Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1342
March 18, 2018 Genesis 2.1-3
Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus Mark 2.23-28
“Keeping Sabbath Holy”
Any time I have preached on the Sabbath about the Sabbath I always feel like I’m in the proverbial “preaching to the choir”. I feel that way because, obviously, you are here to honor the Sabbath, at least I hope you are. But you know what I mean, this is one of those sermons some may say that others need to hear, especially those who are not here and do not come to worship very often. But we all need to hear this message, because we all tend to break the Sabbath command from time to time. I’ve heard a few times from various sources that the commandment to keep the Sabbath may be the most broken. Think about that for a moment. Certainly all non-believers break this command and quite a few believers as well.
I need to renew my thoughts on the Sabbath and my own practice and understanding on Sabbath and particularly on keeping Sabbath Holy. Deuteronomy 5.12 gives us the fourth Commandment, Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Then in Exodus 20.8, Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Observe, remember, and keep it holy. But let’s back up a bit in the Bible to Genesis 2.
Three Acts of Sabbath
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2 And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
We heard this passage read a moment ago, turn to it again and notice the three main acts associated in the day of rest after creation. First, God rested. He had finished all the heavens and the earth and following that work, He rested. Second, God blessed the seventh day. He made it a delight, a happy, joyous time. And it is a matter of time. It is a time set apart from other time. Days are marked by time and this day is blessed in time. Third, God made it holy. He hallowed the day. God marked it like His name, “Hallowed by Thy name”. In the Hebrew the technical term is that God sanctified the day. In that sense the day was considered among Judaism like a queen. To sanctify meant to prepare a woman for marriage, to consecrate the woman, to betroth. Sabbath becomes a mate to Israel. In that sense we might think of the Church as the groom to the Sabbath. Sabbath remakes us in the way that the two become one in marriage. Jews would sometimes chant the Song of Solomon in light of this understanding welcoming the day as welcoming a bride.
God rested, God blessed, and God made the day holy. God gave us this great gift of Sabbath rest, of Sabbath blessing, and of Sabbath holiness.
The Gift of Sabbath
23 One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: 26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” 27 And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
We keep the Sabbath by obeying the command, by accepting the gift given us in Sabbath rest. We keep the Sabbath holy by setting it aside as a day like no other. I have heard people talk about Sabbath in the old days, when our grandfathers may have been very harsh with various rules for Sabbath keeping. For some, nothing was allowed. But that is not the Sabbath I promote. It’s not the one I see in the Bible. Yes, there were some severe penalties for breaking this commandment, but Jesus helps us to see why those penalties were there. The Sabbath God calls us to keep…is a day of doing those things that would free us to refreshment and renewal. It is a day to cease those things that make us weary and exhausted. It was given for our benefit, that’s why God punished those who broke away from Sabbath keeping.
Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath is ours. We are not bound by the Sabbath, but the Sabbath is given to free us from the slavery of work…The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Sabbath is made for us. The Sabbath is not to enslave us but to set us free from everything in the world that would enslave us without a Sabbath rest. The Sabbath is a gift to creation, a gift to us, and its purpose is for our good, which is true of all the commandments. They were not given to punish, but to bless us.
Jesus made it a practice to go into the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach. We come to our equivalent of a synagogue, to this church, to hear and preach the good news of Christ. Jesus too would have sung hymns, prayed, worshiped, and as we read in the Gospels, would sometimes comment on the scriptures. We are here to remember the Scriptures and all that is promised to us in the Gospel. We are here to honor this day with our worship and our gifts and our memories. We are here to take a break from the rush of the world.
One of my favorite Jewish midrash (story) asks the question: “What do the angels do on the Sabbath?” And the response: “They study the Torah!” They study the word of God. This implies that there is no greater refreshment for the soul than reading and hearing and studying God’s word. This too is why we come here on Sunday.
The Meaning of Sabbath
What is Sabbath? A day set aside for rest, renewal, and pleasure. One of my favorite Jewish theologians is Abraham Heschel and Heschel asks the question, what did God create on the seventh day? The answer: tranquility, serenity, peace, repose (The Sabbath, p. 24). Isn’t that great?! How many of us could use some tranquility in our lives? Sabbath is a time for joy, freedom, praise, hope, and refreshment. It is a cold glass of lemonade on a hot day – a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day. It is a time to remember that we are not of this world. Sabbath is a time to mend our wounded selves, a day of body and soul rest. Heschel says that Sabbath is a day that inspires all the other days. This just touches the surface of the meaning of Sabbath.
