This session is grounded in texts selected from Exodus.
The key themes in this session are:
"God's work through the Sabbath is consistent with how God normally works, coming to us from outside of ourselves, intruding graciously into our bondage.
"Sabbath worship is something that God does for us, not something that we do for God. God regularized the intrusion of the Sabbath in order to have a regular worship time in which to work on us."
-- Rolf Jacobson
Sabbath: God's Gracious Intrusion and the Principle of Time with God
Goal: The goal of Session 1 is for learners to make the connection between the Sabbath commandment and God's grace. To that end, it is important that learners see that God's grace comes from outside of the human sphere -- God intrudes into our lives bring grace and freedom. It is also important that learners see that worship is not something that we do for God, but something that God does for us.
How to use this guide:
This leader's guide is a road map that charts the terrain of Sabbath in the book of Exodus. In what follows, you will find:
- A lesson outline
- Key texts identified
- Learning objectives for each text
- Background information about each text
- Sample mini-lecture components related to some texts
- Sample discussion questions
You will not find step-by-step instructions on what to say or do with each text, such as, "Have participants open their Bibles and ask for a volunteer to read ... " That will be left up to your own intelligence and creativity. One hint, however: The less that participants hear your voice and their more they use their own tongues and brains to read texts and make connections, the better.
I. Gathering and Introducing the Topic
Open with prayer. Ask the group to reflect on: What do you think God's command to keep the Sabbath means? What were you taught we are to do or not to do in order to keep the commandment? Why does God want this commandment kept?
Hint: Most groups will say that we are to worship God, spend time with family and not work. Notice how most people see the Sabbath as something that we do for ourselves. The point of this opening question is to set up an initial common understanding of the Sabbath from which you can lead people deeper to see how the Sabbath is not about what we do but about what God does and about how God orders the world.
II. First text: Exodus 5:1-4; 12:29-31
Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'" But Pharaoh said, "Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go." Then they said, "The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days' journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword." But the king of Egypt said to them, "Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!" (5:1-4)
At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, "Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the LORD, as you said." (12:29-31)
To help participants learn that the Exodus event started out with the request from Moses and Aaron that the enslaved people be allowed to worship their God and see that there are times when, places where and reasons why people do not have the freedom to worship.
Imagine yourself in the sandals of the first generation of Israelites God brought out of bondage in the land of Egypt. In those sandals, you had slaved away for Pharaoh -- never getting a day off from work; never even thinking of asking for a day off; never getting a day to worship your Lord and Creator.
All of the excitement started with a simple request from Moses, who had returned from exile: "Let my people go and worship the Lord."; But Pharaoh could think only of work, of the gold and silver he would lose if the let the people have a day off for worship. So you had watched and worked as God brought plagues upon the Egyptians. After the last plague, Pharaoh finally said, "No more, you can go worship, but bring me a blessing, too."
Notice that the Exodus event began as a struggle between an earthly king, who wanted people only to work so that his economic model would not be thrown out of alignment, and the heavenly Lord, who desired that the chosen people be allowed the chance to worship.
Sample discussion questions:
What do you think life was like for slaves?
Why didn't Pharaoh want to give people the chance to worship?
Do you ever take for granted the opportunity to worship?
What are the reasons today that people might not be able to worship God?
III. Second text: Exodus 20:1-2
Then God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
To help participants see that God's commandments are not restrictions on freedom but rather guidelines for how free people live.
Imagine again that you were one of that first generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt. You walked into the sea as an escaped slave, with your owner charging hard after you in his chariot. You walked out of the sea a free person, with nobody looking over your shoulder. So what to do now? How to live now?
This is the situation that faced the Exodus generation. When they were slaves in Egypt, all their decisions were made for them: when to get up today, what to wear today, where to go today, what to eat today. Yesterday was the same as today and the same as tomorrow and the day after.
Children are like that, too. When you were young, someone -- probably your mother or father -- got you up, picked out your clothes, set breakfast in front of you, packed you out the door with lunch and so on. And like a herd of teenagers suddenly left on their own, free to make all their decisions for themselves, our ancestors in the faith walked out of Egypt and did not have the foggiest idea of how free people are to live.
So God gave them the Ten Commandments. God said this: I am now your Lord and you are my people, because I brought you out of Egypt. Nobody else will ever be your king again, I will fill that role, so that no human oppressor ever tries to lord it over you. You are free now, and here is how free people live. Free people don't steal, or they go back into bondage. And besides, are you really free if your neighbor can just take your stuff? Free people don't murder, or they go back into bondage. And besides, are you really free if your neighbor can just kill you? And so on.
God's laws only make sense to people who have been freed from some sort of bondage.
If you have ever been in bondage to anything -- to an abusive relationship or family situation, to alcohol or other drugs, to a bad job, to significant financial debt, to health problems, to sin -- and you have been freed, then you can understand God's laws.
