SERMON: Sabbath

SERMON: Sabbath

A sermon preached on 21st August by Hilary Pearson

Visiting my maternal grandparents when I was a child, I loved to look at a book my grandmother had, which my mother had also loved as a child. It was illustrated with lots of black and white engravings – my favourite was Daniel in the lions’ den. The book was called “Sunday” and was a collection of bible stories and other “improving” stories for children. It was the only book my mother and her sister were allowed to read on a Sunday. My mother insisted on other Sunday practices from her childhood: I particularly remember that my brother and I were not allowed to play outside the house on Sunday; and then only after we had been to Sunday School. Those of you of ‘mature’ years will also remember that most shops had to shut on Sundays. This was the result of legislation, the Sunday Observance Act of 1780. The last of its prohibitions, on the use of public buildings for public entertainment on a Sunday, were only repealed in 2003. These restrictions on Sunday activities had their roots in the Jewish religious practice of Sabbath observance.

Today’s OT and Gospel readings concern the “Sabbath”. The Isiah passage is at the end of a chapter about true fasting. What God means by ‘fasting’ is not abstaining from food while doing as you please, exploiting your workers, or quarrelling. Instead, it is doing justice and freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and to clothe the naked.
Today’s reading goes on to similarly describe ‘true’ Sabbath observance. It should be joyfully observed in order to honour God.

In order to understand our Gospel reading, we need to know a little about the history of the Jewish Sabbath and Sabbath observance. The primary basis for these rules is found in the Ten Commandments, which Exodus 20 sets out as the first commandments brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses after the dramatic events of the gathering of the Israelites at the foot of the mountain. There was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud of smoke covered the mountain before these commandments were given. Today’s reading from Hebrews reading is referring to this event, contrasting the terror created by the giving of the ‘old’ law with the joy created by the new covenant given by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Historically, there has been some different numbering of these commandments depending on how the original, unpunctuated, text was divided up, but in the version used by the Anglican church we are looking at the fourth commandment, which begins: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” This is done by not working on that day, and also not making your family or servants work. The justification for this is found in the Creation story. Genesis 2:2 states: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing: so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” The wording of this verse is reproduced in the wording of the fourth commandment.

There is no reference to the requirement for Jews of Sabbath observance before the Exodus commandments, unlike circumcision which the OT dates back to Abraham. However, Sabbath observance, in particular the avoidance of work, became a very important marker of Jewish faith and identity.

There is a striking historical example this importance. The Apocrypha, which are Jewish writings treated as Scripture by the Catholic and Orthodox churches (but rejected by the protestant reformers), includes the two books of Maccabees. These tell of the conquest of Israel in the second century BC by King Antiochus, a successor to Alexander the Great, and of the resistance movement led by Judas Maccabeus. The king looted the Temple and then tried to stamp out Jewish religion and culture, including requiring the Israelites to sacrifice to idols and desecrate the Sabbath. Many complied, but some of those who resisted formed a community hiding in the desert. Soldiers were sent to attack them – but because the attack was on the Sabbath the resistors refused to fight back, preferring to meet death with a clear conscience. The whole community was massacred.

The prophets also make clear the importance of Sabbath observance. Besides today’s passage from Isiah, Jeremiah watched loads being carried through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath and prophesied that, if the people faithfully observed the Sabbath, the city would prosper; but if they kept on transporting goods on the Sabbath the city would be destroyed by fire. Ezekiel referred to the covenant the people of Israel made with God at Sinai. However, they rebelled and broke the laws they were given, resulting in conquest and exile in Babylon. He singled out desecrating God’s Sabbath as an example of this law-breaking.

When was the Sabbath? Jews measured the day from sunset to sunrise. The Sabbath started at sunset on our Friday and finished at sunrise on our Sunday. That is why Jesus’ body and those of the two thieves had to be taken down before sunset, and why the women had to wait until just after sunrise on the first day of the week to go to the tomb to properly prepare the body for burial.