The Meaning of Holy Sabbath
What is Holy Sabbath? It is holy because it is set apart, sacred, special, different, pure, whole. Sabbath sets things back to holiness. It sets us apart again. It reminds us of whose we are and who we are. It rescues us from the battering of lies we’ve been told day after day. Sabbath is a holiness of time, to redeem the time and space. It is a time to renew our perspectives on all things material and spiritual, even to redeem the news, forgetting that which is fake and reclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. He is risen! He is risen indeed!
Sabbath is holy in that it is also renews our covenant relationship with God. We read about this in Exodus 31.12-17
12 And the Lord said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’”
The Sabbath reminds us that the day is sanctified and that we are sanctified. The Sabbath is a sign between us and God. At the end of this passage it says that God rested and was refreshed. I’ve used that term, refreshment, several times in this sermon, and this is the text where I get that term. It is one of the most interesting things said of God in creation as far as rest is concerned because the term in Hebrew implies that God gave of Himself in the act of creation and then God something of Himself back in resting. I don’t know what to make of such a thought except to say that we certainly need rest to get ourselves back together after six days in this dark non-believing world. If nothing else we can learn that if God needed to rest, we certainly do!
Keeping Sabbath Holy
To keep Sabbath holy is to honor this day, to practice a holy Sabbath. It is not just a day off...not just an ordinary day to be off from work. It could also be a day off from internet, from social media, from news, from Fox and CNN, and anything that tends to dominate our time other days of the week. It can be a day to celebrate that which is not celebrated in our culture. We can enjoy that which we cannot seem to find time to enjoy Monday-Saturday. We might rekindle family ties. We can rest in the presence of God. We can remember texts like Isaiah 55.1-3, which I think of as a great Sabbath thought,
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.
If we do not remember and keep the Sabbath, we will continue to work for that which does not satisfy. Sabbath reminds us and teaches us that only in God are we satisfied in this world. Sabbath invites us to consider the opposite of all that the world proclaims. When the world tells us we don’t have enough stuff and we must get more, Sabbath invites us to consider the opposite; the opposite of scarcity is the kingdom of God – the model of abundance. When the world insists that there is not enough time to get everything done, Sabbath says six days is enough. When the world demands that we consume the entertainment, the fast foods, the fake news, the advertisements that tell of the need for more and more, Sabbath says no. Sabbath says we can feast on the rich foods of God’s word and kingdom and the practice of Sabbath assures us that God provides for all our needs.
We remember creation and freedom from slavery – and we remember the gift of Sabbath, a time to rest, to reflect, to re-create, to pray, study. Sabbath offers us the opportunity to imagine a world different from the one we see daily in our work and on our televisions and in our schools. Sabbath invites us to the reality of God’s kingdom of abundance and rest, of rhythm and time, of ceasing and resting, of feasting and embracing the finest that God has for us.
When we study passages like the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, we see how they are structured: the first three commands are commands about our action toward God and the last six are about our actions toward one another. The Sabbath command stands as a hinge between God and neighbor where we both meet to rest together. Sabbath allows us to reorder our time, to reclaim our time and space and align our lives with the divine rhythm of work and rest. But we do not value rest in our culture, or in the church, for that matter. We drive ourselves in nearly everything we do and find that we are exhausted in body and spirit. Sabbath is a gift that we can reclaim in our lives. Sabbath is the command to which we can rededicate our lives in order to find our life again, for Sabbath is both gift and command.
Abraham Heschel once said: "Sabbath is the only day that I don't have to prove I am a good rabbi." Sabbath gives us that rest in God that releases us from work and pressures and problems. We rest in the good news of freedom worked by God. On the Sabbath we receive the blessings of knowing that God loves us and redeems us, thus we care for the soul, deepening our communion with the Living God.
Keeping Sabbath is about remembering the day and keeping it holy. Make this Sabbath day a day to remember, and then, do it again next Sunday. Amen.