Our Seattle neighborhood was one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. From our front porch, you could see a Catholic church, a Buddhist Temple, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a mosque, and a Methodist Free Church. Just up the hill, there were several Jewish synagogues, one of which was Orthodox. And, because you have to go to Temple on the Shabbat, but you also can’t drive on the Shabbat, there were a significant number of Orthodox Jews who lived in the neighborhood. One of our best friendslives on a little private cul-de-sacabout a 1/2 mile from our house. Her house is at the top of the driveway, and down below her are three other homes, all three occupied by Orthodox Jewish families. They’re normal families. Their kids are around the same ages as our kids, and play rough and fight and are sweet and helpful, just like our kids. But on Saturday, nothing happened. On Saturday, well from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, they don’t do anything. They don’t drive, they don’t turn their lights on or off, they don’t cook or do laundry or cut the grass. These are families with kids. Lots of kids. The family that I knew best of them had 4 little kids in the house. And they still took a day off from doing laundry! They don’t even sign their name on Shabbat. My friend who lives at the top of the driveway became their Shabbat goy. That’s what you call a non-Jew who does things for you on the Shabbat that you can’t do for yourself. Like signing for a package when UPS delivers your special delivery of kosher mac-n-cheese powder. Or driving you to the hospital when your wife goes into labor.
I was always fascinated by their observance of the Shabbat. On a warm Saturday afternoon, you might see the adults sitting out on the porch step,reading, or taking a stroll with their kids. Almost invariably, all of the kids wound up at our friend Jeanne’s house, where the Shabbat observance was not enforced, and they could play however they wanted.
And I’ll admit. I was jealous of their Shabbat. That’s probably some kind of special level of sin, coveting another’s Sabbath day. But how often do any of us observe a true Sabbath? One that involves simply being not doing? One that makes space for God’s presence and voice, not just for an hour on Sunday, glancing at the clock when it creeps over. But for 24 hours, from sundown to sundown. It’s just not something that our culture makes room for, not anymore.
Our final cultural Sabbath was Thanksgiving Day. The one day a year when no one worked, no one shopped, no one but the most essential personnel left their homes. Everyone rested. Yes, they cooked, and probably cleaned, and certainly consumed, and most likely argued, but this was our last bastion of Sabbath rest. And now it is the prelude to Christmas plunder, and more and more people are being forced to work on Thanksgiving so that more and more people can stop giving thanks for what they have and start finding deals on what they want.
And yet, if anyone asked you what you want more than anything, I bet that “rest” would be a top answer, if not the top. If anyone asked me what I want most of all, I know that would be my answer. Rest, down time, peace, some time to catch up with myself. Some time to catch up with God. We don’t want to be told that we have to take some rest, but we desperately want to be told to go ahead and take some rest.
Imagine that you are a Hebrew slave, born in Egypt. All your life, Pharaoh has been your lord, and you have had to work for him without ceasing. Every day from sunup to sundown, you have either made bricks, or built temples, or toiled in the fields, or served at the tables of Egyptian masters. Every. Day.
And then, one day, you are set free, and you cross the desert, and you come to foot of this mountain, where you are told, “Pharaoh is no longer your Lord. Now, I AM the Lord your God. You will have no other Lords.” In other words, you will not be slaves to anyone, ever again.
“From now on, you will remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Every week, without fail, you will cease working for one day, resting and renewing your life in God, remembering what gives life and what brings freedom.”
And you, former slave, would probably think, “Have to? You mean get to! I get to take a day off every week! I get to worship my God, not Pharaoh! I get to spend the day doing the things that renew me,like studying Scripture, or taking walks with my kids!”
But a few generations later, your grandkids have forgotten what it was like to be slaves. For them, the Sabbath day has always been the boring day of the week when you don’t do anything, and no one will turn on the Nintendo Wii for you, and you can’t even use a crayon. And the only way that the Sabbath will be observed is if it is required. If there are rules. And consequences. And so the Sabbath becomes all about the rules.
And that’s where Jesus is. The Pharisees are all about rules. And with good reason. They weren’t just a bunch of uptight squares. The land of Israel has been invaded more times that can be counted, and the people have been exiled, and their identity, their very existence as a people, has been threatened. And for Jews, their identity is tied up in the covenants,and the signs of the covenants. How do you know God spoke to Noah?Because of the rainbow.How do you know you’re a child of Abraham? Because you are circumcised. How do you know you’re an Israelite? Because you keep the Sabbath.
The Sabbath is a sign of the covenant, and to keep the Sabbath is a sign that you have no God but Yahweh, that you have been freed, that you are not a slave of anyone.
And it’s not just Jews who know this. The book of 1 Maccabees reports that just a few generations before Jesus, the Seleucid empire took over Judea, and forced the Jewish people to profane the Sabbath. In other words, they were forbidden to keep the Sabbath. Their identity as free people of God was taken from them.
The Pharisees knew this history. Their grandfathers had lived it. And they believed that, more than anything else, the best way to survive their current occupation under the Roman empire, was to keep God’s law, as strictly as possible. To follow the rules. To assert their identity as God’s people, by keeping the covenant; by keeping the Sabbath.
But there is a difference between keeping the rules for the sake of the rules, and keeping the rules because they point toward life. The rules, God’s law, was given as a gift. It was given to teach the people, to teach us, how to live in freedom. A people who has been in slavery, whether literal slavery, or some other kind of bondage, need help, they need rules to help them figure out how to be free. But we humans have a tendency to take rules too far. We tend to place the rules in the position of authority. We forget that the rules were intended to point to God, to free us for God’s service, to remind us that we are to love only God, to fear only God.
Martin Luther explains each one of the 10 Commandments by reminding us that “we are to fear and love God,” and only God. Because we always wind up fearing and loving other things. We love power, money, security, comfort, approval. We fear death, pain, rejection, obscurity, deprivation.
And fearing and loving these things, we forget who we are. We forget whose we are. And our rules begin to point to our fears and our loves.
We observe the Sabbath to prove to others that we are more righteous than they are.
We keep the commandments because we fear punishment.
We judge others for their keeping or not keeping the Sabbath, and somehow, eventually, the rules become our gods, because we fear and love them more than we fear and love God who gave them.
There was a saying among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, that if all Jews would perfectly keep two consecutive Sabbaths, the Messiah would come. In other words, if the people would get the rules right, then God would send salvation. And yet here is Jesus, the Messiah, right in front of them. And he breaks two consecutive Sabbaths, first by plucking grain on the Sabbath, and then by healing on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees are so blinded by the rules,that they cannot see that salvation is standing right in front of them. That it’s not about the rules. It’s about what the rules point to, it’s about God, who loves us exactly as we are,even before the rules are given, and even after the rules are broken.
It’s about the life that God gives, and the life that God renews, and the freedom that God restores.
Because in Christ, you have been given freedom, not so that you can set that up again as another rule, not so that you can turn Christ into another law, another rule for judging others or yourself. But for freedom’s sake. Simply because freedom is the identity that God wants for you. Freedom is your promised and preferred future. A promise to be lived, not a rule to be followed.