— “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” — the fourth of the ten commandments, the summary of God’s Law we all learn in Sunday School. If we devote ourselves to any kind of moral code, it usually includes the ten commandments. Jesus Himself appears to have held up the continuing force of these commandments. But what does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath?
Some Christians act as if the old prohibitions of work which formerly applied to Saturday, the actual Jewish Sabbath, now apply (loosely) to Sunday. It becomes for such Christians a display of one’s piety to refrain from work on Sunday and a sign of another’s lack of piety if he or she engages in work on Sunday. As one who has worked on Sunday consistently for the past thirteen years, I do hope they’re wrong. Certain groups within Christianity hold that Christians should really observe Saturday as their day of rest and worship. Some would sharply criticize us who are gathered here as breakers of God’s Law since we are worshiping on Sunday and not “sanctifying” the Sabbath.
But what does it truly mean to observe the Sabbath? How are we, as Christians, to honor God by honoring this commandment? A surprising number of stories in the four Gospels center on this very topic, usually showing Jesus in conflict with other Jewish teachers about what keeping the Sabbath means. In our reading from John’s Gospel this morning, Jesus appears to have deliberately provoked a conflict with rival religious authorities precisely on this point when He told a man whom He had healed to carry his sleeping bag on the Sabbath.
Jesus enters Jerusalem at the time of some unnamed religious festival. On His way into the city He passes the pool of Bethesda, a place where many invalids gather hoping for healing. The pool was supplied by a natural spring: when the spring was active, the calm surface pool would be disturbed. Some thought that an angel was sent by God to touch the water and imbue it with healing power, and that the first person to enter the water would be healed of whatever illness he or she suffered. For this reason the pool was called Bethesda, the “house of mercy.” So they waited … and watched … and hoped.
One man had waited and watched for thirty-eight years, but his infirmity was so severe that he was unable to beat the crowd to the pool when its waters were stirred. At one level, John is likening the man, infirm for thirty-eight years, to the Hebrews who had wandered in the desert with Moses for thirty-eight years, punished for their lack of trust in God. In this story, John first tells us that all who encounter Jesus as healer and savior come to the end of their wandering and enter into God’s rest.
The condition of this invalid speaks to the condition of so many of us. Desiring to be whole, he was caught in an unending cycle of trying to find wholeness but failing. He knew his infirmity, but despaired of ever being rid of it. He had no one left to help him get to the healing waters — his infirmity had even outlived the commitment and patience of his family and friends. When Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, all he can do is explain why that’s not likely ever to happen.
Some sisters and brothers here today know their infirmity. Some of us have carried unwholeness with us from long ago. Perhaps it is physical. Perhaps it is relational. Perhaps it is a sickness in our very souls. I cannot speak for physical infirmity which endures across decades. I’ve not had that experience. But I do know what it is to carry anger, guilt, and insecurity for decades, and I know what a crippling infirmity these can be. I also know what it is to keep trying to get well — to find wholeness of soul — by ineffective methods.
Perhaps you, too, can think of some stained relationship which poisons your heart, or some shame or sin which has crippled your self-esteem and your will to serve God, or some grievance which has left you bedridden on a mat of bitterness. Perhaps there is some poison in your life for which you have sought an antidote for years. If you can think of such an infirmity, even now, name it in the silence of your hearts. And remember this man, who looked in vain for healing for thirty-eight years. He encountered Jesus. He doesn’t profess a certain belief in Jesus; he doesn’t talk about Jesus. He meets Jesus, he hears Jesus’ words to him, and as he follows Jesus’ command he is at last made well.
Now wait a minute! That sounds like a quick fix, doesn’t it? It sounds like one of those easy answers which make our religion so much the less credible in the face of complex problems. But let me return to the point at which the man was healed: Jesus encounters him, Jesus speaks to him, and as he responds to Jesus he is freed from his infirmity. I am not saying, “believe this and everything will be alright.” That would be the quick fix, the easy answer. I am saying, encounter Jesus — search for Him — and let Him heal you.
