Scripture Readings: Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things were created through him and for him. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Col 1:15-16, 19-20)
Sabbath Living: The Hope of Glory
I have been wanting to preach a sermon about the Sabbath for a long time. And our scriptures for today, even though they don’t mention the Sabbath directly, tie into it. So I’m going to start out talking about the Sabbath today, and then tie in the scripture readings and see where they take us.
As many of you know, before I became a pastor I directed a church choir for many years. And I loved my choir. But there was one thing they did that bugged me. Every fall I would get calls or emails from some of my choir members saying “I can’t be there Sunday, sorry.” And if I asked “why?” they would say “Steelers game.” And I would say “But church ends at noon, and the game starts at one… what’s the problem?” (Apparently I just didn’t get it.)
Finally one day I looked at my choir and I said “God… Football… Weigh them in the scales: which is more important? God? Or football?”
(The very fact that I would ask that question is a dead giveaway that I was not born and raised in Pittsburgh!)
But it got me to thinking: how did we, as Americans, as Pittsburghers, as churchgoers, get to where we are with the Sabbath? I mean, when I was a kid the stores were all closed on Sundays. You didn’t work on Sundays (unless you worked at a hospital). You didn’t play sports on Sundays (unless you were a professional athlete). I don’t even remember watching TV on Sundays (except for the Ed Sullivan Show, and that was on at night). Sundays were for going to church and then having dinner with your family… better still, with your extended family. Sundays were a day to relax.
These days we don’t have Sunday any more, not like that. Employers expect people to work any day of the week. Schools and sports coaches demand our children’s time (or our grand-kids’ time) every day of the week. And stores have sales on Sundays to compete for what little time we have left on weekends.
It’s no wonder church attendance has dropped. Church has become, for many people, just one more thing to do, one more demand on our limited weekend time.
And if I sound like somebody who’s missing the good ol’ days, I’m not. I could tell stories about the ‘good ol’ days’. But my experience with my choir made me start to re-think things. Were we missing something back in those old days? Are we missing something now?
In looking for answers to these questions I came across a book called To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin. It’s standard reading for Jewish families. And I chose a Jewish author because the Sabbath has its roots in Judaism. It started with Moses and the Ten Commandments.
You remember the Fourth Commandment. God says:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
This law comes before the laws against murder, theft, adultery, false witness and coveting! Why? Why was God so serious about keeping the Sabbath?
The Jewish people have had thousands of years to wrestle with these question. So I turned to a Jewish expert for some answers.
Rabbi Donin writes that the Jewish people have a great love for the Sabbath. They sometimes call it ‘the Sabbath Bride’ because they love it so much.
He says looking at it from the outside, Sabbath rules (like no working) may seem restrictive – ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’ – but in reality it’s just the opposite. The Sabbath is, in his words, “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation. It is a day of peaceful tranquility, inner joy, and spiritual uplift.” And after a week like the one we’ve had this week – with everything that has happened in the news — couldn’t we use a bit of peace, joy, and spiritual uplift?
The author also says the Sabbath speaks to us of “…the eternal Paradise, of the world to come, [which will be] one long extended, unending, eternal Sabbath day.”
In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a small picture, a taste, of eternity with God – a living picture of God’s Promised Land – where all earthly concerns will be behind us. A world in which the powers and obligations of this world will be things of the past.
The Sabbath is one day out of seven when we can, with God’s blessing, tell the world to knock it off. It speaks to us of God’s justice, because God says all workers get time off. And it speaks to us of God’s joy and love, because it’s family time for the family of God.
For Jewish people, the Sabbath begins on Friday night at sundown. Friday dinner is served as if an honored guest were coming to visit: the best dishes are laid out, and the family dresses as if for company. Candles are lit. Prayers are said. Parents lay hands on their children and bless them in God’s name. And as dinner is eaten, songs are sung and celebration is in the air. Saturday morning the family goes to synagogue, and then the rest of the day is free to enjoy: to spend time with friends, visit neighbors, or enjoy some rest or a good meal. The Sabbath day continues all day until the stars come out on Saturday night.
Doesn’t that sound like a soothing break from our crazy pace of life? Doesn’t it make you hungry for something our society is missing? It does for me. It is a taste of the future, it’s a taste of God’s kingdom.
The apostle Paul knew all of this: knew it better than most of us, because he was a Pharisee. He was trained in Jewish law. But he says in Galatians that Christians don’t have to keep Jewish law any more. Did he mean to include the Sabbath in that? Did he mean the Ten Commandments aren’t law for us any more? Yes, basically. But does that mean we should disobey the Ten Commandments? Are we allowed to go around killing and stealing and lying? Of course not.
The Ten Commandments are still a good thing, guidelines for living. So we ignore the Sabbath at our own risk. Not because salvation is about keeping the law… but because if we miss it, we are missing someing really important. We miss out on rest that our bodies and minds and hearts and souls need. And we miss out on catching a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God. Sabbath points us in the direction of our future with Jesus in Paradise.
Listen to what Paul says in our reading from Colossians today:
“He (that is Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.” The word image in Greek is icon, and it has the same meaning as the word ‘icon’ in our day: it’s a picture that represents or stands in for something. Jesus is the icon of God. And just like Jesus is the icon of God, the Sabbath is the icon of eternal life: a picture of what eternity looks like.
