Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
“On a Sabbath….” So, begins one of the most shocking stories in the Gospels. Jesus is on the road with his disciples, making his way toward Jerusalem. Like any good Jewish male, he comes to the local synagogue for Sabbath worship. Because he is recognized as a rabbi, Jesus is invited to read the Scriptures and to teach. As he is doing so, his eyes fall upon a bent-over woman, and the plot thickens.
The woman represents double trouble in this story.
To the ruler of the synagogue, and those religious leaders who cared first and foremost about keeping the Sabbath rules, the woman is big trouble. A woman alone, not owned by a husband—she is the lowest of the low. She doesn’t even have a name. A woman in the synagogue, during worship, is out of place. Perhaps she is late because of her crippled condition, and shows up unintentionally during the service, instead of getting there early enough to go behind the screen that kept the women in their place. Or, maybe, in this case, the women are seated above the men in a women’s gallery, and she has been unable to climb the stairs, and so, is shuffling around in the back of the room, trying not to be seen. She is there, in the synagogue, however out of place she is, and she is an embarrassment to everyone who sees her. Even if it weren’t for the breaking of the rules, they wish they didn’t have to look upon her twisted and crippled body. What is she doing here?
The woman brings with her another kind of trouble, and only Jesus, in this shocking story, seems to see it. As this poor bent woman shuffles into the synagogue, someone else comes with her—Satan. Jesus recognizes that it is Satan who has twisted this woman’s body and kept her captive to disease and shame. What is Satan doing in the church?
Jesus sees the person inside the crippled body. He calls her over to him. It is unthinkable! Jesus is very probably seated on the leader’s bench. Now, the woman is not only present in worship, but she stands in front of the men. Jesus likely stoops down to look her in the eye, as we would in order to speak to a child. The problem with Jesus is that he treats this embarrassing creature like a person. Repulsive as she is, and a woman, Jesus does what may be unforgivable to the leader of the synagogue: he touches her. Rabbis didn’t associate with women, much less touch them. If that weren’t enough, Jesus lays his hand upon her, blessing her, and she is healed, standing straight and praising God. In the receiving of the blessing, this once bent woman is not only healed—she is elevated to the status of a male, the only ones who received blessings in Jewish and secular culture.
It is unthinkable, untheological, and utterly without precedent, until Jesus came on the scene. The problem with Jesus is that he dares to see the Sabbath in another way than do the religious leaders—a day for healing.
“It can’t be so!” So says the ruler of the synagogue. The man is so irate over Jesus’ actions that he completely misses seeing that through Jesus, God has brought a healing miracle. Perhaps unwilling to get in Jesus’ face, the man uses his well-honed skills in triangulated communication to stir up the crowd. In response, Jesus addresses all those who put the rules and keeping them above the true meaning of the Sabbath. In Jesus’ eyes, there is no better thing to do on the Sabbath than “to make the wounded whole,” and, “to heal the sin-sick soul” (From There Is a Balm in Gilead, African American Spiritual). If rabbinic Midrash said that an animal could be cared for on the Sabbath, so much more a human being, a daughter of Abraham.
As the people of God, Israel was given the seventh day to be set-aside for God. They were instructed not to work, imitating God who completed work on the seventh day of creation. Ceasing work in ancient cultures was originally a holiday, a day to enjoy life. The day was transformed and hallowed by God, and thus the holiday became a holy day. It became a time-out-of-time, a holiness-in-time, in which God’s people could wait to hear the small voice of God, find joy and gladness in God’s presence, and rest from labor. It became the “day of delight” that is described in the Isaiah passage for today, and Israel celebrated it as part of its communal life. It was a way of measuring time and celebrating a healthy rhythm in one’s life: time spent working was put into perspective and given new meaning when time was also set aside to enjoy God’s presence.
About the time of Ezra, when the third temple was built, and continuing into the exile and the years between the testaments, rabbis and scribes began to interpret what it means to keep the Sabbath. They developed 39 categories of rules to define “work.” For example, even picking up a tool on the Sabbath meant one was working. Penalties were established, and Sabbath-breaking could lead to excommunication and even death. Keeping the rules became the focus of the religious leaders, and Sabbath became a burden rather than a delight. It was this twisting of God’s intention and the turning of delight into drudgery that Jesus confronted again and again in his ministry.
