St. John’s UCC, Union, Illinois
It’s such a delightful day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, friends are gathering, we’ve heard beautiful music. A good day for rest, for sabbath. We don’t use the term “sabbath” much in our conversations. “What are you doing on the sabbath, brother?” “Oh, I’m going down to the temple to pray, then resting in the park.” We might ask someone, “What are you doing on Sunday?” And they might reply, “Going to church, then watching the ball game, you?” But just because we don’t use the term “sabbath” doesn’t mean we don’t know what it means.
In the church, we long ago took the Jewish practice of sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, and replaced it with “The Lord’s Day” or Sunday, and it’s more of a midnight to midnight thing. Going to the temple was replaced with going to church, but prayer and the worship of God are still the focus. And we’ve kept the idea of keeping Sunday as a special day. Thanks to the labor movement, now we have two special days and we call them the weekend, which is nice. But Sunday is still special for most of us.
Sunday is the day we relax with family and friends. Some people run marathons (which seems like a lot of work to me), play golf or other sports, watch other people play sports, eat out, eat together around the dinner table, or other things we don’t usually do during the rest of the week. Most of us don’t work on Sundays, though some of us do. But I’ll guess that all of us with jobs outside the home get a day or two off each week.
That was part of the point of keeping sabbath, even for our ancient ancestors. The idea of taking a break from work, a day to rest and recuperate, is important to our well-being. Even God took a break after creating the world in six days. The keeping of sabbath as a law or religious ordinance, however, wasn’t established until Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God. The word “sabbath” doesn’t appear in the Bible until after Moses has led the people out of Egypt. And what were they doing in Egypt? They were slaves.
Slaves don’t get a day off. Slaves don’t get paid either, let alone health benefits and a retirement fund, but they did usually receive food, water, and perhaps shelter. But there was no break from work, no day off to rest, recuperate, and cheer on the chariot racers. Slave work wasn’t sitting at a desk occasionally Facebooking either. Day after day after day of endless hard labor with never an end in sight. Imagine that. Imagine working hard, day after day, getting ever more tired and worn down, and never getting a break. Sounds like parenting, actually. But seriously, I worked some long stretches when I worked at the bank, at month end, and after twelve days straight I was about ready to die. I can’t imagine never getting a break.
The sabbath is a gift from God. For the newly forming Israelite community, it must have seemed incredibly wonderful. Over time, it became a signature characteristic of Jewish people, that they didn’t work on the sabbath. Taking a break from the routine, taking time to worship God and be with their families was, and still is for most, part of their identity. Exodus 20, the first list of the commandments (yes, there’s more than one list), reads:
Remember the sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).
This idea of getting a day off from work, and taking time to worship God, is precious. Certainly, this was important to a people who had just been enslaved. This precious gift from God must be protected. And so, later in Exodus, the Lord gives Moses instructions for keeping the sabbath, and says:
Keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who violates the sabbath will be put to death. Whoever does any work on the sabbath, that person will be cut off from the people (Exodus 31:14).
This is serious business. God really wants you to take a break. This is reiterated in the Isaiah passage we just read:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth (Isaiah 58:13-14a).
Keeping sabbath, and keeping it holy, is a really big deal. Bad things happen when you work on the sabbath, and good things happen when you don’t. This is why the leader of the synagogue is so upset by what Jesus does. Jesus heals the bent-over woman; he does work on the sabbath. No, no, no! That’s not what we do. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day” (Luke 13:14). The sabbath day is precious. If Jesus starts working on the sabbath, then his followers will start doing work on the sabbath, and pretty soon no one will get a day off ever again!
This poor guy who is leading the synagogue that Jesus visited that day. He’s trying to be faithful. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things; if you want to please God, we’ve got laws that tell you how to do that. Religious observance is the way to win God’s favor, so make sure you have interesting worship services, lovely buildings, beautiful prayers, and a lot of focus on the law, in this case the law about doing no work on the sabbath.
Okay, maybe they pushed things a little too far, as Jesus points out when he responds: “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” (Luke 13:15). A little work is okay, because sometimes things need to be done now, and they can’t wait. And this woman, this daughter of Abraham, needs to be set free now, she can’t wait any longer, her life is too precious. Yes, the sabbath is good, and important, but if you really want to please God, worry less about following the letter of the law, and worry more about how you treat one another.
This religious leader, and others like him, were folks who got up in the morning thinking about God and how they might serve God better. They didn't always get it right, but they were sincerely trying. Sounds a lot like you and me. We don’t always do things the way that God might want us to. What would Jesus do? I don’t know for sure, so I’m going to guess. But I’m trying. And when I let Jesus point out the shortcomings in the way that I’ve been thinking, I might just be a little more forgiving of myself, and more kind to others.
Taking a break, resting and worshiping on the sabbath, on the Lord’s Day, is valuable. It’s important. But maybe the point is not about whether we keep the Sabbath or not, but the way in which we keep it, and keep it holy. So, I come to church and worship God. I’ll rest and take some time to be with my family. But if something needs to get done, and it just can’t wait, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I’m not, however, going to let whatever it is take over my day, and take away my opportunity for sabbath.
I’m not going to spend all day focused on my computer screen, or my cell phone screen, or my TV screen. But if I need to know the weather forecast, I’ll look it up. I will just try to resist the temptation to check Facebook and my email. If I want to relax in front of the game with friends, that’s fine, but I’ll try to make my friends, and not the game, the main focus of my time. I may check my cell phone once in a while, but I’m going to take it out of my pocket and set it down somewhere so that it doesn’t command my attention constantly.
We might do a little work on the sabbath, and we might not follow the letter of the law, but we’re celebrating the spirit and the point of the law which is to be loving, caring people, resting in the presence of one another, stepping out of our routine to celebrate the gift of sabbath, a gift given by God for our well-being. Let us take delight in the Lord’s Day, share the sabbath meal together, and remember the one who came to show us the way to be holy, the one who healed on the sabbath day. Amen.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.