In my life time the attitude to Sunday as the Lord ’s Day of rest have changed greatly. AS a child I remember the great deserted wasteland that the centre of Auckland was on a Sunday. You could almost imagine the tumbleweeds rolling down Queen Street like it was some western ghost town, now the city advertises itself as a place where the show never ends. Now Queen Street is alive with hustle and bustle on Sundays as much as any other day.
I was at Eden park last night with my sons for the Bledisloe decider and I remembered going to my first test match there… the 1987 rugby world cup final.. I gone with friends who’d spent most of the previous night making a banner saying ‘thank God it’s Saturday… Micheal Jones fan club’… Michael Jones was the all black no 7, the Richie McCaw of his day. As a Christian had made a stand not to play on Sunday… The semi-final had been the first test in New Zealand played on a Sunday and he hadn’t played… we wanted to honour and support him. I’d like to think he payed us back by scoring a try right in front of us and that sign. It was the amateur era then and I wonder how many players could make that kind of stand in the professional era and still have a job…?
There are places in the world that still hold to Sabbath observance A facebook friend commented recently on being home in Samoa and realising how Kiwi he had become when he went for have his daily exercise on Apia Park and was told by a security guard… no training today its’ Sunday.
I’m not bemoaning that those things have changed or looking back wistfully to an idealised and more Christianised past. But I wonder if rediscovering the real idea of Sabbath, as a day of rest unto the lord, isn’t as important and relevant for us today amidst the pressure of the relentless rush to be a 24/7 world, as it was in Jesus day amidst the pressure of the rigid religious rules that were enacted to protect the Sabbath ? In both settings it’s important for us to know what it means to Sabbath and what it means that ‘the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath’. It is important for us as we look to follow his footsteps.
The passage we had read out to us today comes as a climax of Jesus early ministry. It shows us how Jesus revolution of grace leads him further and further into conflict with the religious leaders, ideas and forms of his day. It is two narratives that tell of Jesus conflict with the Pharisees over Sabbath observance. They are held together by Jesus statement that the Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath in verse 5.
As we saw in our Old Testament reading, part of the Ten Commandments is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy: To set aside one day in the week for rest and to be able to focus on God and God’s saving acts. We are told that in Egypt Israel had been slaves, there had been no rest they were at the beck and call of their masters, but as God’s people they were to be different. The ability to rest and focus on more than simply toiling was something for all: Rich and poor, free and slave even for their animals. It was a justice issue; you could see that it was the beginning of labour laws like our forty hour week. It was a religious issue, as it called people to set aside labour and their endeavours and their focus on making ends meet or getting ahead to realise and reflect on the fact that there was something more important than that, mainly the God who called them into relationship with himself and his merciful salvation and the blessing he had given. For the Jews Sabbath was from sunset Friday (when they say the day end and begin) to sunset Saturday, It involved family meals and public worship, as well as rest. In the Christian world we have used Sunday, the first day of the week, when we remember Jesus rose from the dead.
During the second temple period, after return form exile, Sabbath observance became a very important marker of Jewish piety and identity. To protect people from breaking the Sabbath ban on working rules and regulations were put in place. What constituted work was tightly defined.
It was like that classic ad about whether a man wearing speedo’s is wearing togs or undies, and how it depends on how far he is from the beach… togs, togs, togs (ok) but after a few more steps Undies (not Ok). You could walk a certain distance on the Sabbath but after that it became work. Somethings were Ok others not. I remember a set of camp rules at Hunua Falls that reflected some of that in Christian era as well, one of the rules was no games on a Sunday. Keeping the rules of the day became more important than the focus on God’s goodness and salvation.
In the first conflict story, Jesus and his disciples pluck grain from the fields and eat it on the Sabbath. It’s not the plucking of the grain that was wrong, parts of every field were set aside for travellers, rather it was the when. Part of the regulations revolved around harvesting, and by plucking the grain, rubbing their hands together to remove the husks and eating it they were in the Pharisees eyes guilty of harvesting, winnowing, and preparing food all banned as work.
Jesus defends his disciples, isn’t that good for us to be reminded as we face criticism, that Jesus is the one who will provide us the words we need. He tells them the story of David and his men when they were hungry and perused by Saul eating the show bread on the altar that was reserved for the priests. It was intended to show the Pharisees that the laws were not there to deprive people of their basic needs, as Jesus says in mark’s gospel, the Sabbath was for people, not people for the Sabbath. By referring them to King David Jesus is also pointing to himself as being in that Davidic line and place as well. He is the anointed king waiting for his coronation.
By saying that he is the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus claims the authority, not the scribes and the Pharisees to rightly interpret and apply the scriptures. To understand properly God’s purpose for the Sabbath and how it fits into God’s liberating revolution of grace, rather than a religion of restraints. It is a sign post for as well that we need to interpret scripture through the lens of Jesus. We look at the whole of the Old Testament law through the lens of Jesus.
