Horizons — Celebrating Sabbath — Matthew 11:28–12:13

Lesson 1, "Sabbath and Celebration," of the 2022-2033 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study.

Lesson 1: Matthew 11:28–12:13

On Sunday mornings when my brothers and I were young, our dad lured us out of bed with pancakes with lots of lovely butter and syrup. Then, dressed in our Sunday best, we all loaded up into the station wagon and went to church.

In my home church, much of Sunday school and worship was centered on studying Scripture, doing good and learning how to act appropriately. There was little grace and joy, and certainly Sundays were not a celebration. Men dressed in dark suits took up the offering and served as elders. Children were to sit still. The Lord’s Supper was always celebrated the same way, and the service of worship never varied. No one expressed delight at the choir’s anthem. Much of worship was serious and solemn. “We have always done it this way,” was a guiding principle.

The elders of my home church were a bit like the Pharisees who got upset with Jesus over what was permissible on the Sabbath. Pharisees believed in honoring God with a strict adherence to the Scriptures. A truly distinct feature of Jewish life was the keeping of Sabbath. The Sabbath was honored because God created it and because the Sabbath was important to God. It was a holy day, a day set apart from other days. Having a day of rest reminded Jews that they were once slaves who had no rest and that God would provide if one did not work. Sabbath was a God-given gift and was part of the covenant between God and Israel. Thus, the Sabbath was particularly honored as a day set apart by God, in which no work was to be done by anyone.

Jesus tramples on sacred beliefs about keeping the Sabbath, and, understandably, this agitates certain Pharisees. Jesus’ disciples pick some grain to eat because they are hungry. Technically, picking grain is work and thus forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus also heals a man with a withered hand, which also is considered forbidden work on the Sabbath. This drives the Pharisees nuts. Jesus emphasizes that Scriptures are to be understood through the lens of mercy. In other words, doing good and providing for others on the Sabbath is entirely appropriate.

After worship a few years ago, the church I served did a “Rise Against Hunger” event. People gathered after worship, were given hair nets, plastic gloves and instructions for measuring rice, beans and dried vegetables into food packets. We formed an assembly line with people stationed by each food item. We learned that the food is given out at local schools in extremely poor areas in other countries. This gives parents incentive to send their children to school, and every year of schooling has a profoundly positive effect on the children’s future. Music played and a bell rang for every hundred bags of meals completed. We bagged 1000 meals in two hours. It seems to me that providing food to very poor people is an appropriate Sabbath activity.

Carol Bechtel, author of Celebrating Sabbath, surprises us with the Jewish understanding of Sabbath as a precious time of gladness. She writes, “At its heart, Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is why the Sabbath is described as a bride in Jewish tradition. When ‘she’ is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration — a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.”

A seminary professor of mine, Patrick Miller, once shared his family’s Sunday observance growing up. Everyone went to Sunday school and worship. After worship and a bit of lunch, the Millers visited extended family. The children played games on the lawn while the adults talked, told stories and enjoyed being together. I realized that I was envious of such a Sunday because it sounded like fun.

The word “sabbath” means “to cease.” In a society that values busyness and productivity, we can run ourselves ragged. We may equate our worth with what we get done. But our health and personal relationships suffer when we do not take time for Sabbath worship and rest. Worship and rest help us maintain a more balanced perspective. We remember our worth comes from God and not what we accomplish.

To celebrate Sabbath is to stop: Just stop for an hour or a day; Desist from doing work and chores; Cease playing games on our media devices; Sit in the sun; Listen to the birds; Enjoy time with others; Take a breather and enjoy the day.

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