This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/3/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
When I first moved to DC, and Faith and I started thinking about doing ministry here, I did a lot of reflection on the spiritual condition of our city. Over the course of my first few years here, I became convinced that busyness, over-work, and high stress were some of our most important challenges. I hoped that Faith and I could minister to those who are overwhelmed by the intensity of life in our city, the many demands that are put on us by our work. This stress and busyness has the potential to choke out the seed of God in our lives.
I’m sad to say that, in the time I’ve lived here, this city has probably changed me more than I’ve impacted it. Over the last nine years, Faith and I have had two children. We’ve been employed at increasingly demanding and time-intensive jobs. At this point, I wouldn’t say that our level of busyness and stress is much different from most other people in our life stage and social class.
That’s not great. I know that my life isn’t exactly the way God intends it to be. I know that my busyness and burden often distract me and pull me away from the life of presence and freedom that Jesus invites me into. I know that I need to be called back to wholeness, right relationship with my family, friends, work, and God.
So I was really grateful to see that our passages for this morning focus on sabbath, both its foundations in the Old Testament, and Jesus’ teaching on it in the New. I’m thankful, because I need to hear the wisdom of the sabbath. I need to be invited into the rest and peace of God. Maybe this speaks to your condition, too.
The sabbath is about as ancient a concept as you can get. God celebrated the first sabbath on the seventh day of creation. After creating the heavens and the earth, the plants and the animals, men and women, God rested for a day from all his labors. Following this model of good work followed by true rest, God taught his people, Israel, to observe a sabbath day of their own. This special, holy day each week would be a period of rest.
The sabbath wasn’t just a reduction of work. It wasn’t like what a lot of us Christians experience today, where maybe we take a few hours off to go to church, maybe go out to lunch with friends, and then get right back into the productivity and busyness of our lives. For God’s people in the Old Testament, and for Jews today, God’s sabbath was a cessation of all work.
Why would God command us to refrain from all work for a whole day every week? It’s easy to imagine God as some kind of random rule-maker in the sky, handing out weird instructions that we’re supposed to follow, because, you know, God. But the sabbath is not random or capricious. As we read together in the Torah, we find that the origin of a religious sabbath comes about in a very specific context. That context tells us a lot about what the sabbath can mean for our lives as children of the God of Abraham and followers of Jesus.
So what was the situation when God instituted the sabbath? It came as part of the law that God set out immediately after liberating the Hebrews from slavery, four hundred years of forced labor in the land of Egypt. The sabbath is a mark of freedom, of health, of social harmony and economic justice. The sabbath is for all people – even the male and female slaves, even the animals!, have a right to a total cessation of work on the sabbath.
The sabbath is a call to humility. To remember, as it says in our reading from Deuteronomy, that “you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The sabbath has the power to bring justice because it puts all human effort into perspective. Our lives are but a breath. God doesn’t need our help any more than a parent needs assistance from a young child. God’s effort is decisive; human effort can be, at best, a token expression of our love for the Father. (Paul expresses this thought in his second letter to the Corinthians, “this extraordinary power [of the gospel] belongs to God and does not come from us.”) By honoring the sabbath, we honor the God who through his power created the universe – and then rested.
We could all benefit from honoring the sabbath today. We need rest. We’re tired, and we work too much. We need space to breathe. To worship God, setting aside all our temporal preoccupations. To remember who we are, and whose we are. We need the sabbath to teach us how to love again. Love ourselves. Love God. Love neighbor.
Our whole culture is feeling the loss of the sabbath. We’re noticing the impact of a society that no longer reserves even one day of rest each week. Sunday shopping comes at a price. Our weekends are crowded with activity. Many employers expect us to be on and available, 24/7. There’s very little space to listen.
The sabbath acts as a check on our human tendency to over-extend ourselves. It sets a hard limit on our time, energy, and planning. It’s an opportunity to yield ourselves to reality and our own limitations, rather than being forced to do so by sheer exhaustion and burnout.