One wonders how Jesus would respond to the frenetic way we celebrate—or ignore—Sabbath-keeping in modern America. Now, it is we who bring trouble in this story. Certainly, Jesus would be distressed. For us, the misunderstanding has not to do with keeping the rules, but that there are no rules at all. The last of our attempts to keep one day out of seven different in our secular culture went out with the easing of the blue laws a couple of decades ago. The meaning of Sabbath rest in today’s world has been so distorted that even Christians barely give it a salute when we carve out a scant hour on Sunday morning to think about God. It is not about our not keeping a day, however, but about our not measuring the time of our lives correctly. Our lives have been taken captive to busy-ness. We struggle to find quality time with children and spouses and friends, and barely think about where God fits into this crazed routine of ours.
Jesus calls to us today, urging us to recognize the built-in rhythm, of work and rest, of prayer and play for the living of our lives. How we do that is a private matter, but it is the concern of the church community also. In worship, we can begin by providing small times of silence in our extraverted services. We can teach people to sit in silence and wait to hear God’s still small voice. Through education or the provision of spiritual direction, we can help people find their own ways of setting time aside just to be with God, and to take delight in God’s presence. In so doing, we will recreate in our own lives, and the lives of our people, that same holiness-in-time that God created and blessed in the beginning. We will be blessed, and we will find the joy in God that God intends for us—God’s beloved people.
This episode is part of the great journey narrative (Luke 9:51–18:14) and is unique to Luke. It is the second of three Sabbath healings (6:6–11; 14:1–6) and weaves together a miracle story (vv. 10–13) with a controversy story (vv. 14–17). The synagogue setting and Jesus’ words about setting free a person who is bound evoke the episode that inaugurates Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth (4:16–30), where he uses the words of the prophet Isaiah to describe his own mission. Just as those words provoked a divided response—first amazement at his gracious words (4:22), then fury and the attempt to hurl him over the cliff (4:28–29)—so this synagogue healing ends with a divided response (v. 17) and invites the hearer to choose Jesus’ way.
In the first half (vv. 10–13) the woman is the center of the story. The seriousness of her disability is emphasized, which serves to highlight the potency of Jesus’ healing power. She has been bent double for eighteen years, which would have been approximately half her life, given the short life span of people in the first century. Despite the hardship her disability would pose for walking and for maneuvering in a crowd, the woman comes to the synagogue, presumably to pray. This text belies the common notion that women and men worshiped separately in the first century. There is no archaeological evidence for this; segregation of men and women in synagogue worship dates to a much later time. In fact, there is inscriptional evidence that women were not only present with men in early synagogues, but that they held important ministerial positions, including archisynagōgos, leader of the synagogue.
The text does not say that the woman came seeking healing from Jesus. He takes the initiative, sees her, calls her, lays hands on her, and declares that she is freed of her infirmity. The effect in those instances, as here, is the assertion that it is God who frees the person. That this divine freeing power is understood to be mediated by Jesus becomes clear from the ensuing controversy. The response of the woman is immediate: she stands upright and continues to glorify God. The woman has come to worship God and continues to glorify God (the verb edoxazen, “glorified,” in v. 13 carries the connotation of continued action). Moreover, the visible manifestation of God’s power in her leads others to rejoice at such glorious deeds done by Jesus (v. 17).
The reaction of the synagogue official in the second part of the story stands in stark contrast to the woman’s praise (v. 13) and the crowd’s acclamation (v. 17). A play on the word dei, “it is necessary,” in verses 14 and 16 underscores the conflict. The synagogue official argues from the necessity of working on the six other days (v. 14); Jesus insists on the necessity of God’s saving plan being realized (v. 16). Jesus criticizes the hypocrisy of his opponents (as also 6:42; 12:1, 56), and argues from the lesser to the greater: if an ox or an ass, who is bound only a few hours, can be loosed on the Sabbath, how much more this daughter of Abraham and Sarah, fettered for eighteen years? Another wordplay strengthens the ironic contrast: one loosens (lyein) an ox or ass (v. 15); so, must the woman be loosed (lyein, v. 16). A compound form of the same verb, apolyein (set free), introduced the wordplay in verse 12.
This is a story that provides a vivid image of liberation for any who are weighed down with chronic illness or with oppressive burdens of any kind. It has provided a powerful image for women struggling to be freed from more than eighteen centuries of domination in patriarchal worlds. But there are also pitfalls in this narrative. With a Jewish religious leader cast as Jesus’ opponent, a preacher will want to be wary of interpreting the story in a way that could foment anti-Judaism. It is important for the preacher to emphasize that Jesus was an observant Jew who did not arbitrarily disregard Sabbath observance, but interprets it differently from his adversaries. Jesus reasons from commonly accepted exemptions that some situations take precedence over others. The question is not whether to keep the Sabbath, but how to keep it. When the purpose of Sabbath rest is to be free to praise God, Jesus deems it necessary to free a bound woman so as to do precisely that. Just as Jesus challenges the synagogue leader to focus on the intent of the Law, it would be well for those Christians who tend toward legalistic interpretations of Scripture and tradition to hear a similar summons. A preacher might urge that instead of seeing a broken rule, we must see the broken person as of first importance.
