June 3, 2018

The Sabbath was Made for Humankind

Passage: 1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23 – 3:6
Service Type:

Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

I never know quite how to answer the question, “How was your weekend?” The question, “are you doing anything special this weekend,” is a little easier because I can always answer, “Yes, I’m going to church.” So much is loaded into the term “weekend” in a culture shaped by a Monday to Friday work week. The two days Saturday and Sunday have become the “weekend.” Technically speaking Sunday is the first day of the week—not Monday. Saturday is the last day of the week—not Sunday. But that in not how most of us experience the rhythm of life and I know I am never going to win that argument in a culture that is shaped by the “weekend.” The notion of “weekend” is so powerful among us that the idea that Sunday begins the new week is a foreign idea.

And the notion of “weekend” is, relative to history, a somewhat new idea. I grew up on a dairy farm at a time when the work week was considered to run from Monday to Saturday. I was grateful to live in a Christian household where Sunday was understood as the day you did not do any work. Stores and other places of business were closed on Sunday. In many Ontario small towns stores were open late on Saturday evenings because that is when people would shop—after their work week was over. It wasn’t just farmers who understood work in a Monday to Saturday rhythm. Culture was profoundly shaped by the idea that Sunday, the first day of the week, was a day set aside for worship and rest; an idea that arises from the fourth of the ten commandments—“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For 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.”

I am not sure if the notion of weekend is an improvement on the idea of sabbath. My observation of the way people engage in weekends does not appear all that restful. The idea of a weekend seems to be a distinction between activities I engage in for me as distinct from those I am engaged in for my employment—that God should have a role to play in this picture, not so much. And the question that I ask us as Christians is about the importance of the thinking that will shape how we live life. The good news of Jesus or the culture of weekend.

1. The picture that the gospels paint of Jesus is of a person who made Sabbath worship at synagogue a routine of his life. The third chapter of Mark’s gospel begins with, “again he (Jesus) entered the synagogue.” As the story unfolds it is clear that he is there for Sabbath worship. We remind ourselves that Mark wants his hearers to know that this particular visit by Jesus to the synagogue at Capernaum to be an instance of the settled routine of Jesus’ life; just like when Mark tells us of Jesus finding a quiet place to pray early in the day we are to understand such prayer as the pattern of our Lord’s life.

Of course, sabbath, for Jesus, fell on the day of the week we call Saturday—the last day of the Biblical week. The first Christians began to meet on Sundays—the first day of the week—because this was the day Jesus rose from the dead. As history unfolds Christians began to embrace the principles of Sabbath—one day of worship and rest from work in a seven day cycle—for Sunday. They understood the Ten Commandments as the pattern for how they should walk in company with Jesus. Jesus, in his earthly life observed this rhythm of sabbath observance and so Christians endeavoured to follow in that path.

2. Jesus said that sabbath was made for humankind—for the benefit of human flourishing. Sabbath wasn’t an afterthought by God and humankind asked to acquiesce. Sabbath wasn’t made to test humans to see if God could make human life unbearable or to make his people look odd. In Jesus day all manner of regulation had sprung up as to what constituted work, for example, since the law prohibited work on the sabbath. Threshing grain was considered work prohibited on sabbath; as the disciples walked along and took a stalk of grain in their hands and rubbed the chaff away to eat the grains the Pharisees accused them of working—doing what was prohibited on the sabbath. Healing the sick was the work of the physician—to heal on the sabbath as Jesus did transgressed these traditions, in the eyes of the Pharisees who opposed Jesus. Clearly sabbath practices, according to Jesus, were never to prevent someone from relieving the suffering of another on that day. Sabbath is for human flourishing.

Imbedded in this idea of sabbath is the withdrawal from the important of life to do the essential. There are many important high-priority things to do in life. Our work—the way we earn a living—is of this high-priority category. The education of our children and their care and development is for our top-level attention. It is a good thing to give heed to our health. The health of our relationships needs our focus and best efforts. All of these and many more are important. And it is good to be people who prioritize time for what is important.

But sabbath is for the essential—first, to draw aside and meet with God. Our worship roots our lives in the narrative that God has for our lives. It is to fasten our lives to the rock that cannot move. We come together to hear what God would say to us through scripture—a word that provides for us that larger blueprint for what God is doing in the world. It is at the cross of Christ we see that God will go to any length for our sakes. It is before our dying Saviour we see most clearly the truth embedded in sabbath—God is for us. “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath,” said our Lord.

When we come to worship we bring with us the concerns and cares typical of life. Things come to us in life that blindside us and send us reeling. They make us stagger. A difficult diagnosis of some disease or condition throws us off course. The loss of employment or other economic reversal depresses the spirit. We need to hear from God that his purposes for us to bring us to the glory he has won for us at the cross have not been thwarted. We need to hear from Jesus that our suffering is not in vain but that he can work the good he has in mind for us even in the midst of these things.

