Leave it to man to turn rest into a religion. That’s how messed up we are, spiritually speaking. God says, “Rest. Six days for work but the seventh you rest. Shabbat. (It means rest.) Your family rests. Your workers rest. The alien within your gates rests. Your animals rest.
Remember, you were once slaves. Slaves work seven days a week. But my free people work six and rest for one .” In Exodus, the reason for the Sabbath goes back to the creative week. God made everything in six days, and then He rested. He called the seventh day “holy,” set apart, consecrated. In Genesis the seventh day has no evening and morning. It’s the eternal Day, the Day that fulfills all the days, what we call “eternity.” The Sabbath was a slice of eternity at the end of your work week.
God says, “Rest,” and we say, “Now what exactly do you mean by ‘rest’”? God says, “No work,” and we say, “Do we have to rest? And what do you mean by “work” anyway?” The rabbis had 39 categories of work, slicing and dicing “rest” to include things like not carrying, burning, writing, erasing, kneading, grinding, tearing, demolishing, building, cooking, and 29 more things not to do. You can be sure the basketball, volleyball, and shopping would have been included. Turn off your pagers, your cells phones, your Blackberries, or whatever else you may be plugged into. Rest. Take the load off. God insists on it.
Among the prohibited tasks: reaping and threshing. It was forbidden to cut or pluck any growing thing. That would include flowers and fruit. No mowing the lawn.
Enter Jesus and His disciples, walking through a grain field, on the Sabbath. As they were going, they plucked some heads of grain and rubbed them between their hands. Two Sabbath strikes against them: reaping and threshing. And the sharp-penciled Pharisees are right there on top of them. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Says who? Man or God? God simply said “rest, no work.” It was the Pharisees with their endless bookkeeping and their sharp penciled tradition that turned a handful of grain on a Sabbath stroll into work. Jesus is right there with the comeback. He brings up the story of King David, when he was on a military campaign, and how he and his companions ate the consecrated show bread which was lawful only for priests to eat. Yet they ate and lived to tell about it.
Jesus’ conclusion: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
There’s the kicker. You thought you could please with Sabbath keeping. You thought that by intentionally not working, God was just thrilled to number you as one of His people. You thought it was your civic duty to make sure that everyone else kept the Sabbath too, like the Pharisees playing Sabbath police. You thought that jumping through the Sabbath hoop would justify your existence before God. You thought God liked religion. You were wrong. You had it upside down.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to Israel. No other nation had a god who said, “Hey, take a day off once a week.” In fact, the other nations thought the Israelites were a bunch of slackers, working only six days a week. Sabbath was God’s special gift to Israel. No other nation had this command. God’s free, chosen people had divine permission to rest, to enjoy the eternal rest of God, to sample a slice of eternity at the end of every week. Wow! Imagine that. Heaven come to earth. Communion with God. Rest, no work. Enjoying the fruits of your labors. Resting with God. What a gift! Who could say no?
But do you see what happened? Rest becomes religion. A string of don’t do this and don’t do that, 39 times over. And keeping watch everyone else to make sure they’re not doing anything either. Blue laws. In modern Judaism, you can’t start your car and you have to unscrew the light bulb in your refrigerator because that would involve kindling fire. And God is supposed to be pleased with this. The Sabbath was God’s gift to Israel, and the Israelites turned rest into a religion, a way to bribe God and measure themselves against one another. Hardly the rest God had in mind.
I say this every time this text comes up, and I’m going to say it here again this morning. The Sabbath, the seventh day of rest, is God’s unique gift to OT Israel. It has no counterpart in the New Testament. Sunday is not the Sabbath. Sunday isn’t the 7th day, as any Seventh Day Adventist will tell you. Sunday is the first day of the week. And that has its own tradition and symbolism.
