Real Sabbath Rest - Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost (August 21, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 58:9–14 | Psalm 103:1–8 | Hebrews 12:18–29 | Luke 13:10–17
“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” (Luke 13:12-13).
It’s good to be back.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity these past four weeks to enjoy a bit of a break… to take some time to rest, recharge, and reset… and now to return to the rhythm of our shared Parish life. Again, a big ‘thank you’ to all who offered their gifts to help lead our services of Morning Prayer this Summer. It was a big gift to me knowing that St. Luke’s was in such good hands.
As we might know, the gift of rest is a really big deal all throughout the Bible. From the first pages to the last, rest plays a vital role in shaping our hopes for God’s good future, as well as shaping our everyday habits and ways of life in the here and now. The story we live by.
Rest shows up in the opening scenes of Genesis as the culmination of God’s act of creation… Genesis 2:1-3 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Here we see the Living God blessing, making holy, and taking part in rest… enjoying His good creation, and teaching us to do the same.
Rest shows up again as one of the famous Ten Commandments… the key pillars of God’s covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai in Exodus. Here resting on the Sabbath is part of the way God’s newly rescued people were to be recreated, transformed from slaves in Egypt into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Exodus Chapter 20:8-11:
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Practicing Sabbath pointed God’s people back to God’s gracious gift of Creation, and gave them a taste every seven days of the peace of paradise.
On top of this reminder of God’s gift of Creation, Sabbath was also a reminder of the gift of Salvation… of God’s rescuing work, and their new life shared with Him. In Deuteronomy Chapter 5, the Ten Commandments are repeated… but the reasoning behind the Sabbath rest is stated differently: Instead of pointing back to the seventh day of Creation, Deuteronomy 5:15 says this: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” Slaves don’t get days off. Their pressed into service until their strength is all used up. But God rescued Israel, not to be slaves, but in order to be a people set free to share in his love… to be blessed, made holy, and serve as signposts of His saving love for all the world to see.
Sabbath rest was to remind the whole community of God’s salvation every seven days, inspiring them to respond with wholehearted worship, thanks, and praise.
We could go on and on, but you’re probably getting the picture: keeping the Sabbath rest was God’s gift to His people, drawing them back again and again into their sacred story, and into the New Life that God had in store for them. And centuries later, in Jesus’ day, practicing Sabbath rest had become one of the main distinctions between faithful Jews and Gentiles. In this light, “keeping the Sabbath” correctly became a pretty important matter… marking the difference, in many people’s minds, between who was in God’s good books, and who was not.
And this tension around what it truly means to practice Sabbath is highlighted in our Gospel reading today, where we are asked to contemplate the question: What does real Sabbath rest look like?
Our Gospel reading begins one Sabbath with Jesus teaching in a local synagogue, as God’s people had gathered together for worship. But then we’re told he sees someone, a woman, whose back was bent low… like a slave bearing a terribly heavy load… and she had been bent like this for eighteen years, unable to find full rest.
N.T. Wright makes an interesting point about her ailment: “Luke says she had ‘a spirit of weakness’, which probably means simply that nobody could explain medically why she had become bent double. Some today think that her disability had psychological causes; some people probably thought so then as well, though they might have said it differently. Maybe somebody had persistently abused her, verbally or physically, when she was smaller, until her twisted-up emotions communicated themselves to her body, and she found she couldn’t get straight. Even after all the medical advances of the last few hundred years, we are very much aware that such things happen without any other apparent cause.”
Whatever the cause, Christ Himself is God’s remedy. Luke tells us that Jesus lays His hands on her, and immediately she is set free and stands tall, praising God for His deliverance. She had been rescued from her spiritual and physical oppression… and was now filled with thankfulness, worshipping Yahweh as someone made new… a taste of re-creation.
What a beautiful sight! A life transformed, set free and overflowing with praise to God. But instead of joining in with wholehearted worship, we’re told the leader of the synagogue became “indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath… saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” (Luke 13:14). Passionate to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, this central pillar of the life of the God’s people, the leader of the synagogue can only see Christ’s healing work as a violation of God’s day of holy rest. But God’s blessed and holy rest was in fact what Christ was bringing to life right before their eyes.
Jesus was demonstrating what God’s Sabbath is all about.
We can hear clear echoes of this in our reading from the book of Isaiah, where the prophet makes a clear link between properly honouring the Sabbath on the one hand, and alleviating the plight of God’s people in their suffering on the other. The point of Sabbath rest is about intentionally stepping into God’s story of redemption and recreation… experiencing God’s grace, again and again, and helping others to do the same.
In other words, Jesus was not breaking the sacred Sabbath rest of God by having compassion, and bringing about the healing, restoration, and rescue of others… He was fulfilling it! He was bringing the blessed rest of the LORD to the lives of those in desperate need of it.
So Christ calls out the hypocrisy of those like the synagogue leader who thought honouring the Sabbath would mean leaving people in misery, instead of seeing the Sabbath as their means of being made new. “[O]ught not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16). What better way to take part in God’s blessed rest than to help others share in it?
This is of course only one moment in the story… one Sabbath day encounter… one life transformed… but it’s also a sign of the work Christ Jesus had come to do: to bring about God’s true and eternal Sabbath rest… the ultimate rescue from all that keeps us bound, and broken… bringing us into the fulness of life with the Living God, and making us new, able to stand and worship Him wholeheartedly through the Spirit of God at work in us.
St. Luke tells us this story to remind us that this is our story too. That in Christ Jesus we too are invited to look forward in the hope of God’s blessed and holy rest… the restoration and re-creation of God’s good world through the work of the Word made flesh. To remind us that in Christ, we too can experience even now His transforming power, setting us free to worship the Lord in gladness, and rest safe in His loving arms.
This story reminds us that Jesus came, not to help us play religious games… or to be our personal miracle worker… He came in the mercy and great compassion of God to save the World.
So how are we sharing in the real Sabbath rest that Christ came to bring?
Many of us and our neighbours are tired… caught up in the restlessness of our age… unable or unwilling to step back from our own interests, and seek instead God’s life-giving rest.
Many of us and our neighbours are bound and broken… feeling completely weighed down and crippled by things like fear… guilt… loneliness… anger… sin… unable to find lasting relief, no matter where we look.
Many of us and our neighbours see the Christian life as more of a burden than a blessing… a bundle of obligations, rather than a wholehearted, whole-life response to the wonderful gift of rescue, re-creation, and rest of the Living God, given to us in Jesus Christ, through His saving work of love on the cross.
God sees our need for His blessed rest. The Lord knows our world desperately needs to be rescued and renewed. And as Christians, we’ve already been drawn by the Holy Spirit into God’s New Creation, and set free from our sins by the saving work of Jesus Christ. This truly is our sacred story.
But it’s so easy to forget it… to go about our week bent low by the burdens that life throws our way.
Yet even so, the same Jesus who was filled with compassion for that daughter of Abraham all those long years ago, calls for us to come and follow Him, and find true rest at last.
So let us keep coming to Jesus, trusting Him again and again to lead us into God’s rest… not only for ourselves, but so that as a Church community and as individual disciples, and through His Spirit at work in us, we too can become signposts of God’s saving love for all the world to see… helping our neighbours to come to know the rescue, and re-creation, and real Sabbath rest of the Risen Saviour who says:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30). Amen.
 Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 165–166.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School