In the reading from Exodus 16, the Lord makes a reference to His third commandment concerning the Sabbath (Exodus 16:2-15). The people are complaining about the lack of food. They want to go back to captivity in Egypt where they were well fed, and they accuse the Lord of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them.
So, the Lord says that he will rain bread from heaven for them and that they will gather a day’s portion each day and then on the sixth day the Lord will provide twice as much as is needed in order to get them through the seventh day without having to gather. For earlier in Exodus 5, the Lord had told the people: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Exodus 5:13-15).
So, the seventh day is a day of rest, the Sabbath. It is a time set aside for the people to rest so that they remember that it is the Lord who provides for them and that it is He who brought them out of captivity and made them His people. It is a reminder that the Lord is the one who creates, sustains, and saves, not us.
Jesus refers to this event also in his talk with the crowd in John’s Gospel (John 6:22-35). They follow him not because they saw signs, but rather for the bread that he had provided for them. He tells them not to “labor for the food that perished, but for the food that ensures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
Jesus also reminds them that it was not Moses who gave their fathers the bread from heaven, but rather that God the Father provides the “true bread of heaven” and that “the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
This true bread is Jesus Christ himself, and Jesus is again reminding the people that is it the Lord who provides for them and that it is He who brought them out of captivity and made them His people, first out of captivity in Egypt through Moses and ultimately out of captivity to sin and death and the devil through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and empty tomb.
And the Sabbath is a reminder of this, the fact that we do not have to work constantly, because the Lord will provide. We can take a step back and contemplate the fact that the Lord created all this stuff for which we’re working, and He provides us what we need. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that sprouts up from the ground, the land we stand upon – the Lord created all this and gives it to us to use. So, in the Old Testament, the people were to do no work on the sixth day, trusting that the Lord would provide for their needs. And not only did he provide for them, giving them the manna – the bread – from heaven, but He used this to show them that their salvation depends on Him and not on their own works.
Likewise, the people ask Jesus, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Notice how Jesus answers it. He turns the subject and object around. He says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” That is, it is God’s work which creates faith in the true bread from heaven who gives life to the world. It’s not their own work to believe in God, anymore than it was the work of their fathers which caused the bread to come down from heaven. It is God’s work; he saves, he brings to faith, he provides. Everything starts with the Lord.
There is a certain satisfying freedom in all of this. Because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us in going up to the cross to die for our sins, to make amends to our heavenly Father for them, and in rising up out of the tomb to defeat death’s hold over us and to bring us new life in him, we are freed from captivity to sin and death and the devil. We are also freed from our endless strivings to try to earn God’s favor and salvation – strivings which could never get us to the goal. We are freed, because our salvation and God’s favor has already been gifted to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, Son of God. We’ve been given the true bread from heaven who gives life. We were given him in our Baptisms, in the proclamation of the Gospel, and in the Lord’s Supper where we commune with him and each other in person.
So, because God has already fixed our relationship with him by giving us this true bread which gives life, we can therefore carry out our vocations in service to God’s creation. We work, not to earn our salvation, but rather to better this world and to bring the light of Christ’s restoration into it. For God is not abandoning this world, but redeeming it from darkness. And you, in your daily vocations wherever you are, are bringing light into a darkened world. You show the world that yes, it is fallen and sinful, but Christ came to save it, to redeem it, and that you as His people are his hands in doing this. Wherever God has called you to be, you can be the light of Christ and God’s hands in this world. So, the work you do, you do because you are the Lord’s people.
And, likewise, we therefore do not need to be like a large portion of the planet who chases after riches, like the Israelites who insisted on working on the Sabbath in order to get more bread (that’s directly after our reading from Exodus today). The point of the Sabbath is to remember that it is the Lord who provides, that we don’t need to work all the time, that the Lord calls us to rest, that rest for our bodies is good, and that we need to make time to come together as His people to receive the true bread from heaven who gives life. Think about what this also says about our bodies: they’re good, the Lord provides for them as well as our souls, because we as people are both body and soul, and the promise of the Lord is to resurrect our bodies on the last day, to reunite our souls with them, so that we may be whole people in the eternal Sabbath of the Lord.
So, the New Testament Sabbath is not necessarily a specific day; it’s a time, rather. A time to be with God’s people and to receive His gifts in Word and Sacrament. It’s a time to stop our works and to receive God’s works. It’s a time to remember that the Lord owns all this stuff we strive for and that He is faithful to provide for us all that we need for body and soul.
It’s also not only a time, but a state of being.
St. Augustine has a great quote in his book “Confessions,” written in the 4th Century AD, that speaks to this point. The entire book is basically a conversation with God, a confession of all that Augustine had done in his life. In the beginning of the book, Augustine summarizes what he had discovered throughout his life. He says to the Lord, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you.”
This truth is also echoed by the writer of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. He examines all the possible things that might make us happy: wealth, power, pleasure. And at the end, he declares: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13).
Happiness is found in God, in the work He does in bringing us to faith in Christ for our salvation. All the nice things in this life do not bring us ultimate happiness. They will all be left behind once we go to our graves. But, the Lord will always be there with us, on this side of the grave and on the other side. And at the end of the age we will be resurrected and our bodies and souls will have the ultimate Sabbath rest which the Lord has been pointing us to, eternal life with Him and each other in the restored creation as the Lord continues to provide for all our needs of body and soul. Amen.
(Image: Tête de Christ couronnée d’épines. Étude pour le décor de l’église Saint-Germain-des-Prés, by Hippolyte Flandrin – Œuvre appartenant au Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon Photographe Alain Basset, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70092228 )