Every child who attends Sunday School knows the story of Noah’s Ark. Humanity had become so sinful that God decided the best thing was to start over with Noah’s family. Following God’s instructions, Noah built an huge boat (called an “ark”) and gathered representative animals to keep them safe. Then, a huge flood came that covered the earth, but Noah and the animals were safe in the ark.
If you’re like me, you have 1,001 questions about this story. However, for just a few minutes, skip past those questions to the end of the story.
After the floodwaters went down and the earth became livable again, Noah and the animals left the ark and had a worship service to thank God for keeping them safe. In that great moment in time, God made a covenant with humanity and the animals and every living creature.
Then God said, “I am giving you a sign of my covenant with you and with all living creatures, for all generations to come. I have placed my rainbow in the clouds. It is the sign of my covenant with you and with all the earth. When I send clouds over the earth, the rainbow will appear in the clouds, and I will remember my covenant with you and with all living creatures. Never again will the floodwaters destroy all life. When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth.” Then God said to Noah, “Yes, this rainbow is the sign of the covenant I am confirming with all the creatures on earth.” (Genesis 9:12-17).
God is saying, “OK, after this big flood, you guys might be a little skittish. You might get scared every time it rains, but don’t worry, this huge flood was a one-time deal. It will never happen again, I promise. In fact, I’ll give you the rainbow as a sign of my promise. When you see the rainbow, you’ll remember that I promise to keep the waters under control so that life can flourish on earth.”
The rainbow is a sign of God’s covenant commitment to life on earth. It’s a sign that we have no control over, but it is a sign that God has control over us and our earth.
The next sign of the covenant comes as part of Abraham’s story.
1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. 2 I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants. ...
7 “I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. 8 And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.”
9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant.” (Genesis 17:1-13)
It’s not a bad trade really. God promises eternal faithfulness, multitudes of descendants, and the entire land of Canaan. And all he asks for in return is a little bit of skin. OK, it’s a piece of really, really sensitive skin, but still on the whole, Abraham’s family was getting a bargain - I think. [Guys, you can debate that later.]
But why this? Why did God choose circumcision as the sign of his covenant with Abraham?
Ancient people didn’t really know about how the female reproductive organs work. They didn’t know about ovaries and eggs and all that. They thought the female provided only a passive womb. In the act of sex, they thought the male deposited the seed of life into the woman, where it grew in her womb. The penis was the sign of life, the essence of procreation, the essential vessel of continuing humanity. This is why so many ancient cultures had phallic symbols in their worship. It may seem kind of gross to us, but many many ancient cultures had these long, penis-shaped objects as part of their worship cultures because they considered the male penis to be the source of life.
God says, mark this emblem of life with my seal. Your descendants will come forth from my covenant. Your future depends on me and my blessing. Your inmost private parts and your most private acts are marked with your commitment to me and my commitment to you you. Your life and your future depends on me - not on yourselves. This is the sign of the covenant.
Later, God instituted a specific ceremony to serve as a sign of his covenant commitment to Israel. It’s actually a series of festivals or special meals centering on the Passover, when God set Israel free from Egypt. For us today, the important part of his ceremony is how it functions for Israel as a sign of their covenant with God. Listen.
3 So Moses said to the people, “This is a day to remember forever—the day you left Egypt, the place of your slavery. Today the Lord has brought you out by the power of his mighty hand. ...9 This annual festival will be a visible sign to you, like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. Let it remind you always to recite this teaching of the Lord: ‘With a strong hand, the Lord rescued you from Egypt.’ ...
14 “And in the future, your children will ask you, ‘What does all this mean?’ Then you will tell them, ‘With the power of his mighty hand, the Lord brought us out of Egypt, the place of our slavery...’ 16 This ceremony will be like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. It is a reminder that the power of the Lord’s mighty hand brought us out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:3-16).
