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Is Your Sabbath Too Small?
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
July 24, 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Mark:
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
This particular story appears in all three gospels. It is found in Luke, immediately after Jesus quotes Isaiah in the synagogue and reveals his mission; and in Matthew, after the Sermon on Mount, there’s this Sabbath story, where they are amazed at his authority. Mark places this story at the very beginning of his gospel for the very same reason: to help us understand the mission of Jesus Christ: what Jesus valued and what should be important to us as disciples.
Flora Slosson Wuellner, the noted author, describes it as Jesus’ passionate purpose. She calls it “empowered vulnerability”: the love that has been set free by God to choose freely, to take risks, to reach out, to withdraw, to suffer, to give from a deep center that has been released from prisons of all kinds, and knows clearly what it does. The Sabbath story, as she would say it is Jesus’ passionate purpose come to life.
Think about being in that synagogue that day. You were anticipating your worship experience to be the same as it was the Sabbath before and the Sabbath before that. That was the world of Sabbath at the synagogue in Capernaum and even after synagogue, they, like us, would go home – the proscribed day of rest, a nap on the rooftop maybe, or like Simon, take care of his mother-in-law who was sick – we all have things waiting for us at home; and then comes tomorrow, the day after Sabbath, to go back to work.
Maybe your own habits for getting ready for church, for the day, for getting ready for next week, you have your routine – how you keep Sabbath doesn’t change much, either.
When you walk through those doors, you are aware that each Sunday morning, between 11:00 a.m. and noon to worship. (I have yet to find how that is in scripture, but it has become the sacred one hour for worship, and God forbid that the demons of 12:01 inhibit our worship!) We’ll sing two or three hymns, have a confession and a long prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. We will make sure we take up an offering, read from either the old or new testaments of the bible. Sometimes in addition to the choir anthem we’ll have special music, and, of course, we listen – we do listen, don’t we? – to a sermon.
We’ll celebrate the Lord’s Supper at least twice a month, and if there’s something special going on in the life of the church, we do want to celebrate or at least bring it to your attention.
But all in all, it’s pretty much the same old same old each week. Go into just about any church anywhere and you will find the same to be true. And it’s not a matter of style – whether it’s what some call “contemporary” or “praise,” while it may be different from the way we order our worship, week in and week out, they do it pretty much the same every time.
That was the world of Sabbath in that synagogue in Capernaum. Until that day, until that Shabbat when Jesus said whatever it was he said, with authority, and there would never again be a Sabbath to call ordinary, routine.
When we keep Sabbath, thinking it will no doubt be no different than it’s ever been before, the don’t you think that we are limiting God to our own small Sabbath box on our calendar? Then it should come as no surprise to us when nothing happens to change our hearts and our lives.
I do believe that when we come to the Sabbath to worship, to rest, to restore our soul, to move from Sabbath into a new week – listen to Marva Dawn, in her book, Keeping Sabbath Wholly, as she says: To keep the Sabbath enables us to become more and more a Sabbath people, and that characterization affects the way we relate to everything else in our lives….the Sabbath is the climax of the week, and everything else derives it character from our keeping of that day.
She quotes Abraham Heschel, “What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.”
What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us.
In this Sabbath story, I see three things that had been and would continue to be important to Jesus as he began his public ministry: worshiping God; dealing with people and their needs where they are; and being available to help those who are struggling, suffering, seeking something better for their world.
First of all, what astonished and amazed those in the synagogue, what they described as “a new teaching with authority,” is the radical love of God in human form that should leave us speechless when God’s promises of healing and shalom are fulfilled.
In Jesus, they saw, we see God sharing power and strength with the world, with all the powerless, to heal the brokenhearted.
There’s a line in the Beatles’ song “Let It Be” that goes, “When the broken hearted people, living in this world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.”
I’m not really sure what Paul McCartney had in mind when he wrote that song, but what it means for me has to do with the reality of suffering and pain for everyone. If the broken, the despised, the ignored, the rejected, the dispossessed, the throw-away people in our world find their voice in the gospel, in the astonishing, amazing voice of Jesus Christ…
When we come together on Sabbath to worship God, are we expecting that extraordinary word that frees us from all that would destroy us? As Tom Long says of this story: Jesus is Lord over all the forces which seek to destroy us.
But then, in our story, Jesus shows that Sabbath is big enough for that word to go where people are hurting, not just here in this place. When Jesus went to the house of Simon and Andrew, he was going as he would go for the rest of his ministry – to meet people where they were – hurting, hopeless, heartbroken.
Sabbath is for our world to know God’s healing touch, forgiving heart, for those whose lives are filled with dark thoughts or unimaginable fears, to receive God’s peace.
Sabbath is how Jesus walks beside those who are close to giving up. where life seems to have no point; and goes to those places where people struggle to make ends meet. They fear the police knocking on the door and are terrified of strangers in the street.
Sabbath is what Jesus says to all who feel abandoned and unloved, and inspires us and encourages us to bend down low and stand up tall for those for whom our society has no time or patience.
Sabbath is when Jesus embraces the struggling patient and the exhausted care giver and the young and old who stumble and fall, the lonely and left out, the ones thrown away as if they had no worth or value as human beings.
Sabbath is where our house, your house, my house, the house of Simon and Andrew, the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, the house of Zacchaeus, Sabbath is where our house enjoys the presence of God’s healing word.
And finally, the story concludes with the people coming to Jesus. Of course, it is in the evening after Sabbath has officially ended. They’re not going to break Sabbath right now – for you and me this would be the time we start looking at the calendar for the week ahead. But this Sabbath story, this concluding scene is a powerful reminder of the power of God at work in us and for us and with us in our work day after day, from Sabbath to Sabbath.
Everything about Sabbath should link us to daily life; that this day is set apart so that every day, as Sabbath people, we can carry the kingdom of God with us wherever we go. We so often become bogged down in the details of day-to-day life and we forget to see the Sabbath picture of God’s peace and justice and mercy. As Jesus reminds us, “We so often give ourselves to what we think is necessary and fail to see what is needful.”
Sabbath heals us of that spiritual myopia, that shortsightedness to where we can be honest about the desolation and destruction, the madness and meanness, the cruelty and coldness of this world…and be just as honest about the helpfulness and kindness, the acceptance, tolerance, and goodness, and can we say, the miracles of grace and mercy over the demons of our lives. To carry Sabbath into our week is to surely identify evil for what it is.
But even more, we must identify ourselves as those with a passionate purpose and a sure hope that God is at work day after day to create peace and justice and freedom and that we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can become radical lovers of the truth, and passionate bearers of hope to fulfill our ministry as brothers and sisters of the risen Christ.
God gives us Sabbath big enough to provide us all the resources we need to invest ourselves as disciples of Christ in this big, wide, wonderful, awful world in which we live.
This is the place, and Sabbath is the time, as are all places, all times, to see the world and all of life in the healing light of Jesus Christ!
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.