Another danger in this story for a church and society that is struggling for gender equality is that it casts a woman in the role of victim and the male Jesus as the one who brings healing. If the hearer identifies with the male Jesus, then Christian identity is established as male and women believers are either left out or have to read as if they were male. If women identify with the woman as victim, the story can reinforce a dependency on males for well-being. Women who have suffered may also internalize the accusations of the synagogue leader. He blamed the woman for the broken Sabbath and interpreted her coming to the synagogue as deliberately looking for a cure that day (v. 14). In fact, the text does not say why the woman came. We have suggested that she came simply to praise God. It was Jesus who initiated the healing, not she (v. 12).
The preacher may want to emphasize that the text presents this healing as a matter of necessity in the present moment. The point at issue in the text is not the liberating of the woman, it is the timing. It is true that in terms of enduring her disability, the woman could have waited one more day. But Jesus is urgent that now is the time of salvation. Repeatedly in Luke there is a necessity about the present moment as the time to accept God’s liberation (e.g., 4:21; 19:9; 23:43). Moreover, the ability of the whole people of God to be holy and glorify God is at stake. While there is any brokenness in the community, to that extent the entire people need healing. This woman is a “daughter of Abraham” and Sarah, part of the people to whom God is bonded in covenant. “Daughter of Abraham” is a rare phrase. It occurs only here in the biblical tradition and rarely in rabbinic writings. In Luke 19:9 Jesus calls Zacchaeus a “son of Abraham” when he announces that salvation has come to him. In both that episode and this one Jesus initiated an encounter with a marginal member of the community and insisted that they belong now as fully integrated members. In our day many, like the woman bent double, have learned to live with the burdens of sexism, racism, economic inequity, etc. They have found a way to accommodate themselves to the system in such a way that they can still hobble their way in to give their praise to God. This Gospel can help believers realize the urgency of acting for liberation now. There will always be objections. Is there ever a convenient time for liberation? (Reid, B. E. In R. E. Van Harn (Ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol pp. 393–397)
Let’s, for a change, imagine that you are on the edge of the crowd that has followed Jesus so far. You haven’t heard everything and haven’t understood all you’ve heard, but you think you’ve got the general drift of it all and find it both compelling and alarming.
In you go with Jesus to the synagogue on this sabbath. What do you see, and what sense does it make to you?
You see—everybody sees—this poor woman. She was probably a well-known local character. In a village where everyone’s life was public, people would know who she was and how long she’d been like this. Luke says she had ‘a spirit of weakness’, which probably means simply that nobody could explain medically why she had become bent double. Some today think that her disability had psychological causes; some people probably thought so then as well, though they might have said it differently. Maybe somebody had persistently abused her, verbally or physically, when she was smaller, until her twisted-up emotions communicated themselves to her body, and she found she couldn’t get straight. Even after all the medical advances of the last few hundred years, we are very much aware that such things happen without any other apparent cause.
In the synagogue, though, you can see an unspoken power struggle going on. There is a synagogue president in charge of the meeting, but all eyes are on Jesus—which puts both of them in an awkward spot in terms of protocol. Jesus, however, doesn’t wait. A word, a touch, and the woman is healed. The synagogue president, thoroughly upstaged, lets his anger take refuge in an official public rebuke, rather as if a policeman tried to arrest someone because their football team had just beaten his.
You, as the observer, understand all this. It’s bound to be difficult for the local village hierarchy when someone like Jesus comes into town, and when he does extraordinary things in the synagogue it will inevitably cause a fuss. But listen to Jesus’ answer. Think about what you’ve heard on the journey up to this point: the devastating analysis of what was wrong with Israel as a whole, the warnings of what lay ahead. Now hear what Jesus has to say and ponder what it might mean.
‘Double standards!’ Jesus declares. ‘You do one thing yourself and yet want to stop me doing something which is no different, and even more appropriate. This is just play-acting. You are quite happy (he must have known well enough what passed as legitimate sabbath practice and what didn’t) to untie an animal that needs water; how much more should I untie this woman—Abraham’s daughter, bound by the Satan? And what better day than the sabbath?’
