Sunday August 25, 2019
What comes to mind first when you hear the word “sabbath”?
Sunday church attendance? A day of rest? Puritanical rules against people enjoying themselves? I’d guess some of you have more negative associations with the word, based on the past. But I hope a lot of you have positive associations, because it’s really one of God’s greatest gifts to us.
In the Hebrew scriptures the sabbath appears implicitly in the very first book, Genesis, when God rests on the seventh day and hallows it, after creating everything during the first six days. (See Gen. 2: 2,3) Further on, in the book of Exodus when Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, the sabbath observance is spelled out:
Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
The word “sabbath” comes from the Hebrew word “shabat,” whose root is generally translated as meaning “rest.” But think about the context, where in Genesis God is described as creating the universe on the six days, and then resting. It doesn’t mean God was tired so had to rest. God doesn’t get tired. Divine love and creativity don’t run out of gas and need a break. So it means something more.
Think of it this way: after the act of creation, God stands back to admire it, to delight in it, to see its goodness and enjoy it. Everything created is described in Genesis as “very good.” (See Gen. 1:31) That’s what the root purpose of a sabbath is meant to be: to step back from our busyness and just take delight in the world around us and its blessings and goodness.
There’s another Hebrew word that’s associated with sabbath, and that’s “menuha.” It means “joyous repose” – and it has connotations of peace, stillness, tranquility, and delight. (There’s that word “delight” again.) Theologian Matthew Fox says that on the seventh day God did in fact create something, and it was very special: God created menuha - divine, delightful, peaceful repose. It was a gift to this busy, active, buzzing creation. And in the Hebrew scriptures all of creation, not just humans, are meant to enjoy sabbath menuha.
So the sabbath is meant to be a sort of re-set button, when, after being wound up and busy and distracted and important and needed, we can stand back a bit and remember why we’re here, what really matters, how beautiful this world is. It’s a day for a little foretaste of eternal life, a little taste of heaven.
And of course the sabbath is a day for healing! That’s one of its purposes: to heal us from our fragmented, frenzied, burdened lives. And in the gospel today Jesus does just that: he heals a woman who’s been crippled for 18 years, bent over as if carrying a heavy burden. But he arouses the indignation of the leader of the synagogue (who had presumably invited him to preach) for “working” on the sabbath by his act of healing. And the man tells the people not to come for healing on the sabbath.
What a contradiction of the purpose of the sabbath! A day meant as a gift for restorative rest, delight, peace and all those things that can heal us so deeply, has been turned into a restrictive, legalistic observance.
The first reading from Isaiah urges the people to “refrain from trampling the sabbath,” right after describing what God wants from us: not empty sacrifices and self-denial, but justice, generosity, compassion. He says we’re to “call the sabbath a delight”, and we’re to “take delight in the Lord.” Our lives are meant to be about delight! And religion is meant to help us get there. (See Isaiah 58: 9b-14)
When I began thinking about taking a sabbatical (sabbath leave) I looked on the diocesan website to see what the process was, and saw that a sabbath leave is defined there as time for rest and refreshment, which includes study (learning) and may involve travel. So in my application I had to show where I’d be going, what I’d be doing, and how I’d be learning. And all of it is intended to refresh one’s vocation and enable longevity in ministry.
It’s an incredible privilege to be able to take that sort of extended sabbath leave. Very few jobs permit or enable that. But God’s intention is that everyone has at least a day a week as sabbath, because we all need it. We all need holy, playful, delightful rest and tranquility.
It’s not about self-indulgent pampering that only the rich leisured folks can have, but neither is it about a dour enforcement of restrictions. The sabbath is a holy gift. It’s time to put aside regular work and domestic chores, as much as possible, so that you can do the things that are restful and delightful: spending time with people you love; doing a crossword; going for a walk; going to see a movie or a concert; sleeping in; practicing meditation or yoga; and for us Christians, gathering together to worship God joyfully.
When people come to this church as part of their sabbath, they should be expecting delight! And we should be finding ways to make sure our services are delightful and healing and peaceful. People don’t generally come out of duty any more, and that’s a good thing. They come looking for something that will feed them and give them a place to rest and reflect. And God has so much in store for them, if we can be channels of those blessings.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But we are very prone to forget about the sabbath. We are prone to forget its benefits and miss its blessings. So the commandment to keep the sabbath starts with the word, “Remember!”
Remember that a sabbath day of delightful rest is God’s gift to us and to everyone.
Remember that work and activity can easily get out of control, taking over everything. Remember to intentionally put in place for yourself a sabbath practice and habit that sustains you.
This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!