I wonder what your feelings are about Sundays, the Christian Sabbath? It might depend on your age. In the sixties, when I was born, most shops were closed on Sundays, and there weren’t the Sunday sports activities there are now, but the rather grim attitudes which had forbidden children from playing or reading anything other than improving books had largely faded away. I remember it as a quieter day than normal, a different day, a day which normally included church and Sunday school, but not a solemn or boring day. Looking back it may have been a high point in Sabbath observance, preserving the sense of rest, but in a way which didn’t seem repressive – at least not in my family. Some of you may recall a much stricter Sabbath observance, or, if you are younger, may never have known a time when this day was really much different from the rest.
At the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was a major preoccupation of the religious experts, one of the things which singled out their nation among all the others of the world. Who were these strange people who refused to work, or even to fight in their own defence, on this one day of their week. Those religious experts argued endlessly about what, precisely, constituted work though. You couldn’t carry anything – that was work – but what distance did that apply to? Did carrying a chair across a room count? You couldn’t travel, but how far couldn’t you travel? You needed to get to the synagogue after all. Arguments raged among the lawyers.
In the story we heard in the Gospel, Jesus runs up against one of those religious experts, the leader of the synagogue he had come to on this particular Sabbath. He already had a reputation as a healer, and maybe that’s what drew the woman in this story to the synagogue on this day. She’d been ill for 18 years already, bent double by some disease, excluded from normal life by her disability, unable even to look other people square in the eyes. At this time disease was thought to be a punishment from God, so she may have been treated with suspicion by her neighbours as well. She wasn’t going to push herself forward though. It was Jesus who called her forward, laid his hands on her and lifted her up to standing again. Cue great rejoicing; the crowd seem to have been amazed and delighted. But the synagogue leader couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was the Sabbath. Healing was work. Work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus had broken the law. The fact that a desperate woman’s life had been transformed meant nothing to him. He just “kept saying” to the crowd that they should all have come on another day if they wanted healing…
Jesus wasn’t having any of it. The law permitted people to take their livestock to food and water on the Sabbath, so why should it forbid the healing of this poor woman, he argued. In fact, Jesus went further than that. It wasn’t just that he believed he was allowed to heal on the Sabbath; this was precisely what he ought to be doing. “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years be set free from bondage on the Sabbath.”
His answer hints at a much broader understanding of the significance of the Sabbath than the synagogue leader has, but it wasn’t really anything new; it was firmly rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures.
According to the book of Genesis, God created the world in six days, and on the seventh day ceased from his work. It wasn’t that he’d run out of ideas, but that when he looked at what he had made he knew that this was enough - good enough, rich enough, diverse enough. He didn’t feel the need to labour on and on, heaping up creation, striving after anything. It was good, just as it was, and it didn’t need a single extra thing to make it perfect. What it needed, was to be enjoyed, treasured and shared.
The story went on to tell how that first perfection was lost, but human beings never quite forgot it, deep down in their spirits, the Bible said, and they longed for a time when they could enjoy it again, longed for God to bring about its healing. The Sabbath was supposed to be a foretaste of that time, a foretaste of heaven. It wasn’t just a break to give tired bodies and minds time to rest – valuable though that is – before re-entering the real world of work. The Sabbath was the day that really mattered, a glimpse of a world made right, the goal of our work on the other six days.
That’s why God said, through the prophet Isaiah in our first reading, that Sabbath joy was inextricably tied up with justice and righteousness. You couldn’t have a good Sabbath if you ignored those who were hungry and afflicted, if you spoke evil of others, if you just pursued your own aims. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy, the commandment God gave to the Israelites, wasn’t just about what you didn’t do on this special day; it was about what you did do on it, and on all the other days too. Only then could the Sabbath be a day of delight and joy, as God had meant it to be. That’s why Jesus could so confidently say that healing this woman on the Sabbath wasn’t just permitted; it was compulsory, the task for which that particular Sabbath had been made.
So how do we feel about this Sabbath which is just ending? What glimpse of heaven have we caught in it? What call have we heard to service in it? Where have we encountered God in it? And how are we going to share in God’s healing work tomorrow, as a result of this holy day?
At our All Age Worship today I read this poem, which I wrote many years ago after working on the story of creation with a group of Sunday School children, who were rather unimpressed with the idea of God “resting” on the seventh day – not what they would have done if they had just made such a wonderful playground!
THE SEVENTH DAY - or what God did on his day off
On the seventh day
God played with his creation.
In the morning
he ran down early to the sea’s edge,
and in the crusted rock pools teased
the waving fingers of sea anemones.
He let the sand, like powdered silk,
run through his funneled fingers
and the shallow water play around his feet,
drawing a sandy wake around them.
Crashing on the rocks the waves leapt
to greet him with sprayed salt.
In the afternoon
he kicked up leaves,
musty in the dark woods,
and chased the spidery seed children of the
tumbling idly into their new generation
over dry earth.
He dammed the icy streams
to sail twig boats down rocky rivers
and climbed into the branches of rough oaks
looking for secret squirrels
But in the evening -
in the evening he wanted to talk.
So he sought out man and woman by their campfire,
finding worlds within its embers.
Late into the night,
they listened, with their arms around each other,
to the songs of night creatures,
and invented music.
And God thought the seventh day was good,
because he played with his creation –
and the whole earth joined the game.
Oct. 88. Anne Le Bas