SABBATH The Hebrew verb shabbath means to cease, stop, be at a standstill, stop working, take a holiday. And noun shabbath was used for the weekly day of rest. The fourth of the ten commandment tells us to "remember the day of shabbath." "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work" (Exodus 20:8-10).
This commandment about work and rest does not tell us what day to begin counting. The Jews viewed Sunday as the first day of the week, so they rested from Friday evening to Saturday sundown. Muslims take off Friday. Even though they might have to work on Sunday, as happens in Arabia, Christians chose Sunday as their day to meet in Jesus' name. That was because Jesus rose on Easter Sunday, came again to meet with the disciples the next Sunday, and the day of Pentecost was again a Sunday. (The sermon "Eight Sundays from Easter to Pentecost" suggests that Jesus' resurrection appearances were on successive Sundays).
When I was in charge of the three point parish of Cavan (west of Peterborough, Ontario) I would come back drained for a late lunch. One Sunday afternoon I was digging trenches to plant potato eyes in the rectory garden. A farmer came up, and stood looking at me. "You are a minister. Why are you giving a bad example by working on the Lord's day?" I explained that his six days of work involved hard manual labor on the farm. He needed his day of rest on Sunday. My work involved study, visiting, writing letters, and preaching sermons, and for me digging in the garden was a relaxation. For him it would be work. He stood looking at me for another ten minutes, and then said "Those potatoes won't sprout, they are in much too deep." To my surprise the potatoes came up fine.
Similarly nurses, police officers, and shift workers, who have to work some Sundays, need to arrange another day off. Mothers with small children have to snatch three or four times of relaxation when they can. A caring husband will make this possible for his wife. And some of you might be able to relieve a hard-pressed mother to go and do her own thing from time to time.
But the general principle is that life should be a rhythm of six days of work and one day of recreation (renewal, refreshment). In Canada most people have a five day week, but one day is needed for shopping, yard work, laundry , bread making, repairs, and other chores. After six days of work we still need to take a day of proper shabbath.
FOR HUMANS The problem is that religious people like to make rules, and in Jesus's day the Pharisees had made Saturday into a misery for everyone. They had worked out 39 meticulous laws that had to be obeyed to avoid violating their sabbath. In modern Israel orthodox Jews have made it illegal for El Al, the Israeli air line, to fly on Sunday. Nor should anyone turn on a computer to read e-mail. Other Jews have to put up with this for political reasons.
In our Gospel today Jesus had gone out for a sabbath walk in the countryside. As usual the Pharisees were on the watch to find anything in Jesus' behavior that was against their rules. In this case Jesus' disciples were absent-mindedly picking ears of wheat and chewing on them. The Pharisees said that was harvesting, and harvesting was work, so they were guilty of violating the sabbath. If Jesus was a prophet, why didn't he stop them? Jesus answered by explaining that the sabbath was made for the benefit of humans, not for humans to obey rules (Mark 2:27)
Religious people often imagine that laws are given to test our obedience and prove us guilty. But loving parents only give rules for their children's best interests. As with all of God's rules, one day of rest in seven is for our freedom, our joy, our destiny as children of God. Even athletes need to rest one day in seven for their best performance. And it interesting that in the fourth commandment we are told that children, slaves, resident aliens, and even domestic animals like donkeys, horses, camels, and oxen must all be given a day of rest in seven. The only one excluded from this freedom was a man's wife! As we have seen, she has to snatch her sabbath when she can (Exodus 20:8-10).
Notice also that both proper work and proper relaxation are needed. Having work to do is a gift of God, and there is nothing worse for normal people than having no work to do. These days when people retire they still have twenty years left for them to work. And we know that people who stop work at 65 to sit and do no creative work are in danger of dropping dead from a heart attack. If we don't use our body and mind we lose them.
And of course work is not defined by whether you are paid to do it. You can volunteer for all sort of things that need doing. Anything creative is work. If you don't know what to do, pray and ask God "Is there anything that you would like done in my family, my community, my church?" You will be surprised. On the hill up towards Barriefield a group of people have created a beautiful rock garden which is a great addition to our city. Other people undertake to keep a stretch of highway clean and plant wild flowers where they can. After retirement you may not be able to work at the same pace as before, but there are many areas in which you can make a contribution, especially in our churches. And please don't say "I won't do anything until they ask me."
KEPT HOLY "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy" (Exodus 20:8). The word holy means set aside for a special purpose. You don't use our communion vessels to mix paints. So we have one day a week for a holy day (holiday). It is a day set aside for wholesome, healthy purposes. For a start it gives us an opportunity to be like little children to enter the kingdom of God. Children love to play, explore, love and be loved, learn new things. Without that continuous work becomes a grind and loses its meaning. The true meaning of Shabbath is freedom, joy, refreshment, relaxation from tension.
How then does churchgoing fit into this picture of one day in seven to cease from work? People will ask you why you bother with church. They will claim "I am just as good a Christian as those hypocrites who dress up to go to church." And it is good to admit that there are hypocrites in church as anywhere else. We don't claim to be good people. But three very important things happen to us when we take off a couple of hours a week for public worship.
The heart of all Christian services is thanksgiving. And giving thanks sweetens everything we do. It is written all over our face and body language. Without thanksgiving we become ugly in more ways than one. The problem is that in the pressure of our busy lives we forget and easily become grouchy and complaining. In church with the first hymn of thanksgiving we are helped back into being joyful people. The Communion service is called the Eucharist (a Greek word for giving thanks), and it reminds us of all the many things we can be thankful for.
During our six days of work in the world we are continually being brainwashed. We are told by the newspapers, television, those we work with and work for, our families and friends that the purpose of life is making money and spending it. We are caught in the rat race. By the readings and hymns, the preaching and prayer, sharing in communion God gets a chance to remind us that He loves us and want us to be free to love and care.
We are the children of God, part of the royal family. And families soon lose touch if they never meet and share with one another. We need the opportunity to meet other members of our family.
They need us and we need them. People who never come to meet God's family in church may be far better and nicer people than we are. We should not imagine they are all lost and going to hell. But they cannot be Christians on their own. That is as impossible as playing baseball or football on your own. Jesus said "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them."
Jesus attended the synagogue every sabbath day, and many of his healing
miracles took place on that day. We also have sixteen hours in our weekly
day of rest. Two hours engaged in thanksgiving, getting a new perspective
on life, praying for others, renewing our Christian family relationships,
makes all the difference in the world. I am glad you have come this morning.