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True Sabbath – Isaiah 58:9b-end; Luke 13:10-17

When I was a youngster in boarding school the rules were strict. Sundays were also bound by a number of rules about what we were not allowed to do. We could only play instrumental music – pop songs were considered too disturbing for a Sunday. For two hours on a Sunday afternoon we had to either stay on our beds and do something quiet like read or write, or go out on an organised walk. You may have been brought up in a very different environment, but perhaps what you did with your Sundays was important – it was a different day in many ways.

Sabbath and Sunday
Our readings today are very much about what should or should not be done on the Sabbath. Isaiah’s prophecy criticises those who misuse it and promises blessings for the society that returns to Sabbath-keeping. Jesus healed a crippled woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath and was accused by the synagogue leader of breaking the rules about not working on the Sabbath. The appropriate use of the Sabbath is the issue. It is very easy in Christianity to skate over the difference between the Sabbath and Sunday. Sabbath is what we know as Saturday. Jewish religious law forbade working on the Sabbath, proclaiming it as a day of rest, reflecting the belief that God rested on the 7th day after creating the world in 6 days. Early on in the life of the Christian Church observing the Sabbath was superseded by meeting to worship on the first day of the week – to celebrate the day when Jesus rose again. Resurrection replaced rest as the main reason for keeping a day in the week that was different. Strict rules about not working on a Sunday are a confusion of Sabbath with Sunday, and not necessarily part of being truly Christian.

Healing on the Sabbath
The story of Jesus healing in the synagogue on a Sabbath is one of several gospel stories when Jesus was accused of breaking the religious laws. He responded in a vigorous way defending his actions. The are other stories of Sabbath healings and they all carry a similar meaning summed up neatly in Mark 2:27 – the Sabbath was made for the good of people not the other way round. So was Jesus a law-breaker just for the sake of it and should we ignore any rules about the Sabbath because we are not Jewish? The answer, I believe, is no to both questions. Jesus came to fulfil the law, and although we are not bound by Jewish laws, what the Bible has to say about the Sabbath can be applied to our own lives as Christians in the modern world.

When Jesus healed the lady bent double the synagogue leader accused him of breaking the law. As on other occasions, Jesus pointed out the religious leader’s hypocrisy. “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it water?” In other words, even on the Sabbath simple compassion for other living beings is not against the law – it is a matter of common sense. The crippled lady needed help – if the leader had any compassion for his congregation he would not object to her being healed on a Sabbath if that was when healing was available in the person of Jesus!

What is the Sabbath for?
When I was at theological college I remember being encouraged very strongly to be careful when I became a vicar to keep a regular day off. Because of the nature of the occupation it is very easy to go for long periods without relaxing, spending time with your family or friends, or taking time away from being available to the parish. Fencing off a day once a week and planning retreats and holidays is part of our responsibility to ourselves, to God and to the people amongst whom we minister. We cannot take a Sunday for obvious reasons, so a weekday is the alternative. These days, however, it is not just clergy that are obliged to work on a Sunday – many other types of occupation require Sunday working. So it is not just clergy that need to ensure that regular time off is guarded as part of your “life-work balance”.
The word Sabbath means rest. Isaiah had some strong words for those who “trampled the Sabbath” as he put it rather dramatically. He called for social reform which was needed for his society to become peaceful and prosperous. His society was suffering from a lack of compassion on the hungry and afflicted. A proper attitude to the day of rest was also part of his concern. By “trampling the Sabbath” he meant that people were pursuing their own interests – it was a selfish, self-seeking society that he was criticising. Isaiah wanted to warn his people that the true use of the Sabbath was to turn away from being self-centred and re-focus on God and therefore also on others, especially those who needed compassion. If you treat the Sabbath, your rest-day properly, he said, then “you shall take delight in the Lord and you will ride upon the heights of the earth.” How poetic and positive!

The Importance of Rest
This week England lost its football match against Germany. One commentator pointed out how unfit our players are, not because they don’t try, but because they are overstretched – they are expected to play too much. Perhaps the same could be said of our cricketers, too. In our world of constant activity, our sportspeople are also suffering from over-activism. Repetitive strain injury not just for sports people, but for any who over-use their hands and fingers in our digital age, is a common health complaint – text-thumb is the modern equivalent of housemaid’s knee! We have forgotten how important rest is.

Of course there are good and bad sides to our 24/7 lifestyle. We are free to do what we want and when we want. I am grateful not to be bound by my boarding-school Sunday rules any longer. But with our greater freedom comes greater potential for harm, for hurt and for exhaustion. We are in danger of breakdown because we do not keep a Sabbath – we do not rest at some point or other in our daily and weekly lives. We are in danger of forgetting who we are and who God is: when we trample on the Sabbath we end up trampling on our society and on ourselves.
Forgetting who we are
To trample on the Sabbath means to forget to give God some time and thus to begin to forget who we really are. As Christians we believe that we are created by God, to be truly human, to love, to care and to be human towards others – and nowadays that means to live in our whole environment with care and compassion.

We have been shocked by the murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool this week. His tragic murder symbolises the effect the whole gun-toting culture is having on the life of our urban communities. We are all concerned about it and there are many voices, opinions and suggestions about what is wrong and why these kinds of things are happening. As with so many other social problems, I suspect the reasons and answers are complex – a mixture of many things which are inter-related. But perhaps where our Bible readings today meet the real world where the news is full of violence is in this point about remembering who we are. For many and complex reasons when one person takes the life of another or violates them in some way, it is because they have failed to see the victim as human. Perhaps they have ceased to recognise and accept their own humanity. There are no easy answers to how we recover from that – it can only be a struggle. But perhaps you and I can play our small part by keeping hold of our own humanity and encouraging others around us to do so, too.

Ultimate Wild Water is a BBC 2 programme in which the journalist and news reader Kate Silverton abandons the safety of her studio to embark on an exhilarating journey of discovery through Britain's fastest flowing rivers and turbulent seas. She has spoken of the importance of getting out from the studio and being someone different. We cannot all do daring things like her, but we can take time to step out of our daily routine. In some ways that is like the effect on the crippled woman whom Jesus healed – she was able to stretch out with joy and praise. She became human again. That is truly to remember who we are and is true Sabbath!

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Almighty God,
in whose service lies perfect freedom:
teach us to obey you
with loving hearts and steadfast wills;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.