The basic rule for Sabbath observance set out in the fourth commandment had to be interpreted as Jewish society changed from the early nomadic then pastoral society to being more urban and then having to live with other cultures, such as in the exile to Babylon and the dispersal by the Romans after the rebellion in 70 AD. The job of doing this interpretation fell to the rabbis, particularly when there was no temple and so no priestly caste. The collection of these interpretations, as well as interpretations of other aspects of the Jewish religion, is known as the Talmud.

A good example of this development is the rule about travel on the Sabbath. The command against working was interpreted as including travel. The basis for this was found in the section of Exodus which gave rules about collecting and using manna; on the sixth day the people were to gather a double portion which, unlike the other days, would not go bad overnight. The Lord tells Moses that this is so the people can rest on the seventh day, which is the reason he gave them the Sabbath; God then says: “Everyone is to stay where he is on the seventh day; no-one is to go out.” (Ex 16:29). This was developed into very specific rules about how far you could travel on the Sabbath, known as a “Sabbath day’s journey”. The only use of this term in the Bible is in Acts 1:12, where the journey of the disciples returning to Jerusalem from the Ascension on the Mount of Olives is described as “a Sabbath day’s journey from the city”. Rules developed by the rabbis came to set this distance as 2000 cubits (just over 1000 yards). A basis for this was the statement in Joshua 3:4 that this was the distance between the ark and the people on their march. The rabbis assumed that this was the distance between the tents of the people and the tabernacle during the sojourn in the wilderness, and that they must have been able to travel this distance on the Sabbath to attend the worship of the tabernacle.

For Jews living in a big city, or dispersed in a non-Jewish society, they mostly will not be able to live this short distance from the nearest synagogue. To allow synagogue attendance, the rabbis developed rules which allowed some extension of the Sabbath journey. For example, if, before the Sabbath, you deposited some food 2000 cubits from your home, that counted as a temporary “home” so you could then go a further 2000 cubits beyond that point. A further extension was then devised; a section of the town, or even the whole town, could be treated as your home, so the 2000 cubit limit started at the edge of that section or town. This may have derived from Numbers 35:5 which gave the towns set aside for the Levites an area of pasture extending that distance from the town wall. This scheme led in Orthodox Judaism to the concept of the eruv, which is an area (usually one with a high proportion of Orthodox Jewish residents) which is officially designated and marked by some kind of boundary marker, within which travel on the Sabbath is allowed regardless of distance. The eruv concept then got extended to allow other activities normally prohibited on the Sabbath but which may be necessary for the modern Jew; for example, carrying goods, which term is interpreted to include your wallet. There is an eruv in the London borough of Barnet, as well as in many cities worldwide with an area of significant Orthodox Jewish population.

The Gospels have several stories about Jesus and the Sabbath. Today’s story, the healing of the crippled woman, is only found in Luke. Another healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath which appears in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is that of the man with a withered hand. Mark and Luke both tell how Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law after leaving the synagogue. He then went on to heal many others who came to him at sunset; this timing may indicate that this was after the Sabbath was over. Luke tells of the healing of a man with dropsy at a dinner party in the house of a Pharisee. Mark gives as the first miracle of Jesus’ ministry the driving out of an evil spirit from a man in the synagogue during the Sabbath service; this is the only recorded healing on the Sabbath where Jesus was not immediately criticised for Sabbath-breaking. Perhaps there were no Pharisees present. John has two Sabbath healings, neither of which appear in any other Gospel. The first is the healing of the paralysed man at the Pool of Bethesda, the second of the man born blind.

The only non-healing example of Jesus being accused of Sabbath-breaking, the story of him and his disciples picking and eating ears of grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath, is found in all the Synoptic Gospels. In all three accounts, Jesus answers criticism from the Pharisees by recounting the story from 1 Samuel 21 of how David and his companions ate consecrated bread when they were hungry, concluding with the statement “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Mark adds the statement “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Matthew, whose Gospel is the most clearly directed to Jewish readers, instead adds Jesus making a reference to the acts of the priests in the temple desecrating the Sabbath without being at fault and stating that “…one greater than the temple is here.”

