A sermon based on Exodus 20:8-11 and Exodus 16:11-30, preached on July 13, 2014. The 1st sermon in a 5-part sermon series on Choosing Sabbath.
Let my people go!
Those are the four powerful words Moses shouts at Pharaoh.
Charlton Heston made those words famous in the “10 Commandments”—the movie about God freeing God’s people from their bondage and slavery in Egypt—out from under the heavy hand of Pharaoh.
Pharaoh was a tyrant and a despot—the kind of leader who gleaned power and delight from the suffering of his slaves. We can go back to the book of Genesis to discover that Pharaoh was one of those taskmasters who could never be satisfied with the level of work his servants performed. He always demanded more.
Pharaoh’s expectations for the ancient Israelites were intentionally unreasonable. The Israelites worked as brick makers and bricklayers. They toiled under the scorching sun seven days a week. However hard they worked, it was never enough for Pharaoh.
At one point the Israelites complained when their unreasonable workload got even more unreasonable. They made bricks out of hay. The hay was gathered from fields around them and brought to them so they could sculpt them into shape with mud and clay, let them dry, and then lay them into place.
As hard as their work already was, Pharaoh commanded his own workers to stop gathering hay for the Israelites—they now would have to gather the hay themselves, adding that extra burden onto their already excessive workload.
Pharaoh demanded more and more out of an already overtaxed nation of slaves. Pharaoh was addicted to endless effort and the endless production of bricks. The Israelites had to wonder if there was a limit to Pharaoh’s greed. Or would they all die of exhaustion—just trying to keep up with his boundless and unreasonable demands? So when Moses climbs into Pharaoh’s presence and demands, “Let my people go,” those words take on several meanings at once.
Moses demands of Pharaoh that the Israelites be freed from their captivity—not only their physical captivity but also their psychological captivity—that crushing expectation of always having to produce more and more. It was clear that no amount of work would ever be enough for Pharaoh.
Let my people go indeed!
For the next 5 weeks, we are going to focus on the meaning of Sabbath. And many of the ideas that we’ll explore over the next couple weeks come from a book by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann called Sabbath as Resistance. Before I read this book, I thought of Sabbath in the conventional sense. Sabbath is a day. Sunday—or at least some day of the week—1 out the 7—where we simply take it easy.
When I think about Sabbath, I think about the old Blue Laws, when the government made all the businesses in the area stay closed on Sunday. But Sabbath is a whole lot more than just chilling out on a Sunday. Sabbath is more like a new way of seeing the world—a new way of living life. If we correctly understand what God means when God commands us to rest 1 day out of 7, then we’ll find that Sabbath means a whole lot more than simply taking a day to rest.
To God, Sabbath isn’t something that should be dictated by Blue Laws—it isn’t something that should be forced upon people like that. The biblical idea of Sabbath rest is supposed to be a choice. A choice that each of us make to walk away from the anxious productivity of brickmaking.
Practicing Sabbath is God’s invitation to unplug ourselves from the machine that is constantly running. You know the machine. It’s the one that says we all should always be doing something, that we should never stop making bricks. That machine that tells us we always have to keep up, up the ante. The machine that has us endlessly worried about tomorrow.
Sabbath isn’t a day. It’s an entirely different way of living our lives—one where our ability to churn out more and more bricks isn’t what makes us valuable.
Sabbath is God’s way of telling us that enough is enough.
Practicing Sabbath is a way for us to unplug from the productivity machine—to disengage from the life of endless anxiety and rediscover that we do not live because the Pharaohs of the world give us work.
We live because God has created us and will provide us with what we need.
The Israelites are in the middle of the desert. There’s no food or water in sight. There hasn’t been for days and days. We can easily read this account of the Ancient Israelites wandering in the desert and blame them for being a bunch of whiners. Over and over again, Moses listens to their pleas for water and food.
The Israelites think they should go back to being slaves in Egypt—just voluntarily walk back into their shackles. They were so used to existing inside of the machine Pharaoh enslaved them in that they were begging to go back. The Israelites would have easily traded their newfound freedom for a bit of water to drink and a morsel of food to eat. Moses thought this was a terrible trade and came to God on behalf of his people, telling God of their hunger and thirst.
I’ve heard the complaints of the Israelites.
God says to Moses,
Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat. And in the morning you will have your fill of bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.’
That night, God gave them enough quail to fill their empty stomachs. Pharaoh never fed them so well!
And the next morning, there were flakes covering the ground in a thin layer all around them. Manna. The Israelites woke up to it and asked themselves what it was. That’s how manna got its name:
Man-hu…What is it?
See, the Israelites were confused. Not only was manna something they had never seen before, they were never in a situation where anyone gave them even a morsel of food without demanding work. For the very first time in their lives—after working endlessly for Pharaoh just to get some food in their stomachs, the Israelites got a taste of God’s generosity—food with no expectations tied to it—and it confused them to no end.
Not only that, but God promises to give them this manna daily. Every morning they would wake up and collect enough bread for themselves and their own household.
No more, no less, than what you need, God says.
Just enough and only enough.
But the Israelites had a hard time believing God’s promise to sustain them day-by-day. In their old brick-making anxiety, some went out and collected more manna than they needed. Still addicted to endless productivity. They tried to store it overnight—they began hoarding it for themselves. They did not trust God when God promised to give them new manna every morning. Some gathered more than they needed for themselves only to see it spoil by the morning. Even when God promises that what we need for tomorrow will come to us tomorrow, we take things into our own hands and we anxiously stockpile and store it away for tomorrow.
The Israelites make another mistake out of their anxiety to have enough. They go out on the Sabbath to gather more manna, even after being told that there will be no manna to gather. On the day before the Sabbath, God’s tells them to take enough for 2 days so that they could rest on the 7th day.
How long will you refuse to obey my commandments and instructions?, God laments.
How long will you refuse to rest—when will you give up all your anxious searching for more and more and simply take some time to unplug from the machine. When will you give up trying to always be on? When will enough be enough for you?
Resting on the 7th day is more than Blue Laws, more than just following an arbitrary command to take off 1 day a week. Sabbath has a much bigger purpose and is a much bigger promise. God invites us to practice actively disengaging from a culture that doesn’t know how to stop making bricks.
Practicing Sabbath is a profound way of opposing the anxious search for more and more—to break free from the bondage of endless productivity and anxious rhythms of the rest of the world.
Just as Moses demands of Pharaoh,
Let my people go! Let my people go from the restlessness of always having to accomplish!
Sabbath is God’s way of liberating us from the anxious ways of Pharaoh. It’s an invitation to pattern our lives according to God’s ways instead. And God promises that we can unplug from Pharaoh’s machine and still be given our daily bread. And it will be enough. For today, it will be enough.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Alleluia! Amen!