Epiphany IV (O. T. 4); January 29, 2017
My Dad and I used to argue over his telling me to mow the lawn on Sunday. I said that it was inappropriate for the Sabbath, and he would tell me to do it anyway. Since he was my Dad, he always won. Well, in the long run I won, because now I don't mow the lawn on Sunday.
For today's sermon-time, I'll start with a quick review of what the notion of Sabbath is about, and then we'll have some conversation. The Sabbath, literally, is the seventh day of the week, and is sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. It is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition, and is explicit in the Ten Commandments. It was something of a radical notion, because people were used to working seven days a week, and the idea of a day for rest and for honoring God was strange. Even in Roman times, Jews kept a Sabbath but everyone else worked a seven-day week.
The Commandment says to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Maybe you knew that there are two different forms of the Ten Commandments, one in the Book of Exodus (20:2-17) and the other in the Book of Deuteronomy (5:6-21). In Exodus, the Commandment says that you and I should remember the Sabbath because the Lord rested from creating on the seventh day, and if God rests, then you and I should rest. And in Deuteronomy it says that you and I should remember the Sabbath because everyone, including those who work for you, should have an opportunity to rest, for after all God rescued us from slavery in Egypt.
So, the Sabbath Day is to be a day of resting from our usual labors, a day for revering the God who saves us, and a day of justice for those who work for us. Those are the three words to remember when you think of Sabbath: rest, reverence, and justice. Now let's talk about Jesus.
In the last part of the reading, Jesus called his disciples together and chose twelve of them to be called Apostles. Did you notice what he did before making this important decision? (spent the night in prayer to God) When you have faced a major decision, what have you done to prepare yourself for it? Those present shared several things: research, consultation, but above all, prayer.
We need, from time to time in nearly every day, opportunities to stop and rest. Something that has helped me is the song we learned about a year ago and sang every Sunday during Lent last year. Let's sing it now a couple of times:
Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm.
Still me, Lord; keep me from harm.
Let all the tumult within me cease;
Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.
In the middle part of the reading, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. There are those who are hoping he will, so they will have something to attack him about. And he says to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?" No one is asking him to do harm to the man, but in Jesus' mind, to fail to heal him when the opportunity presents itself is the same thing as harming him. The Sabbath is not to be used as an excuse; "Oh, I would have helped him, but it was the Sabbath and so I couldn't." It appears that Jesus thinks of the Sabbath's emphasis on reverence to mean not only reverence for God but also reverence for human life, and so he healed a man on the Sabbath. Think for a moment about a time that you could have avoided helping someone because you had an excuse, but you took the opportunity and you helped. Now share that with someone seated near you. This was done quietly in small groups, so I have no feedback to add.
And in the first part of the story, Jesus' followers pluck grain and husk it on the Sabbath, because they are hungry. That is, technically, a violation of the Sabbath, but Jesus reminds his critics of the time David violated another rule because his followers were hungry. And he says something pretty much guaranteed to make them crazy: "The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath." I take that to mean that, when it comes to observing the Sabbath, as with everything else, we take our cues from Jesus. What does that suggest to you? Feedback here included the reminder of the old "WWJD" bracelets ("What would Jesus do?").
A final thought. In Jewish tradition, people think of the entire week as hinged on the Sabbath. So the latter three days of the week are an opportunity to get ready for the Sabbath, and the first three days are an opportunity to give thanks for the previous Sabbath. If we think of Sabbath as opportunities for rest, reverence, and justice, can you and I begin to see that Sabbath is not a cage, but is God's gift to us?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master