It is important to note that Jesus did observe the Sabbath; there are many references to him attending the synagogue on the Sabbath. What these stories tell us that he did not regard scrupulous performance of all the rules which had become attached to Sabbath observance as overriding the second great commandment: “love your neighbour as yourself”. It is useful to see how Jesus responds in these stories to criticism from the religious authorities. In the grain-picking story we have seen that he referred to Biblical precedent. In John 7, disputing with religious leaders in the temple, Jesus points out that it is lawful to circumcise on the Sabbath, so why are they criticising him for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Another response by Jesus was to point out the hypocrisy of his critics. In today’s reading Jesus directly accuses the synagogue leaders of hypocrisy; they cheerfully look after their animals on the Sabbath but would refuse freedom to a crippled daughter of Abraham. In a story in the following chapter, a prominent Pharisee had invited Jesus to dinner on the Sabbath; Luke says Jesus “was being carefully watched”. There was a man suffering from dropsy present – probably a “plant” to try to catch Jesus out. Jesus obviously realised this because he first asked whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not; on receiving no answer he healed the man. Jesus then went on to ask the assembled company which of them, if his son or ox fell into a well on the Sabbath, would not immediately pull them out. Again, no answer.

How can we apply what we learn from these stories of Jesus and the Sabbath in our lives today? I think the first principle to apply is that, for Jesus, love of neighbour overrode detailed, often man-made, religious rules. Are there religious rules and traditions which we might be tempted to use to avoid helping others? Suppose a widowed friend whose children live a long way away asks you to come with her to a hospital appointment where she will be given the results of tests for cancer, as she will need support if the results are not good. And suppose the date of this appointment is Ash Wednesday, and the timing means you can’t get to the Ash Wednesday service which to you is a very important spiritual event. If you are honest, you are not sure you can face what will happen if the result is bad; it would be easy to use the service as an excuse to get out of being there. But, if you ask: ‘what would Jesus do?’, the answer is clear; go with your friend.

The second important principle set out by Jesus is: ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’. The fourth commandment has two basic rules of Sabbath observance. One is a prohibition: “six days you shall labour and do all your work” – on the Sabbath no work must be done. Why – because if God rested on the seventh day of creation, we creatures obviously need rest from work as well. The modern ‘24/7’ work culture is not just breaking the fourth commandment; it is actually bad for us. I know this from my own experience as a trial lawyer, and I’m sure there are others here who can say the same. But even if we are not going to the office seven days a week, how many of us are slaves to social media and our smart phones all the time? Wouldn’t it be good for both our mental and physical health if we set aside time each week to turn off our smart phones and tablets and not listen to the news? Instead, how about going for a walk and really looking at the natural world around us? When I was a child, at school we learned the poem by the Welsh poet W.H. Davies which begins:
“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare
No time to stand beneath the boughs, and stare as long as sheep and cows”.
Looking at everything on a smartphone screen just long enough to take a photo is no substitute!

The second basic rule is positive: we should keep the Sabbath holy by giving time to God. Use some of that time you have rescued from work or social media by praying, meditating, studying the Bible and reading things which strengthen your spiritual life.

I want to finish with a challenge – to myself as well as to you. Decide on a regular day and time every week to take a “Sabbath rest” from the work of reading emails, looking at social media and following the news on your smartphone. Don’t be over-ambitious, that usually leads to failure. Start small – even half an hour once a week will benefit you. When the chosen day and time arrives, decide what you will do instead. Take a walk, pray for the people and places on your heart, start a system of reading through a book of the Bible. There are lots of things which the Spirit of God can inspire you to do which will make the time holy. I suspect that we will all find that doing this regularly will gradually lead to a lengthening of the time we spend this way and an improvement in our physical and mental health.

I will finish with a Celtic prayer by David Adam, who was vicar of Holy Island for many years:
Take me, Lord, from busy-ness
To the place of quietness
From the tumult without cease
To your great unending peace.
Help me then, my Lord, to see
What I am and ought to be.

God of life
God of peace
God of wonders
That will not cease
God eternal
God everlasting
Come to me.