Sabbath is one of the best things we have to offer to the busy, stressed, and weary world around us. In our own lives, we know the value of a day each week that is different, that offers an invitation to rest, and time to catch our breath and focus on the things that are most important. Not only is it an attractive idea, but Sabbath is also experiential, so we can invite friends, neighbors, and others in our community to experiment with this practice in their own lives. Sabbath is a gift, but it must also be more than that.
In our part of the world, the Adventist Church has been promoting sharing Sabbath. As well, online events, a book, tracts, and other resources, church members have been invited to create social media posts and content that share their experiences of the #SabbathGift. And the Sabbath Gift website has invited visitors to sign up for the Sabbath Challenge, to experiment with practicing Sabbath over four weeks and discover the advantages of Sabbath for themselves.1
The Sabbath Gift project was launched in response to market research that found that only four percent of Australians consider that the Seventh-day Adventist Church is relevant today. While it might not have yet connected with the bulk of the Australian population, more than 20,000 people have visited the website and the #SabbathGift posts have received more than 1.4 million views on social media.2 There is more work to be done, but Sabbath is a gift and a wellbeing practice that we can continue to share with our communities.
Wherever they are at in their circumstances or faith, Sabbath is a gift that can bless the lives of those around us. It is a different kind of time that gives permission to disconnect from the always-on world around us, with all its pressures, demands, and noise. Sabbath feels quieter. It can be an experiential introduction to God’s care and provision for all of us, a pause in our busyness that also nudges toward eternity.
As much as it is a gift, Sabbath is also a commandment. This is something we have perhaps over-emphasized at times in our Adventist history, but neither should we forget it. Not only is it a command, the fourth is the most detailed for the Ten Commandments and is particular about what it is, how it should be remembered or observed, who it is for, and why. It is clear that Sabbath ought to be regarded as a moral principle. It is not only a matter of wellbeing but a matter of right-doing. In a sense, the commandment protects the gift—for us and for others.
Today we often hear talk of human rights, with an individual able to claim and defend their rights against the encroachments of others. However, in the laws and traditions of the Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish people, the relationships between people, particularly between the powerful and the weaker members of society, were more often governed by the concept of obligations on the more powerful parties as to how they treat and care for those who are disadvantaged. This is something we can see in the fourth commandment in relation to Sabbath. While Sabbath is a gift to all, the commandment focused on those we might be responsible for: your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, your livestock, and any foreigners living among you (Exodus 20:10).3
The focus on the benefits of the Sabbath to these outsiders is repeated beyond the Commandments: You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but on the seventh day you must stop working. This gives your ox and your donkey a chance to rest. It also allows your slaves and the foreigners living among you to be refreshed (Exodus 23:12).
In this formulation, the Jewish master was to rest so that the slave, the animals, and the foreigner would also be allowed to rest. It was a day for their benefit, and Sigve Tonstad argues that this focus was unique among ancient cultures of the world—“no parallels have been found in other cultures.” The Sabbath commandment, he explains, “prioritizes from the bottom up and not from the top looking down, giving first consideration to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Those who need rest the most—the slave, the resident alien, and the beast of burden—are singled out for special mention. In the rest of the seventh day, the underprivileged, even mute animals, find an ally.” 4 Sabbath is a gift, but perhaps best understood and practiced as a gift for others, which is why it is commanded.
But Sabbath is also a burden. While Isaiah 58 rightly described the gift of Sabbath as a day to speak of … with delight as the Lord’s holy day (Isaiah 58:13), it did so in the context of our call to identify with, stand in solidarity with, and work for the imprisoned, the oppressed, the hungry, and the homeless. Extending from the commandment’s duty on those we employ or care for, this understanding and practice of Sabbath included a burden for those who are forgotten, oppressed, and exploited in our society and our world.
This is one reason why our practice of Sabbath on the seventh day continues to be so significant, so counter-cultural, with a particular link to being Adventist. Theologians have often talked about the reality of the kingdom of God as being both already and not yet. Inaugurated and proclaimed by Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection, we insist that the kingdom of God is a present reality. But it is also incomplete and remains to be fulfilled. While our Adventist-ness speaks to both realities, we have tended to emphasize the incompleteness—the not-yet-ness—and to look forward to the Second Coming when God’s kingdom will be only and always already. To be Adventist is to urge that the world remains broken. Feeling the ongoing weight of not yet is the burden of Advent hope.
In contrast, many Christians explain their worship on Sundays as a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and God’s victory over evil and death. They emphasize the already. At times, we might learn from their focus on the reality, power, and presence of the resurrection, but we ought not be too quick to surrender the burden of not yet, because that is a burden that continues to be felt so heavily by so many people in our world. As much as it is a gift, the Sabbath of the seventh day is a pause in the not yet.
A leading Australian journalist, academic, and Indigenous voice expressed this reality in relation to the ongoing disadvantage of his people in a way that caught my attention: “We come to God in our own way. We read the same scriptures, but they speak to us differently. I have been in White churches, and I have always felt slightly out of place. Not unwelcome, not at all, but as if I am a day out. These are the people of Easter Sunday, the triumphant resurrection, and my people are of the dark Saturday, the day after the crucifixion. On that day, God is dead to the world. This is the darkness of our suffering and, in that darkness, God is with us as he was with Jesus in the moment of abandonment.” 5
This might well be the seventh day at its most relevant. Both as Seventh-day and Adventist, we are “a day out.” We are not yet at resurrection and re-creation. We are a day away. We have hope, but we insist that we are not fully already. And, in that, we cannot help but identify with those who are burdened, those who suffer, those who feel the not yet so keenly, those who cannot yet join in the celebration of resurrection.
Gift and Burden
Sabbath is time for what matters most in what it means to be human, especially human in relationship with God. Sabbath is a gift, a practice of wellbeing and spirituality that we are privileged to know and to share with those around us. Sabbath is a command, a principle of how we relate to others and particularly to those we might care for or employ. Sabbath is a burden, a practice of solidarity with all who suffer and liberation for all who are oppressed as we insist on not yet, at the same time as we look for and work for already. And Sabbath is an affirmation that God is with us even in the not yet.
#SabbathBurden might be more difficult to get trending, but it is no less important than #SabbathGift. The gift of Sabbath is our invitation, but for those who suffer in our world, we are stubbornly “a day out” and the burden of Sabbath is our calling.
Nathan Brown is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Nathan recently launched Thinking Faith, a collection of his articles in Mountain Views over the past few years, as well as being co-editor of A House on Fire: How Adventist Faith Responds to Race and Racism. Email him at: [email protected]
2 Adventist Record. (2023, August 28). Sabbath Gift reaches 1.4 million. https://record.adventistchurch.com/2023/08/28/sabbath-gift-reaches-1-4-million/
3 Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation.
4 Tonstad, Sigve (2009). The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day. Andrews University Press. p. 126–127.
5 Grant, Stan (2023). The Queen is Dead. Fourth Estate. p. 277.