By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John, chapter 9
Several years ago, I attended a church service while I was visiting with family back east. The church had a guest preacher. Now I don’t remember the entirety of his message; but I do remember he gave a great deal of time to the topic of Sabbath. He honed in with particular zeal on the decline of “blue laws” and the pressure of secularism. His argument must not have been too compelling though because, later that afternoon, my family went shopping at a local strip mall. As we got out of the car, my dad pointed, “Isn’t that the guy who spoke in church this morning?” Stopped in our tracks, we all looked. It was him alright, striding through the parking lot. This was definitely more intriguing than the morning message. We all stood watching to see where he would wind up. There was a pharmacy in the strip mall. Perhaps someone in the family was ill; you couldn’t fault the guy if he was buying medication. There was a grocery store. Again, maybe he had little ones and they’d run out of milk. There was also a Hallmark store and that, my friends, was his destination. My family and I began to chuckle. It didn’t seem very likely that an unexpected emergency would require a trip to Hallmark on the Lord’s Sabbath.
Here’s a trivia question for you: “What do tithing and Sabbath observance have in common?” Well, for one thing, each can be considered a spiritual practice. This sermon series has been about Christian spiritual practices that find their roots in Judaism. Yet, curiously enough, neither of those two practices (tithing and Sabbath observance) receives a ringing endorsement from Jesus. Jesus never instructs anyone to tithe and, in fact, is critical of some who do.[i] Likewise, Jesus seems to make the breaking of Sabbath rules a regular practice.[ii] But here is why: Jesus observes that both of these disciplines have become corrupted by some religious leaders who have behaved like hypocrites and who have turned these spiritual practices into religious gymnastics; ways of earning heavenly brownie points. But that is never the point of a spiritual practice.
Think of it this way… Most of us, no doubt, have had the experience of a family member (spouse, child, sibling) doing something that they know is going to upset us or hurt our feelings. And, rather than owning up and genuinely apologizing, they attempt to earn our forgiveness by doing some little favor for us. When my siblings and I were growing up, sometimes we were playing too recklessly inside the house and we broke one of mom’s knick knacks and, in a preemptive move – before mom made the discovery – we would offer to do extra chores around the house. We weren’t really trying to help mom; we were trying to mitigate the discipline we knew would soon befall us. Conversely, most of us have also experienced a time when someone who loved us performed an action for us simply out of love. Britt and I divide up the chores at home. Sometimes I’ll have a dreadfully busy week and I’ll come late one evening to discover that my husband has completed my chore on my behalf, simply as an expression of his love for me.
You see, the reason for spiritual practices isn’t to earn God’s favor or try to mitigate God’s wrath. Spiritual practices aren’t about earning God’s love – which is free to begin with. Spiritual practices (or disciplines) are an expression of love in response to the love God has already shown us.[iii]
This morning’s bible story from John 9 is a remarkable story. It is so rich with meaning that I could preach it for weeks and never run out of material. In fact, my husband wrote an entire book on this one chapter in John. Its primary point is not a lesson in Sabbath. But, Sabbath is an important component of this story that significantly impacts its meaning and interpretation.
But first, a little background on Sabbath in the Old Testament. The first mention of Sabbath is in the book of Exodus in the story of the manna in the wilderness.[iv] The Israelites are given clear instructions about this bread which God will rain down from the heavens to provide for their needs. Each week on the Sabbath day they are forbidden to go outside and gather manna. Even if they try, there won’t be anything there. Rather, they’re to collect more on the day before and eat from that. Within the story, we learn something about the meaning of Sabbath. Sabbath observance keeps us mindful that we are not the masters of our own destiny; not self-made men and women. We live by God’s grace and by the work God does on our behalf. Hence, when we cease from work on the Sabbath day, we celebrate the truth that every day we rest secure in God’s provision. Later in Exodus the Israelites will be told of the precedence for holding Sabbath time sacred.[v] On that day they are to rest and allow everyone and everything to also rest (slaves, foreigners, their livestock, even the land needs to rest) because, according to the beginning of Genesis, God created the world in six days. Then, God rested on the seventh day and designated that day as something special, something holy. It was as if an artist, having painted a perfect masterpiece, centers it on the easel and steps backs to admire its beauty from every angle. Likewise, Sabbath brings a moment of adoration, a poetic pause, to the hectic driven-ness of our lives.
Now, although God rested on that seventh day,[vi] it did not imply that God goes on break, so to speak, every seven days. God continues to work. On every day of the week, year in and year out, people are born on Sabbath, people die on Sabbath, and there are storms and other cosmic phenomenon on Sabbath. God, alone, keeps the world in motion in ways that create, sustain and restore life. And that, my friends, brings us – at long last – to John, chapter 9, the story of the healing of the man born blind.
