Remembrance, Rest and Radical Resistance
Mark 2:23 – 3:6
For sports fans, the wait is almost over. Four years since the London games – can you believe it?! – on Friday week, the 2016 Olympic Games will open in Rio de Janeiro. And in spite of talk of doping and corruption, I’m sure I’m not the only one excited that they’re almost upon us for the Olympic and Paralympic Games are like the world’s biggest party where the best athletes alive today come together to perform jaw-dropping feats of skill and strength following years of dedication, perseverance and sacrifice. Whether watching live or as armchair expert, we’re provided with a few weeks of incredible entertainment as we get to cheer on the likes of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Jade Jones on the track, pool, velodrome and a whole host of other incredible sporting venues with the breathtaking Rio skyline as a backdrop. Perhaps you can tell that I’m a little excited! To be fair, I was just as excited last time around when the games were in London as the city sparkled, strangers were welcomed and Londoners actually talked to one another on the tube! And I wonder if you remember the sense of anticipation that first night, at the opening ceremony, when, after weeks of security worries, complaints and political bluster, the competitors assembled, the torch was lit and the Queen jumped out of a helicopter. In case you can’t remember the evening, or were out of the country at the time, I thought we’d treat ourselves to a 4 minute classical clip from the London opening ceremony –
Mr Bean playing in orchestra clip
It’s a great clip, isn’t it?! I love the roar of acknowledgement when they first realise it’s Mr Bean playing and that wonderful score by Vangelis. And the music and the pastiche does, of course, refer to the epic ‘Chariots of Fire’ –the film based on the friendship and competition between Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian, later missionary in China, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jewish runner. One strand of the story follows Eric who, having been raised under the strict doctrine of the Scottish Presbyterian church, famously refuses to run in the heats for his favoured 100 metres at the 1924 Olympics because they were on a Sunday – the Sabbath – and instead competes in, and wins, the 400 metre race. It’s an inspiring tale. But I wonder whether it’s one that we can relate to. As twenty first century Christians now living in the 24 hour society in which working, shopping, leisure activities all happily take place on a Sunday, can we empathise with a man who was prepared to give up his dream of Olympic glory because one of the heats was on a Sunday? It was, after all, just last year that many of you supported Iestyn and I when we ran the London marathon on a Sunday. Was that a communal sin? And do we, as individuals refrain from shopping, work, play on a Sunday? Should we?
Of course, confusion and disagreement over the nature of the Sabbath day is nothing new. In our reading from Mark, we see two worldviews collide over the issue of what can and can’t be done on said day. First, Jesus is heading through the fields with his friends when some of them pluck a few heads of grain to satisfy their grumbling tummies and this gives the Pharisees great irritation. Then, to top it all off, Jesus enters the synagogue, still on a Sabbath, and heals a man with a withered hand. Hungry people are fed, an outcast man is healed and the holy huddle reacts by conspiring to destroy Jesus for encouraging such things. What an image of religion! And it’s not so very different from an outlook with which some of us grew up and many more of us have come across – An obsession with the Sabbath or with religious rules and rituals which uphold a system of purity and exclusion, whilst people are starving, in need or excluded. Such a view of the Sabbath held no sway with Jesus, of course. In fact, the Pharisees’ hardness of heart provokes Jesus to look at them with anger – the only time in all scripture that he is said to look at another with anger. Whatever else might be debated about this passage – from the nature of miracles to the interpretation of Son of Man – Jesus’ actions clearly suggest that the observance of the Sabbath cannot come down to a sterile list or dos and don’ts. It is not about gaining our righteousness or maintaining our purity over others through doctrine and dogma. The Sabbath is not about religious ritual.
Yet if it’s not about ritual; if it’s not about a list of the things we cannot do on a Sunday…or a Saturday depending on your understanding of things…then what might the Sabbath be about? What might it have to teach us today? In the time we’ve got this morning, allow me to suggest that far from being simply some obsession of dour, fundamentalist denominations well past their sell by date, the Sabbath and its observance might tell us something of our God and ourselves; of creation and our calling.
So, firstly, could it be that the Sabbath…the day of rest…helps us to remember the very nature of God? Some of us will know that there’s not one list of 10 Commandments recorded in The Bible but in fact two complete sets – one found in Exodus chapter 20 and the other in Deuteronomy, chapter 5. They make for an interesting game of spot the difference and the commandment on the Sabbath is no exception.
Intriguing, isn’t it? One says that we are to observe the Sabbath because Yahweh, God, rested on the seventh day and blessed it. The other that before God freed them, the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt so they should not do any work or force their slaves to do any work on the seventh day. We’ll come back to this in a minute but I wonder, have you noticed which imperative – which command is the same, can be found in both versions? It is the command to remember. Remember the Sabbath day for God created the universe then rested on it and blessed. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt before God liberated you. In both cases, it’s a call to remember who God is. On the Sabbath, remember that God is the composer of the cosmos, the artist who sketched the heavens, shaped the Earth and sculpted you. On the Sabbath, remember that God is the ‘I AM’ who heard your cries, who cares for God’s children, who liberated an oppressed people. The Sabbath then is a day to pause and remember that we worship a God who is not abstract and remote but who gets involved with the world – who creates and recreates, who cares and saves and frees. So, as we gather around the empty tomb of Christ this Sabbath day, let us remember the creative, compassionate God who we worship.
