2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018
“What’s the Point of the Sabbath?”
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is the First Lesson previously read from Deuteronomy chapter 5 in which Moses encouraged the people to keep the Sabbath Day holy.
My dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Many days of the week seem to have their own personality, their own “feel” to it if you will, and you all know and remember what those feelings are like. First, there is Monday. Monday is back-to-work day, you know, back to the “grind.” Wednesday is called “hump day,” getting over the hump of the first part of the week and now beginning to move towards the weekend. Wednesdays are not as bad as Monday, but they are nowhere nearly as good as…Friday. Everyone likes Friday. “TGIF” and all that. Friday…that wonderful threshold for Saturday, and so far away from Monday you cannot even remember Monday anymore.
And then there’s today. What about this day – Saturday/Sunday – the day of worship, the day we gather together as God’s people? What kind of day is this? What personality, what purpose, what traits does our worship observance have? Our readings today center on the Sabbath…so, what is the Sabbath? Why and how do we keep the Sabbath? What’s the point of the Sabbath anyway?
The first actual mention of Sabbath is during the Exodus and the Israelite wandering in the desert. The Israelites were to pick up extra manna on the 6th day of the week because on the 7th day of the week – the Sabbath Day – they weren’t supposed to gather any. Exodus 16:23, the first mention of the Sabbath, reads, “(Moses) said to them, ‘This is what the LORD commanded: Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning.'”
Moses was instructing the people there was to be a day of the ceasing of work in remembrance of when God rested after the 6 days of creation. In addition, Moses added in our First Lesson for today, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” The Israelites took this injunction, which later was given as the Third Commandment, very seriously. In Numbers 15, an Israelite man is observed gathering firewood on the Sabbath and the assembly of Israelites stoned him for working on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36).
But…you worked today too, didn’t you? I bet many of you showered and shaved and maybe fixed breakfast, got in the car, and maybe even drove a car (gasp!). That sounds like work to me! But I don’t see anyone gathering stones. So, to what extent is the Sabbath a day of rest versus work? Can we work if everyone else works too? Is it okay to work on the Sabbath or not? What’s the point of the Sabbath?
In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark 2, Jesus and the disciples were simply picking the heads off of grain stalks. Not exactly re-roofing the temple, mind you. But the Pharisees considered this work and then called Jesus out wondering why they were “working,” which was unlawful on the Sabbath.
This was not the only time that Jesus and the Pharisees would have this discussion. 6 times Jesus is accused of unlawfully working on the Sabbath. 5 of those 6 times Jesus is healing someone on the Sabbath. But that’s how the Pharisees and many other pious Jews felt the Sabbath should be kept. But get this…in a strange twist, for them the Sabbath was a day of work: their “non-working” was meant to work hard to keep rules and observances by which they thought God would accept them as holy. They worked really hard at not working in order to please God! Naturally they were offended when Jesus’ disciples didn’t seem to keep those rules as they thought they should be kept.
But don’t we also slip into this attitude? In our Christian piety, we imagine that somehow our church attendance, our prayers, our standing, kneeling, and sitting, our offerings, our manner of dress, our service in the church are what make us “good Christian people.” “I’m in church almost every Saturday/Sunday…I’m keeping the Sabbath.” Not necessarily. Keeping the Sabbath holy has more to do with attitude than appearance.
That kind of attitude poisons our relationship with God. What it does is turn our Sabbath into a “workday.” It makes God our boss and us the employees. And so, out of obligation, we drag ourselves to church and worship becomes our work to appease Him, to make God happy. Salvation becomes our “paycheck.” This is really a misguided, misunderstanding of the Sabbath. And so, what is the point of the Sabbath? God’s intention for the day of Sabbath is three-fold: (1) to rest, (2) to recall His redemption by hearing His Word, and (3) to devote the Sabbath to holy words, holy works, and holy living (Large Catechism).
First of all, the Sabbath is a day of rest. “Rest” means to stop working. God knows that his creation – people and animals – cannot work 7 days a week all year long. Both people and animals require rest. God wanted to give us a rest from work so that He could do the giving, just like the Manna in the desert. Today, God feeds you spiritually.
Secondly, the point of the Sabbath was for God’s people to reflect on our redemption through hearing God’s Word of His promised salvation. Remember that passage from Deuteronomy? God commanded the Israelites to remember his mighty acts of salvation; to remember how He had saved them from their time of slavery. Keeping the Sabbath consists of gladly hearing God’s Word and learning it and being reminded that we sinners have been saved from our slavery to sin by our Lord Jesus and His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave. The truth of our salvation by God’s grace through our faith in our Savior Jesus Christ is to be clearly articulated in our liturgy, our hymns, and in sermons. These aspects of our worship point to Christ, who is our Sabbath, our rest, our salvation, our hope, our life, our joy, our gladness.
Lastly, the Sabbath is not primarily kept by refraining from any kind of work. Jesus Himself dispelled that myth. Instead, the Sabbath is kept by keeping the day holy; devoting it to holy words, holy works, and holy living. It’s setting aside a day to rest and reflect on the gifts of salvation that we have through Christ Jesus and to thank Him for that through our worship and praise. God’s command to worship is not His ordering us around as our boss; it’s the commandment of the One who with a mighty arm on the cross won salvation and rescued us from sin and death. He is the gracious and merciful Giver who bestows this salvation through his Word, and our part is to hear it and learn it – to believe that our sins are forgiven, that Christ has died for us. We do that when we stop on the Sabbath and hear and learn God’s Word.
Let us keep the Sabbath in joy and true rejoicing. Let us gladly hear God’s Word and learn it on this Day of Rest and Gladness, for that, my friends, is the point of the Sabbath.