’s counter-intuitive, but watch how it happens in your own life.
If you are a strict Sabbath-keeper, or foodie, or well, strict anything...does your keeping of that strictness tend to create fondness for others and for God?
Or do you secretly seethe, because here you are trying so hard to be a purist, and everyone else gets to have a slice of caramel cake, while you are stuck eating quinoa wafers and tofu spread.
Do you find yourself angry at God for requiring so much?
Do you talk a lot about doing the right thing? If so, is it to please him whom you were made to please or to make extra sure he leaves you alone?
If you got still and quiet, would you discover that you actually think God is just overbearing and mean and cannot be pleased at all, like your middle-school football coach or your always agitated next door neighbor? Or do you eagerly “run in the path of his commands, because he has set your heart free?”
You Must Not Work Becomes You Don’t Have to Work!
Our best obedience, like that of our children toward us, will recognize paternal protection, provision, and possibility behind prohibitions. Listening attentively to shaping our behavior and beliefs according to God’s wishes, will, when we’re doing it right, eventually result in an increase of fondness for the God whose fondness of us precedes ours of him.
But it is often easier, because of desire for applause, or fear of communal ‘boos” to do “what is right” while simultaneously drifting in distance from God.
I can appear righteous, not as a way to draw near to God, but as a sneaky, and often unwitting way, to keep God off my back. Like Hazel Motes, in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.”
We develop similarly unspoken but shaping convictions until we see that God commands us, because he cares for us. His law for us to keep can be approached rightly when we see his love behind it that keeps us. Knowing this can change the the Sabbath command of “on this day you must not work” to “Wow, God is giving me a day off. I don’t HAVE to work!”
The Donated Day for the People of His Delight
So it is indeed instructive that on the “festive day of rest” Jesus not only defended his disciples who were hungry and in need being replenished but also remade a man’s mangled hand so that he was completely restored (cf. Mark 3)!
Think of it, a day to anticipate massive, wide-spread restoration like that!
A day when Jesus aims to give us the day off.
A day to be replenished, restored, and remade. It is a donated day for the people who are his delight!
God’s snow day for stepping out from loads of care to be together, to play, and to marvel at all God does and can do for us!
The Spectacles of Trust
But what is the requirement of the Sabbath? What must we have to see the care behind it?
Why the spectacles of trust!
Plain and simple. If we trust Jesus with our eternal salvation, we get to see if we can trust him for one day while we don’t work in our normal way. We get to contemplate, “If Jesus is the one I am counting on to get me through the grave to eternal life in the new world, can I count on him to get me through one day of not turning a profit, or making a name for myself, or frantically busying myself to reassure myself that my life matters?”
One day in seven, if we’ll trust Jesus, who stays up all night so we don’t have to, and gives orders to the morning without so much as a text to us for a smidgen of advice about how to do it or when, we can have a festive day of rest. We can re-orient ourselves to the reality that we belong to God who donates his breathe to every living thing and whose grace oxygenates our lives.
One day in seven, we can eat cake, take a nap, convene with God’s people and participate in the circulatory system of his replenishing grace in worship. And while unoccupied with our customary pursuits, can learn to pay attention to “useless things” (that cannot be quantified with a dollar sign) but that are more important than the money or acclaim we get from never taking a day off or never sitting still long enough to rest. You know things, or rather, folks, like the widowed Mrs. Johnson down the road. Or the creation of wonder in our souls. Or warm conversation with folks given to us to love.
Offering our Shriveled Souls to God
I am praying today that each reader would have Sundays where they “enter into God’s rest.” And that we all do it in such a way that even our kids think the Lord’s day is worth celebrating, because they realize it is such a remarkable but regular windfall to his people, that on it, they get to eat cake. May we so trust the heart behind God’s prescriptions that we ease in to taking them, not as punishments to ruin us and drive us away, but as prizes to replenish us!
Lord, take our souls shriveled with worry, flurry, and responsibility disorders, and grant us that burden-easing that comes from counting on your broad shoulders, so we can kick back every now again to celebrate you and your provision for our God-resistance and distrust on the Cross. Grant us permission and the possibility of leaning into what one author called “the indispensability of idleness” and a regular rest for our worn-out bodies and thinly-stretched souls.
Lord, restore us on Sunday, and reassure us that one day, all your work of law-keeping as if us, and sinner-dying instead of us, and grave-conquering for us, will grant all who entrust themselves to you, to enjoy an endless succession of festive days of rest where sorrows will be banished, fears will be chased away, and we’ll all have an extra piece of cake with a cold Coca Cola to the honor of the One who has secured our undeserved but deeply delighted in rest. Amen,
Contact Eric Youngblood, pastor of Rock Creek Fellowship on Lookout Mountain, at email@example.com