Second Sunday after Pentecost
Let’s start with a “full-disclosure” moment. There is an aspect of our message this morning that involves Sabbath-keeping; and there will come a point where I will encourage you to do what the Bible tells you and keep a Sabbath. But in full-disclosure, you should know, I am the worst at that. It’s like having a vegetarian tell you how to cook your steak. This is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments. I don’t know if it’s a hazard of my profession or a hazard of someone who doesn’t know how to manage his time wisely, but I am consistently doing some sort of professional work on what ought to be my day off—my Sabbath. In all fairness, you should also know that I’m working on it. In fact, in anticipation of this sermon, I got great Sabbath rest… this week.
I don’t make light of my lack of Sabbath-keeping. I know that when I don’t, I am being disobedient to God’s Command, so I am trying to do what God’s Word tells me to do; but at the same time, my disobedience makes me acutely aware of why God made Sabbath-keeping a commandment. It is a difficult thing to do. It’s a bit like our Savior’s Command to love one another: if it were an easy thing to do, it wouldn’t need to be a commandment.
In fact, in a way, I see those two commands as connected. As Jesus reminds us today, Sabbath was made for humankind. The Sabbath is not just a command; the Sabbath is a gift. God loves you so much that God demands you take some time to not work. If God loves you that much, how much do you suppose God loves the person next to you? It turns out, if we understand why we take a day off, it might also help us remember why we love.
In Jesus’ day, the religious people were very specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.” I mean, really, really specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.” It seems that it was a sort of a pastime for the religious scholars of the day to debate and argue over things like the precise moment that the Sabbath began and ended and what constituted “work.” They took the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” and spent more time defining what that specifically meant than perhaps any other commandment.
Historically, even the followers of Jesus have had a difficult time getting too legalistic with the Fourth Commandment, with the establishment of “blue laws” and things like that. However, it doesn’t seem that most Christians are nearly as rigorous about it anymore. Although I will say: every once in a while, I will get a letter in the mail. It’s never from the same place and it’s never from the same person, but it always makes the same point: that we are wrong for having worship on Sundays and God is mad at us for it. It’s never just that either: I’ve gotten to the place where I can tell it’s “one of those letters” just by the weight of it. They come loaded with Scripture citations, with all caps and underlines, but they conveniently leave out the parts where Jesus condemns the legalism of Sabbath-keeping.
But most of the rest of the followers of Jesus these days get it, right? We hear Jesus when he says that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. We call Sunday our holy-day instead of Saturday because that is the day our Savior rose from the dead; that’s the day we want to remember and celebrate. And what we mean by Sabbath can be all sorts of things: a morning of prayer, study and worship; a lunch with friends; an afternoon in the garden; an evening walk with your family. We get it; whatever is restful for you is fine for you. We get it; only, we don’t.
I was talking with a friend the other day; a friend who doesn’t go to church, but takes Sabbath rest vastly more seriously than I do. I was unloading on him about the stress in my life and my chronic depression and he said, “You need to get out more.” He was right, of course, but he didn’t just stop there; he started spouting off all sorts of things I already knew. He told me about how increased physical activity produces endorphins that make you feel better. He told me about how taking time to do nothing is good for mindfulness. He even suggested that spending quality time with my wife might actually be good for our relationship. At a point, I wanted to stop him and say, “I know!” but I figured I only had the right to say it if I actually did any of this.
We know that when the religious people criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think he should, they are wrong; but we forget that, to a point, they are also right. They are wrong because they treated the Sabbath like it was just another rule to follow, but they are right because God commanded it for a purpose. Ironically, that purpose is defeated by treating as a rule: by making rest a rule, it turns rest into work. But also ironically, in taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we defeat the point that Jesus was making as well. In taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we forget that, in remembering the Sabbath, we remember the priorities of God. Since creation itself, God has ordained a rhythm to life that involves the work that gives our lives purpose, but also rest that gives deeper meaning to those lives. Sabbath exists because God loves us and we are important to God. Sabbath exists so that we might take care of a person God loves, namely ourselves. But as Jesus shows us today, Sabbath also exists so that we might remember that we are not the only people God loves.
Jesus asks his accusers, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. They were silent because the answer was obvious. The answer is, of course, it is always lawful to do good and save lives. Sabbath is good for us because it is meant to remind us of this. Sabbath is meant to reorient us to the priorities of God: namely humankind. As we are gathered around this Table, we are reminded in a different way, the lengths that God will go to, in order to show us how important we are.
God loves us and calls us to take a day off. Take a day to reflect on the love that would lay down his life, that we might live. Take a day to see that love in the eyes of those around you in this world as well: that person you’re not talking to; the waitress who serves you at lunch; your neighbor with the un-mowed lawn; the homeless man you walk past. Take a day, not as a rule, but as a gift. Take a day to remember the love that God has shown you, that you might remember to show it too.