Paul says: “By him (that is, Jesus) all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; thrones, dominions, rulers, authorities – all things were created through him and for him.”
And if Jesus was there in creation, as Paul says he was, then Jesus was also there on the seventh day when God rested. Creation and the Sabbath are linked together, in such a way that they can’t be torn apart.
Paul goes on to say: Jesus is “the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead… in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And Jesus has reconciled us to God in his body by his death. Paul says this is “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.” The mystery is: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
This is Kingdom-talk. In the book of Colossians Paul is teaching the Colossians about the Kingdom of God, about the rule of Christ. He is teaching them that, because Jesus is King and because Jesus is in us… he is in us, and he is in the Kingdom, and we are in Him, so we are in the Kingdom. Christ in us, the hope of glory.
The Kingdom will be a place where Jesus will rest from all he has done for us; and we with him, and in him, and he in us. The kingdom and the Sabbath are related. Intertwined. That’s why the Sabbath is so holy, and why it’s so important.
So having heard what Paul has to say, we turn to the story of Mary and Martha. And we see Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening, while Martha is rushing around, preparing food, serving guests, trying her best to be the ‘hostess with the mostess’.
It’s clear from the story that Jesus honors Mary’s choice over Martha’s… but why? Is Jesus saying it’s better to sit and learn than it is to be busy working? No! Disciples of Jesus are called to work just as much as we are called to learn.
But when I look at this story in the Greek, what I see is Mary being with Jesus – not just physically with, but emotionally with, spiritually with Jesus: following his words, following his thoughts. She’s being a disciple. Martha, on the other hand, is drawn away from Jesus by all her worrying and fretting. She feels alone and left out. She’s feeling at the end of her rope. Martha wants her sister’s company. She wants her sister to help her. And it’s not a bad thing that Martha’s asking for… it’s just not the right way or the right time. Mary didn’t left her sister alone; Mary made a choice. And Martha also made a choice to do what she’s doing. And Jesus hints that Martha still has time to change her choice if she wants to.
What I come away with in this story is that if we find ourselves feeling anxious, distracted, troubled, bothered… we may need to put things down for a little while and spend some time with the Lord like Mary does. In other words, Martha needed a Sabbath! And Mary was taking one. Our picture of Mary – sitting peacefully at Jesus’ feet listening to his words – is a beautiful picture of Sabbath rest. And that’s why Jesus says she has chosen the better portion.
So what does all this mean for us today? I think three things:
- First off it may seem strange to be talking about Christians taking a break after a week like this one. The world around us needs Jesus desperately, and we Christians need to be about God’s business, proclaiming the gospel, speaking God’s truth, bearing witness to God’s love in a world that is spinning out of control. But it’s at times like these when the Sabbath is even more We need to be rested, we need to let Jesus refresh us and teach us, so that we can go out into the world and be effective for God the other six days of the week. Otherwise we’ll just be a bunch of Marthas running around upset and distracted and wondering why nobody’s helping. Human beings were not designed to be on the go 24/7. We need rest, we need time with God, we need time when we can tell the world to go away for a little while, so that we can come at life again fresh.
- Take some time to learn about the Sabbath and what God had in mind when God created the Sabbath. Read what Scripture has to say about the Sabbath. If you have a computer, go to biblegateway.com and run a search on the word ‘Sabbath’. Find out why the Sabbath is so important to God. Read about what happened when the ancient Israelites gave up on the Sabbath because they decided they’d rather make money on Saturdays… and how their society gave way to a culture of greed. Are we seeing the same thing happening today? How did God respond when this happened back then? Take a look at these issues, and talk about them with each other.
- As you are able, do some experimenting with the Sabbath. I have to admit I’m still experimenting myself, I’m still learning. So what I suggest here are some of the things that have worked for me, but feel free to improvise. Try setting aside one day a week when you will do no work. You might not be able to clear off one day a week at first… maybe just one day a month to start with. But make it a day when you will do absolutely nothing, from sundown one night to sundown the next. And it might not be Sunday – you might have too much to do on Sundays. Try a Saturday or a Tuesday, whenever you can clear off a day. For that one day, be a human being, not a human doing. Turn off the phones, turn off the computer, turn off the TV news (movies and entertainment are OK, but I recommend avoiding the news) and just live in the now. Be free of all obligations to anybody else.
I want to warn you, observing the Sabbath not easy. It’s amazing how fast distractions crop up and how hard it is to keep one day completely clear. But it is worth the effort. As you experiment, try different things. Try setting aside time to read scripture and pray. Try lighting a candle when the sun goes down on the first night. If you have kids or grand-kids, try pray God’s blessing over them. Listen to music… or if you play an instrument, play. Visit a neighbor. Read a book. Go for a walk. Sit out in the backyard with some sunscreen and a tall glass of iced tea. And do no work for a day.
And whatever you do, do it with prayer. Ask God to guide you and teach you about this gift called Sabbath. Ask God to lead your thoughts and activities. Tell God you’re doing this because you want to know God better, and you want to know God’s Kingdom better.
And when you try this, let me know how it goes. I’d love to compare notes!
In the meantime, remember: the Sabbath is our icon, our picture, of the eternity to come. So step into the Sabbath… and enjoy! AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church 7/17/16