As I was reading through our texts for this morning, I have to admit that I felt a little twinge of guilt. There’s all this language about being respectful of the sabbath, of taking sabbath rest – and yet I’m very, very aware that I myself have actually not taken a day completely off since the week before last… I’m also very aware of the fact that the final words of this very sermon were written no more than an hour or two ago. 😬 The words of Isaiah seem particularly to sting: stop “trampling the sabbath” and “pursuing your own interests on [God’s] holy day,” Isaiah says; “call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable”; “honor it” – instead of just “going your own ways, serving your own interests, [and] pursuing your own affairs.”
…oops. Sorry, God. My bad.
About a month ago, I preached a sermon about Martha and Mary – and I mentioned that this is something that pastors especially seem to struggle with. There are a whole lot of Marthas in ministry as clergy, people who pour a lot of themselves into what they do and who struggle to disconnect from their work. It’s also just kind of the nature of ministry that there’s almost never really a natural stopping point – there’s never a point at which you’re “done” with anything. At the end of every sermon, there’s always just another sermon to write. I can easily imagine that working in education is very similar – or even farming, to some extent – no matter when you decide to call it quits for the day and go home, there’s always more work to do.
And cognitively, we know that it’s not good for a person to work without taking enough time to rest. Even machines need to refuel or recharge and to stop periodically for maintenance. We also know that honoring sabbath time isn’t just a suggestion that God has given us – it’s a commandment. Whenever I gather with my clergy colleagues, we are always checking up on each other to make sure everyone is taking their day off and that they’re using their vacation time. I even had one pastor friend of mine specifically request that I hound her about blocking out vacation days on her calendar to make sure that she actually took them. When you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, when there’s just always more to do, taking time off to rest can start to feel like just one more obligation. It just feels like just one more commitment, one more expectation to feel like you’re failing to live up to.
But going back to this Isaiah passage, reading it more closely, that’s not what sabbath is meant to be. It’s so easy to read this text in a kind of accusatory tone – at first glance, all these “if” statements sound like requirements we have to fulfill in order to gain God’s approval. But that’s not what Isaiah is saying at all. He’s saying, if we take off our yoke, if we care for our neighbor, if we practice sabbath rest, it’s not that we will earn God’s favor – Isaiah writes that our “light will rise,” our “ancient ruins will be rebuilt,” and we “shall take delight in the Lord.” These things are not about pleasing God – they are about what is good for us. Isaiah is saying that if you live according to the ways that God has taught you to live and called you to live, then you will flourish; you will delight in God and in all that God has given.
The whole idea of sabbath isn’t to benefit God – it’s to benefit us. Honoring the command to practice keeping the sabbath isn’t about us trying to keep God happy by obeying the letter of the law. God doesn’t need us to do that. If anything, sabbath is more about God trying to help us to be happy and well by commanding us to take time out of our busy lives to rest, to be refreshed and renewed. I have often quipped that there’s a reason God felt the need to command us to rest, but not the need to command us to work – God already knows which one we’re more likely to actually do!
But the leader of the synagogue and his pals in our gospel reading don’t seem to understand this at all. Jesus notices this woman who has lived for 18 years bent over, unable to stand up straight, probably unable to participate in a lot of the life of her community. And without worrying for a second what day it is, Jesus calls to her, lays his hands on her, and frees her from her ailment.
This makes the synagogue leaders furious. They call him out for healing on the sabbath – which they see as working on the sabbath – and criticize him to the crowds. But it’s very clear that their criticism of Jesus “working” on the sabbath has absolutely nothing to do with how they perceive the state of his spiritual health or well-being; it has everything to do with what they see as a breaking of the law.
And Jesus is angry right back at them. This woman, whose struggles they had probably been ignoring all this time, stands up straight for the first time in 18 years – and she immediately begins to praise God. The way she rejoices in what God has done for her shows just how much she has been suffering. This is probably the first true sabbath she has had in a long time! But these religious leaders appear to be totally oblivious to all of that. Rather than rejoice with this sister of their community, they get hung up and complain about the fact that Jesus healed her on the sabbath day.
They are so convinced of their own righteousness through the law that they are completely missing the actual gift that is sabbath. The righteousness that they think they have is really not good news for them – certainly not as good as they think it is. They’re treating the sabbath like it’s a requirement to meet or a box to check, nothing more. And then they go and waste that time criticizing and policing the behavior of others. None of it is actually giving them life. None of it is helping them to rest or to be spiritually refreshed or to recenter themselves in God.
The actual practice of sabbath keeping is about much more than simply taking a break from work. It’s about creating space for ourselves to open up our hearts and to allow ourselves to simply be in God’s presence. It’s a time to focus on reconnecting with God, to soak in God’s peace and mercy. Sabbath is a practice of allowing ourselves to be ministered to by God.
In this light, our gospel story is kind of ironic. Here is a literal case of someone being directly ministered to by God – and yet here are these people who are actually angry with Jesus about it. I kind of suspect that the real reason they’re angry with Jesus is not that he broke the law by healing someone on the sabbath, but rather that they witness him showing more compassion toward this woman than they show toward their neighbors, or even toward their own selves.
This is a perennial struggle for humans – as much in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. I mean, God knows I struggle to make my day off a true sabbath, and not just a day I spend doing chores around the house or zoned out in front of the TV playing Minecraft. But God has such profound compassion for us – “God is full of compassion and mercy,” as the psalmist writes – “God satisfies our desires with good things”; God guides us continually and satisfies our needs in parched places and makes our bones strong, so that we may be like a watered garden or like a spring of water that never fails.” God has greater compassion for us than we have for each other or even sometimes for ourselves.
And so God continues to call us into the practice of keeping sabbath – not just as a pause in our work – but as active resting and recentering in God’s presence. I encourage you all to find time this week for rest, whatever that may look like for you. Set aside some time to just be still in God’s presence, to let go of your checklists, and to let yourself be drawn lovingly into the life-giving rest of sabbath.