Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on September 6, 2009.
Today most Western Christians, frankly, are in a bit of a muddle on the issue
(of what is permissible on the Sabbath). We all know that the old-style
Sabbath observance as a social phenomenon has gone for good. Even though
we mostly believe that one day off from work in a week is a healthy ideal, it’s
not at all obvious how best, or most appropriately, to achieve it.
—Tom Wright in Mark for Everyone
Of the Ten Commandments, which one is the hardest to keep? For me, as I was thinking about it, a bunch of them cluster at the top and I can only eliminate a couple readily. I am not very artistic and cannot sculpt or mold with clay or anything like that, so I am really not tempted to make a graven image. I can take that one off of the list.
Even though I have used the expression, I would like to kill somebody, I really have not. When I think about what Jesus says about hate and what that really means about killing, and the one Jimmy Carter got into trouble for many, many years ago about adultery in the heart, I realize that I am not off the hook on some of the big ones either. Which is the hardest one to keep?
The one about coveting is tough. That’s a great Bible word, isn’t it? Thou shall not covet. You should not desire or envy the things that your neighbors have. It is really hard when you see your neighbors, co-workers or the students in your classroom with some really cool stuff and not want what they have. When they have it, it makes you think, If they have it, I should have it. Of course, that is the basis of all credit card commercials, lusting for things that somebody else has. I would have to put coveting right up there at the top.
Bearing false witness. I was reading a novel about a trial and the author started off the whole novel by saying, Everybody lies. Attorneys lie, witnesses lie, police lie, jurists lie. Nobody got off the hook so I am not picking on anybody. It was a rather cynical approach, but then when I stopped and thought about it, I realized the times where people had told me something where they left out facts. They told me the truth in words, but they left me with an impression that really wasn’t so, and I thought, This must be pretty hard. Bearing false witness is right up there as one of the really hard ones to keep.
What about Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy? Is that a hard one or is that one of the easy ones that we can put down there at the bottom of the list with the graven images? Is this really hard or is it something that we can list at the bottom and put our minds at ease? What does it really mean? Remember the Sabbath Day, I remember it is Sunday, and keep it holy. That may be a problem there.
If you go back to Exodus, you should know that the children of Israel had been led out of bondage by Moses and they were gathered around Mt. Sinai. If you have ever seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, you can imagine Charlton Heston and the thunder, lightning, and the ten words in the Hebrew tradition coming down and the commandments are given.
Later in the Book of Deuteronomy, they are repeated with just a little variation. Most of the variation is in the commandment on the Sabbath. When you put them together and sift them down to the bare essentials, you get Don’t work and worship. That is how we remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
This seems so elementary. Why do we even need a sermon on this? Why should we even have to think about it? If we go back into the Old Testament, we find that the prescribed punishment for failure to observe the Sabbath was death. This begins to inform us a little more about why the Pharisees go out to conspire with the Herodians, political leaders in their time, to put Jesus to death. He has violated the Sabbath in a way, in their minds, that he deserves to die. This just seems a little over the top to us. Doing something you are not supposed to do or not doing something you are supposed to do on the Sabbath, is that really a matter of life and death? Is it really that important?
We can remember grandparents who had some pretty strict rules. In some really strict houses, you could not read the Sunday paper. You had to save the Sunday paper until Monday.
There is a story of a little girl who had gone to visit her grandparents and she was playing in the front yard. Not wanting to be too negative about it, her grandfather suggested that since it was Sunday that she should play in the back yard. The little girl, being more savvy than her grandfather, said, Isn’t it Sunday there, too?
Casual readers of the New Testament read this passage and the other conflict stories in the second chapter. When confronted, we think that Jesus is giving us permission to do whatever we want to do on the Sabbath.
There are three stories and you will know them. There is the story where the friends were trying to get to Jesus and they could not. They climbed up on the roof, took away part of the roof, and lowered their friend down. Jesus seeing the faith of the friends said to them, Your sins are forgiven. Rise up, take up your pallet, and walk. The problem was that it was on Sunday and that did not go over well.
