One of my favorite things about my new home in the Stockade is the Riverside Park. My back yard opens right on to it. It has become a bit of an evening ritual of mine to take a walk down there after dinner. The river looks especially beautiful as the sun is setting. Sometimes I will just sit on the bench and watch the boats go by. It has been a wonderful way to unwind at the end of the day.
Where is it that you go for rest and restoration? Maybe you enjoy gardening, hunting, or fishing. Perhaps you have a cabin by the lake that you like to vacation at. Maybe it is music that lifts your spirits, reading a novel, or just spending quality time with your family. Too often in our work-obsessed culture, such activities are dismissed as idleness, but God blesses and honors these times as part of the necessary rhythm of life.
God has woven rest and renewal into the very fabric of creation.
He has set limits on the activity of his creatures. We must rest and recuperate. Our physical and mental make-up testifies to this. Just as the sun goes down every evening and rises up again like a new creation every morning, so we too must lay down to rise up again refreshed and recreated each day.
In the Old Covenant God commanded that the seventh day be kept as a Sabbath to the Lord. No work was to be done on that day. The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” It was a day of rest and worship. God wanted his people to remember their limitations. He wanted them to remember that he was their creator and they were his creations.
In our rebellion and estrangement from God we forget that basic fact. We put other things in the place of God—such as work, making money, or earning the approval of others—and we become servants of these gods. We become their prisoners. The commandment that God’s people observe the Sabbath, was meant to instruct them against this tendency.
Why then is it that we—as Christians—do not observe the Sabbath in the same way that God’s people in the Old Testament did or as our Jewish friends still do? More troubling still, why does it seem like Jesus is always going out of his way to break his people’s traditions around the observance of Sabbath? For instance In this morning gospel lesson Jesus is called out for healing on the Sabbath. Can God’s law change such that a thing can be wrong at one time and right at another?
It is important to remember that not all the laws in the Bible are the same. There are moral laws, civil laws, and ceremonial laws
Moral laws are the kind of laws that are universal and never change. They are natural laws that everyone in all times and places are beholden to. For instance the commandment against murder or adultery, will always be valid.
Civil laws are the laws of the land. They are the legal prohibitions and penalties of the government. They are therefore specific to a particular context and not universal or changeless. Sometimes these overlap with moral laws, such as with the prohibition against murder, but they don’t need to. Traffic laws are a good example of civil laws in our context. To get caught running a red light doesn’t necessarily make you immoral but it does make you an offender against civil law. The civil laws described in the Old Testament do not apply to us. They are specific to that particular kingdom.
Ceremonial laws include specific regulations on how God’s people should properly perform the liturgy or how they should remain ritually clean. So for instance the prohibition against pork or shell fish in the Bible would fall under this category. These ceremonial laws too are not universal but specific to the old covenant. Christians believe that since Jesus brought the Old Covenant to a completion, fulfilling the purposes for which it was instituted, these laws no long apply to us. This is why Christians are permitted to eat any food they like and do not need to make animal sacrifices for sin. Jesus has atoned for sin once and for all through his own perfect sacrifice.
The question is, what kind of law is the Sabbath Commandment? Is it a moral law, a civil law, or ceremonial? Various Christian communities have different beliefs regarding the Sabbath. Some, such as the Seventh-Day Adventist, actually observe Saturday as the Sabbath and worship on that day. Others apply the Old Testament restrictions against work on the Sabbath to Sunday. This question was a big source of controversy between Anglicans and Puritans in England. The Puritans regarded the Sabbath as a moral law. They banned all work on the Lord’s day, but also recreations and diversions like games or sports.
However, in the Anglican tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, the Old Testament Sabbath laws have usually been understood to be part of the ceremonial law that no longer applies to Christians.
Jesus clearly regarded the Sabbath as part of the ceremonial laws. He compared it with the rituals and sacrifices of the temple and with circumcision. Jesus had very strict standards regarding the moral laws, more so than the Pharisees, yet when it came to the ceremonial laws he was much more lenient. Strikingly, Jesus is not recorded as giving any prohibitions regarding the Sabbath. Quite the opposite, he continually broke those restrictions.
It wasn’t as if Jesus merely abolished the ceremonial laws. Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” These laws were established by God for a reason. The laws of the Old Covenant were meant to point forward and prepare the way towards their completion in the New Covenant.
How is this illustrated in our Gospel lesson this morning? Jesus intentionally performs an act of healing and deliverance on the Sabbath in order to make a point. He was demonstrating the true meaning and purpose behind the Sabbath laws. Remember how we said that the Sabbath was meant to remind God’s people that time, business, productivity, and profit were not their masters? It was a day to be still and know that God was the Lord. The Sabbath is about freedom and not bondage, yet in their misplaced zeal the Pharisees had made it a heavy yoke, a burden that deprived God’s people of joy and liberty rather than restoring it.
Jesus wants us to know the New Covenant of the Spirit—in which we will discover the true meaning of Sabbath—not the dead letter of the law which makes us less free rather than more free.
Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” The Sabbath day of all days is the day in which it is most appropriate to liberate those who are oppressed and in bondage.
There is something more that needs to be said. In the Christian tradition Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter, is called the Great Sabbath. It is the day when Jesus rested in the tomb. It is the day when all creation holds its breath in anticipation of the new creation of the glorious resurrection. It is also the day when Jesus descended to the realm of the dead to set at liberty those who were captives there. The Great Sabbath is a day of rescue, where God’s people are restored, and set free for new life.
How did Jesus fulfill the purposes of God’s Sabbath Day? He set us free, he broke the bonds of sin and death, and made all things new. The scriptures say, if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation! This is why we worship on Sunday and not on Saturday. We are no longer waiting for the new creation. We are living in it! On Sundays we give thanks that Christ has set us free through his life, death, and resurrection.
He has taken us who are bent over and oppressed, unable to stand, and he has made us to rise with him. Lift up your hearts!