Reading Ramblings – June 12, 2016

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 12, 2016 – Third Commandment

Texts: Exodus 20:8-11; Psalm 92; Colossians 2:16-23; Mark 2:23-28

Context: The Third Commandment rounds out the Table of the Law dealing with how we love God.  Unfortunately, I once again find myself in disagreement with Luther and his interpretation of the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism. The Sabbath is not given first and foremost as a specific day for worship, but rather as a day for rest. While 2000 years of tradition has us worshiping on the Sabbath, I frankly would prefer to see us worship on a different day of the week and truly maintain a day of rest. Of all the commandments, I suspect this is the one that is easiest for us to break or ignore. Despite all of our modern conveniences, it’s challenging to actually just rest on the Sabbath! But this is God’s gift to us – a gift of time and rest, precious commodities to his people rescued from 24/7 slavery in Egypt, and no less a precious gift to you and I today.

Exodus 20:8-11 – Nothing in these verses says anything about worship. The emphasis is rest. Rest from work, rest from worry, rest from everything that so easily preoccupies our mind. God rested – how can his creation not? Rather easily, we find out. However we are to rest, and we are to cause to rest everyone within our sphere of influence. Sunday shopping is pretty convenient, but my convenience means that someone else can’t enjoy the Sabbath. Abraham J. Heschel points out in his book The Sabbath: It’s Meaning for Modern Man, that the God of the Jews and the Christians is a God of time, not a God of things. He does not designate things holy in a lasting way, but He does ordain a particular time as holy – the Sabbath. But we’re too busy, we often protest. And to this, God responds simply that He was able to accomplish the creation of the universe and everything in it in six days so that He could rest on the seventh. What do you and I have to take care of that can come anywhere close to this magnitude?

Psalm 92 – This psalm proclaims the importance of giving thanks to the Lord in worship. In great part this is due to the mighty nature of God’s works, which are unfathomable to humanity. But also for God’s blessings in our lives, for the bounty we have received from his hand. We are to give thanks to God that those who put their trust in him cannot be shaken – their inheritance is eternal. Even in old age they are able to give thanks to God. Surely this is a fitting use for the Sabbath, whether we do so in formal worship (ie. Church) or not!

Colossians 2:16-23 – We like rules. Rules make us feel good, because most of us think we do a pretty good job at following them. At least better than some of the people we know. Which of course must mean that God must like us at least a little bit based on our obedience, right? Wrong. If we put any hope or trust in our own efforts, we are misled and deluded – dangerously so. Our hope is in Christ alone. St. Paul in many of his letters has to discount this mindset of self-righteousness in followers of Christ. Certainly, many of them converted from Judaism, and took a certain pride in the observances and rituals which set them apart from everyone else and denoted them as God’s people. They could be very critical of others who did not follow the same practices. Paul insists that Christ’s death, and our union with him through faith and baptism negates the power of rules as means for self-justification. Paul will settle for nothing less than full freedom in Christ. This does not mean that he believes we can and should do anything we want. Rather, he wants to ensure that nobody believes that their actions – their following of the rules – justifies them with God. Only after this is firmly acknowledged is Paul willing to discuss the usefulness – the essential nature – of God’s Law that teaches us how to live properly. We do so in gratitude for the forgiveness we have received through Jesus Christ, and in anticipation of the obedient people we will one day perfectly be.

Mark 2:23-28 – Jesus words in verses 27-28 are critical here. The Sabbath is a gift from God to man. To turn this gift into a taskmaster, to change it from Gospel to Law, from gift to chain would be ludicrous and damaging. As such we should not live in fear of the Sabbath but in joyful gratitude for it.

God’s people had managed to turn the gift of Sabbath freedom into a means of oppression. People were watched closely to see if they would obey the many man-made stipulations of what could and could not be done on the Sabbath. While the goal of those regulations was well-intentioned – to make sure that people observed the Sabbath – the situation quickly devolved into a harshness. Jesus and his disciples are criticized for relieving their hunger on the Sabbath. What is a day of rest if someone is hungry during it? Not very restful, most likely!

Freedom and grace are scary things. We much prefer rules to limit ourselves (or more importantly, others). But rules cannot save us. Our obedience is not simply imperfect, it is downright pathetic. The only thing we can take comfort in is the perfect obedience of Jesus, obedience that included a voluntary, violent death. Otherwise, we are free to craft rules that are helpful, so long as they don’t become a detriment. The Sabbath should be a day of rest and joy, not nervously worrying about whether or not we might accidentally violate the Third Commandment by working.

To a group of former slaves who owned nothing of their own time and had to labor constantly to meet quotas, God gives the gift of time, a day of rest. A day when they need not fear hunger or the threat of enemies. A day to be reminded that the Lord their God was truly their provider and protector, and He could ensure that they remained both well-fed and physically safe. We who live more and more in the clutches of the technology that was promised to be our deliverance and the key to our greater leisure and relaxation need the Sabbath every bit as much as the Israelites 3500 years ago. We need the emphasis of time as a means of directing our hearts and minds to God in praise (Commandment #2), and not allowing another idol to take his place in our hearts (Commandment #1).

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