A few chapters on from Exodus 20, we find another call to observe the Sabbath in chapter 31 which says – “You shall keep the Sabbath because it is holy for you…It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days Yahweh made heaven and Earth and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed’. So, Exodus 20 reminds us that God rested on the seventh day after creation was complete but here, the idea is taken even further for, we are told, on the seventh day, God rested and was refreshed. God was refreshed! What does this even mean? Does God get tired? Can God can tired? I certainly don’t have the answer to that but what I do find intriguing is the suggestion that Yahweh is not a workaholic; that the well being of creation does not depend on endless work; that God might re-find a full sense of self, might be refreshed by a period of rest. And if rest brings refreshment to the Creator, so it must surely bring refreshment to the creatures made in the image of a resting God.
Today, much is made of the need to work harder, longer, louder. There is a kind of sickness in society at present which suggests that the busier you are, the more important or more successful you are. And ministers are no less guilty of this than anyone else. Often at church gatherings we can be found comparing diaries, expectations and eyebags in a facile game of ‘I’m more exhausted than you’ and all the while stress and anxiety and obesity and mental illness is on the increase in society. No wonder that yoga and meditation and mindfulness are becoming more and more popular. We were not created to work endlessly. We were not created to check our phones, Facebook posts or inbox every few seconds and yet so many of us do, or are expected to do so. But the call to Sabbath says different. God rested and was refreshed on seventh day and calls us to do the same.
And I wonder whether we might be more open to this – to Sabbath rest if we saw it not as a sort of passive pausing but more as an act of radical resistance. [ Throughout the Old Testament, the observance of the Sabbath sets the people of Israel apart from other peoples and religions. It is a sign of their calling, their covenant, their identity. The Sabbath commands were first given to Israel at Sinai, after they had escaped out of Egypt and before they entered the promised land so they were like a blueprint for a new society, a new way of living and Sabbath keeping was a sign of that.
You see, Egypt, the land that they had escaped from was a society of constant striving. Throughout the book of Exodus, Pharaoh is described as someone who always wanted more – more crops, more bricks, more money, more power. In order to achieve such excess, the whole society was one of constant work and anxiety. The construction of bigger barns, temples, pyramids saw people being viewed as commodities, as slaves whose value was based on their use to the Empire. So when God freed the Israelites from Egypt, he freed them not only from slavery but from the gods of constant consumption, from an outlook that bigger is always better, and from a social system of never-ending restlessness. Sabbath observance was key to this for it reminded the people that their God did not work without rest, and neither should they; that people were to be seen as neighbours with whom to enjoy relationship, not as commodities to use; that they were to live counter-culturally, in defiance of the cult of more that was to be seen in the religions and cultures which surrounded them.
Two thousand years later, I wonder where we side with the gods of ceaseless work and striving or the God of Sabbath rest. I wonder whether the desire to do, buy, have more shapes our own political and economic systems, whether the restlessness and endless striving that pervades our society is, in the words of American theologian Walter Brueggemann, ‘a social arrangement of the safety and happiness of the few at the expense of the many, a replica of the ‘pyramid’ of ancient Pharaoh’. I wonder whether, now perhaps more than ever, God is calling God’s people to live counter culturally; to radically resist the temptations of the cult of more, to reimagine our very social structures, to refresh our commitment to be Sabbath observers.
Finally, observance of Sabbath might lead to right relationship with creation itself.
The two Exodus references to Sabbath that we have considered both refer back to the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 (also one of two different accounts). What is fascinating about this passage of scripture is that it is one of the most misremembered or mistranslated passages in the whole Bible! Ask most of us to give an account of creation and we might…if we remember that much even…say that on the first day God created light; on the second, the heavens and waters, the third the Earth, trees and plants; fourth sun, moon and stars; fifth, fish and birds; on the sixth day, land animals, culminating in humans and on the seventh day, God rested. Well, whilst the bulk of that is, by and large, what the first chapter of the Bible – itself a poetic understanding of creation – suggests, we often get that seventh day mixed up for The Bible does not say that God simply rested on the seventh day. Rather, the original Hebrew more accurately says; “On the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.”
Did you hear that? On the seventh day, God finished the work that he had done and then he rested! Isn’t it incredible that so many of us, myself included, have got this muddled up in the past – not helped by inaccurate translations, of course. Now, ‘so what!’, some of you might be thinking. But perhaps this different, more accurate reading of the original text has huge theological consequences. What if, as many of the ancient rabbis suggested, on that seventh day, God created rest? What if humanity wasn’t in fact the pinnacle of God’s creation, but rather tranquillity, serenity, deep rest?! What if the Sabbath commands in Exodus 23 that speak of leaving the ground fallow every 7 years aren’t simply good farming practice but actually speak of the need for rest in all of creation? Perhaps, then, our understanding and observance of Sabbath has much to challenge a society that thrives on overconsumption, the abuse of the Earth’s resources and unhindered growth. Perhaps a recommitment to Sabbath living might lead to a radically reformed relationship with creation, bringing rest, restoration and renewal where there has been greed, destruction and desolation.
Far from being a day to obsess about rules and rituals then, maybe, just maybe, a reconsideration of Sabbath rest and the consequences that it might bring could yet transform our worship and our world, our resistance to the forces of greed and our relationship with God’s creation. Does this mean cancelling our plans for the afternoon, putting any activities on hold? Of course it doesn’t have to but it might mean that we reflect on the way we work and rest, the space we give to God, our attitude to the cult of more and the needs of creation. So may we be challenged by the call to live counter culturally; may we be comforted by the invitation to rest in God’s cwtch; and may we be refreshed and reenergized in our worship of the God who created the cosmos and freed Israel from slavery; the God who died on a cross and was raised in a garden; the God who sustains and surprises us, this Sabbath day and forevermore. Amen.
 For more, see Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath As Resistance, which has informed much of my thinking on the Sabbath