First, it most certainly is not the OT Sabbath. The early Christians wanted to be clear that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in Christ. Sunday is not a new Sabbath day any more than Jesus is a new Moses. Second, the first day was the day of resurrection. In fact, in Russian, Sunday is called “Resurrection Day,” which I think is kind of cool. Even if you’re an atheist, you have to say, “I’ll see you on Resurrection Day.” Much better than the “sun’s day.” Third, resurrection day was also the day the Holy Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Finally, the first day signified the first day of the new creation having broken in to the old. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first day of the week was called “the Lord’s Day” by the first Christians.
That’s not to say the rest of society recognized that fact. You still had to work on the Lord’s Day. That’s why many Christians gathered early in the morning, or late Saturday night, or whenever was convenient.
Luther nailed it in the Catechism when he saw the gift of the Sabbath day as the Word of God. He never mentions a “sabbath day” in the catechism. Instead, he says, “You shall keep the holy day holy.” And this means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred, gladly hear and learn it.” That’s why you didn’t work on the 7th day. You had a nice meal in the evening, toasted the God who created and redeemed you with undiluted wine, slept, and then you gathered to hear the Word, the Torah. And that’s what we do too. We gather on the first day of the week to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood. That’s what God calls “rest.” Sabbath’s rest.
The Word is what makes a holiday a holy day. Without the Word, it’s just a holiday. A day off, a chance to go to the beach, throw a steak on the grill, catch up on the home improvement. But with the Word, any day is a holy day – sanctified, made holy, by the Word of God and prayer. The Word is the spirit of the Sabbath.
Unfortunately, many Christians, including, sadly, many who call themselves “Lutherans,” have become “ABC” Christians – Anything But Church. Sports, recreation, hobbies, family not to mention work schedules, family schedules, busy calendars, busy lives running around from one thing to the next, one activity to the next. Out of the 10,080 minutes God gives us each week, we struggle to set aside 90 minutes to hear the Word, receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and pray, praise and give thanks. We do that to the peril of our faith. Faith is born of the Word and lives on the Word and without the Word, faith in Christ will wither and die. Can you imagine eating once a week?
I’d be happy to gather on Saturday night or early in the morning, like the first Christians did so they could get to work, but I have to wonder, would you take advantage of the opportunity? I’m going to begin offering this to those who are having a hard time making it here at 9 am on Sunday. We’re not bound by times and days. But if we can’t find a suitable time and day to gather, and we can’t make time to hear the Word by which we live eternally, then I have to wonder whether there is any faith to be fed.
The old Adam hates all this. He hates the notion resting in God. He wants to turn rest into a work, and he wants you to work to your death. He refused God’s gift in the garden, and he continues to refuse God’s gift in you. That’s why it’s such a chore to get to church, but not to go out to eat. That’s why church is boring to you, while the movies or a concert aren’t. That’s why we don’t “gladly” hear the Word, why we aren’t glad as David was glad when they said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” That’s why the kids act up more than usual. You are being confronted by the Word of life, by the only thing that can save you from sin and death. And the devil hates it, the world hates and will throw any distraction in your way, and your own sinful flesh hates it and will use any excuse not to receive what Christ has died to win for you.
The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Jesus did something wonderful for you. He bought your freedom. He fulfilled the Sabbath. He rested on His seventh day in the grave, making your grave a sabbath’s rest. He gives you perfect sabbath rest from your sins. You don’t work your way to rest; you receive it as a gift. Salvation’s sabbath is not the result of your work, but trust in the finished work of Jesus.
This is your freedom, by dear baptized believers. Freedom to gladly hear the Word of God and cling to it. Freedom to worship God without fear, holy and righteous in His sight, all the days of your life. Heaven comes down to earth, to you; your sins are forgiven; God speaks to you here; there is a place for you here at Jesus’ banquet table; here you have rest from every burden that weighs you down. Here is a rest no pill can provide, no self-help book can broker, no religion can offer.
Here is Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, your Lord, your Rock of refuge, your rest. And faith in Jesus says, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of the Lord.’” Faith in Jesus would have it no other way.
In the name of Jesus,