The Sabbath Challenge

2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

And Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’.

I want to think together this morning about the Sabbath, especially about that phrase that Jesus uses to reply to his challengers - ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’.

Because Jesus doesn’t say - the Sabbath was something for the past and now I’ve come along we can go all 1960’s and give up on all these boring rules that just hold us back from being free. Man. He says ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind’. It was a gift. It was something given by God as part of His creation - because he knows we need it. True then; true now.

You may have seen me buzzing about the village in the ‘Vicar-mobile’ - a silver car with the GK Church sticker on the bonnet. That car was a gift to the Church. Lizzie and I only have one car, and that led to lots of complex negotiations and those moments you have in families -  "what do you mean you need the car? I need the car!” Sometimes, when we just couldn’t make it work with one car, Don helped us out and lent us one of the cars from his garage. And then, 2 years ago, we go back from summer holidays to find the Vicar-mobile waiting on our drive.  It was a wonderful, generous gift from Don and just what I needed. 

All the best gifts are like that aren't they? Imaginative, generous presents and just what we need. 

The Sabbath is that kind of gift.  A wonderful, generous gift that’s also just what we need. The Sabbath was made for humankind.

So what does that mean for us today? If Sabbath is a gift from God, something we absolutely need, what do we need to do about keeping Sabbath today?

I would guess that, for many of us, Sabbath means one of two things. 

You might be sitting there thinking - day off? What day off? Sunday is the day I do the ten million things I don’t get to during the week! Or perhaps for you Sunday is another working day like all the rest. 

Or, you might be thinking, Sunday is day off - the day you put your feet up, see the family, take things easy and recover from the week that’s gone before. 

Anyone thinking ether of those?

In our modern world it may well feel really difficult to keep Sunday as Sabbath - work pressures and 24/7 shopping, all those chores and the family commitments all crowd in and risk making Sunday just another day. 

But I want to challenge all of us to take Sabbath keeping seriously.

At the most basic level, we need Sabbath because we need to stop and rest. On the seventh day, God rested, says the story of creation. ‘Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.’

Rest is good. Rest is holy. Physically, we need time when we stop work and recover; whether that’s from hard physical work, when our bodies need to rest; or for many of us these days where work is desk bound, to get outside and take some exercise. 

It’s true psychologically too.  We know that stress and burnout are very often related to the demands of daily life, and to the relentless nature of the to do list, and work demands, and the targets we need to meet. And as a society we’re reaping the consequences of a 24/7 culture at the moment in the very high levels of anxiety and mental ill health that we see around us. 

God knows that. It’s one main reason why he gave us the gift of Sabbath.  

So here’s a question for you. 

If Sabbath is firstly about rest, what do you need to allow Sabbath to happen in your life?

Do you have a day of rest, whether it’s Sunday, or another day? What does that day look like for you? If it’s a day off - day off from what, and for what?

Is there a time in your week that is set aside, that feels different?

Are there days when you switch off your phone? When you read something that’s not work related. When you get outdoors and walk or take exercise; see family and friends; hang out with the kids. Or, if you’re a full time parent, have a break from the kids and go out without them?

Sabbath may well not be a day where we do nothing - it’s not like that for most of us. But do you commit yourself to regular rest? Do you give yourself, your loved ones, your family, Sabbath time - and make it a priority? And what do you need to do - or to stop doing - to allow that Sabbath to happen? It’s not easy - to stop when we’re living at 100mph - but it’s God’s gift to us. Will you take the Sabbath challenge?

But Jesus also says ‘humankind was not made for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’.  The Sabbath isn’t just a day to sit on the sofa. It’s there to help keep the main thing, the main thing; to help us follow the Lord.

One of the reasons the disciples in the gospel story didn’t need the Sabbath in quite the same way as their contemporaries was that they were - literally - following Jesus already. Step by step, they were walking through those grain fields behind their Lord. They didn’t need a Sabbath to help them do it - in fact what they needed to help them keep on following him was some food. So they could freely eat - ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’

In the end, keeping the Sabbath is about freeing us from everything that holds us back from following Jesus.

How can the Sabbath help us do that?

We all have things in our life that, in themselves, are good, but which we allow to take on more importance than they were ever meant to have. The Old Testament calls it idolatry - when we take something good and let it define who we are

For some of us it will be our work - we give so much to our work that we think it defines our value in the world.

For some of us it will be other people - we become overly concerned about what they think of us, and allow that to shape our interactions with the world. 

For some of us it will be money, or what we look like, or how successful our children are, or sport, or…fill in the blank for yourself.  Because, if you’re ready to be honest, you’ll have your own version of this.We all do. 

The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath’ said Jesus. Even something as good as the Sabbath can become an idol if it stops us from following Jesus - that’s what happened to the Pharisees. Following the rules had become an idol which meant they couldn’t see who Jesus was. 

And that happens as soon as anything becomes more important to us than living under the rule and the love of the only one who is really meant to give us meaning, identity and value. 

Sabbath keeping gives us the opportunity to hit the refresh button on what matters. To switch off from the things that we think make us worthwhile, and to be reminded that that is God’s job. That it is his love for us, which is freely given and without any ‘just so long as’ clauses, that defines who we are. That it is his opinion of us that matters; that it’s his love for us that gives us value. That before him our status, our job title, our bank balance and what we look like matter not one bit. What matters is that He loves us, and calls us to love him in turn. 

And a Sabbath day every week is a chance to be reminded of that truth. 

So the question is, what do you need to do, or to stop doing, so that your Sabbath - whatever day of the week it is - helps you let go of the idols, the little lords, that you have allowed to take more power in your life than is their right?

Is there time every week set aside to be with other Christians to worship, learn and pray? What level of priority do you give church?

Maybe you need a day without your work email on. Maybe you need a day without social media, or without your phone. Maybe you need a day when you don’t buy anything at all. 

Once a week. A day when you let go of all these things, and remember that Jesus is Lord, and nobody and nothing else can take His place. 

How will you know what you should focus on to let Sabbath happen in your life? It’s that thing that, when you are being honest, flicks through your mind, and is immediately followed by a thousand reasons why you can’t possibly manage it. Good reasons; reasons which will make it really painful to give it up.  That’s your thing. That’s your Sabbath challenge. 

And God knew what he was doing when he said it had to be every week. If, for one day a week, we can be a bit freer from the claims of our work, or our bank balance, or our need to please - or whatever it is for you - then that freedom can start to leak out and affect the the other 6 days of the week. Keeping the Sabbath, giving one day to what really matters, might just end up changing everything. 

And Jesus said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbathand then he said ‘So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’

The Sabbath is God’s gift to us. The gift of rest, and the gift of freedom from anything that stops us following him. 

Will you take the Sabbath challenge?

Going deeper

  1. What is your 'Sabbath' day like? Do you have a day of rest? What are the challenges you face in sticking to it?

  2. Does it change your thinking about the Sabbath if you think of it as a gift from God?

  3. Read Mark Mark 2:23-3:6 - what strikes you? What does the story say to you?

  4. What good things risk become idols in your life? How could you use your Sabbath to keep focussed on Jesus?

Hugh Nelson