And then there are the little sayings, which Luke at least regards as explanations of what has just happened. The kingdom is like a tiny seed producing a huge tree—which can then accommodate all the birds in the sky. One action in one synagogue on one sabbath; what can this achieve? But when Jesus sows the seed of the kingdom, nobody knows what will result. Or the kingdom as a small helping of leaven, hidden apparently in the flour. It seems insignificant and ineffectual; but before long the whole mixture is leavened. One healing of one woman—but every time you break the satanic chains that have tied people up, another victory is won which will go on having repercussions.
Ponder what you have seen and heard. Would you go up to Jerusalem following this man? It might be risky. It might be unpredictable. But where else would you go? (Wright, T. (2004). Luke for Everyone (pp. 165–167). London)
This is the last time we ever hear of Jesus being in a synagogue. It is clear that by this time the authorities were watching his every action and waiting to pounce upon him whenever they got the chance. Jesus healed a woman who for eighteen years had not been able to straighten her bent body; and then the president of the synagogue intervened. He had not even the courage to speak directly to Jesus. He addressed his protest to the waiting people, although it was meant for Jesus. Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; technically healing was work; and, therefore he had broken the Sabbath. But he answered his opponents out of their own law. The Rabbis abhorred cruelty to animals and, even on the Sabbath, it was perfectly legal to loose animals from their stalls and water them. Jesus demanded, ‘If you can loose an animal from a stall and water it on the Sabbath day, surely it is right in the sight of God to loose this poor woman from her infirmity.’
The president of the synagogue and those like him were people who loved systems more than people. They were more concerned that their own petty little laws should be observed than that a woman should be helped.
One of the great problems of a developed civilization is the relationship of the individual to the system. In times of war the individual vanishes. Men and women cease to be individuals and become members of such and such an age group or the like. They are lumped together, not as individuals, but as living ammunition that is, in that terrible word, expendable. They become little more than statistics. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, afterwards Lord and Lady Passfield, were two great economists and statistical experts; but H. G. Wells said of Beatrice Webb that her trouble was that ‘she saw men as specimens walking’. Martha Beatrice Webb, Baroness Passfield, FBA (née Potter; 22 January 1858 – 30 April 1943), was an English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer. It was Webb who coined the term collective bargaining. She was among the founders of the London School of Economics.
In Christianity the individual comes before the system. It is true to say that without Christianity there can be no such thing as democracy, because Christianity alone guarantees and defends the value of the ordinary, individual man or woman. If ever Christian principles are banished from political and economic life there is nothing left to keep at bay the totalitarian state where individuals are lost in the system, and exist, not for their own sake, but only for the sake of that system.
Strangely enough, this worship of systems commonly invades the Church. There are many church people—it would be a mistake to call them Christian people—who are more concerned with the method of church government than they are with the worship of God and the service of others. It is all too tragically true that more trouble and strife arise in churches over legalistic details of procedure than over any other thing.
In the world and in the Church, we are constantly in peril of loving systems more than we love God and more than we love one another.
Jesus’ action in this matter makes it clear that it is not God’s will that any human being should suffer one moment longer than is absolutely necessary. The Jewish law was that it was perfectly legal to help someone on the Sabbath who was in actual mortal danger. If Jesus had postponed the healing of this woman until the next day no one could have criticized him; but he insisted that suffering must not be allowed to continue until tomorrow if it could be helped today. Over and over again in life some good and kindly scheme is held up until this or that regulation is satisfied, or this or that technical detail worked out. The one who gives twice gives quickly, as the Latin proverb has it. No helpful deed that we can do today should be postponed until tomorrow. (Barclay, W. The Gospel of Luke [2001, Louisville, KY] p 209–211)
We allow some many things in our lives to get between ourselves and God. Strangely enough we allow even the church to get between us and God. When Jesus healed the woman, he got in trouble with the law. We have always let petty rules get between us and God. Pettiness is often a barrier to God.
Another barrier to God is letting humanity take away the wonder of the individual human being. Humanity verses Human Beings can be a serious barrier to our actions with God. We hide behind institutions. But that means we also hide from God.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
“Every day, God grants us the precious gift of life. Yet every day, we squander it with our selfish, petty concerns, rather than helping someone as He helps us.”
― Kirn Hans, Behind My Mask
“The creation of man is evidence for the love of God, the preservation of man is evidence for the patience of God, and Christ is evidence for the forgiveness of God. It is when we are wrapped up in our own little peeves that we begin to displace His benevolence with malevolence.”
― Criss Jami, Killosophy
“Don't let the pettiness of life prevent you from enjoying God's plenty.”