The Jewish religious authorities of Jesus’ day had 99 problems, but keeping the sabbath wasn’t one of them. They kept it religiously. The Pharisees were sort of the good “churchgoing” Ned Flanders of the ancient world. They were scrupulous in their observance of the law of Moses. Among the hundreds of other regulations that they followed, they were almost ridiculously careful not to do anything resembling labor between sundown on Friday and dusk on Saturday.
And yet, for all their piety, the Pharisees were missing the point. They embraced the sabbath, and all the law of Moses, but they had forgotten that they were liberated slaves. They had become the authority in their society, and the interpretation and enforcement of the Torah became a powerful lever for them to exercise that authority. The law often loomed larger than the God who established it. Just as the priestly Sadducees loved the Temple more than they loved the uncontrollable God of the Tent, the Pharisees loved the letter more than the Spirit.
Jesus saw this. He was harder on the Pharisees than on anyone else. Because they knew so much about the kingdom of heaven. They knew so much about God. And yet their attitudes prevented them from experiencing the real life, power, and purpose of God’s reign. Not only that: In their zeal to convert others to their misguided focus on rules and ritual, they blocked the door for others to enter into the kingdom of God.
God made the sabbath for people. God’s creation exists to bless us; it allows us to experience wholeness and holiness. The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath.
Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities on this point. He was busy moving throughout Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and gathering his disciples. Jesus was drawing bigger and bigger crowds, and the Pharisees were curious to see what this new teacher was all about. They hoped he would be one of them. A lot of his teachings sounded familiar to the Pharisees. Jesus definitely wasn’t siding with the priestly elite in Jerusalem. Maybe they could form an alliance.
But when the Pharisees actually met Jesus, what they found disturbed them. Rather than a teacher who was first and foremost concerned with observing every jot and tittle of the Mosaic law, they saw that Jesus tolerated his disciples breaking all sorts of rules. Everyone knew that Jews weren’t supposed to do anything resembling work on the sabbath – that included food preparation. Yet Jesus didn’t say a word when he and his disciples were passing through grain fields on the sabbath, and the disciples started plucking and eating grain.
The Pharisees saw this and they got really upset. They appealed to Jesus to reign in his followers. “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Check your boys, Jesus; they’re running wild.
Jesus responded to the Pharisees in a very particular way. He didn’t agree with them. In fact, he flat out contradicted the Pharisees. But he didn’t do so by denying the importance of the sabbath. He didn’t reject the law of Moses and God’s commandments in scripture. Instead, he reframed the conversation in terms of the broader story of God’s people. It’s not enough to simply say, “the Bible says this,” or “the Bible says that.” The Bible says a lot of things. What truly matters is what God is saying, and how God is revealing himself throughout the scriptures – and in our very lives.
So Jesus responds, not with a rejection of scriptural authority, but with an expansion of it. “Haven’t you ever heard what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”
When David and his crew was hungry, they ate the food that was available. The daily bread that God offered them. In that moment, God’s power to bless and provide for David overrode the static, non-contextual rules laid down in the laws of Moses. In general, only the priests were supposed to eat the consecrated bread in the Temple. But in that particular time and place, that holy bread was God’s way of caring for David and his men – providing them with rest, comfort, and sustenance.
Jesus sums it up this way: “The sabbath was made for people, and not people for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
The sabbath is made for people. The law was written for us. The word of God is not a harsh rule laid upon us as a burden; it is the caring hand of God guiding us, providing us with what we need. It is a gift of God, to be received in context – in particular time and circumstances, according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
People like the Pharisees – both back then and today – have a tough time wrapping their heads around this. For so many of us, the purpose of religion is to provide a clear and unambiguous set of rules to live by. Do this; don’t do that. Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t handle! Follow the rules and you will be safe. Follow the rules, and God will love you.