In the second story we see that Jesus actually does respect and keep the Sabbath, he comes to the synagogue for public worship and is invited to preach. Sabbath observance is important for Jesus, but his understanding of what that means is more about the compassion and love of God than external observation. We are told that the Pharisees and the scribes are present to spy on Jesus; they are looking for excuses to accuse him. Will Jesus break the Sabbath law by healing someone? In Jewish understanding it was Ok to heal and treat someone if it was a life threatening situation but if it was not life threatening then the person could wait till after the Sabbath.
Jesus sees a man with a withered hand and as he proclaims God’s revolution of grace he also wants to demonstrate it . While the withered hand wasn’t life threatening, Luke’s observation that it as his right hand shows that it would have stopped him from being able to pursue a livelihood. It was compassionate to heal the man and not make him wait any longer. So he invites the man to stand and knowing what the Pharisees are thinking asks the question… “Is it right to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath?”. It’s a question they would be reluctant to answer. There is irony in it because they are there spying on Jesus planning on catching him out so they can accuse him. If they answer its Ok to do good and Jesus heals the man then they are saying that Jesus is doing good.
Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand and it is restored to wholeness. Again Jesus is showing his understanding of genuine Sabbath observance that it is about the compassion and grace of God. The Pharisees we are told are furious at this. The word used means anger beyond rational thought and we see that they want to do something against Jesus; they use the Sabbath to do evil.
How does this all apply to us?
Firstly, the idea of Sabbath rest is as important for us as it was for the people of Israel and for the people in Jesus day. Remember it’s a justice issue; the ability to rest shouldn’t be a luxury item for the wealthy in our society. Yet there is increasing pressure put on people to work longer and longer hours to make ends meet. The poor have more than one job because of low wages or poor conditions. We celebrate the institution of the forty hour week with Labour Day, It was designed to be a sign of a just and caring society that did not exploit and wear its workers out for the sake of economic endeavour. That needs to be protected; it impacts on minimum wages, living wages and working conditions.
It is also important that we have Sabbath in our lives to set aside time to realise that there is more important things in life than work and making a living. It actually takes time to do that. As Christians public worship I believe is part of that process of reflection. It says as a community of faith this is important. The Sabbath was set up prophetically in response to slavery and it is easy for us to find ourselves enslaved to the grind of consumerism and capitalism and forget that there is things that are more significant: someone more significant. The way many view Sabbath is to simply relax and have a chance to recharge for the coming week, hopefully to catch up with family and self. Our Sabbath is competed with between the pull of so many different things. We actually need to learn the discipline of resting.
In his book ‘the good and beautiful God’ James Bryan Smith says that the number one enemy of Christian Spiritual Formation is exhaustion. The number one spiritual disciple in his book is ‘get some more rest get more sleep’. With electricity we’ve pushed back the hours of darkness, with electronic media we’ve found ways to relax where are minds are actually stimulated rather than quietened and rested. Instead of going to bed we may veg in front of the TV or more commonly these days our own personal devises. There is more demand for productivity, efficiency demands to produce and Smith says we are over extended physically, emotionally and financially. We need to make Sabbath rest more a part of our lives.
In his wonderful book ‘SoulSalsa’ Leonard Sweet encourages some artistic ways to create rest spaces in our day. You see time has become the number one scares item in our world. We need make time to stop to and catch our breath. To catch ones breath by the way is the root of the word Sabbath. Sweet suggests we need to learn to breathe deeply and to de centralise our Sabbath to become every day practises; As the Psalm says ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”. It’s more than just having the discipline of bible reading and prayer in your day, the old quite time… but This is the day to simply stop to breathe deeply. To find sacred space in waste spaces and waste the time to go and sit and enjoy places… church, a beach, the bush places that the Celtic saints called thin places, where the veil between the spiritual and the physical world is thin. We need to slow the flow… even if it to allow ourselves those MEGO moments…”my eyes glaze over”; where we may not leave the room we are in but we leave the room we are in.
Take micro sabbaticals, look out the window focus on some part of God’s creation, even in our urban wonder and waste. I was in my office on my day off (which sounds bad right) it was a cold morning and I looked out at these two sparrows sheltering in the bush and just watched them for a while. God spoke to me of his provision and love. He cares even for the sparrow. Finally Sweet says we need time to stop the flow, we live in a world where we are bombarded by messages, images, and the electronic chirpings of notifications and reminders and we need to stop that and turn it off and give ourselves space to simply be.
Also we need to be reminded that the son of man is the Lord of the Sabbath that it is not primarily about external observances, rules and regulations but that it’s about an internal response to the grace and the love of God. That true religious observance focuses on God’s grace and is expressed in compassion for others. I hope that as we come to church and worship together that we might encounter that compassion and love of God in our lives. You come with a withered hand or a withered heart or withered spirit and encounter the healing and restoring power and love of Jesus Christ in this place in this rest: Through the service or through the service of your brothers and sisters in Christ. And that Sabbath observance becomes part of our lives as we take that attitude with us.