Just a few verses later, the disciples were walking through the fields. They did not have much with them, and as they walked through the fields, they pulled at the grain and rolled it in their hands to get the excess off, and they ate it. They Pharisees said, You are harvesting and winnowing on the Sabbath and you should not be doing that. Jesus confronted them again and said, People were not made for the Sabbath; the Sabbath was made for us.
Then there is the one that was a set up. It was a sting operation by the Pharisees who were trying to catch Jesus. In all three of the stories, Jesus put down their standard understanding of what they could do on the Sabbath. To us, we think, Anything goes. Jesus was not bound by their conventions, so anything goes. But if you read closer, that is not really what Jesus is saying. Jesus is much more in touch with what it actually says in Exodus and Deuteronomy than we are. Do we realize that when the commandment is given, particularly in Deuteronomy, it says you should not work and your man servant, your maid servant, your oxen, your donkey—none of them should work. That is getting pretty specific. Not only is the command given to whomever is in charge, but it is also given that nobody in the house should work. If you have people from out of town in the house, they should not work either. Nobody works. Do you realize that the people who have no control over their lives, people who have no say about when they have to work and when they can’t work, are given the blessing of God, too. It is not just for the people who have enough to decide, I think I will go on vacation for two months. It is not just for people who have enough say in their management to say, I am going to take a mental health day and just have some rest. But the people who have no say whatsoever, the man servant, the maid servant, even the oxen, will be given a Sabbath so that their lives can be refreshed.
The word, in this particular case, is given so that everything in all creation can have the opportunity to have the rhythm of six days of work and a day of rest. It is God’s gift to creation to be refreshed.
It is a word for the poor. When Jesus sees the different people who are questioned and in trouble, his understanding that he is debating with the Pharisees is not, What can you do? But it is really, What does it mean to care for people who usually don’t get a Sabbath. If you are ill, it never feels much like Sunday, does it? If you have had a withered hand since birth and have not been able to work as other people work, wouldn’t it be a great refreshment whatever day it was for Jesus to perform the act of healing and to allow that man to be made whole? Of course. Jesus is not saying, Anything goes. He is just saying this work of compassion is a part of the rest that God gives, even to the poor.
Lest we think that the Sabbath is only for the poor, for the workaholics among us of which I count myself, for people who have the ability to decide what they are going to do, isn’t it good to have one day a week where we don’t focus on what we are trying to get, what we are trying to make, and what we are trying to earn? Instead of making God play second fiddle all the time, what if there is one day where we say we are going to stop and we are going to reflect on God?
During the French Revolution, in an effort to try to do away with all the customs and not do anything the way it was done before, they decided they were going to take every tenth day. I don’t know how you work that on the calendar. It didn’t take very long before they found out it just wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough because we need the break where we focus our lives upon God and where we receive the peace kind of rest from the obsessions of our lives. God knows what is good for us. God knows what we need.
In the middle controversy where the disciples were plucking grain, Jesus made the statement about the Sabbath was not made for human beings so they could worship it, but the Sabbath was made for us, as a gift to us, so that we can enjoy the best that God has intended for us. It is a day for us to focus on God, to feel connected to God, in the way that we want to. It is a gift, and God said that each and every one of us is worthy of the gift of the Sabbath.
Which one among us always feels fully rested? I would like to meet you and find out your secret. Which one of us always feels fully connected to God? When a couple is having problems, one of the things that a counselor will often do is say, “You need to have a date night,” or “You need to find a way to have some time together.” That is what the Sabbath is. It is a date day with God, to quit focusing on everything else and focus on what God wants for us, what God wants to say to us.
The rest and the connection are part of what, in his goodness, God has given to us, and we are worthy of it. That is what God wants.
I find it ironic that the commandment with the most blessing attached to it is one of the hardest ones to keep. If I don’t kill, that is good but where is there really an overt blessing from avoiding something like that?
The same thing about stealing. If none of us steal, that is a good thing but where is the overt blessing in simply having refrained from stealing? But in the commandment about observing the Sabbath, it is God’s gift laid out for us. In creation, God deemed us worthy of his care, blessing, presence, and the rest that he wants to give us, and all this through the Sabbath. Why isn’t it easier to obey?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.