"Gaining a Sabbath Perspective"

Date Sunday June 03, 2018
Service Second Sunday after Pentecost
Text Text: Mark 2:23-3:6
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Conjuring the Eternal Love of Jesus"
Next Sermon "Glory Pulls Us In"

     As I begin today’s sermon, I want to make sure we all are on the same page, at least when it comes to talking about “the sabbath”. Then, I’ll throw a wrench in the discussion.

     So, let’s start with this question: when is the sabbath? The answer is, it depends – for some, it’s Saturday; for others, it’s Sunday; and there are those who say it’s whatever day they select. People of the Jewish faith observe the sabbath from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday; for Christians, the sabbath is Sunday.

     Let’s move on to considering why the sabbath is on those days, discuss what its purpose is, and then get ready for the wrench. The sabbath is Saturday because God finished creating the world on the sixth day, Friday, and rested on the seventh, Saturday. For Christians, the sabbath is Sunday, the first day of the week, because that’s the day Jesus was raised from the dead, appeared to his disciples, taught them and shared bread with them. For both religious traditions the sabbath has two purposes – rest and worship.

     At this point, though, I want to note a bit more complexity concerning the purpose of rest. When Moses received the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai shortly after the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt, among them was #3: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Please pause and consider what that would have meant to newly liberated people whose lives had been nothing but work. God demands that they remember the seventh day, do no work, and allow no person or animal that is within their care to work.

     The pattern is this: six days you labor and on the seventh you rest. This had been possible earlier in their history, when they were free people, and is now possible again. It’s a blessing of freedom that should be honored. But there’s more … all people, both king and peasant, farmer and merchant, resident alien and Israelite, are equal in this regard – on the seventh day they rest. It points to an alternative world where all are equal, since all are equal before God. (1)

     The sabbath, then, promotes well-being, dignity and relationships between people and people, and God and people.  Unfortunately, it’s not long before people alter God’s grace-filled intention for the sabbath. It begins with attempts by the people of Israel to manage the sabbath by answering the question: “What constitutes work?” (It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the focus is not on further defining worship and rest.)

     Among the items on one ancient list were: no foolish speech, no fasting, no discussion on future work, no preparation of food, no harvesting, restricted travel, no carrying of water. (2) The list of rules expanded and became more detailed as time passed. Even today, there are people who, unlike the majority who either ignore the purpose of sabbath or fulfill it partially, are focused on what’s “right” or “wrong” in terms of a sabbath observance.

     For example, in an article written by Blaine and Sarah McCormick, they raise the question of whether going bowling on Sunday dishonored the sabbath. This is a family that carefully considers how they spend the sabbath, so on this particular Sunday they decided that Blaine would take the two older children bowling while Sarah napped at home with the baby. It seemed like a good decision since Mom’s nap would be better in a quiet house, and bowling is good clean fun.

     After bowling one game, which was enough for the little ones, they headed to the front counter for check out. There was no charge, which was part of the plan. At that bowling alley, the first game is free and there’s no shoe charge for children younger than six. Blaine had not rented shoes since he was helping, not bowling, so they owed no money.

     This was important because the family had a “no commerce” rule on the sabbath, and since no money had exchanged hands, they had honored their rule. But, upon later reflection, the couple decided that they had dishonored the sabbath with the bowling outing. Why? It was because the reason for the “no commerce” rule had been violated.

     It was true that they had not spent money, but the purpose of that is to promote everyone having the opportunity to experience a sabbath rest by not working. Someone had to work so they could have fun, and this violated their principles. (3)

     I imagine I could pause right now and we could have quite a debate about whether or not engaging in commerce on the sabbath is, in the big picture, positive or negative. And, I suspect that’s exactly the perspective Jesus would want us to take – the big picture, the longer view. We see that is what he did in today’s Gospel lesson.

     When Jesus and his disciples were traveling and gleaning grain from the wheat field on the sabbath it’s an issue for the Pharisees because the rules are being broken. They use the same Sabbath-violating reasoning to challenge Jesus when he heals the man with the withered hand. And, yet, writes Biblical scholar Thomas G. Long, the Pharisees know full well that saving life and doing good are lawful on the sabbath. So, their accusations are an excuse to discount Jesus and justify plotting his arrest. (4)

     In other words, they were not truly concerned about keeping the sabbath, but Jesus was. He contends that sometimes the rules are rightly set aside in favor of meeting greater needs, especially when doing so promotes well-being and facilitates Divine blessings. (5) In the case of the healed man, both wholeness and dignity were restored, and so in the big picture the sabbath was honored.

      Well, we’ve talked about the when, what and why of the sabbath, are you ready for the wrench? Observing the sabbath is more than a once-a-week enterprise. Jesus was concerned about the big picture in today’s account, and we should be focused on it too. Keeping the sabbath is not just about focusing on worship and rest one day a week, as important as those things are. It’s not just about avoiding commerce, as commendable as that may be.

     The big picture involves, writes commentator Karoline Lewis, having a sabbath perspective about life, which is a focus that pursues greater values, meets needs, promotes well-being, facilitates the blessings of life and restores wholeness and dignity to the world. I’ll quote her: “We need to recommit to a Sabbath life, a Sabbath perspective. (Observing the Sabbath is) not just a reason to take a long weekend or plan that long overdue vacation. A Sabbath perspective reorients us to enter into Monday and a new week looking for ways in which we might renew and restore the lives of others.” (6)

     Think of it this way, in order to maintain a Sabbath perspective: we keep the sabbath. That’s because without rest and communion with God and other Christians, it’s too easy to give up on loving God, loving others and changing the world. That is, if we live life with a sabbath perspective which is more concerned about promoting the well-being of the world than how the world revolves around us, then we need a true sabbath focused on worship, fellowship and rest to have the resilience to make that happen. The sabbath was made for us, because we were made to promote the good of all. AMEN


(1)   “The Eighth Day” by David B. Capes, The Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2002

(2)   Same as #1

(3)   “Bowling on the Sabbath” by Blaine and Sarah McCormick,The Center for Christian Ethics, Baylor University, 2002

(4)      “Living by the Word” by Thomas G. Long, Mark 2:23-3:6, Christian Century, May 9, 2018, pg. 21

(5)   “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6” by Matt Skinner, www.workingpreacher.org

(6)   “A Sabbath Perspective” by Karoline Lewis, May 27, 2018, www.workingpreacher.com