“This annual festival will be a visible sign to you... This ceremony will be like a mark branded on your hand or your forehead. It is a reminder that the power of the Lord’s mighty hand brought us out of egypt.” The Passover festivities were like a living tattoo on the life of Israel. Through this annual celebration, Israel tattoos their hearts with the reminder that God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. We need reminders. We need help remembering. We forget where we put our keys and cell phone. We know we need help to deeply remember that God truly sets us free. The passover is a sign of the covenant to help us remember.
The Bible talks about a sign of the covenant one more time, in Exodus 31. To really understand how important this passage is, you have to understand what has been happening in Exodus. In the first third of Exodus, God was working in Egypt to set Israel free from slavery. Then, once Israel was free, the second third of the book was God making a covenant with Israel.
The covenant ceremony begins in chapter 19. God says, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth” (19:4-5). And the people respond, “We will do everything the LORD has commanded.” God hasn’t commanded anything yet, but they’re going to do it - whatever it is.
Then, for about ten chapters there is a long covenant making ceremony. First, God gives Israel a long list of rules explaining how to live. This includes things like the Ten Commandments and how to have a fair and just society. Then, God calls seventy leaders of Israel up on the mountain for a special covenant confirmation ceremony, and the leaders of Israel said twice: “We will do everything the LORD has commanded.” Then, God spends six and a half chapters describing the holy tabernacle he wants Israel to build as their special space to worship God.
Finally, after about twelve total chapters describing God’s covenant ceremony with Israel we come to our main text for today. This is the last part of the ceremony. These are God’s closing words about the covenant. Listen closely.
12 The Lord then gave these instructions to Moses: 13 “Tell the people of Israel: ‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. 14 You must keep the Sabbath day, for it is a holy day for you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; anyone who works on that day will be cut off from the community. 15 You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. Anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. 16 The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day by observing it from generation to generation. This is a covenant obligation for all time. 17 It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’”
18 When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God.
The Sabbath is the sign of the covenant. The Sabbath is the sign of God’s commitment to people and people’s commitment to God. God could have finished his covenant making ceremony in a thousand different ways. God could have restated the first commandment - “You shall have no other God’s but me.” God could have summarized everything like he did later through Jesus - “Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” God could have ended with a promise of blessings or threats of curses. But God didn’t do any of that. Instead, God ended his huge covenant ceremony with Israel by telling them, “Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you.”
This week I have wondered if the Sabbath might actually the most important commandment. It is the most repeated commandment in the Torah. I know Jesus said that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second most important is to love your neighbor as yourself. And I definitely don’t want to argue with Jesus, so maybe, just maybe, the Sabbath command comes in at third place.
Here’s what I mean. The great rabbi, Ahad Ha’am, made an observation that every Jew has recognized as a deep truth: “More than Jews have kept the [Sabbath], the [Sabbath] has kept the Jews.”
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains it like this:
The Sabbath “is one of the most important ingredients of Jewish survival. It is no exaggeration to say that the Jew has survived two thousand years of persecution and humiliation largely because he had the Sabbath. It was one factor that not only made him survive, but kept him alive, both spiritually and morally. Without the Sabbath, the Jew would have vanished. ...
In a positive sense, the Sabbath is the focus of Jewish belief. Once each week, the Jew spends a day reinforcing his belief in G-d. As long as Jews keep the Sabbath, G-d remains an integral force in their lives. Their faith is like a rock, and nothing can shake it. All the waves of persecution and prejudice break before this rock of faith.
I’ve been seriously studying the Sabbath for the past year, and I’m beginning to realize that Sabbath is the hinge on which our lives turn, the hook on which our faith hangs, the sinews holding the body of Christ together.
In itself keeping the Sabbath is not more important than having only one God and not worshiping idols. But keeping the Sabbath reminds us constantly that we have only one God and gives us the strength to say “no” to the many cultural idols that beg for our attention and allegiance.