We do not have the luxury of meeting Jesus in the flesh, but we still do have the privilege of encountering Him. We can meet Him as we cultivate a life of prayer. By prayer here I do not mean adding our wishes to Jesus’ “to-do” list. I mean setting apart time regularly to wait for Jesus. How much time? Until you meet Him.
Select a place where you will be undisturbed and undistracted. Ask Jesus for the gift of His company. Confess your sins and ask His pardon. Make regular reading of scripture a part of this time, allowing scripture to diagnose your condition. Use psalms, hymns, or scripture to prompt your own prayers. Speak to Jesus — no, speak with Jesus. Open up that area of inner sickness to Jesus. And then wait in silence. Tame your wandering thoughts and wait for Jesus.
There’s no way to force Him to come; there’s no way to stop Him from coming. Seek His face — seek Him consistently and often — and He will encounter you. And when He does make His presence known, He will speak to you. Perhaps He will speak through the words He has already spoken in scripture; perhaps He will speak directly to your need. When He does speak, listen and obey.
The best advice in the New Testament comes from Jesus’ mother: “Do whatever He tells you.” If we learn to love the discipline of prayer, we will know the friendship of Jesus, and He will heal us of our infirmities. It is here that the new creation begins to take shape in our hearts, remaking us from the inside out. However long you have lingered in spiritual or emotional infirmity — even if it has been thirty-eight years, or 68 years — the healing encounter with Jesus still awaits you.
But there is more to this story. John tells us that all this happened on a Sabbath. In fact, John’s whole purpose for even telling this story seems to be to set up this confrontation about the Sabbath. When other Jewish authorities see the man carrying his mat on the Sabbath, they immediately recognize a violation of their sacred day. They confront him: “It is not lawful to carry your mat today — it is the Sabbath.” The man replies, “He who healed me told me to pick up my mat and walk.”
Some suggest that the man was merely shifting the blame to Jesus, but I think this is unlikely. The sickness which had drained his life for thirty-eight years had just been lifted by Jesus, and this experience of being set free taught the man something about Jesus. He didn’t know much about Jesus. He didn’t even know His name until later. But he knew that His word was the highest authority — even higher than the Law itself. Jesus told him to do it, and that was sufficient reason to do it. Learning that Jesus healed on the Sabbath — that is, performed a work — and commanded a fellow Jew to do what was not lawful on the Sabbath, these authorities saw Jesus as an enemy.
To understand this hostility, we have to understand the importance of the Sabbath for the Jewish people. If we do not, we will persist in thinking that Jesus’ rivals were small-minded legalists who could overlook a miraculous healing because Jesus broke some little rule. We will fail to see ourselves in those opponents, and very often we have more in common with them than we like to admit.
The Sabbath was ordained by God in creation itself. God rested on the seventh day from His work of creation, and Israel is commanded in Exodus to join with God in this rest. Israel saw itself as falling in line with God’s will, indeed, imitating God, by abstaining from work on the day which God set apart from all work so that it would be different from all other days.
Moreover, the version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5 adds another motive for keeping the Sabbath: “you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Resting on the Sabbath was a privilege which God had given them, for there was a time when they could not rest. Again they were called to imitate God by extending rest to their own servants and even their animals on the Sabbath day.
Just as the Sabbath was set apart from other days of the week, so those who kept the Sabbath showed that God had set them apart from all other peoples of the world to be God’s own people. The Sabbath was thus a “perpetual covenant … a sign for ever” between God and the people of Israel. The Jews’ commitment to be God’s holy people, to set themselves apart from all other nations for God, expressed itself fully and visibly in their Sabbath observance.
Violation of the Sabbath, moreover, was no light matter. Exodus itself prescribes the death penalty for the person who violated the holiness of the Sabbath. Jeremiah linked the national fortune of Israel to the keeping and the violating of the Sabbath: “do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy …. If you … keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it, … this city shall be inhabited for ever …. But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched” (Jeremiah 17:19-27).
When the Jewish leaders criticize the healed man and oppose Jesus for their violation of the Sabbath, they have strong reasons for doing so. When they see the Sabbath threatened, they see a threat to their relationship with God, to the rhythms of their lives, and to their hopes for themselves and their nation.
