Remember the Sabbath?

The Rev. Leslie E. Chadwick

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2: 13-22

In Bible Study last week, someone pointed out that we have no natural limits anymore.  She said, “My nephew’s boss expects him to be available 24 hours a day.  If she e-mails him and he doesn’t write back within 30 minutes, she’s irate.  He is never free.” Others nodded, ‘Yeah.  The expectation is to respond to texts or messages immediately.  What else are you going to do? You have a family to support, so you do what it takes.”

Our world is amazing. Thanks to technology, we are connected in ways we never could have dreamed.  And we are inundated with information.  People can reach us 24/7.  It’s hard to sift through what’s important and what can wait.   Culturally, we get zero help setting limits.  Remember the Sabbath day? Oh, yeah. Back in the day, nobody scheduled sports or activities on Sundays.  Everyone went to Church. All businesses were closed. People hung out together as a family.  One Bible Study member recalls her father saying, “Once stores start opening up on Sundays, it will be the downfall of the family.”  There may still be holdouts like Chick-Fil-A, but we concluded, “There’s no goin’ back. Nothing is sacred anymore.  Everything is fair game. We can’t get back to the way it was, and even if we could, that would not solve our root problem.”

The problem is that we’ve sacrificed intentionality for convenience.  That problem goes back to the beginning of time.  We have taken control of time as if it is ours to do with what we wish –and yet, we often end up controlled and driven by the order we have created where there are no limits or boundaries for our souls.  The Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel writes, “The solution of mankind’s most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it” (The Sabbath, 28).

God ordered creation to remind us that in him alone we are free.  He built into creation a limit and a boundary that keeps the way open for our souls to get back to him.  We hear in our reading from Exodus the command: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  This command is no sentimental question like, “Remember the Sabbath day?”  as in “Remember the good old days?”  It’s a very present command to guard with our lives this limit God gives us to keep us fully alive in Him.  Genesis tells us that “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done.”  The ancient rabbis wondered why the Bible didn’t say that God finished his work on the 6th day since God “rested” on the seventh day.” They “concluded [that] there was [also] an act of creation on the seventh day:  rest.  Not just freedom from toil, but inner freedom:  tranquility, serenity, peace, repose—the essence of the good life—experiencing eternal life now.”

Heschel, a devout Jew who observed the Sabbath from sundown on Friday night through sundown on Saturday night, sees the 4th commandment as guarding that sacred boundary:  He admits that it seems impossible to get all our work done in six days—our work always remains incomplete.  So he urges us, “Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done.  Rest even from the thought of labor.”  Heschel sees the Sabbath not just as a chance to rest up for more work, but as a time “to mend our tattered lives” (18) “to tend the seed of eternity planted in the soul” (13).  When we set aside time to do that, God heals us, and sets us free from the tyranny of our lives.

In today’s gospel, Jesus acts in a way that shows us he’s fully tapped into that freedom.  He’s not about to be dominated by any person or thing.    He comes up to Jerusalem for the Passover after doing his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee.  Passover is the festival celebrating Israel’s freedom, deliverance from slavery (W. Hulitt Gloer, F o W, 93).  When Jesus arrives at the Court of the Gentiles (93), the courtyard outside the temple, what he sees is not a clear path to the God who sets his people free. He finds instead a cluttered, smelly, chaotic mess.  In the guise of preparation for worship, people are selling unblemished animals to pilgrims who will  pay more for convenience.  It’s easier to buy animals for sacrifice there than dragging them on a long journey from home (93).  Money changers have become fixtures—they have settled in, made themselves quite at home.  The temple leaders sanction their presence. Again, for people’s convenience, they change out the coins with the Emperor’s face on it for coins without images required for the temple tax.  These sellers are essential to the business of the temple.

But Jesus is not buying it. He thinks the essential business of temple is allowing people to mend their tattered lives.  To rest in God’s loving presence.  To worship him with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their strength. So with all his strength, he ties together leather cords and drives out the sellers and animals as if he’s driving out demons.  He pours out the coins of the money changers; all of the money with Caesar’s face gets mixed up with the temple coins as they clatter to the floor and roll under every crack and surface. He yells at the dove sellers, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

Jesus makes quite a scene.  And for what?  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the scene takes place at the end of the story—right before Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified; those Evangelists suggest that the sellers and moneychangers there were price-gouging.  But here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus seems upset about the sheer presence of the marketplace.  It is creeping into time and space that should be sacred.  He’s upset about the steady encroachment of the commercial world on his Father’s house and on God’s people. Jesus does not worship the temple itself.  By the time John wrote his gospel, that temple was long gone.  The Romans had knocked it down and turned it over.  As Jesus told the woman at the well, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem, but …in spirit and truth.”  He knows buildings won’t last.   Jesus cares about one thing:  drawing people to the Father and knocking aside anything that gets in the way of that.  The point of his coming isn’t to get back us to the way things were, but to get us back to God.

When the dust clears, it seems that Jesus’ tantrum has made no difference–the world remains unchanged.  The next day, the money changers probably set up their tables again and kick back to do business.  The animals saunter back in and the pilgrims continue to do their business outside the temple to get in.  The temple leaders definitely continue business as usual.  They aren’t about to let an upstart from Galilee tell them how to run things.  They plan to kill Jesus for calling God his own Father and making himself equal to God (5:18).  But Jesus’ inner freedom, his insistence on keeping what is holy set apart, sticks in the mind of one person who longs for more than commercial, material, business as usual.  Later that night, secretly, tentatively, Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, comes to Jesus to ask him about being reborn, about tending that seed of eternity planted in his soul.

And maybe that’s how the change happens for us, too.  Our world continues to go on with business as usual.  Like, Nicodemus, we come to Jesus tentatively at first, and ask him to show us more about what he guards for us so passionately: the holy limits that keep the path open between God and us.   Little by little we ask Jesus to help us reclaim or perhaps claim for the first time the rest, life, and freedom God intends for us.  There’s no going back to the good old days when the culture set aside a whole day for us.  Even then, we had the same problem of things encroaching on our relationship with God.  The answer for us is not just “setting good boundaries” as any counselor or self-help book would suggest.  What our Scripture today invites us to do is: Remember the Sabbath.  Keep it Holy.  Rediscover it.  Let it set us free to be who God created us to be. Let Jesus knock over and drive out whatever encroaches on our need to rest and delight in God’s loving presence.  And ultimately let go of the way we’ve been doing things. To reclaim our independence from the things that control us.

The Sabbath may no longer a whole day for us; Jesus himself was not a stickler for its rules, but he did make time to be still, to pray with others, and to be alone with God.  So, as a start, Sabbath may mean setting aside 5 minutes a day to be silent in God’s presence; setting aside our I-phones for a media fast for a day, or an hour, or a few minutes so that we can be truly present with the people around us. It may mean coming together to worship or study the Bible in community.  It may mean journaling to let go of whatever worries or scenes we rehearse at the end of the day; Letting go of our pettiness or our anger at others that encroach on us not only us in the moment, but linger in our minds past the time we are to surrender to rest at the close of the day. As we approach this mid-point of Lent, may we remember the Sabbath.  Not as an antiquated thing of the past, but as a very present way God intends to set us free to worship him and to rest in his loving presence.  To be the people he created us to be:  whole and sound (Psalm 19:13).