What is the Sabbath? There are a lot of misconceptions about the meaning but let’s begin with the word itself – what does “Sabbath” mean? It means “to cease” or “to rest.” When was the first mention of the Sabbath in the Bible and why?
In the book of Genesis, God rested on the seventh day after making the whole creation – and we call it the “creation” to honor God’s work.
2 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
But listen to the version from another translation:
2 So now you see how the Creator swept into being the spangled heavens, the earth, and all their hosts in six days. 2 On the seventh day—with the canvas of the cosmos completed—God paused from His labor and rested. 3 Thus God blessed day seven and made it special—an open time for pause and restoration, a sacred zone of Sabbath-keeping, because God rested from all the work He had done in creation that day.
Remember that the narrative of the primeval history in Genesis is attributed to Moses and is the opening story of the Torah – or the Pentateuch – the five books of Moses. Thus we meet the Sabbath again in the book of Exodus where it becomes not only one of the 10 commandments, but also a lynch-pin in the distinctive cultural nature of the people, once slaves, who became the Hebrews – eventually the Israelites. These were the only people in that part of the world – indeed in most of what we know sociologically about ancient civilizations who took a “day off” from work.
The book of Leviticus dramatically unfolds this practice of Sabbath-keeping from sundown on the day we call Friday to sundown on the day we call Saturday. The Sabbath would be a day of rest for everyone --- all people including slaves--and animals, and it extended to the seasons and years. Every seventh year was a Sabbath for the land.
In Leviticus Chapter 25, it was decreed that every 7th week of seven years= 49 years, would culminate in a Jubilee year when debts were forgiven, land that had been sold for debts was redeemed, there was no pruning or sowing, just eating what the land produced naturally; and most notably, persons who had been sold for debts could be redeemed and returned to freedom. Thus the “year of Jubilee” had great meaning for those whose lives and livelihood had been stolen and sold. The slaves of the 19th century saw emancipation as a year of Jubilee in a fully spiritual context. The action of President Lincoln was a holy action not just a political one.
Sabbath keeping was put into poetry by the prophets, like Isaiah, which we heard this morning:
Listen again from another translation:
If because of the Sabbath you set aside your own pursuits and pleasure,
and you honor the Sabbath and sanctify that day by leaving it to and for the Eternal--
If you speak of Sabbath-delight but avoid speaking idle words,
and refuse to get caught up and busy with your interests and concerns--
14 Then you will discover joy such as only the Eternal can give.
And I will raise you high and make your reach as wide as the earth,
And you will live on all that I promised to Jacob,
your ancestor, the heart of Israel.
The Eternal One said these very things.
Keeping the Sabbath was one of the ways the Hebrews distinguished themselves from other nations; and it was “enforced” by the religious authorities in a variety of ways. The Sabbath laws had to be interpreted to cover a whole host of actions and practices as time continued. Even today, in Jewish hospitals, there are special elevators that only go one floor at a time – pausing to rest between floors – used only on the Sabbath to keep the law against traveling a certain distance without resting.
Sabbath keeping in its true form has a kind of majesty. There is great emphasis on gathering as a family,
prayers, keeping close to home, gentle actions, long meals, fellowship, a time to reflect, NOT catch up!
It is said that the crock pot was invented by a Jewish woman so that meals could be cooked ahead and then kept warm for consumption on the Sabbath – even women got to rest!!! The practice of Sabbath is still part of the natural rhythm of Israel/Palestine; even as it was in the first Century, in the days when Jesus walked the face of the earth.
Let’s not be too hasty on criticizing the leader of the synagogue in today’s Gospel!
The account is full of detail…things Luke, who was a physician, would be inclined to report from someone who was there – probably Peter. Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. And a woman, bent over, crippled perhaps with arthritis? appears. Jesus calls her forward and sets her “free.” Notice – she did not ask to be cured, but she knew who to thank as she praised God. The leader of the synagogue was indignant—loosing of ties meant “work” which was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus takes the discussion to a deep level: It is God’s “work.”
The loosing of animals was permitted on the Sabbath so they could eat and drink. And was not a person just as important as the livestock?
But the bigger question is underneath: What makes time holy? We know about places that are holy, people that are holy – saints; even actions that we call holy – like Baptism and Eucharist and the sacraments.
But what makes TIME holy? Sabbath is considered holy – God’s time. When Jesus healed the woman, he was observing holy time – fFor back pain is unrelenting – no time to rest for 18 years! And she was healed on the day of resting – the Sabbath is the day of peace.
But to bring this into today – how did we get Sunday? Why don’t we join our Jewish brothers and sisters and those from the Seventh Day Adventist Church in keeping Saturday as our Sabbath? It has to do with Easter – Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week! The beginning of the new creation in Jesus. The Holy Spirit also came on the first day of the week; and as recorded in the book of Acts, the Christ followers began celebrating the Eucharist on the first day of the week – which in the Julian calendar became known as “Sunday.” (BTW the word Sunday comes from ancient Greek tradition of assigning each day to one of the celestial orbs – thus “Sun – Day.” There is no Christian meaning to this – but in Russian, the word for Sunday means resurrection.) In the early times of American’s settlement, our Puritan forbears brought and broadened the concept of Sabbath keeping into our civic customs – which is why we have a weekend – and why we had “blue laws” designed to prevent commercial enterprise on Sundays. Even now, some businesses still are closed by local ordinance on all or part of Sundays.
But we cannot return to those times. Thus, for us, the ancient concept of Sabbath-keeping that Jesus demonstrated may be even more helpful. Think about TIME: How in today’s world it is governed by clocks, hours, minutes, and seconds – even hundredths of a second like the place between first and second in a race at the Olympics. But time “gets away from us.” Time management tools are popular to help control time. But Time also crawls when we a bored, upset or afraid. Time can race when we are having fun or engrossed in a pastime we enjoy. But time stagnates for patients in the hospital, for elders in Nursing Homes, for those who are lonely, unemployed, in prison.
Holy time—Sabbath- is not just about where we are --- like being in church; but it is about WHO we are –
It is time when we are attentive, we really listen, when we stop and invite God’s loving presence into our hearts and souls and lives and actions. I keep MY Sabbath on Monday – and during the week when I pray and meditate. Today may be YOUR Sabbath – are you resting in God’s love? Are you attentive to those around you? Are you opening up to what God may be doing in your life? Sabbath may come later in life when our bodies slow down and rest becomes essential.
Sabbath keeping is about healing – body, mind, soul. Luke the Gospel writer knew this. Jesus taught this and showed us the true nature of Sabbath; and today we keep Sabbath by celebrating the resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead and the great power of God’s love was unleashed.
So….now that you know…. How are you going to keep Sabbath?
Anne+ is the Rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Lappans. She says,