― Bernard Kelvin Clive
In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the RA.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, "I've no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I'm a religious man too. I know there's a God. I've felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that's just why I don't believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who's met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!" Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. (Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis https://www.dacc.edu/assets/pdfs/PCM/merechristianitylewis.pdf)
While we often shoot for grandeur, we frequently land at petty—an offshoot of the French word petit, to be specific. Petty has been a belittling word; calling someone petty would historically have been a derogatory statement. It meant you thought that person was concerned with small things that didn’t matter, things you wouldn’t dare associate yourself with. In other words: bad. Pettiness was bad.
But the internet made petty a badge of honor. The more familiar “petty theft” became “petty af”—accompanied by the laugh-cry emoji, of course, which is awarded in response to the pettiest of quibbles. Pettiness had been reclaimed. World history is peppered with petty—the small-minded revenge seekers and the even smaller-minded ones, too. A building constructed just to block a neighbor’s light; a lawsuit over a too-short Subway sandwich; a 300-year war started over a stolen wooden bucket.
For instance in the Southern California town of Coronado, located in San Diego County, has always been a pretty bike-friendly place, with nice paths and a healthy number of two-wheeled commuters. But when it tried to paint bike lanes on some city streets in 2015, it unleashed an inferno of Not In My Back Yard fury: at one city-council meeting, residents deemed bike lanes “paint-stripe pollution“ and a “visual cacophony” that would “induce a dizzying type of vertigo.” Yet another local claimed that adding the lanes would be “very similar to personally taking all three of my daughters to a tattoo parlor and having them completely body tattooed.”
Major League Baseball teams sometimes wear throwback uniforms—meaning replicas of past uniform designs—when they play special games. In the summer of 2016, Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale had a few feelings about being told to wear one of these vintage uniforms. So many feelings, in fact, that Sale used a knife to slice up not only his own jersey but also his teammates’ jerseys, so no one would be able to wear them. The team stated at the time that Sale had been sent home because of a “clubhouse incident,” but journalists later reported his jerseycide.
Why all the fuss? Apparently, Sale thought the throwback uniforms were uncomfortable. He was suspended for five games for the outburst. (https://www.topic.com/welcome-to-the-petty-hall-of-fame)
Spite houses are usually built by vengeful people to deny despised neighbors views, light, and a good quality of life. But not every spite structure is an actual residence. In the 1870s, California’s railroad barons started building mansions on what came to be known as San Francisco’s Nob Hill, buying up land from the residents to claim its panoramic views. In 1877, German immigrant undertaker Nicholas Yung refused to sell his property for the initial asking price to Charles Crocker, the fat cat who had moved in next door. Crocker, who pretty much had limitless money, did not want to offer Yung a better price. Instead, he erected a 40-foot-tall fence at the rear of his manse, cloaking his poorer neighbor’s home in darkness.
Yung had been asking for just a few thousand dollars more than Crocker wanted to shell out, but the rail baron decided he’d rather put that money into a fence, which cost about $3,000 (the equivalent of around $70,000 today). The fence quickly became a local cause célèbre, the site of pro-labor protests that saw the towering wall of wood as a symbol of the excesses of the railroad robber barons of the time. (https://www.topic.com/welcome-to-the-petty-hall-of-fame)
Then someone discovered that a 2014 photo of Xi with Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe looked like the bear alongside longtime friend Eeyore, and, well, the Pooh really hit the fan. By last year, anything related to digital dissemination (or search) of the character had been banned by the Chinese government. (The 2018 feature film Christopher Robin was also banned in the country, prompting Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tweet, “Make no mistake: All bears are created equal in Taiwan.”)
“There’s a long history in the Chinese population mocking or satirizing government leaders, but Xi’s efforts to secure his position as China’s leader have made the current leadership particularly sensitive to this,” says Dr. Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international relations and economic reform at the University of Bristol. “And Chinese people are very, very creative, but the government has an army to trawl its internet, censor content and images, and secure the Communist Party’s political narratives.” Pooh is not the only illustrated children’s character to be given the boot in China: earlier this year, China added Peppa Pig to the no-fly list. (https://www.topic.com/welcome-to-the-petty-hall-of-fame)
John Farley and Charles Noah Pendrack hired a lawyer after they read that Subway’s $5 foot-long sandwiches were often clocking in at under 12 inches. In 2013, the two friends filed a petty lawsuit, charging the chain with false advertising (“The case is about holding companies to deliver what they’ve promised,” the plaintiff’s lawyer told the New York Post) and ended up settling for half a million dollars (which mostly went to lawyers’ fees). As the court later commented: “As a practical matter, the length of the bread does not affect the quantity of food the customer receives.” (https://www.topic.com/welcome-to-the-petty-hall-of-fame)
“It is…a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh is used for the first time….at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time.…When history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness in time. (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951], p. 9).
