Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 8/22

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  That’s commandment number what?  What does this mean?  We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise God’s Word or preaching, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.

That’s what Luther said about the third commandment in the Small Catechism.  Based on that I think most of us interpret this commandment about Sabbath to mean that we should go to church on Sunday, that’s what remembering the Sabbath day means.  Without question that is part of it; taking time for God is implied in this commandment but there is more to it than that and there is an effort these days to recover more of a sense of the fuller biblical meaning regarding Sabbath.

Worship is implied, but the other major component of Sabbath is rest. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns.”  That’s the version of this from Deuteronomy and there’s another one in Exodus that’s pretty much the same.  

Luther didn’t ignore the rest aspect of Sabbath; in the Large Catechism he does address it to some extent.  But still, for him, the emphasis was definitely on worship.  The main reason a day of rest was needed was so that people were free to attend church to hear God’s word.  That’s what Luther emphasized but it’s the rest aspect that quite consistently got Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities as they accused him of doing “work” on the Sabbath especially as he healed people. 

This commandment is in the background of today’s lessons, especially  the gospel and the first lesson from Isaiah.  It’s a commandment that is perhaps more radical than we realize as it has to do with how people of faith should order time.  Basically it says that for one day out of seven all our usual routines should be broken, our usual tasks and labors should be stopped and that the day should be dedicated to the Lord; the day should be made holy. 

From there though, there is not a lot of detail.  It doesn’t tell you exactly how to make the day holy but from earliest times worship was assumed as part of a proper Sabbath observance whether the Sabbath was on Saturday as it is in Jewish tradition or on Sunday as it is for Christians; so Luther wasn’t wrong in emphasizing that.  It’s quite clear that setting one day aside is not simply so you can sleep in.  Worship is implied as there is a difference between simply taking a day off and taking a day off and dedicating it to the Lord. 

But that’s not to understate or undervalue rest either.  Built into this commandment is the acknowledgement that rest is of value in and of itself, that it’s needed…for everybody all the way down to the animals…all as part of God’s ordering of time!  Sabbath rest is a gift from God and it is this  dimension of the commandment that has largely been lost and which those who are looking for a fuller understanding of the Sabbath are trying to recover in a world where work and productivity can wind up being all consuming for many people and where people are admired for the long hours they put in.

Observing Sabbath rest is also something of an act of worship.  Formal worship is implied when we talk about Sabbath but rest can also be worship as it represents recognition that we trust in God’s abundance; we trust in God’s promise to provide without us doing anything.  We acknowledge that our productivity is not the central feature of God’s creation.  It’s another radical feature of this commandment that takes it beyond simply being a command to go to church.  It challenges the idea that we’re in control, it challenges concerns about not enough, it challenges the prevailing wisdom of our society that says that if I just work a little harder and make a little more money then I can buy the happiness that the market tells me is available. 

Observance of this commandment means that for one day out of the week we stop and turn more intentionally toward God, thinking about ourselves not as just another cog in a production machine but as human beings in relationship with God.  Understood this way, Sabbath rest represents release from expectations that create anxiety in us. 

In Jesus’ time observation of the Sabbath was presumed for all Jews.  It was a given so Jesus would have known about the worship part of this commandment and in fact there are a number of instances like in today’s gospel where Jesus is reported to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath which is exactly where a good Jew should be.  He also would have known about the command to rest, to refrain from work on the Sabbath, yet there were many times when he violated that part of the commandment.  He did it enough times that you have to assume that he was making a point of some kind.

I don’t think that point was that Sabbath rest isn’t important.  There are a number of times when Jesus goes off by himself to rest and to pray so we know that he valued and needed such time.  But let’s flash back for a moment.  Remember when Jesus first preached in the synagogue back in Nazareth?  It was on the Sabbath and he read the text from Isaiah about release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free and he followed that up by saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”   That passage from Isaiah defined Jesus’ ministry.  It defined his ministry such that release and liberation and healing took precedence for him, even on the Sabbath so that others could experience the release of the Sabbath.   His ministry represented the coming of the great Sabbath day when release and liberation would be available for everyone.

Jesus wasn’t just thumbing his nose at the Pharisees and the synagogue leaders who were defending the tradition as they understood it.  But he represented the inbreaking of something new, a new understanding of God’s rule in the world.  The prevailing theology of the day was still “if/then” theology like what is evident in the Isaiah passage today.  If you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise, then the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs.  If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, then I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth, then I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob.

There is a place for that kind of thinking and theology in guiding how we live and it certainly is present in both testaments of the Bible.  It does have a way of keeping us honest.  So those who defended this theology had justifiable reasons for doing so.  They were not necessarily just legalistic nitpickers which is the way we can tend to picture them; they might have been legalistic nitpickers, but not necessarily. 

The point for Jesus though, was that in him grace trumps if/then theology.  That trumping actually happens a lot in the Old Testament too, but in the cross of Jesus we see it most clearly.  The “thens” we deserve for often failing on the “ifs” are forgiven in what Jesus does for us.  The faith and obedience of Jesus prevails for our sake. 

Grace trumps if/then theology.  That doesn’t render the commandments obsolete; Jesus was quite clear about that, about not coming to abolish the law.  But he does help us to understand the law as the guide that it is rather than as an if/then system of judgment.  The Sabbath command of worship and rest that underlies today’s lessons is given for us.  Proper observation of the Sabbath frees us to be the human beings we were created to be, human beings who are forgiven children of God and not simply producers and consumers which is what the world wants to make us.  As forgiven children of God we are free to live in hope and promise rather than in fear concerning the “thens” of our failed “ifs.” 

For that, we can stand up straight and join the formerly crippled woman in praising God.  We could use the words of today’s Psalm, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name,” or we could sing together hymn 858, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the king of creation.”

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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