A new look at Sabbath

Sermon by Rev. Taunao Vavia @ Tubusereia United Reform Church, Central Province Papua New Guinea, on Sunday 02 August 2020


By law, the Tokyo City Zoo in Japan must be closed for two days each month. The law was necessary because officials discovered that the animals were showing signs of extreme emotional distress from being constantly exposed to the public.

If that is true of animals, how much more is it true of us as human beings? We are constantly under stress, as we are exposed to the public. We need to take time – time to rest our bodies, time to let our minds slow down, time to give some ease to our souls, time to reflect and pray, time to worship, time to join in quality relationships with those who love us.

One of the Ten Commandments lays down the law “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20: 8). The concept of Sabbath must be critically important, judging by the attention it gets and the controversy it sparks, not only in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. Furthermore, it is clear that the observance of Sabbath encompasses the entire community of God – it applies not only to God’s people, but to their servants and their beasts of burden as well. As you can see the practice of the Tokyo City Zoo is well-grounded in scripture! Just what it is about Sabbath that makes it so vital? That is what I will be trying to tell you in this sermon.

Sabbath in the old days!
A few years ago, this is how the people of Tubusereia observed Sunday as the day of worshipping God. All those who went fishing on Saturday had to come back before midnight to rest before Sunday. And parties had to stop by 11.00pm, so that people could go home and rest. My father, who was a pastor was very very strict when it came to Sunday. I was caught playing with my friends one Sunday afternoon and he called me in and gave me a belting I will never forget. He gave me a beating with a 3×2 piece of timber and broke my arm.

Traditionally, we think of the misuse of the Sabbath by the extreme secularization of it, turning it into just another day. For a vast portion of our population, there is no hint of the sacred in it. But Jesus addressed the misuse of the Sabbath from another persepective. If we have made in too secular, the Pharisees made it too sacred. So Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

The Sabbath is a gift of God.
A day of rest and restoration and worship of the living God. A day of salvation and joy for us Christians as we remember the goodness of God in our lives.

Now, as we know, the Christian’s Sunday is different from the Sabbath that is talked about in scripture. The Christian Sunday is a gift of the Church. It may shock you to learn that Jesus gives no specific command regarding the observance of what is now the Christian Sabbath. What had begun among the early Christians as a remembrance of the Resurrection, by the third century had become a legal holiday, the Christian Sabbath. What is important is not whether we observe the Sabbath on the first or the seventh day, but that we observe it without fail.

Specific problem Jesus addresses
Now let’s look at the specific problem Jesus is addressing. The problem goes beyond how we observe Sunday. Here is the ongoing pervasive problem of turning means into ends. It’s really a problem of idolatry. The New Testament story will paint the picture clearly. It’s hard for us to imagine this, but it’s there in scripture. It would seem more logical to want to know, “how were you healed?” or “who healed you” But those who were there were blinded by their rigid legalism.

They missed the miracle altogether. They only asked, “Who told you to carry your mat and walk?” They were not interested in the healing of this man. They were only interested in keeping the Sabbath. By putting institutional values above human values, they had distorted, even perverted understanding, and so they misused the Sabbath. They turned means into ends. This wrong sense of values continues to work tragedy in our day.

A woman was in Church with her little son and the little child turned around to those seated behind him and was smiling at them. All of a sudden, the mother realised what he was doing and jerked him around angrily. In a stage whisper that could be heard several pews away, she said, “Stop that grinning – you are in Church!” And she wacked him soundly on the bottom. When she did, of course, great big tears began to roll down his cheeks, and the little boy began to cry. And you know what the mother said? “That’s better. Now let’s start worshipping God again.” The Pharisees changed the day, for many, from a day of blessing into a day of burden.

Practical applications
Let me draw two very practical applications from what Jesus said. The first concerns our celebrating the Christian Sabbath by attending worship. We attend church not in the spirit of people performing a religious duty but in the spirit of people who feel that their attendance at worship is a loud, living Amen to the conviction that the Sabbath is made for people.

Our tithes and offerings contribute to the support of hospitals and of homes for the orphans and aged. They help feed those threatened by starvation and assist refugees. They support a host of other charitable endeavours as a concrete expression of our conviction that the right observance is to help and to save life.

We feel that our participation in the Sabbath worship will help us and save our life. It will help us to become convicted of our sins. It will inspire us to do for others as we would have them do for us. It will undergird us with the conviction that we can be rooted and grounded in God’s love and the sure knowledge that God is for us.

It is here in worship that our hearts can be cleansed, a right spirit renewed within us, and the intention kindled to lead a new life. It is here that we hear the unforgettable call of Christ, “Take up your cross and follow me.” There’s something about this Jesus, who believes that the Sabbath is made for man, and that we celebrate it correctly when we help and save life, that captures our imagination, quickens our hearts, and excites our minds.

There is a further implication that I want to draw from Jesus’ words about the Sabath that has to do with how we do our work and how we live out our vocations from day to day. This dimension is important to us because what Jesus is saying about the Sabath he is saying about life; all that we do should have about it a commitment to sharing the love of Christ and bringing wholeness to others.

Our observance of the Sabath is like that. If we only come weekly to properly participate in the ritual acts, we feel like an observer. But when we enter into the work of (salvation), then we feel united with that gracious love of God that gave an only son to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption and, while we were yet sinners, died for us. In our work of helping and saving we become a living expression of the great good news, “The Sabbath is made for man.”

Therefore, let us celebrate Sabbath not as the Pharisees but as Christians renewed with the vigour of a living Christ, who would want our total devotion to him. To celebrate the Day with reverence to God, savouring each passing moment of the day in thanksgiving and joy as we thank and praise him for the blessings in our life and more importantly for the gift of his one and only begotten son who sacrificed himself so that we might have eternal life. TO GOD BE THE GLORY!