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Jesus and his disciples are out on the Sabbath in a field of grain. And as they are walking, the disciples are plucking grain, probably to eat it. And a Pharisee calls Jesus out on it, because technically, they are harvesting grain, which is technically work, on the Sabbath. This is a nitpicky detail. So nitpicky that most scholars think it’s too nitpicky even for a Pharisee to have said it. But that’s how Pharisees generally work in Scripture. They don’t represent the law so much as they represent our own tendency towards legalism. Our own tendency to nitpick others or ourselves.
The subtext of the question is: “If Jesus is such a great spiritual leader and so close to God, why don’t his disciples follow the law? Why aren’t they perfect?” This is the kind if nitpicking that we get sometimes, right? Or that we do to ourselves, when we expect to have perfect kids, a perfect house, to be exemplary at work every single day and still have time to put an instagram-worthy meal on the table at 5:30 every night? This sort of question turns the practice of the Sabbath from a preserved day of rest, to one more day spent anxious to make sure that we’re doing everything perfectly.
And Jesus answers, “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. This is so Jesus, because for Jesus the goal of the law is to enable human flourishing. To teach us how to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. The point of God’s law isn’t to separate out the holy for heaven and the unholy for hell, but to teach us how to all live together in holy, heavenly community. The point of Sabbath is not to prove your holiness to God, but to receive holiness from God. The Sabbath was made for us.
Jesus brings up two stories to explain it. The first is the creation story, which we’ll get to in a minute, and the second is a story about David. David once broke into the Temple –well, he didn’t break into the Temple, he was fleeing the country in a hurry and he walked into the Temple with a number of soldiers and demanded all the food they had–okay so maybe he did break into the Temple. The only food they had was the bread of the Presence, which was a holy meal reserved for the priest, but he and his men were hungry and in danger. Hunger trumps holiness. The Sabbath was mae for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath. So if we ever have to choose between keeping ourselves righteous and unsullied or helping a neighbor in need, the Christian chooses the neighbor every time. The Sabbath is a gift from God, should that gift get in the way of God’s purposes for us, we shouldn’t feel too guilty about letting it go.
The gift of the Sabbath is a reminder from God that you don’t have to do everything by yourself. When I was in Texas, the moderator of the General Assembly was travelling through to speak to churches and clergy across the country. When he came down to our area, he mentioned that he’d like to meet with young clergy, anyone under-40. So I drove down to Austin and went to this meeting. He said “I really just want to listen to you guys. I want to hear what you have to say, so that I can amplify that and bring it forward in the national conversation.”
The first person spoke up and said, “I just really feel like I’ve been put on a pedestal, like they expect me to solve every problem they’ve ever had just by being here.” And one by one every person in the room said something similar, “My congregation expects me to be a hero, and I don’t know how to do it.” One pastor summed it up: Congregations are saying, “You’re here, you’re young, fix us,” as if being young were a magic solution to church growth and every other problem the church might have. And all of them were overwhelmed. I know enough about church to guess only part of this pressure was coming from the church, and just as much was coming from the pastors themselves. But whether it’s the internal monologue or external pressure the effect is the same.
We have become convinced that the world depends on us working ourselves to exhaustion in order for it to function. Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt like the world depended on you? Have you ever felt like people expect you to fix everything? Maybe in your family you’re the one who has their life together and so everyone needs you all the time? Maybe at work everything goes haywire unless you make sure everyone does their jobs? Maybe at school every single teacher is telling you that if you’re not spending an hour a night on their homework you’ll never make it in college?
The Sabbath is God’s answer to that feeling. God creates the world in 6 days, and the story could have stopped there. No one would be the wiser. But instead, the Creation story tells us that on the 7th day, God rested. God stopped doing work, and God let the world go on without her.
According to Walter Brueggemann, that tells us that “God is not a workaholic.” God is not anxious about the world continuing to function without God’s presence. God is not checking God’s work phone on the Sabbath, nor did God do twice as much work on day six just so God could have some free time on Sunday. God created and God rested because God’s work of Creation (of which we are a part) is not dependent on constant work. It has a rhythm of work and rest. God worked when it was time to work and rested when it was time to rest and if God can do it, so can you. The Sabbath is God’s promise that the world can work without you for a little while. And you need it to. The world will be unchanged if you slow down for a little bit, but rest and an opportunity to recenter and refocus on the blessings of God will change you.
What we have done, by believing the lie that the world cannot live without us, is disrupt that rhythm of work and rest, in such a way that our lives are poorer for it. The demand for constant work turns us into drones. People who think they have to do everything all by themselves are constantly exhausted. And exhausted people are too tired to think, or to care, or to join with others in creatively rejecting the brutality of our world. Tired people are great for Pharaoh’s world that wants to extract everything it can from you without a protest. Tired people don’t find solutions to our problems; tired people try to survive our problems. But that isn’t what God is looking for. God does not need our harried striving, God wants our whole selves, and for us to give glory to God with our lives we must take time to rest in God.
What the Sabbath tells us is that our God is not a rat race God – our God is not a God of relentless production. God is not about perfection through work, but perfection through grace. We are perfect not when we do everything right, but when we allow ourselves to be loved. The world is perfect, and not because you have arranged it just so, but because God has arranged it just so, and has placed you in it, to fit imperfectly into the wonderful, created order that God has arranged for us.
The world is beautiful and vibrant, and full of life. It is amazing, wonderful, and glorious. And it does not depend on you to be so. You can rest. The world will keep turning without you. The Sabbath is God’s gift to remind yourself that this is true. You can stop for a minute. You can have the peace that you deny yourself in hopes to get ahead.
Now this can easily become just one more thing on your to-do list. You might be thinking, “I’ve got all this work to do and now I’ve got to rest? I don’t have time for that.” I don’t want this to be something that adds to you your stress or that causes anxiety.
But Isaiah 55 asks us, “why do you spend your money on things that are not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” That’s what I want us to think about. My hope is that you will let go of some of the labors you undertake that do not lead to fulfillment or satisfaction, and that you take the time to receive the gift of the Sabbath that God has offered, this rest that invites you closer into God’s holy kingdom. Take some time to rest. To remember that God will provide your daily bread, and to ensure that you are spending your labor on that which does satisfy. God did it, and so can you.