“A Holy Sabbath”
(Isaiah 58: 9b-14 & Luke 13: 10-17)
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 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.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
As a child growing up in the era of the 1960s, I can recall the time when the only market open on a Sunday in my hometown in New York was a Jewish delicatessen. It also had a small grocery aisle with a cooler for drinks, eggs, and dairy products. I suspect that something similar was also true of Northeast Ohio during that era. At the height of Christianity’s reign in America, Sunday Laws, also known as Blue Laws, were enacted for the purpose of keeping the Sabbath day holy, a day set aside for worship, and devoted to spending restful time with God and family. After worship Sunday pot-luck luncheons and picnics were common back then, and they often had games and family activities that lasted well into the afternoon. The church, and not the soccer field or local mall, was the center seat of most of each Sunday’s family engagement.
In the late 1960s, as the era of Christendom in America was waning, and as the business world’s desire to engage in commercial activities on Sunday became more vocalized across the country, the issue of enforcing Sunday Blue Laws became a matter left to the individual states to decide. Thus, most states have largely repealed those laws banning commercial activities from taking place on Sundays. The exception that has remained within most states has been the prohibition on the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday mornings before to 12 PM-Noon. Yet, some retail establishments remain closed, and many others do open later on Sundays to allow their workers additional time for family worship and family engagement activities.
Now that the era of Christendom in America has passed, and as the world’s secular weekday life-style has largely overtaken our Sunday Sabbath, how do we keep Sunday as a Sabbath day, holy unto the Lord our God? Keeping a holy Sabbath day is both a scriptural foundation of our faith and a necessary time of rest apart from our daily busyness for spiritual renewal. Keeping the Sabbath day unto the Lord is the fourth Commandment God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai for the good of the Hebrew people. Exodus 20 verses 8-11 state:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
We are reminded here that God labored six God-days in creating our world and all that dwells within it. On the seventh day, God rested. Therefore, the Book of Exodus teaches us that God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, consecrating the Sabbath day as a day of rest. From the beginning, it was designed as a day set apart from life’s busyness and daily work to worship our ever creating God, and as an opportunity to enjoy a restful and life affirming time of self-renewal. The Sabbath day is holy, which means that it is a day that is sacred, dedicated to God, and special. So, how can we have a holy Sabbath in the midst of the busyness of our hectic 21st century world, a world with Sunday work hours, and Sunday Soccer games and other sports commitments for our kids?
I believe that today’s lesson from the Gospel of Luke gives us a clue to finding a solution appropriately fitted for our time. The first thing that our lesson for today reminds us is that Jesus believed in practicing the “spirit” of the Law and Commandments of God; but he was not a stickler about following the “letter” of these same Laws. In our lesson today, Jesus ruffled the feathers of the Jewish Pharisees because he healed an infirmed woman of her disease on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees considered Jesus’ healing of the woman to be a prohibited act of work, but Jesus considered it to be an act of showing her love and mercy. A similar circumstance is recounted in Luke Chapter 6 when Jesus heals a man’s hand on the Sabbath, again disturbing the sensibilities of the Pharisees about observing a restful Sabbath. Jesus reminds them that he is doing what is right on the Sabbath saying, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” And in Chapter 2 Mark’s gospel depicts a scene in which Jesus’ Disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath day, and they were plucking grain to eat as they walked. The Pharisees criticized Jesus and the Disciples for this behavior. Jesus set them straight by telling them directly, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was designed to be a help to people who labored hard for long hours during the week, but the insistence of the Pharisees on following strict regulations had made the Sabbath a burden rather than a blessing, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was created for the benefit of humans and humans for the Sabbath. If we follow in the image of Jesus, doing what is good, kind, and merciful on the Lord’s day, we too will find rich meaning, and keep a holy Sabbath to the Lord, in following the “spirit” rather than being tied down by the “letter” of this Commandment. To do what is good, and to show kindness and love to others is to honor the Lord with a holy Sabbath day.
Pastors have long understood that Sundays, and at the very least Sunday mornings, although they may be sacred, spiritually uplifting and holy times, are most often not our time of Sabbath rest and rejuvenation. Many pastors appointed to serve local churches take a midweek day in which to observe their Sabbath rest, a time apart from the busyness of ministry for rest, personal quality time with family, personal worship, and spiritual renewal. What I am suggesting to you is that the important concept for us to grasp here is our need for taking a regular time of Sabbath rest, a time dedicated to the Lord our God for worship/spiritual growth and for restful renewal. It just may not always be possible to take this time on Sunday or Sunday morning. Even Jesus, when he dwelt among us, after a time of ministering to his followers would take a time of Sabbath rest and renewal with his Disciples, time apart from the busy world, when it was needed and the time accessible. I believe that, especially within the context of life in our 21st century world today, we need to be committed to observing a holy Sabbath of rest, a time dedicated to worshipping our Lord privately and spending time with our families each week. A Holy Sabbath time can be observed mid-week, when we are gathered around a table to share a family meal, and we also share the Holy Scriptures, the verse of a favorite Hymn, a prayer, and the rejuvenating joy of conversation and laughter in our sacred time together with those we love. A Sabbath time of rest and renewal can be whatever time you can creatively imagine, as you are set free from the burden of the letter of the Law in order to follow the spirit of keeping a Sabbath time each week that honors the Lord your God. Saturday or Sunday picnics, even when held at an amusement park, can become a holy restful, quality time of Sabbath celebration if we commit to make them so.
Please understand, dear friends, that I am not advocating for us to ignore the importance of our gathering for Sunday worship with our family as a church community. We, together, are the body of Christ; and as Paul reminded us, we are each also the individual members of that body. There is no substitute for our relationship with one another, or for our walking together supporting one another as we journey and grow together in love and faith. John Wesley, our forefather in faith, taught believers that it is important to be a part of a community of faith because that is where we are held accountable to growing in our faith and putting that faith in action, and also where we share support and forgiveness for our times of human weakness and sin, as well as prayer for our needs. I am saying, however, that in the ongoing activity of our modern world, it is not always possible for our Sabbath day of rest and worship to occur on Sunday, with traditional Sunday morning worship. That does not mean we cannot still celebrate a creative and different kind of Sabbath day, yet one that brings honor and glory to our Lord. To do good, and to show kindness, mercy and love, as Jesus did when he was among us, is honoring to the Lord and keeping a Holy Sabbath. I recently saw a child’s simple version of the Ten Commandments, and number four was written as follows: “Keep God’s day special.” If we follow the direction of our Lord, Jesus, doing what is good, showing mercy, kindness and love to others on the Sabbath day, it will be a day that is special, and one that is holy unto the Lord.