What defense does Jesus offer? “My Father is working still, and I am working.” God, He says, is not finished with His work; God is not content to rest and leave creation as it is. Jesus and His opponents would agree on one point: God cannot truly be said to “rest” and abstain from all work on the Sabbath, for if God did, the creation would come to an end. Jesus and His opponents both knew that the visible creation is always dependent on God’s sustaining care, and that if God ever stopped working on behalf of His creation we would all cease to be.
Jewish teachers noticed that babies were born on Sabbaths and that people died on Sabbaths — showing that God was at work giving life and judging life on Sabbaths just as He was on other days. Where Jesus and His opponents part company is in Jesus’ claim to be God’s co-worker, God’s partner working together with God to give life and judge life. Jesus understood that in His own work of healing, teaching, and dying, God was bringing about a new work. Jesus’ Sabbath keeping was not merely a memorial of the first Creation and Exodus, but sought to bring about the New Exodus and New Creation which God had planned for His people.
John says in his first letter that Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (John 3:8), to undo the pain and brokenness brought about by centuries of being enslaved to sin and death. Thus when Jesus bursts into human history, He comes to heal bodies racked by disease and deformity; He comes to release hearts from besetting sin and guilt; He comes even to give life to the dead. But God is doing much more than this. God is working to bring into being a new creation and has invested Jesus with His own authority to give life and to judge life. “The Son gives life to whomever He wants,” John writes, creating a new humanity by filling lives with His own Spirit and transforming us into His own image. When we receive the spirit of Christ, we become, as Paul says, “a new creation — the old things are passing away and everything is made new.”
Jesus also will pronounce the last word on our lives, assessing whether or not they have become pleasing to God. A few verses prior to our lesson from 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes: “we all must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, to receive the reward for deeds done in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). By obeying Jesus and offering no objection to Jesus’ command, the healed man certainly acted wisely in light of Jesus’ decisive authority. We should be so perceptive. God’s work, moreover, is not limited to our inner lives, but embraces the whole cosmos. We are becoming God’s new creation, but we also await a new heaven and a new earth — a new creation in which righteousness and justice are at home, a world ever so different from this world of injustice and brokenness.
How, then, do we honor the Sabbath? The early Christians decided that Sunday and not Saturday was to be their day of worship. They did not gather merely to rest after one week and gear up for the next. They were not committed to a never-ending cycle of working within, and profiting from, the way things are. They chose as their day of worship, so one early author puts it, the eighth day of the week – the first day of the New Creation, initiated with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. And we gather here today not merely to remember that God is bringing about a new creation. Just as the Israelites sought to imitate God by resting with Him on the seventh day, so we are to imitate God by participating in the ongoing work of God every day.
Jesus explained to His opponents that “the Son can do nothing of His own accord, but only what He sees the Father doing; for whatever He does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all that He Himself is doing.”
Jesus is not our Savior only, but also our example. He is the Son, but we are His many sisters and brothers. We, too, are called to listen to the Father, to allow the Father to show us what He is doing, and to jump into God’s work – which takes us back to the places of prayer and to the value of obedience. In prayer, we are ourselves remade as Jesus heals us, restores us, and empowers us. The new creation takes shape within us. In prayer, God reveals to each of us what He is doing and how we may serve His vision for our families, our friends, our enemies, our communities, our world. We are given the privilege of witnessing to God’s new acts of creation.
Paul sums up the heart of discipleship so clearly: “He died for all so that we who live might live no longer for ourselves but rather for Him who died for us and was raised for us.” When we understand that Jesus’ death was for us, we will understand the appropriateness of living for him, and until we use our lives to serve Jesus we fail to understand His death for us.
Let our Sabbathkeeping be measured not by resting from work, not by engaging traditional acts of piety, but by setting aside our own work – our own desires, agendas, prejudices – to serve God’s vision for the new creation. Paul lived this way and transformed the Greco-Roman world. What might we do for God if we put God’s vision in the center of our lives! As the Father shows us how He is moving people toward reconciliation, toward healing, toward justice, toward life, let us follow the Father’s prompting. Keep this Sabbath, and we will find rest.

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