In Jesus’ day the idea of sabbath as rest was an image used to talk of the eternal rest God is bringing his people to enjoy in that great future of new heaven and new earth. We see this image of sabbath as eternal rest used the in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. In the final consummation of things our Lord is bringing us to that place of rest. The idea of rest here is not a great hammock in the sky but rest from all that undoes human flourishing. We will be engaged in activity but in such a way that love will only give way to more love. This idea of sabbath rest points to the final new creation inaugurated when Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of a new week. And when we gather for Sunday worship we connect with that future world in the present

The Letter of Barnabas is a Christian document dated at the end of the first century or the first decade of the second century. Reflecting on this idea of sabbath as image for final rest the author of that letter wrote—“The sabbath which I have made (says God), in which I will give rest to all things, is the beginning of an eighth day, that is, the beginning of another world. Therefore we also regard the eighth day as a day of celebration, in which Jesus also rose from the dead and was made manifest.” (Barnabas 15:8f) In the story of the Garden of Eden the eight day is when life in paradise begins. Remember that Holy Week begins on a Sunday, Palm Sunday. Eight days later—the next Sunday—is Easter when Jesus rises from the dead, hence the reference to the resurrection as the beginning of an eighth day.

When we draw aside from the important to do the essential we are centring our lives on this greater narrative about the world that God is up to assuring us of life that does not end. While our culture operates according to weekend festivals, I think the gospel points us toward sabbath and a fundamental way for thinking about rhythm for life and the purposes God has for us.

3. The first essential of sabbath is to worship God. A second essential of sabbath is rest. Rest from our work. I wonder sometimes if the pace of our culture that sees people moving relentlessly from one activity to the next is because we don’t like the quiet. The quiet, for example, that we experience when we draw aside to meet with God. No one wants to sit and think too long about life and its brevity so we keep moving. Couple that with a conviction that this life is all there is, our culture is one where there is a kind of panic to experience all there to experience lest one miss out on something. The gospel assures the believer that we haven’t even imagined the wonders God has in mind for us in the future Jesus has prepared for us—by faith in him there is nothing to miss.

The custom of the “weekend” that has become widespread, a weekly period of respite, spent perhaps far from home and often involving participation in cultural, political or sporting activities which are usually held on free days. This social and cultural phenomenon is by no means without its positive aspects if, while respecting true values, it can contribute to people’s development and to the advancement of the life of society as a whole. All of this responds not only to the need for rest, but also to the need for celebration that is inherent in our humanity. Unfortunately, when Sunday loses its fundamental meaning and becomes merely part of a “weekend,” it can happen that people stay locked within a horizon so limited that they no longer understand their life within God’s greater narrative.

Sabbath says to us that we need to be deliberate about rest from our work. The satirical website The Onion ran the following fictitious story titled "Man On Cusp Of Having Fun Suddenly Remembers Every Single One Of His Responsibilities." The story read:

“Marshall Platt, 34, came tantalizingly close to kicking back and having a good time while attending a friend's barbeque last night before remembering each and every one of his professional and personal obligations, backyard sources confirmed. While he chatted with friends over a relaxed outdoor meal, Platt was reportedly seconds away from letting go and enjoying himself when he was suddenly crushed by the full weight of work emails that still needed to be dealt with … . It isn’t easy to set aside responsibilities of work—they have a way of creeping back into our consciousness. There are strategies and patterns we can learn that can help us with the management of life’s responsibilities. Our Lord had plenty of demands made on time but he always kept this sabbath appointment.

There is much more in this text of scripture regarding Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisee leadership over sabbath practise. What I have highlighted for us today is what these stories tell us of Jesus and his habit regarding sabbath. He drew aside for worship and rest. These stories occur in Capernaum which is beside the Sea of Galilee. The incident of the disciples snacking on some grain is a picture of Jesus enjoying a sabbath afternoon with his disciples—maybe they are taking the short walk to the seaside. And Jesus was in the habit of weekly sabbath worship at the synagogue.

I have probed these for us because Jesus said that sabbath was made for humankind. It is my conviction that the sabbath principle is a better way for organizing life than living from weekend to weekend. Further sabbath is to bring God’s future world into the present. We think of past, present, and future as fundamentally divided realities. In the Hebrew understanding they are one in God so to draw aside for sabbath was to engage purposefully in this reality of God.

Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Please note:
A portion of today's sermon included a video called Experience Capernaum, which was a video from Right Now Media, which is available to our entire congregation.   If you would like access to the video, and to the large library that Right Now Media offers, simply complete the form below.

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