KEEPING THE SABBATH DAY HOLY
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
August 21, 2016 Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
A good question to ask ourselves about our religion is this: why has it “done so little good in the world?” Why has 2,000 years of Christianity failed to remedy “the universal corruption of human nature?” One difficulty has been Christian discipline; “wherever doctrine is preached where there is not discipline, it cannot have its full effect upon the hearers.”[i] The moral and spiritual practice of Christianity is an ascetic practice fitted for worldly rather that monastic life, and the challenges of asceticism, the discipline of self-denial, are difficult to meet in everyday life. Much of what is passed off as Christianity is a counterfeit, watered-down to accommodate worldly desire. In today’s Gospel, Jesus clarifies one feature of Christian discipline, that is, keeping the Sabbath Day holy. Observance of the Sabbath is a requirement of the moral law the church shares with Judaism and has profound significance for the understanding of justice and spiritual life of the practicing Christian.
Jesus is preaching in the synagogue on the seventh day of the week, the day corresponding to our Saturday. He sees a woman who has suffered from an illness for eighteen years, and touching her, he heals her. Immediately, the woman praises God, but the synagogue leader – who represents the Jewish religion of Israel – interrupts to warn the worshippers that healing is not permitted on the Sabbath. His warning is a challenge to Jesus’ authority, and Jesus responds with a moral and spiritual challenge of his own: as some kinds of work are permitted on the Sabbath, it is also permitted to relieve suffering on the Sabbath.
Notice what Jesus does not say; he does not say a moral and spiritual person can do as she and he pleases on the Sabbath. Jesus does not overturn the 4th commandment, plainly given in Exodus 20:8, which says: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” What Jesus does say is this: religious leadership is a hindrance rather than a help when it misinterprets God’s law and imposes wrong-headed expectations on its assemblies. How then, we might ask, is this relevant to us?
The earliest Christians, of course, would have kept the Jewish Sabbath, and only gradually was the Christian Sabbath shifted from the last day of the week to the first, when the Resurrection of Jesus is remembered. For the same reason, the Christian Sabbath, properly understood, lies outside time; it is the day we experience a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom, the inheritance we claim by being sanctified. We are set aside as a people of God – a church – to overcome the corruption of human nature and recover our original created being. We are set aside to be the example God holds up to the world of what a perfected humanity can look like. God calls the church out of the world for this purpose: to show his love for the world, by living among us as Spirit, so that we might be changed by love into love. As individuals, we change inwardly, guided by our collective moral and spiritual life; as a collective people, we are grounded in an outward expression of our love, which is the life of the church. The Sabbath we keep on Sundays informs the moral and spiritual character of the rest of the week.
Luke has placed his account of Jesus healing the woman between two parables. The Parable of the Mustard Seed, with its picture of the Kingdom “sheltering” birds, comes after the healing, and shows the desired outcome of a healed life. Jesus asks, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19). Christians are planted in the church; as they age, they mature into healthy trees. Jesus himself is the head of the church, and its life is guided by his Spirit. Without the grounding of our collective life as the people of God, our moral and spiritual life will not mature.
The first parable, which is the parable of the fig tree, places the healing in its context:
“And He began telling this parable: “A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. “And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ “And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9).
In this parable, Jesus uses analogy to compare the religious leaders of his time to the fig tree that does not bear fruit; the Jewish leaders have been given a second chance to learn from Jesus. We remember how once before they confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath:
“On another Sabbath he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shriveled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:6-11).
Now we hear why Luke has placed his account of the woman’s healing in between the two parables; from the first parable we learn what the problem is: the religion of the synagogue isn’t bearing fruit. From the second we see how the world would look if it was: God’s people would be thriving, and the world would find its refuge among them. The story about the woman’s healing is a story about second chances: the religious leaders must address the failure of their ways or they and it will lose their authority. Indeed, this is what we will see happen, as first-century Christians are eventually established outside of the synagogues, the Jerusalem temple is destroyed, and the church replaces the synagogue as the hope of the world.
Our question, however remains: why has the church, like the synagogue before it, “done so little good in the world?” This is not to say that some good hasn’t come out of it, but clearly, “the universal corruption of human nature” remains a threat to the survival of creation. As individuals, we find a measure of practical direction: we too need to take advantage of our second chances, that is, the opportunities God gives us to grow in self-knowledge and righteousness, as we perfect our expressions of love. Let us briefly consider, then, how we regard our Sunday Sabbath; do we plan our week around dedicating Sundays corporately and individually to our Christian life? Here is what Moses taught:
“Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:9-11).
The Sabbath is holy for many reasons; it is holy because we set it aside for the necessary acts of piety: prayer, Scripture reading, Holy Communion, and Christian fellowship. To keep the Sabbath is an all-day affair. It is also a day, as Jesus shows us, for acts of mercy; justice and mercy were always intended as a Sabbath practice:
“Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves” (Exodus 23:12).
On the Sabbath, no person is to be exploited. Strangers are to be offered hospitality; and servants are to be excused from their duties. We are to keep the Sabbath Day holy by re-dedicating all our being – individually and collectively – to the restoration of the goodness in which we were created; on the Sabbath, we go back to Eden, remembering “By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done” (Genesis 2:2).
The world would be unimaginably more horrific were it not for the presence of God alive among us in the church he has called out of the world. Indeed, human nature has been, to some extent, ‘remedied,’ because individually we are initiated into the collective Kingdom of God Jesus inaugurated. The evil we confront today is a remnant of a once muscular force, which survives off the greed, cruelty, and fear with gratify resistant, selfish desires and prolong a tragic absence of love. As increasingly misguided religious leaders conform their teachings to worldly standards, we lose touch with the inward, moral and spiritual necessities of religion; more and more, we resemble people who, having learned nothing, are like the fig tree Jesus sees by the side of the road on his way to Jerusalem, on the Monday of Holy Week:
“Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered” (Matt 21:19).
In the Parable of the Fig Tree, the mercy granted to the vineyard keeper has an expiration date: a time comes when there are no more second chances.
The Gospel does not give us permission to ignore God’s commandments. Are we to steal and kill, as we might like? Why should we be exempt from this one commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, but not from the nine others? Or do we think each of us, individually, can decide when and how to keep God’s commandments? Until we keep the outward forms of the law, we cannot follow the inward moral and spiritual process of purification that perfects our image of love. In the Book of Exodus, God tells Moses:
“But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).
Let us pray that God will find us worthy of being sanctified. Amen.
[i] John Wesley, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” in John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, ed Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 550-557