It is a Sabbath day when Jesus and his disciples encounter this man who has been blind since the day he was born... although we won’t be told it is Sabbath until later in the story. Now, Jesus’ disciples attribute this man’s blindness to sin; a common assumption in the ancient world. But Jesus refutes that explanation saying, instead, that this man’s circumstances will provide the opportunity for God’s work to be revealed. Perhaps with a sense of urgency in his voice, Jesus says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”[vii] And then, Jesus does in fact, set to work. Using the earth and his own spittle, he begins the work of creating something: he kneads the dirt and spittle into a paste-like consistency and then he anoints the man with it, rubbing it across his eyes. And in doing that, Jesus has violated at least three Sabbath rules; he has transgressed three of the “thou shalt not’s” associated with Sabbath observance. All Jews should know that, on Sabbath, thou shalt not create, thou shalt not knead, and thou shalt not anoint.
The Pharisees are in an uproar because, by their assessment, Jesus is desecrating the Sabbath by doing work. The Sabbath is sacred time, not secular time. They’re real sticklers for these religious rules and, to some degree, you can’t really blame them. Centuries before, the Babylonians had destroyed their holy Temple and their holy city and drug many of them off into exile. And the Jewish prophets were clear about why that happened: they’d been violating and ignoring the commandments God had given them, one of which was the observance of Sabbath as a sacred day of rest. They were called to be holy people, living in a holy land, living in the presence of a holy God. They don’t want to risk the breakdown of that relationship with God. But here’s the thing: that relationship is staring them right in the face. Jesus, God’s holy presence on earth, is in their midst and they cannot see it because they have been so caught up in anxiety about the “thou shalt’s” and the “thou shalt not’s” of Sabbath.[viii] They push this man to abandon his loyalty to this sinful Sabbath breaker named Jesus in order that he might give glory to God. Yet that is exactly what the man is doing for, in acknowledging how Jesus has healed him, he is glorifying God the Father and the Son. Jesus cannot sin by working on the Sabbath anymore than God the heavenly Father can. Jesus, the Light of the World, has rekindled the light within this man so that he can see. Jesus, whose light is life,[ix] has restored the life of this man who had been shunned and ignored and even condemned as a sinner.
So what does this story of a blind man given life and light on a holy Sabbath day have to teach us about the spiritual practice of Sabbath? Does Sabbath still apply to Christians? And if it does, how does it apply? Is it just about bringing back “blue laws” and not going to work? Or is it something more?
Well, I think it is and I think this story provides a good lesson for us in how we might observe a holy Sabbath. I think we can observe holy time; time set apart from the ordinary, day in/day out rhythms. And I think we might need it now more than ever for in our modern society, there is very little to distinguish one day from the next. In her book, Sabbath Keeping, Donna Schaper writes: “increasingly we live in the twenty-four-hour time of commerce, of convenience. It is 7-Eleven time, the fluorescent time of unmodulated, shadowless light, where coffee and doughnuts are available at all hours, where the rhythm of breakfast, lunch and dinner has no meaning, and where Sunday is Monday…”[x] We race through our lives at break neck speed and, in our exhaustion, our senses become dulled. But we need holy time, time that we choose to set aside, to tune ourselves in to the presence of God who is at work within us and all around us. Sabbath as a time for worship, for rest and for play allows our lives to be restored and our eyes to be enlightened so that we can see and give thanks for God’s providential work. At its core, Sabbath is not a rule, but rather a gift from God. Those ancient Israelites given manna in the wilderness on Sabbath day were given the opportunity to rest and simply enjoy and receive the benefits of God’s work. God had made manna for them to eat that day – and frankly every day – through absolutely no effort on their part. Likewise, Sabbath should keep us humble and remind us of God’s providence; that there is some work that only God can do and some needs that only God can meet and that, day in and day out, God works those works on our behalf.
If we return to my earlier image of God as artist, as the painter stepping back from the easel to admire the beauty of his creation; well, worship is a way of admiring the work of the master artist. Yet, far too often, we race through the gallery, never taking the time to truly see. So, a man born blind and despised becomes a hero and our model of faith because only the man born blind could truly see.
[i] See Matthew 23:23
[ii] Along with John 9, see the healing of the lame man in John, chapter 5, as well as Mark 2:23-28.
[iii] In his classic work Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace… God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.” (p. 7)
[iv] See Exodus, chapter 16.
[v] See Exodus 20:8-11
[vi] See Genesis 2:1-4.
[vii] John 9:4
[viii] See, for example, Deuteronomy 5:14
[ix] See John 1:1-4
[x] Sabbath Keeping by Donna Schaper; Cloister Books/ Cowley Publications; 1999; pp 45-46
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