“…on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951], p. 13).
“Labor is a craft, but perfect rest is an art….The seventh day is a palace in time which we build. It is made of soul, of joy and reticence.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951], p.p. 14-15).
Calvin the Dog wonders why people feel any wonder or presence of God when they go to church, “…for they are made to sit and stay in but one room of the building on hard sofas for an hour or more while one person barks, allowed occasionally to stand and bay together at the yowl caused by someone scratching the teeth of a box.” (Calvin T. Dog, Translated by Chris Glaser, Unleashed: The Wit and Wisdom of Calvin the Dog [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998], p. 29).
“The rhythm of life for countless people, set up by this culturally pressured way, thus merges as one that oscillates between driven achievement…and some form of mind-numbing private escape. This crazed rhythm, based on a distorted view of human reality, increasingly poisons our institutions, relationships and quality of life.” (Tilden Edwards, Sabbath Time: Understanding and Practice for Contemporary Christians [Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Seabury Press, 1982], p.4).
Sabbath rest creates a “sanctuary in time.” It frees us to recognize our birthright in the image of God and to resist the temptation to succumb to any lesser image.
This divine image in us reveals our true dignity and source. When we cease from work, we show ourselves to be labor’s master. (Tilden Edwards, Sabbath Time: Understanding and Practice for Contemporary Christians [Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Seabury Press, 1982], p.43).
Herman Wouk calls the Sabbath “a retreat into restorative magic.” He leaves the theater and goes home to his family. It is their day together. “It is my day, too. The telephone is silent. I can think, read, study, walk, or do nothing. It is an oasis of quiet. When night falls, I go back to the wonderful nerve-racking Broadway game. (Herman Wouk, This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life [New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1959, 1970], p. 40).
Kathleen Norris shares her reasons for choosing to leave New York to live in Lemmon, South Dakota. “At its very best, it becomes my monastery, which progresses like a river, by running in place, its currents strong and life-sustaining. This is my real world…where I can revel in the luxury of paying more attention to sunrise and sunset that to clock time.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk [New York: Riverhead Books, 1996], p. 350).
A few years back, when hockey was just becoming the rage among elementary school children, a pastor was surprised to see a 6th grader entering his Sunday School classroom. “I was told that you had a hockey game today,” said the pastor. The boy replied, “My coach scheduled a game, and I told him I wouldn’t be there. I would be where I always am on Sunday morning–in church. Coach rescheduled the game!”
Keeping Sabbath is a matter of sitting down and waiting to hear the still small voice of God. It is a waiting day, a time to wonder and pay attention to what God will bring into our lives. In Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, the residents of the flophouse are planning a party in order to spark a romance between Doc and Suzy. All week they have planned and decorated and attended to details. Now it is Friday, or waiting day. “In business, the week is really over. In school, Friday is the half-open gate to freedom. Friday is neither a holiday nor a workday, but a time of wondering what Saturday will bring.” (John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday [London: Heinemann, 1954], p.149.
Years ago, there was a television commercial with a drive-up window sign that said “TIME R US.”
It went like this: “Can I help you?” “Yeah, I’d like a spare moment, two hours to catch up and ten seconds to go.” “Just give me a minute, would you?” “Scuse me, can I get a couple of extra days?” “Can I have ‘til tomorrow morning?”
Time is important to us. We have calendars and day-timers to map out our months and our weeks and our days. We have wall clocks, digital clocks, alarm clocks, travel alarms, stop watches, and we can tell time down to the nearest second by tuning a short-wave radio to the time tick out of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Our language is packed with “time words.” Watch the time. Just a minute, at the same time, I’ve got time on my hands, pass the time, a life time, mark time, how many times have I told you? Timetable, time worn, meal time, time out, in the course of time, too much time, when I have time, not enough time, from time to time, time consuming, kill time, keep time, the present time, time saver, on time, at the proper time.
Time is important to us. We struggle to manage it, use it, to fill it up. Time preoccupies us and we think of it and talk about it as if we own it, as if we possess it, as if we are in charge of time.
Coming from the Puritan heritage of imposed Sabbaths, it is difficult for many people to see Sabbath as anything but a killjoy. Yet many of us would not take any time for rest or worship unless we found it somehow imposed upon us. As a very active person, I gladly worshipped weekly, but had trouble with other Sabbath time, time to be given to being at peace in the presence of God. Then I had to have an MRI of my brain. Inside that dark tube where I had to lie perfectly still and silent for 45 minutes, I began to pray, to meditate on remembered scriptures, and to feel the presence of God. What might have been an awful experience became the gift that Sabbath time is supposed to be. The challenge is to find ways to do that without the imposition of medical tests!
