What is the Sabbath? Who is it for? These are the questions that take center stage in our reading from Mark. How are you doing with Sabbath in your life? Who do you see around you that needs to be released in order to experience Sabbath?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Sabbath?” Perhaps it’s the idea of a rest or a break, a respite, or a vacation. Maybe you think of church. The third commandment telling us to “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Maybe you were forced to memorize Martin Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation, and so when I say, “Sabbath,” you immediately think: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn from it.
Or maybe you think of the blue laws that used to be in effect in many states, restricting what types of activities were acceptable practices on Sundays. It wasn’t that long ago that liquor stores were closed on Sundays, and not too long before that that almost every store was closed for a Sabbath rest. But what is Sabbath really? Who is it for, what good does it serve?
These are the questions at play in Jesus’ arguments with some Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. Now, it’s easy to take these arguments and look down on the Pharisees. They seem single-mindedly focused on following the law to the detriment of caring for others. But our gospels do us a disservice in their portrayal of the Pharisees. They are often depicted as very one-dimensional characters, when in fact they were a complex group. In many ways they were a reforming group, trying to help the people of Israel worship God everywhere, not just the Temple. And so they were concerned with the law—how to apply the law in different circumstances. They are doing their best to help people follow the law by interpreting the law.
Jesus is doing the same thing—only he comes up with a different interpretation, and so we have these two arguments about keeping the Sabbath in our reading. Is it lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath, and is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Or, as Jesus puts it: what is the Sabbath about, life or death?
Jesus interprets the law through this lens: The Sabbath is about giving life. And so, life-giving activities are indeed allowed on the Sabbath. What if we could reclaim that idea that the Sabbath is about life-giving? All recent studies have shown that Americans are not really good at Sabbath. We’re working longer hours and seeing it as a badge of honor. A lot of people—myself included—often don’t use all of our vacation days. Every bit of down time is filled with more and more activities: sports, bands, arts. And then there are those who have no option but to work every waking hour, two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. They do not have the privilege or the luxury of Sabbath.
Sabbath is more than just a quick rest—a nap or a vacation. Sabbath rest is oriented towards life and the things that bring abundant life. The first Sabbath ever is in the Genesis account of God creating the heavens and the earth. In six days, God does God’s work: bringing forth life out of nothing-ness, creating order out of chaos, delighting in the goodness of God’s work. And then, on the seventh day, God rests.
God’s work isn’t finished. The story of God and God’s people is only just beginning, and yet God rests. God rests in order to be able to continue to give life and create life. And in our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the reason that God commands the people to keep the Sabbath. Because they were slaves, forced to work every day, they ought to now rest one day a week. And not just them, but all of their slaves, the immigrants in their land, even their animals, need to rest. Need to be rejuvenated. Sabbath is intended for everyone. For all creation.
Jesus says that Sabbath was created for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. I think, because it’s a commandment, we sometimes confuse the purpose of the Sabbath. We start to think of it as something we do to honor God, or to make ourselves “holy.” But God created the Sabbath as a gift to us. Perhaps God knew we’d need to be forced to slow down. God definitely knew that without Sabbath, we would be off-kilter. We would forget that we belong to God and not to our labor. We would forget that we belong to each other, instead of just using each other for gain. The Sabbath is a gift meant to force us to stop and to remember to whom we belong.
When was the last time you took a Sabbath? It can feel almost impossible. The demands of work, of family, of all of our activities can make it feel selfish to take time to be idle. And the demands of our culture can make Sabbath feel like a self-centered waste of time. With all of the very real, moral crises in our nation and world—from guns and school shooting, to the refugee crisis and the separation of children and parents, to the ever-present sin of racism—taking time for Sabbath can feel like being an ostrich burying its head in the sand.
But Sabbath is not an escape. Sabbath is not forsaking the world’s problems. Sabbath is for the sake of the world’s problems. Sabbath rest is rest that anticipates action for the sake of life once again.
In our Gospel story where Jesus ignites these Sabbath controversies, it is not because he does not believe or honor the importance of the Sabbath. In fact, it is because he honors it so much that it is offensive. If the Sabbath is about the people being free, he looks around and asks: who is not free right now? On that day, it was the man with the withered hand, bound by his disability in a time when it meant not being about to work or be a whole part of the community. And when faced with bondage and captivity, Jesus gives freedom.
From what do you need Sabbath? What are you captive to? Is it the constant demands and pressures of your work? Is it the pressure of our social media world, always needing to present the perfect image? Is it perhaps something deeper—are you captive to your own insecurities and doubts? Are you captive to fear of change or inaction?
We all have things that hold us captive. That seek to keep us from being the free people of God. “Stretch out your hand,” says Jesus. Stretch out that part of yourself, whatever it is that is keeping you from being whole. From being healed. As we say in the prayer of confession, we cannot free ourselves. But God can. The good news of Jesus is that God comes to free us from the things that bind us. God freed the people from Pharaoh and God continues to set us free today.
The Sabbath is for us. The Sabbath is God’s great gift of freedom to a world desperately in need of it. And as we are freed by God, given the gift of rest by God, we need to ask as Jesus did: who is still bound? Who does not have Sabbath? Rest is essential—even God rested. We rest so that we might join God in love for the sake of the world. Let us thank God for the gift of Sabbath today. And renewed by that gift, let us join God in love and active service. Amen.