God's laws are not restrictions on freedom but are the way that free people live. Some teen-agers think that their parents' rules limit their freedom, like a cage that confines a tiger in a zoo. But other teenagers understand that their parents' rules actually keep them safe, like a fence along the edge of a cliff or the guard rail on a highway. If you have never been freed from anything, you may be like the first kind of teen-ager and you may think that God's laws restrict your freedom. But if you understand that God has freed you from sin in your baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ then you can understand that God's laws are how free people live.
In Deuteronomy 4:7-8, Moses says: "For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?"
Notice that for Moses, who had been freed from bondage, God's laws are a sign of how good and gracious God is and a means by which God keeps the promise to make Israel a great nation.
Sample discussion questions:
What is your attitude towards God's commandments?
Have you ever been freed from any sort of bondage?
What factors keep people from a proper understanding of God's commandments?
IV. Third text: Exodus 31:12-13
The LORD said to Moses: 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.
To help people see that worship is not an event in which we do for God, but an event in which God does something for us.
One way to think about a law is that a law is a fence around a value. A law protects something that is important and worth preserving. If that is so, we might wonder what it is that God is protecting by giving us the Sabbath law.
In fact, it turns out to be more than one thing. Fences can surround and protect more than one thing. For right now, however, we will focus on the idea that the Sabbath law protects the good thing of having regular time with God. Every relationship needs time in order to be healthy. We need regular, quality time to spend with friends, family and loved ones. That time allows us to communicate, clear the air, share experiences, get to know and continue to know each other. Our time with God is the same. The most important time that we have with God is in worship.
But here is a really important thing to get clear about worship -- worship is not an event in which we do something for God. Not a time when or a place where we are doing something for God. Rather, worship is a time in which God does something for us, in which God acts on our behalf for us. Most of us think of worship as something that we do for God -- we praise God, we thank God, we give offerings, we pray and so on.
One of the most famous statements about the Christian comes from the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The very first question of this famous document asks "What is the chief end of man [humanity]?"� The answer: "Man's [Humanity's] chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." This is a great phrase about the promise that God has established a relationship with us that will last forever, but the way most people understand this phrase they think it means that we have to do something for God forever. That we have to glorify him.
A more faithful way to understand worship is to understand that in worship, we don't do something for God, but God works on us. Notice the words in the text from Exodus 31:12-13 "The LORD said to Moses: 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." Notice who is in charge of the verbs here: "I, the Lord, sanctify you." We don't keep the Sabbath so that we can do something for God. We keep the Sabbath because in the worship event, when we come together, God sanctifies us, God makes us holy.
Without time for worship, we would be left on our own, without God to make us holy. We cannot make ourselves holy. Therefore God has commanded that there be a regularized, gracious intrusion into our lives, so that we will have regular time with God, wherein God will justify us and sanctify us. God has said that this regular time should be once every seven days.
How does your idea of worship change when you see worship as an event in which God works on us, rather than as something we do for God?
What parts of worship change their meaning when seen through this lens?
V. Fourth text: Exodus 23:12-17
Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed. Be attentive to all that I have said to you. Do not invoke the names of other gods; do not let them be heard on your lips. Three times in the year you shall hold a festival for me. You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. No one shall appear before me empty-handed. You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.
To help people see that "regular time" with God means more than just once every seven days, it also means regular times on an annual and daily basis.
Earlier, we read in Exodus how the Sabbath law is a fence around the valuable thing of having regular time with God, in which God does something for us: makes us holy, justifies us. The law written in Exodus 23:12-17 takes the idea of regular time to another level. Notice that we are again dealing with the Sabbath law here. The law repeats that no work is to be done on the Sabbath. And the law states: "Do not invoke the names of other gods,"� showing us the connection between Sabbath and worship -- that we are to worship on the Sabbath. Then notice that the law goes right into talking about the three major worship festivals of the Israelite year: Passover, the festival of unleavened bread; Pentecost, the festival of "weeks,"; seven weeks after Passover; and Booths, the festival of in-gathering. (These remain the three festival of Judaism to this day; Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and Rosh HaShanna, new year's day, are the high, holy days of Judaism.)
One of the things to learn here is that God has established regular time in our relationship on more than just a weekly basis. Yes, we keep the Sabbath by having weekly time for the preaching and teaching of God's word. But there is also an annual rhythm to our relationship with God, and by extension, a daily rhythm, too. God sets aside special times on annual basis, such as the Christian times of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and Pentecost. Likewise, there are times each day for us to worship God in our homes and daily lives: prayer before meals, morning and evening prayers, personal Bible study and devotions. All of these, too, are God's actions, in which God forms us anew, re-creates us.
What practices are important to your faith life on a daily basis?
What about on an annual basis?
How does God work through these?
Permission granted by the Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.
Click on the following for other sessions:
Sabbath: God's Gracious Intrusion and the Principle of Justice, Session 2
Sabbath: God's Sufficiency and our Generosity, Session 3
Rev. Dr. Rolf Jacobson is associate professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.