“Jesus whole action in this matter makes it clear that it is not God’s will that any human being should suffer one moment longer than is absolutely necessary…He gives twice who gives quickly…No helpful deed that we can do today should be postponed until tomorrow” (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible – The Gospel of Luke, pg. 183) .
“In Christianity the individual always comes before the system. It is true to say that without Christianity there can be no such thing as democracy, because Christianity alone guarantees and defends the value of the ordinary and the individual man.” (William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible – The Gospel of Luke, pg. 182) .
I will never forget the first time I invited ‘any member of the congregation who desired prayer for healing to come forward and join me in the chancel.’ I stepped into the chancel area. As one person, the entire congregation rose, quietly formed two single lines coming down the center aisle, and began walking quietly toward me. Without any hesitation, I simply took the hands of each person, in turn, and prayed that Christ would heal them. Some of them had illnesses or conditions that were known to me. But many obviously came with some distress that was hidden to everyone – everyone except the Great Physician. This is now an invitation that I give about four times a year. Inevitably a number of people come forward. .
Eli Herring and Eric Liddell had something in common. Neither would desecrate the Sabbath by participating in their chosen sport. Eric became famous in the movie Chariots of fire. Eli played football for Brigham Young University. He was a 340 pound offensive tackle. He had a 3.5 GPA and was the top rated offensive tackle in the pro draft his senior year. He turned down a multimillion dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders because he refused to play football on Sunday. In college he played on Saturday! Reader’s Digest reported,” He could sign up with the NFL, play ball on Sundays and fill his life with fancy cars and houses, or he could teach math for $20,000 a year and honor the Sabbath. Eli’s answer was to honor the Sabbath.” (Heroes for Today, Reader’s Digest, April, 1996, p.185)
Many Americans today say they aren’t able to observe the Sabbath because they have to work. We often accept that statement as fact. But could it be that some of the work we undertake is not to provide for our needs, but only to satisfy our desires? A story in The Seattle Times (6/21/03) tells about a mystic from India who was being shown around New York City. At one point during the tour, his guide decided to take him down into the Times Square subway station at the height of the morning rush hour. Every direction the mystic looked, he saw men and women racing frantically forward with briefcases in hand. The man from India was astonished at how they all seemed to be intent on pushing and shoving themselves to get ahead of the rest of the crowd. Unable to figure out why they were all in such a great rush, the visitor from India finally turned to his guide and asked, “Is there a wolf behind them?” The guide answered, “No, there’s a dollar in front of them.”
One of the ways we enjoy the Sabbath is by worshiping God. Yet in many churches, instead of immersing themselves in the worship experience, church members keep an eye on the clock. And if the service goes even one minute beyond one hour, they become upset. How different that is from the attitude of Christians in other lands! For instance, the Christian church in China is experiencing incredible growth. But according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (2/17/04), Chinese Christians come to worship with rather high expectations. As a result, they are not content with short sermons. Since some worshipers walk up to two hours to get to and from church, many of them expect a sermon to last for at least two hours. Likewise, if a church offers three services on a Sunday, Chinese worshipers often will attend two or three of the services, expecting to hear a different sermon at each service. If the minister preaches the same sermon, the minister is considered to be lazy.
The Sabbath is our opportunity to enjoy life. Unfortunately, as many Americans have prospered materially, they find less and less enjoyment in their lives. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz notes that while the American gross domestic product—a principal indicator of prosperity—more than doubled in the past 30 years, the percentage of the population that describes itself as “very happy” has declined. The decline during the period is about 5%, which might not sound like much, but it translates into about 14 million people who are less happy than they used to be.
Many Christians are developing an attitude of “if you can’t beat them, join them” when it comes to the Sabbath. According to the Associated Press (9/29/03), last fall Family Christian Stores, the largest Christian retail goods chain in the United States, announced that it would begin opening on Sundays.