But God does love you. God does love you. He gives us the law precisely because he loves us. God doesn’t give the law as a set of terms and conditions we must follow to receive his love. Love comes first. Love is the first motion. Love is the ground and source of the law. And love must reign over the law if we are to receive it as God intended.
The law is made for people, not people for the law.
But most religious people just can’t understand this. Especially religious people with power. And have no doubt about it, that’s what all this is about. Our rules and regulations are about power. Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, we use the law to shape the society that we live in. We create a set of expectations that must be followed. Those who step out of line are subject to peer pressure, ridicule, shame – and even violence. To challenge the rules that govern our culture is a dangerous act.
It’s not too long into Jesus’ ministry before he performs such an act – one so dangerous, so threatening to the Pharisee’s cultural and religious system, that they have no choice but to respond. One way or another. They can join Jesus or they can reject him; but they can’t assimilate him. They can’t pretend that Jesus is a good old Pharisee who they can integrate into their social order. Jesus won’t play ball.
This moment of revelation happens not out in the field, but in the heart of the Pharisee’s social and religious life – the synagogue. Jesus comes to the house of prayer on the sabbath. Jesus is an emerging local celebrity at this point, so maybe they invited him to lead worship and interpret scripture for them. Or maybe he just showed up for prayer. Whatever the reason, Jesus came to this particular synagogue on the sabbath, and the religious leaders knew he was coming. They were watching to see what he would do.
Because there was this guy in the synagogue that everyone knew. A man with a withered hand. People had heard that Jesus frequently healed the sick, and they wanted to know: Would Jesus break the Pharisees’ sabbath prohibitions to heal this man?
The people in the synagogue were watching Jesus. And he was watching them back. They wanted to see whether he would heal on the sabbath. Jesus wanted to know whether their hearts were so lost to the love of God that they would condemn compassion.
Jesus calls the man with the withered hand forward, up to the front of the synagogue where Jesus was seated.
Silence. Jesus looks at the people of the synagogue. The best and brightest in the town. The religious leaders. Everyone who is anyone.
Jesus asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
Silence. Nobody moves. They just watch Jesus. Will he do it? Will he break the rules? Will he defy the authority of the teachers of the law? In the synagogue?
And it says that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” How could these folks be so sensitive to the commandments of God in the past and so completely miss the motion of God’s spirit in the present? How could the Pharisees know so much about God, yet fail to recognize God in their own lives? What did it mean that God’s people were living in a temple of scripture and yet failed to receive the sacrament of compassion?
The sabbath was made for people. Hungry people. Thirsty people. People with withered up hands, who because of their physical deformity were excluded from full participation in religious life. The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.
In this moment, Jesus resolves to live into the full meaning of the sabbath. He demonstrates what the sabbath looks like in flesh and bone and sinew. He heals the man standing before him, re-enacting God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He frees this man from physical bondage, and invites everyone present in the synagogue to be freed from the spiritual bondage of rules-lawyering religion without pity, without mercy, without love.
“Stretch out your hand.”
I want you to stretch out your hands with me. Stretch out your hands, and remember everything that God has done for you.
Stretch out your hands, and remember how he has brought you up out of slavery. Slavery to materialism. To selfishness. To addiction. To death.
Stretch out your hands, and be healed.
The sabbath of God is within us. And we so desperately need it. We can’t live without the sabbath, without God’s rest, abundance, and liberation.
The sabbath is life. The sabbath is rest and freedom from slavery. The sabbath is a gift given by the Holy Spirit, and one which we must accept if we are to experience the peace and blessing of God’s kingdom.
What does it mean for you to embrace the sabbath in your life? What needs to change? How does your heart need to open, your mind be renewed, your habits shift?
Stretch out your hands. Let us promise together that we will be a people of sabbath in this city. Let our lives open up a space sabbath rest, sabbath grace, and sabbath justice. Because the sabbath was made for people.