I can still see her puzzled expression before me.
Our church group was on a study tour in southern France where, for an entire week, we had been exploring the history of the Huguenots who were martyred for their Protestant faith. She had been our tour guide and was very knowledgeable in questions of history, religion, and culture. Even though she had been exposed to many Christian traditions through her work, she had remained an atheist. We had developed a wonderful friendship, and on the last day she wanted to know more about Adventists. We were a strange and noteworthy piece in her denominational collection. What was so special about this Sabbath day? she asked. And why were we so stubborn and obstinate about such an unimportant side issue? I tried to make it clear to her why Sabbath was so important and holy. I was not successful. She could not understand why one day in the week would be different from the other days. That was the reason for the puzzled expression I remember so well.
I probably remember the look that she gave me because it hurt. I had to ask myself once again: “Are you just an odd religious outsider?” This was not the last time I would get this look as it is an expression often used by secular people who live in their own “relative” world. But I also discovered something else: I remember her expression so well because I could understand it. I have grown up in this secular world; I went to school and have been molded by it. And in many areas of my life I live and think similar to the average postmodern person.
Tradition or Identity?
So do we Adventists keep Sabbath simply because it has become a tradition? God forbid! Or perhaps Sabbath keeping has just become our Adventist trademark? What, then, is the relationship between tradition and identity? Has our understanding of truth gotten stuck in the 1900s? Fortunately, I believe that for the majority of Adventists Sabbath is not simply a tradition or an identity feature.
In Matthew 13:44 Jesus tells the parable of a buried treasure in a field. A hardworking farmer found the treasure while going about his business. It was a coincidental discovery. It was serendipity. Remember how the first Adventists discovered the Sabbath. It was a lot like the farmer in the parable. It was a serendipitous discovery of a biblical truth that through the ages had somehow been buried and lost. Our spiritual forefathers “bought” this treasure. Many of our brothers and sisters have paid and continue to pay a high price for the treasure of the Sabbath.
Music is an important part of human life. Rhythm is the currency of music, and, in a sense, the Sabbath is a rhythm of time that governs and moves every aspect of our lives. An orchestra or a band can play a song slow or fast. They can vary the tempo, but if you want to sing and clap with the music you must follow the rhythm with everything you’ve got. You know, it is all about timing.
Jesus uses the parable of the buried treasure as a metaphor for the kingdom of God or the gospel. Would it be a little far-fetched or completely out of context to compare the Sabbath to the kingdom of God? Or to put it another way: isn’t the accusation often made against our Sabbath theology that it has been made a salvation requirement? Just to clarify this point: I do not believe that you have to keep the Sabbath in order to be saved. This is not Adventist theology. Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ.
Salvation and the Sabbath
Some Christians think that the only important issues are “salvation questions.” But if we were to follow this logic then discipleship would become unimportant, as a disciple is someone who has already been saved and because of this begins to order their life around God’s will. A disciple also consciously prays “your will be done” (Matt. 6:10) and then, after this prayer, is prepared to search for and then practice God’s will. This brings us full circle back to salvation. Looking at Scripture, I believe that it is God’s will that we enter into His rhythm. It is God’s rhythm—not mine. I do not decide, as many Christians believe, on which day I should rest (as long as it is one in seven), but God decides. In theological terms this is called righteousness by faith. It says: not my will but Your will. Not my method but God’s method. Not my righteousness but Your righteousness, Jesus.
Two biblical events illustrate this concept vividly.
1. Genesis 2:2 indicates that God rested (literally: “sabbathed”) and that He blessed and made the seventh day holy. How “old” was humanity at this point in time? Not even a day old as humans stepped onto the stage of life only on the sixth day. God’s seventh day was the first complete day for humankind. What works of gardening or “multiplying” could the couple look back on? Absolutely none! On the first Sabbath day Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s works and not their own. This is why the Sabbath is a symbol of salvation and righteousness by faith right from the beginning.
2. Then comes the giving of the law. Moses climbs the slopes of Mount Sinai and receives the Ten Commandments from God’s hand. The Sabbath is there in the middle of the law. But isn’t the real issue that God had first freed His people and that this act led to the covenant law? First came the Exodus, salvation, and then the laws characterizing the covenant. Again, righteousness by faith.
Back to our treasure buried in a field. Jesus says that the treasure is a symbol of the kingdom of God. I believe that the Sabbath is also a symbol of the kingdom of God (though not God’s kingdom itself). As baptism is a symbol that in itself doesn’t save anyone but rather is a vivid demonstration, so the Sabbath is a sign of salvation in our time. And what is really fantastic is that regardless of culture, language, social status, or age time is the one thing that is fairly divided: 24 hours, 7 days, for everyone.
What would my tour guide have said to all this? She had skillfully described the faith of the Huguenots in the old historical sites, emphasizing that we can thank these martyrs for our freedom of religion and conscience—yet she perceived our Sabbath keeping as a step back into the Middle Ages. She taught me that Jesus needs to be the first focus also in our Sabbath theology as one cannot understand what is important to a disciple when one does not know the Lord the disciple is following. The Sabbath is nothing without the Lord of the Sabbath. Instead of only telling people to keep the Sabbath, let our Sabbath keeping become a bright advertisement of our redemption—and yes, feel God’s rhythm in our life!
Dennis Meier is pastor of the Grindelberg church in Hamburg, Germany. He enjoys making music and spending time with his wife, Gunda; daughter, Thandi (9 years); and son, Levi (6 years).
This article originally appeared in the Adventist World in the March, 2010 issue.