Good Sabbath practice is not more important than not stealing, not committing adultery, not coveting, and not murdering others. But resting together on the Sabbath helps us to live more honest lives and to have better families and better marriages. Keeping the Sabbath is a celebration of what we have that frees us from the greed and competition that fuels the world at large.
Jesus reminded us again and again that obeying legalistic Sabbath rules is not more important than loving people and taking care of people. But a basic, grace-filled practice of the Sabbath actually helps us to love people more. Resting, recovering, reconnecting with God, rebuilding our families -- all of this gives us the internal strength and resources to be more loving and grace-filled in our daily interactions with others.
Jesus redirects our attention regularly to loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength. And of course, we need to do this every day.
Last week, someone asked a really good question on one of the “Talk Back” cards: “I agree that taking a day of rest is important especially when we use that day to focus on God and fellowship. However, this is all I hear. From personal experience, just one day is not enough. Having only one day where I focus on God will not sustain me through a whole week. I need to have moments each day where I focus on God. So my question is, why the focus on the one day of Sabbath? Will people feel like that’s enough? Shouldn’t we also teach and encourage daily time alone with God as equally important?”
Great question. Of course, we need daily prayer time, Bible reading, and spiritual reflection. But here’s the deal. Without the Sabbath, most of us will not have the emotional strength or mental discipline to spend time with God every day. Without one whole day of rest and recovery with God and family, most of us will live the rest of the week as one big blur of activity. Ignore God on the Sabbath, and you’ll ignore God the rest of the week, too.
As a pastor, I’m making a strategic decision to help us live all the other days for God by focusing in on winning the battle for the Sabbath. And, actually, I think that’s the plan the Bible gives us. Exodus 31 tells us that God gave us the Sabbath day so that we will know that God is “the LORD, who makes us holy.”
Keeping the Sabbath is a sign to us and to those around us that our covenant with God is THE single most important part of our lives. Our relationship with God defines all our other relationships. Our relationship with God fuels all other relationships. Resting with God enables us to work with God on the other six days. A good Sabbath practice defines how we live on the other six days. Like the rainbow, the Sabbath reminds us that God is in control not us. Like circumcision, the Sabbath reminds us that God is the source of our lives not our own actions. Like Passover, the Sabbath reminds us that God has set us free. Keep the Sabbath as a sign of our covenant with God, and your relationship with God will grow stronger and stronger.
So we’re now in week three of our Sabbath Series. Let’s do a little review. So far, we’ve considered the three main reasons for the Sabbath.
First, we looked at Exodus 20 and how in the Ten Commandments, God tells us to take a day of rest because God rested on the seventh day after creating the universe. On the Sabbath, we rest from our work to remember God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. We remember that our lives really depend on God and not on us.
Then, last week we took another look at the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, where God tells us to take a day of rest because we are not slaves. Working seven days a week is what slaves do - people who are slaves to the system. But we aren’t slaves. God has set us free - figuratively in the Exodus and literally through Christ. Since Christ has set us free, let’s stay free.
Today, we looked at the last reason for the Sabbath. It is a sign of God’s covenant with humanity. Keeping the Sabbath keeps God first in our lives. Keeping the Sabbath enables us to keep all the other commands too. Keeping the Sabbath well shapes us into people who truly live and love like God.
In the next two weeks in our series, we’ll study the blessings of the Sabbath and look at how to actually practice the Sabbath as twenty-first century Christians. Keeping the Sabbath is not about legalism. This is a pathway to more grace and blessing. This is basic wisdom on how to live a good and peace-filled life. You don’t want to miss this.
For now, listen again as I read slowly what God said in Exodus 31 at the close of the covenant ceremony. Out of all the possible things God could have said to conclude his covenant with Israel, this is what he said:
‘Be careful to keep my Sabbath day, for the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between me and you from generation to generation. It is given so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy... You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day must be a Sabbath day of complete rest, a holy day dedicated to the Lord. ... This is a covenant obligation for all time. It is a permanent sign of my covenant with the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he stopped working and was refreshed.’”