Rest provides not only refreshment to our bodies, but it also adds a spark to our creative energies. According to the Associated Press (1/22/04), recent studies back up that assertion. Keith Richards, a guitarist for the Rolling Stones, said the idea for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came to him in his sleep. Likewise, nineteenth-century chemist Dmitri Mendelev literally dreamed up the periodic table of elements. Recent research now finds evidence that our sleeping brains continue working on problems that baffle us during our waking hours, and the right answer often comes more easily after eight hours of rest. Scientists at the University of Luebeck found that volunteers taking a simple math test were three times more likely than sleep-deprived people to figure out a hidden rule for converting the numbers into the right answer if they had eight hours of sleep. Scientists suggest that this may explain why older people tend to have a more difficult time with their memories. Since older people generally sleep less, that may deprive them of the deep sleep they require to process their memories. There are quite a few examples of people whose creativity was elevated after resting. For instance, Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned the epic poem “Kubla Khan” after a long night of rest. Similarly, Robert Louis Stevenson credited a good night’s sleep with helping him create some of the scenes in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” And Elias Howe came up with the idea for the sewing machine after waking up.
A group in Portugal is seeking to oppose a movement in the European Union that would standardize the working hours throughout the member nations. According to Newsweek (7/14/03), associations of journalists, lawyers, and even a Member of Parliament have been rallying an effort to maintain the nation’s tradition of enjoying a midday siesta. Jose Miguel Medeiros, the founder of the Portuguese Association of Friends of the Siesta, notes that Isaac Newton was taking a nap when an apple hit him and he came up with the laws of gravity. He says that siestas are a way of fighting the stresses of modern life.
There are times to be attentive and work, and there are times to be at ease and rest. Even the rather strict, austere desert Fathers of the early centuries believed that. One day a hunter came by the place where Anthony and his followers were staying. The hunter was shocked to see the relaxed way that the revered hermit was interacting with his disciples. When Anthony saw the hunter’s puzzlement, he decided to teach the hunter a lesson. Anthony told him, “Put an arrow in your bow, and draw it.” The hunter did so. Anthony then said, “Draw it further,” and he drew it further. Once more Anthony said, “Draw it yet further,” and the hunter drew it some more. Then the hunter said to him, “If I draw it too far, the bow will snap.” Anthony replied, “So it is with God’s work. If we always go to excess, the brothers quickly become exhausted. It is sometimes best not to be rigid.”
The Sabbath is ultimately about directing our attention to the rest that we will find with God at the end of time. As a result, we should not be so overly consumed by the affairs of this world that we forget that the only lasting thing in our lives is the relationship we enjoy with God. In Rumors of Another World: What On Earth Are We Missing?, Philip Yancey tells of a church in the town of Waterford, Ireland. The church is especially known for its tomb carving. Considered to be one of the finest monuments in Ireland, the stone carving depicts Mayor Rice’s decaying body being gnawed and devoured by toads, rats, and insects. The mayor died during a period when the Black Death was raging throughout Europe. The inscription on the tomb declares, “Whoever you are that pass by, stand, read, weep. I am what you will be and I was what you are.” Those words are a stark reminder of how important it is for us to regularly focus ourselves upon God, because the things of this world are not eternal.
One of the reasons Sabbath-keeping is so difficult is because many of us are always in such a hurry to do something or to go somewhere. In A Geography of Time, Robert Levine humorously suggests that modern day people have created a new unit of time, which he calls a “honko-second.” He defines it as “the time between when the light changes and the person behind you honks his horn.” Levine claims that it is the smallest measure of time known to science.
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: In you, O Lord, I take refuge.
People: Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me.
Leader: You are my rock and my fortress.
People: You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust from my youth
Leader: You took me from my mother’s womb.
People: My mouth is filled with your praise, and with your glory all day long.
Holy God, you knew us before we were born, and appointed us your ministers to share your Word. But we confess that we have excuses—we are too young, we are too old, we aren’t knowledgeable enough. Forgive us for not speaking up for those who could not speak. Forgive us for standing still when we have seen a neighbor in need. Help us fulfill our mission here on earth—to love you with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Bless, O God, these gifts we bring before you today. Transform our gifts as only you can and use them to the glory of your Kingdom. Use us for your ministry, send us out into the world for your mission, to reach your people. Let us be Christ to one another. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
As God’s people gather together today, let us pray for the needs of our church, our nation, and our world.
We pray for our church, and the whole Christian Church. You have entrusted us with your holy Word, commissioning us as your disciples to go and tell the Good News. Give us strength and courage to invite others on this journey with you. Give us wisdom and insight to meet people where they are in their faith and encourage but not push, guide but not intimidate.
We pray for our nation and world. It seems that every time we turn on the television or the radio or go onto the Internet we are blasted with devastation, terror, hunger, poverty, murder, and hatred. We pray for peace on our earth, we pray that you will show us how to be your disciples and feed the hungry, relieve the impoverished, and stand for tolerance and justice for all. We pray for those who are suffering in mind, body, and spirit, and for those who do not know how to help themselves. Let us be Christ to one another, in our own church and in our world. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen