a sermon on Isaiah 58:9b-14 and Luke 13:10-17
preached on August 25, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
It’s one of the Ten Commandments, so it ought to be pretty important. But I’ll ask you to be honest here—when was the last time you took a Sabbath? When was the last time you took a day to rest and reconnect with yourself, your friends and family, and God? When did you last take a day and turn off the TV and ignore the phone and email and do absolutely no work whatsoever? If your life is anything like mine, it has been quite a while! Even on days when I back away from all the things that incessantly pull me in twenty different directions, even when I can stay in bed until 9:00 because there is nothing on the calendar until noon, even when I can put off everything else that needs to be done, something inside nags at me, insisting that I need to catch up on something, get ahead on worship planning, or return that phone call that I’ve ignored all week long.
In this hyperconnected, hyperactive age, when we try to squeeze 25 hours of stuff into the 24 hours we have been given, the command to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is an incredible gift given to us by God so that we can be a little more human than we otherwise would be, yet so often it seems that we would rather forget the Sabbath and fill it with so many other things. It hasn’t always been this way. Our reading this morning from the gospel according to Luke suggests that, in Jesus’ day and age, the Sabbath was almost over-observed. Based on what we see happening here, it sounds like the people of Jesus’ day and age weren’t allowed to do anything on the Sabbath! Certainly people were encouraged to go to a synagogue, but that’s about it. It is clear from just these few verses that by Jesus’ time the Jewish community had developed an extensive interpretation of exactly what “work” was prohibited on the Sabbath. If you talk to any practicing Jew today, you will quickly learn that those interpretations have extended to our own time, with wide variations among the different denominations of Jewish faith and practice even today.
All of these rules and regulations that give a more exact definition of the “work” prohibited on the Sabbath stand very much in the background of today’s story from Luke, where we see Jesus fulfilling his Sabbath day obligation and teaching in a synagogue, only to be interrupted by a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. When Jesus saw her ailment, he didn’t tell her to come back to him tomorrow or even at sundown—he called her over to him right away, laid his hands on her, and healed her.
The leader of the synagogue was not happy about this. Jesus had healed this woman in his synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he would be held responsible! This leader wondered why Jesus couldn’t have just waited and done this at a time that wouldn’t be so controversial, that wouldn’t put the synagogue in the spotlight and raise so many questions about things that were already controversial enough.
But Jesus was equally frustrated. He reminded the leader of the synagogue and anyone else who would listen that some work does have to be done on the Sabbath. Even though the animals are specifically included in the commandment’s instructions about who should not work, they still have to be cared for and given water. Their basic needs do not have to wait until the end of the Sabbath. Jesus saw this moment of healing to be no different. This woman had been in bondage for eighteen years, and there was no need to make her wait even one more day to be freed and healed.
Ultimately, Jesus’ argument won the day. The woman had already been healed, and the crowd was very much on his side. He used the simple logic of personal experience to argue that even the most faithful observance of the Sabbath required that some things still be done. I think you could argue, though, that this was the beginning of a slippery slope that leads us to the dreadful place about Sabbath where many of us are today. For centuries, the church encouraged if not enforced relatively strict Sabbath observances—some perhaps even more strict than what Jesus encountered—but nowadays the practice of Sabbath has nearly disappeared among most Christians. Stores that were once closed every Sunday—or at least every Sunday morning—to give their employees time to rest and worship now open earlier and earlier to maximize their revenue. The Sunday morning hours that were once set apart so that everyone could attend worship are now open and available for other things, and the rest of the day seems to be set aside (at least six months of the year) for the true American religion, pro football.
But even more than this, we let all our days become full to overflowing, and we leave no time for Sabbath of any sort on any day. Yet then we scratch our heads and wonder why we are so exhausted and have no time to rest and recover. More often than not, we don’t set any time aside to rest and reconnect with ourselves, our family and friends, and our God. If Jesus stepped into our world today, I suspect that he would immediately call us to set aside all our work on the Sabbath even though he insisted that healing this woman on the Sabbath was the right and proper thing to do! His actions here with the woman did not criticize the Sabbath but rather a legalistic interpretation of it. Jesus certainly knew that the Sabbath was an important and freeing thing, and he never hesitated to take time away from the hustle and bustle of his ministry to think and pray and rest.
Ultimately, for Jesus the Sabbath seemed to be a time of freedom—freedom to step back from the demands of the world and simply be the beloved human beings God has created us to be, freedom to reengage with God and one another in new and playful ways that set aside for just one day out of each week the demands of our busy world, and ultimately freedom from bondage like this woman faced, the bondage of illness but also busyness and anxiety that permeate our lives and our world. Proper observance of the Sabbath like this is not a chore to be dreaded but a gift for us, a time and space when we can step back and get a little bit of perspective about the things that seem to overwhelm us.
Like most of the Christian life, I am increasingly convinced that remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy is not about what we do not do but about what we do do. Keeping the Sabbath holy means setting aside one day per week to focus on the life-giving stuff with our families, our friends, our selves, and our God. Keeping the Sabbath holy means carving out at least one intentional moment every week when we gather with other people of faith and share in prayer, praise, and proclamation. And keeping the Sabbath holy means that we listen to the call of the prophet Isaiah as we heard this morning:
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;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy takes practice. Sometimes we’ll err on the side of the leader of the synagogue and be a little too focused on what we can’t do, and other times we’ll fit in very well with our world’s attitude that the Sabbath doesn’t matter at all. But God calls us to set this day set apart, to make time in our busy lives to reconnect with God, others, and ourselves, to step back from our world and try to see how even God rested one day out of the week of creation, and to see how remembering the Sabbath can set us free from everything that limits us and keeps us from being the full people God has called us to be.
So what is your Sabbath practice? How do you remember the Sabbath in your life? How do you keep this or another day holy every week? As the summer comes to an end and we prepare to enter another year in our life together, as the cycles of our world reset a bit and we start to settle into new patterns for the fall, as we as a congregation adjust to having a pastor in the office only three days per week, I hope and pray that you’ll keep the idea of Sabbath in your minds, that you’ll consider how setting aside one day out of each week for rest and renewal and worship can make us free for so many other things, and that you’ll welcome the challenge to make this practice more real in your lives in the months ahead.
So may God help us all to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, not so much by sorting out the details of what is and isn’t allowed on this day but by recognizing that it brings us wholeness and freedom in our lives and in our world so that we might help make God’s justice, peace, and love a reality each and every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.