When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.Luke 4:16
Jesus grew up going to the synagogue on the sabbath, just as all faithful Jews of his time would have done. It was his custom, or his habit. It was how he and his family honored God’s commandment to “remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). So, when Jesus returned to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and the sabbath day rolled around once again, there was never a question in his mind where he would go: the synagogue, as was his habit.
I have been thinking in recent weeks of the habit of worship, and growing increasingly concerned that this pandemic is causing many Christians to lose this important habit. It was easy enough to keep this habit before the pandemic hit. We would simply wake up on the sabbath day and go to church, as was our custom. We didn’t have to think about it. We didn’t have to decide to do it. That is what made it a habit, like brushing our teeth or any other of the countless habits that we all have. Habits are important because they take some of the decision-making off our plate, which reduces decision fatigue. Good habits are obviously even more important. And for people of faith, it is hard to come up with a more important habit than going to church on the sabbath day. It is one of the ten commandments, and one of the habits that Jesus himself demonstrated to us.
But this pandemic changed some things, didn’t it? We stopped “going to church” on the sabbath day. Like most congregations, ours has consistently offered online worship, but that is not quite the same. And one of the reasons is because it changed our customs. We no longer had to wake up at a certain time, and put on our church clothes, and go to church. We could worship at home. Or not. No one really knew. It was no longer a habit. It was a weekly decision. Should we watch church now, or later? Decision fatigue is described as “the deterioration of our ability to make good decisions after a long session of decision making.” And we certainly have been in a long session of decision making about worship, haven’t we?
Our congregation has returned to offering in-person worship, but many of our members have not felt comfortable returning to in-person worship yet. And I am certainly not judging anyone who has decided that it is too soon to return to in-person worship. I am simply pointing out that the habit of worship is easier when we “go to church” each sabbath day, and more difficult when we worship from home. My prayers are with those not able to return to in-person worship yet, and with all Christians who long for what this pandemic has taken away.
Some day – sooner rather than later, I hope and pray – we will all be able to return to in-person worship. There will be a vaccine for this virus, or we will have reached “herd immunity,” or there will be new therapeutic medicines that makes this virus less threatening. It will happen. But when it does, what will the sabbath day look like? How many of our fellow Christians will have fallen out of the habit of going to church on the sabbath day? How many will return after this pandemic is behind us? I am more and more concerned that this pandemic will have changed many of our habits, including this vital one for Christians.
Remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy is important not just because it is one of God’s commandments; it is also vital to nurturing our faith, and to sustaining the community that Jesus himself founded, the community that we call the church. This is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote this:
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.Hebrews 10:25
And, again, “meeting together” might look very different these days, especially for those not able to return to in-person worship. The habit of worship is easier to keep if we are able to return to in-person worship, but just as vital if we are not.
So, what does your sabbath day look like these days? How are you and your family remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy? Are there some new habits that might be needed? Whether or not you are going to church on Sundays, my hope and prayer for you is that you are finding creative, intentional, and habitual ways to remember the sabbath.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
The 17th century poet John Dryden once said that “we first make our habits, and then our habits make us.” And I believe that this is true of the habit of worship, of remembering the sabbath day. This is a habit that we make as followers of Jesus, but then this habit makes us. And there is arguably no more important habit for Christians than the habit of worship, of remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy.