This Fairhaven Sermon by Peg Bowman explores the history and significance of Sabbath from the Old Testament through Jesus’s life. It starts by summarizing the origins of Sabbath in Genesis, where God rested on the 7th day after creating the world. God intended Sabbath to be a time for all people and even animals to rest together and enjoy freedom.
The sermon then examines how Jesus reclaimed the original purpose of Sabbath, which had become weighed down by legalism. Jesus healed people and picked grains on Sabbath to show that tending to human needs took priority. He modeled Sabbath as a gift of rest and restoration for people, not a burden of rules. The sermon encourages Christians today to observe Sabbath as a time to relax, be with loved ones, enjoy nature, and worship. Keeping Sabbath honors God’s design for rhythm in life.
Well, welcome to the final installation of our three-part series on the Sabbath, and I hope that this sermon series has been a blessing to you. And I would love to have your thoughts and feedback on it, especially if you’ve decided to try out some of the things that we’ve been sharing. But for anyone who has not been here for the first two installations, very, very briefly, in part one of the series, we read from the first chapter of Genesis where God created all things and then rested on the seventh day and made the seventh day holy. And God called all people to rest on the Sabbath or on the seventh day, essentially to join God in enjoying a time of rest together with God.
God also commanded that all the living are to be treated equally on the Sabbath, that is, that on that Sabbath, that is to include family, visitors, foreigners, workers, children, and even farm animals. is invited to rest on that Sabbath. And finally in part one, we saw the people of Israel celebrated the Sabbath with great joy when they were finally set free from slavery in Egypt. And from that time on, Sabbath became connected to freedom.
Freedom from slavery, freedom from tyranny, freedom to be with God and with family. In part two of the series, we saw how Sabbath creeping grew and changed over the years in Israel. We saw how God taught the people of Israel to trust him by not going out to collect manna on the Sabbath when they were living in the wilderness. And God also taught the people of Israel to not hoard that manna.
God gave the commandments that no fire should be started on the Sabbath. And we saw that this included a whole lot of different activities that might involve starting fire. But mostly what it means is that the people who observe the Sabbath need to plan ahead a little bit, because Sabbath begins with a dinner, which usually requires fire. So we kind of plan ahead a little bit.
So food needs to be prepared before the Sabbath begins. We also saw in part two that God commanded farmers to give the land a Sabbath. So every seven years, the land would rest. And finally, in part two, we saw that God commanded a financial Sabbath.
Every seven years, all debts would be wiped out. And God said that God’s people should therefore be generous with what God has given them, and if they did, the nation would be blessed. So this much alone, I think, is enough to persuade me that Sabbath is a blessing worth having, but there’s more. And that’s what we’re going to take a look at today in part three, what happened when Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, started teaching about and living the Sabbath.
So starting with the first reading, Jesus and his disciples, and this was a fairly decent size group by the way, this is not just the 12. There were some friendly Pharisees along with them, and they were all walking along a path through the grain fields on the Sabbath. And as they were walking, the disciples started to pick some of the heads of wheat and eat. And when the Pharisees saw this, some of them said to Jesus, look at what your disciples are doing on the Sabbath, is this lawful? Now if I had been there, I think I would have been asking a different question.
along the lines of whose grain is this that we’re eating? I mean, this must be someone’s field, right? Which means the grain belongs to someone. But the Pharisees did not mention this. And it took a Jewish scholar to explain that back in Jesus’ time, there were very few public roads. So most footpaths would be cut through what we would consider today to be private property.
And many villages in Europe, by the way, are still like this. And if you go hiking in the countryside, you might find yourself on the edge of a cornfield, or even in some cases, surrounded by a bunch of sheep who are wondering what you’re doing there. Anyway, the Jewish tradition was based in the law of Moses, and that was that strangers were to be made welcome to practice hospitality. So it was an unwritten rule back in Jesus’ time that a traveler on a footpath was welcome to eat whatever food they found within arm’s reach.
And the owner of the field was honored to have them share this food. So the problem the Pharisees had was not that the disciples were taking grain that wasn’t theirs. It was that they were picking, that is, harvesting, and then processing. They’d be rubbing the grains together to get the chaff off.
And both of these things were considered work, and therefore, they shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath. Isn’t that right, Jesus? Jesus answers the question in the style of a rabbi, by answering from the law and the prophets. Jesus is not troubled by this conversation, by the way, and neither is the rest of the group, because expressing differences of opinion and posing questions to a master were encouraged in those days as a way of learning. So Jesus’ first word gives a word of prophecy from King David, who was both a king and a prophet.
Jesus says that when David and his friends were hungry, David went into the temple, took the bread of the presence, which was only lawful for priests to eat, and David ate it and gave it to his friends as well. And Jesus draws a parallel between this and himself. Jesus is also a king, and he also has some hungry friends. And the bottom line is, when people are hungry, both then and now, hunger takes precedence over Sabbath law.
Human need is to be taken care of first, even on the Sabbath. This is something that would have been understood by any Jewish person in Jesus’ time, the principle of the importance of preserving human life. This was essentially the prime directive for that culture. Preserving human life ranked above the Sabbath in order of importance, and that included providing food when someone is hungry.
So Jesus’ comment that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath fits in with all the traditions of Jewish law and custom. Then Jesus adds two more teachings. First off, God desires mercy rather than sacrifice. And secondly, that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.
And these teachings are reinforced in the second half of the reading when Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The synagogue leaders, they object to his doing this. And Jesus says to them, if one of your animals is injured on the Sabbath, you help it, right? The Sabbath is meant to be a day of restoration, which is why we rest on the Sabbath, so we can be restored. And helping someone to be restored is a good thing to do on the Sabbath.
In our second reading, we meet a man whose life has been about as tough as life can get. He has been sick for 38 years, unable to move into a pool of water nearby to be healed. His only hope in order to stay alive was to beg for a living and hope that maybe someday someone would help him get into that pool first. And Jesus, seeing this man, says to him, stand up and take your mat and walk.
And he does. What an amazing miracle. People had never heard of miracles like this back then. And there is no doubt that the priests and the religious people in the temple knew who this man was, because he had been there for 38 years.
They would have recognized him. But rather than being happy for him that he’s walking, they ask him, Why are you carrying a mat on the Sabbath day? This isn’t lawful, they said. Never mind that this mat is the only thing this man owns in the entire world. Never mind that the religious leaders are wrong anyway because there is no place in the Sabbath law that says you can’t carry a mat on the Sabbath.
that’s not in there. And after asking around, the religious leaders discover it’s Jesus who performed the miracle. And again, rather than saying, Wow, that’s really fantastic, they attack Jesus for breaking the Sabbath law, which he also did not break. So we know that the whole purpose of the Sabbath is to set people free, free from bondage, free to be whole.
And the argument Jesus has with the religious leaders is not whether to keep the Sabbath, but how to keep the Sabbath. Jesus sticks to the original definition of Sabbath law, which is freedom. So he opposes the people who have made Sabbath keeping a burden. And last but not least, Jesus says to them, my father is still working, and I also am working.
In other words, back then and today as well, Right now is not Sabbath for God. It is for us, but in a human way. But God’s Sabbath has not come around again yet. Yet.
God is working now and so is Jesus, but that second time of rest for God will come someday and it will last forever and it will include us. There was, however, one Sabbath when Jesus did rest. We didn’t read about this today, but there is one time when Jesus did rest, and that was the day after he was crucified. The Gospel of John says that on Good Friday after Jesus died, the religious authorities went to Pilate and asked them to break the legs of all the people on the crosses so that they could take them down before the Sabbath started, and Pilate agreed, but when they came to Jesus, they found he was already dead, and so they didn’t break his legs, which fulfilled the prophecy of David in Psalm 22.
I can count all my bones. After Jesus died, but before Sabbath began, Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body so he could bury it, and he and Nicodemus carried Jesus’ body to Joseph’s tomb and brought spices and a linen wrap to place him in, but it was late in the day, and as the sun went down, The burial traditions of the Jewish people, they didn’t have time to complete them. So they did what they could, made plans to come back and finish later. And Luke’s gospel tells us on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
And so did Jesus. After all he’d been through, Jesus rested on that Sabbath day. And then at the break of dawn on Sunday, Jesus was back. And we have been living in Easter time ever since.
So that’s basically Sabbath in a nutshell from the scriptures. So for us, living in the light of Jesus’ resurrection 2,000 years later, does Sabbath still apply to us? Does Sabbath-keeping still apply to us? John Wesley, founder of Methodism, gave a very passionate yes to this. In fact, he wrote about it, preached about it a lot. Here are just a few of his comments on Sabbath.
John Wesley wrote, The Lord not only hallowed the Sabbath day, but he has also blessed it, so that you are an enemy to yourself if you throw away your own blessing. If you neglect to keep this day holy, it is a day of special grace. And he also wrote, Oh, what mercy has God prepared for you, a peace which the world cannot give, joy that no one takes from you, rest from doubt and fear and sorrow of heart, and love the beginning of heaven. There’s gotta love a man who talks like that.
So how do we, as Americans in the 21st century, keep Sabbath holy? There is no one answer to that question. It will be different for every person and different for every family, but here’s just a handful of thoughts for that. The Bible Project online says that Sabbath is not a commandment that Christians are bound to, which is true. It’s a promise that we’re invited to enjoy.
Sabbath rest is an invitation to prepare for eternity in God’s presence. The website Desiring God says, Especially in a day when many people can work anytime, anywhere, answering emails after dinner and taking calls on the weekend, we might do well even for one day in seven, to say, I worked yesterday and I will work tomorrow, but today I rest and worship. And Jesus said, come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
So in terms of practicalities, here are a few things that I have found helpful as I have practiced observing the Sabbath. And again, practice is the key word. I have not mastered this by a long stretch. I’m still learning how this works.
But first off, you can forget about the blue laws, all right? If indeed you still think about them. Sabbath is not about keeping rules. Rather, I should say whatever rules are out there are meant to help us keep Sabbath well, but they’re not written in stone. The one thing I would say is this, don’t schedule anything on the Sabbath.
No doctors, no car repairs, no pet appointments, no rehearsals, no sports practices. On the Sabbath, avoid anything that requires effort or focus or that might result in frustration. Secondly, set aside 24 consecutive hours, traditionally from sundown to sundown. Most Christians observe Sabbath from Saturday night to Sunday night, that any day of the week will do, whenever you have a day off from work, whatever that may be.
But do try to make it the same day every week so it becomes consistent. Personally, I have been observing Sabbath on Saturdays because I work on Sundays. And if 24 hours seems too long at first, which it probably will, start with six hours. Start with eight hours.
It won’t be long before 24 hours seems too short. but start where you can and build up from there. Third, third, there we go. The day before the Sabbath, pay any urgent bills and then put away the wallet.
Make any urgent phone calls, finish any high priority business and then put away the office machines. And just before Sabbath begins, prepare the evening meal so that it’s ready to eat at sundown. And finally, begin the Sabbath with some kind of a pattern or a habit. And I really like the Jewish pattern.
It’s not required. I can post some examples up on Facebook when I get a minute. But I don’t follow it exactly, but I like their pattern. It starts with lighting candles and saying a prayer.
And if you can gather your family together for a meal, that’s even better. Light the candles together, and then pronounce blessings, pray blessings over the children. Once the candles are lit and all the cares of the world have been placed in God’s hands through prayer, it is time to eat and relax. And so if we’re not working on the Sabbath, what are we doing for that 24 hours? There are lots of possibilities.
Rest, eat, listen to music, read a book, go for a walk with family or friends, spend time with your spouse or partner, pray, ride bikes. I do recommend staying away from the computer, the email and Facebook, and also the TV news. Just stay away from all that. Order out for pizza or Chinese if you like, call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a long time.
Cook if you want to, but only if cooking is restful for you. And of course, attend worship, where we give thanks to God for all of God’s blessings, including the blessing of the Sabbath. So you get the idea. Sabbath is a day to relax.
One website I read said this. Once you’ve kept the Sabbath for any length of time, it is truly painful when you can’t. Somehow your physical and spiritual clock knows when the Sabbath is and longs for it. And I have definitely found this to be true.
Both emotionally and physically, I look forward to Sabbath every week. If you’re already observing the Sabbath, keep on keeping on. And if you’d like to try it, please do. God blesses our efforts in these directions, not only to be obedient to the law, but to claim the blessing of being with God and taking the gift that God has offered to us.
As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for humankind, for us. Sabbath is God’s gift to us. So let’s not miss out on it. Amen.