There’s a story about an aging woodsman and his young apprentice having an all-day wood chopping contest. The apprentice was a strong young man in his physical prime. He worked very hard, stopping only once for a quick lunch break. He hacked and hacked, was dripping with sweat all day, and by the end of the day was completely exhausted. The older man, well past his prime, but wise, worked slowly, had a leisurely lunch, and took many breaks during the day. At the end of the day he didn’t seem nearly as depleted as his hard working partner, and the young apprentice was surprised and annoyed to find that the old fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he did. "I don't get it," he said. "Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did." "But didn't you notice," said the wise woodsman, "that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest."
I really like that story because it shows how recharged and re-sharpened we get when we take Sabbath rest. Rest replenishes us, gives us energy for the hard work ahead. It makes us more productive and efficient when we take time to stop and sharpen our ax. But the Sabbath Day is more than just a day to replenish us so that we can be more productive on work days. The Sabbath Day is God’s holy day, a sacred time to dwell with God free from the stress and pressures of the world. In fact, Sabbath, according to Genesis, is the entire purpose of life. It’s the climax of all creation. On the seventh day God rested, and both Jewish and Christian scholars from antiquity until now have suggested that humankind (created on the sixth day) is not the crown jewel of creation, but the Sabbath is both the climax and culmination of God’s creative activity. The enjoyment God has for life, the enjoyment we and all sentient beings should have in life, that Sabbath leisure is the crown of creation, the point and purpose of the universe. At the same time Jesus says the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the seventh day of creation—the Sabbath—builds upon the creation of the sixth day—humankind—and reveals what human life lived to the fullest is all about.
When the Israelites were travelling from Egypt into the Promised Land, God told Moses the people must honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Like the rainbow was to Noah and circumcision was to Abraham, the Sabbath would be for Moses and the people of Israel a sign of God’s covenant with them. And reading Exodus and Deuteronomy shows us the Sabbath was more than a day of rest, it was a day of freedom. A day when everyone—men, women, and children, foreigners, prisoners, and slaves, even animals—would be free from labor and obligation. The Sabbath Day according to the Torah is a matter of social justice, a day about being liberated from oppression, a day when all beings are to experience the freedom that God intends. From its very inception as a commandment, the Sabbath has been about freedom: freedom from oppression in Egypt, freedom from work or school, freedom from the things that burden us, worry us, cause us stress, or separate us from God.
Now considering that let’s turn back to the Gospel lesson this morning. Knowing that the Sabbath is about freedom and appreciating the gift of life, it only makes sense that the crippled woman would be healed on the Sabbath! The Sabbath is the day above all days when we’re supposed to enjoy life to the fullest—so why wouldn’t Jesus free this woman from her aliment on the Sabbath! The Pharisees didn’t understand the true meaning of Sabbath. The purpose of Sabbath is rest, enjoyment, and freedom, it’s not meant to become another obligation and stressful thing in our lives.
People in Jesus’ time misunderstood the Sabbath commandment, to the point where it caused them even more stress and worry. But how the pendulum has swung in our time. We now live in a culture that has no regard for Sabbath. We’re on the go 24/7/365. Resting time is solely for the purpose of regaining energy so you can go out and deplete yourself again. While the Pharisees of Jesus’ day treated the Sabbath like yet another obligation to be fulfilled, humans today don’t really treat Sabbath at all. Sure we have weekends off from work or school, and it’s a good idea to take vacations. But we don’t really have a concept of true Sabbath. We fill our days off with all sorts of activities, or TV shows or screen time. Successfully distracting ourselves from any real time alone, burning ourselves out more, depleting all our energy, and doing the exact thing that the Sabbath commandment is meant to avoid.
Honoring Sabbath isn’t another obligation like the Pharisees taught, something to stress us out even more. But it is a commandment. God wants us to take Sabbath, for good reason. Honoring the Sabbath is about honoring the sacredness of God and the sacredness of your life. Not treating yourself like a grueling workhorse. Rather, respecting yourself enough to honor the fact that you need time to yourself and that you need time with God. To spend a day devoted to practicing your spirituality. To spend a day in awe and reverent joy appreciating the gift of life.
To not do that, at least every once in a while, is to miss the point of living.
When I was a senior in college I tried something. As a Lenten discipline I decided to honor the Sabbath Day as entirely as I could. So every Saturday I freed myself of the responsibility to work, do homework, go grocery shopping, even hang out with friends. I worked hard to get as much homework done on Friday as I could, so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed on Sunday. Then every Saturday I woke up with absolutely no plans. Nothing to do at all. That was my Lenten discipline. And believe me, it took some discipline. At first it sorta felt like I was lost at sea. What do you do when you have nothing to do? No agenda, no direction, no structure for your day. That can be a scary thing at first. To be that free.
On those days, I would spend my time praying, going for walks, reading books for pleasure, laying under the open sky. Those Saturdays became a truly holy day for me. And although it was hard at first, they became days that I really looked forward to. I was completely free of all responsibility and learned to be totally spontaneous and relaxed as I wandered aimlessly around campus or through the neighborhoods of Valparaiso, Indiana, meandering without a purpose, just looking at the clouds and the trees.
I believe that’s kind of what God had in mind for the Sabbath. A day where you walk with God, honoring the sacrament of the present moment, letting go of all the stressors and worries that distract you from enjoying life. It’s like a weekly mini-retreat with God. Not feeling the need to come up with some activity to entertain yourself, but rather spontaneously doing whatever the Spirit inspires.
So my point here is twofold: Sabbath is about freedom. Freedom from the burdens of the world—be it school, work, errands, appointments, obligations, worries of any kind. And once you learn to set aside those stressors on the Sabbath, it becomes a day about appreciating the gift of life, a day when you learn to see God in the midst of this earthly journey. Sabbath is much more than freedom from what stresses you out, although that’s the place to start. On a deeper level, honoring the Sabbath means setting aside a day to dwell with God, to invite God to direct your day, surrendering a 24 hour period to the spontaneous flow of the Spirit.
So my challenge to you this week is to honor your Sabbath. Ask for God’s guidance and take on the discipline of honoring Sabbath time. It could be the entire day Saturday, it could be your Sunday afternoon, or your Friday evening. Doesn’t really matter when. If you can’t possibly imagine yourself dedicating an entire 24 hours, start with 8 hours, or 4. If you can’t imagine doing it once a week, try once a month. Arrange your schedule so it’s like a mini-retreat you take with God once a month. Set aside a good portion of time to do nothing but what the Spirit inspires. Don’t worry about planning what you’ll do. Sabbath is a time to practice trust and patience. To dwell with yourself and with God. It’s a discipline. Boredom may come. Loneliness may come. But don’t distract yourself with TV or electronics. Just be in it and find freedom in it. You’ll need to guard that time; many pressures and obligations will threaten it. That time is sacred and must be honored. It will be challenging. But it will also be enjoyable and life-giving.
Remember that the Sabbath day is about you and God and cultivating your relationship. It’s a day, or a half day—that you will spend dwelling with God, practicing the art of being the authentic you. Don’t take it too seriously like the Pharisees did. But don’t forget about it like most people today do. Honor the sacred Sabbath. Honor the sacredness of your life. Honor the sacredness of time with God. Sabbath is a time to be free from the pressures of the world, free to live life to the fullest, free for peace, free for joy, free for life as God intends it.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 8/21/22
 L.S. Chafer, Grace.