Sabbath

In the name of God – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.  Amen.

I arrived in Nova Scotia about the time Sunday shopping laws were changed.

I promise you, I had nothing to do with that.

And as a result, I’ve been involved in my share of conversations about Sabbath keeping.  Sports, shopping, you name it – a good many things seem to have encroached on the ‘holiness’ of our Sabbaths in recent years.  It is easy to blame others – the government – society – or (especially) those who can’t, don’t, or won’t consider devotion to God as important as all the other things they do, but the community of faith has much to answer for as well.  Not that we are always able to change government policy, but our approach to Sabbath keeping has had an influence on the general attitude toward faith, toward the church, and toward God.  And, of course, this is revealed in this morning’s lessons as a problem as old as faith – as old as time.

The message that Isaiah delivers on God’s behalf is bleak; the people have distorted worship; abused Shabbat; and they wonder why God seems not to notice their prayers…

“Call my people to account for their transgressions…” – and so it begins; a description of what worship and devotion has become.  Fasting that leads to wrangling and strife; sackcloth and ashes worn for effect – outward displays of penitence, rituals that do not lead the penitent to any kind of transformation, and the Lord poses the troubling, rhetorical question, ‘Is THIS the fast I choose…?’  Through the prophet, God calls the people to recognize the state of the world, and to react!  The vision may be God’s vision, but is seems that we have a part to play in bringing that vision to reality; loose the bonds of the oppressed (the fetters of injustice, says one translation); “share your food with the hungry, take the homeless poor into your housethen [and only then] will your light break forth…”; then, if you call, “the Lord will answer.”

Our reading, from the middle of chapter 58, describes the shape of the world in which God’s people take note of such things.  Their needs will be met, they will recover their strength, they will find God’s favour and blessing.  The people are desperate for such hope.  Remember, Isaiah addresses a people in complete disarray, making their way back from generations of exile; their traditions are in tatters, their institutions, corrupt; their hope of a glorious return has not been realized, and the solution is to ‘honour the Sabbath day and keep it holy…’

 All this talk of “Sabbath” in Scripture should not be ignored.

And throughout the land in congregations like these, dozens of you will say “I told you so!”  Shut down the stores, forgo all entertainment, cancel the NFL (no great loss in my opinion…).  Enforce the law and all will be well.  But it’s not that simple, is it.

The problem was never with ‘keeping the Sabbath’, the problem is how Sabbath is kept – then and now, the difference is crucial.

Some of you have told me of Sunday habits “back in the day” – Sunday School (for everyone) and church too, sometimes twice!  Preparation services before communion, not to mention catechism classes for those ready to join the church, and suppers and pageants and many active ‘church related’ groups; ; explorers, CGIT, PYPS – Life revolved around the activities and programs offered by the church throughout the week. But on Sunday, once worship was done, the desire to ‘honour the Sabbath and KEEP it holy’ continued to the close of the day – which meant, for some, no games, no radio, perhaps some hymns in the parlour, and family suppers – but the sabbath, outside of worship, was defined (in some of your memories), by what could NOT be done – all designed to ‘honour God’ – all in the name of ‘Tradition!”  Perhaps there was good sense in a day of rest when the work week was so full and so often perilous; and there is virtue in quiet, reflective meditation (and not just on ‘The Sabbath’), but inactivity in the name of the law – stopping for the sake of tradition and rule-keeping is not the same as Sabbath.  Listen to what the Lord would say through the prophet:

“…if you call the sabbath a delight, and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord…” (Isaiah 58: 13-14 -NRSV)

If you call the Sabbath a delight – imagine, a day devoted to joy – imagine a day that saw hurts healed, and wrongs righted; a day that fed us body, mind and soul – not a day of restriction, but a day of open-armed, open hearted, celebration – would that not transform both the church and the society served by the church?

Jesus had his own ‘Sabbath-keeping’ issues; eating rather than fasting (and too often, eating with the wrong people!); healing when he should have taught (or listened) – and his nerve; teaching that “the Sabbath was made for humans, and not humans for the Sabbath.”  Small wonder he voices frustration from the midst of Luke’s gospel this morning.

The nit-pickers would have Jesus observe this woman’s misery; do nothing about it but pray.  (“There are six days on which work ought to be done – come on one of those and not the sabbath day.”)  Hypocrites is what Jesus calls them, and not without reason.  They stand guilty of the same misguided sense of holiness that plagued the people of Isaiah’s day. And this is where Jesus steps in with his challenge.  In sympathy with the prophet (Isaiah) he asks the religious establishment to consider the effect of their Sabbath keeping rules (traditions); Shouldn’t worship honour God?  Shouldn’t we honour the things which God honours, such as justice, mercy, and compassion?  Shouldn’t our observations – our traditions – reflect the joy and life that are God’s constant and renewing gifts to humanity? What honours God; grudging obedience, or joyful rest and refreshment?

Jesus, being Jesus, makes a very practical comparison: ‘Don’t you see to the basic needs of even your animals on the sabbath?  Do they not need to be whole, refreshed in order to serve?’    And then, to illustrate his point, a miracle!  With a word – by the power of God’s love,  Jesus stops this woman’s suffering – does that not honour God?

The simple answer is “of course it does” – but how do we make use of this miraculous lesson?  Can we honour the spirit of the law without slavish devotion to the letter of the law?  The simple answer is “of course we can”, because we take our example from Jesus.  Does our activity build up, or tear down?  Do our actions feed only desire for our own “happiness”, or does what we offer bring joy and wholeness to the family, the community, to creation?

Suddenly, you’ll notice I’ve gone beyond the ‘simple answer’, because there’s nothing simple in the desire to honour tradition while living toward an uncertain future – the decision to follow the Risen Christ commits us daily to making difficult choices for the sake of God’s glory.  Those may not always fit with our traditions; our choices will frustrate those for whom simple answers are the safe bet.  Sunday shopping?  I’m ambivalent.  Sabbath keeping?  I’m in favour, but let us be sure that our Sabbath keeping honours the loving, joyful God who conquered darkness and gloom by the light of resurrection.

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One Response to “Sabbath”

  1. Rachael Russell Porter Says:

    Very well said.

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