Monday, March 21, 2011

Signs (3): Sabbath and Life

Psalm 67 (call to worship)
John 3:1-17 (children)
John 5:1-30 (message)

Such a remarkable story! The guy who is healed is not exactly a likeable fellow. Jesus meets him and asks about his hopes and dreams, but he only complains about not having a friend or helper to get him to the water. Jesus heals him, but he doesn’t bother to even learn Jesus’ name. And, once he figures it out, the first thing he does is inform on Jesus to the religious authorities. Not exactly a sympathetic or “deserving” character. (See Raymond E. Brown, John I-XII, p 209.) So, at least on an emotional level, I have no problem with Jesus showing up and saying, “Stop sinning, or something worse might happen to you.” Know any folks like this? If they believe like I do, they are just an embarrassment, to me if not to Jesus.

And then, as promised last week, there’s the message, the preaching, that is tied to this sign. It’s all about Sabbath, since Jesus has violated Sabbath law by doing this healing. But his preaching here in John’s gospel is unlike what we see in the other gospel accounts. There, he refers to the permission given – by the law – to pull your animal out of a hole if it has gotten stuck. Healing a person is a humanitarian act, and even a better act than rescuing your cow, so it must be permitted. Jesus summarizes this humanitarian impulse with the phrase, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27, Matthew 12:1-12).

In the other gospel accounts, Jesus defends his Sabbath healing on theological grounds as well. He referred to the work and the privilege of priests, who worked on the Sabbath – that was part of worship after all – and now something, someone, greater than temple or priesthood is here. That something greater? Jesus and his kingdom. His elliptical way of saying it, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Luke 6:1-5). (See Raymond E. Brown, John I-XII, p 216.)

Here in John’s gospel, Jesus uses theological grounds to defend this Sabbath healing, but he comes at it in an entirely unique way. He says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). This statement says, in the first case, “My Father is still working.” Jewish people, in the tradition of the time, recognized that God worked on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the climax of the creation story, and perhaps even the high point of creation itself (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament). But everyone in Jesus’ day knew that at least three special things in which God was working still occurred on the Sabbath: rain, birth (only God gives life – and the new birth), and death (only God renders final judgment) (Brown, 217).

In the second case, the statement says, “I also am working”. Jesus claims for himself the prerogative of God to work on Sabbath. And this is what gets him in hot water with the religious establishment. What is Jesus working on? We’ve noted the frequent use of Genesis-creation imagery in John’s gospel and the structure of seven signs – a week’s worth of signs – to frame the gospel account. Through that lens, we may say that Jesus is working on God’s new creation and that he is waiting for a Sabbath to come. (See N. T. Wright’s comments on the seven signs in Surprised by Hope, p 238-239.)
O what their joy and their glory must be,
those endless sabbaths the blessed ones see;
crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest;
God shall be all, and in all every blest.
“O What Their Joy and Their Glory Must Be”, Peter Abelard, 12th century, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851, The United Methodist Hymnal, #727

We need to take a short detour to understanding Sabbath. The word itself means to stop, or even to “sever”. It was the name given to the seventh day of the week, the climax of creation. Keeping the Sabbath holy by doing no work was the fourth of the ten commandments. And, it is described in the Bible as “given” to God’s people who had been slaves in Egypt. So, it is linked with the two main blessing stories of the Hebrew Scripture – creation and redemption. To keep the Sabbath is to join God in celebrating creation and to live as God’s redeemed people. (See Exodus 20:8, Deuteronomy 5:15, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament in Hermeneutica’s BibleWorks, and Brown, p 216-217.)

Christians very quickly moved the focus of their worship to the eighth day, the day after the Sabbath, which they called “the Lord’s day” in honor of the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week . . . and the inauguration of God’s new creation. And, in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, we are told that “there remains a Sabbath rest” for the people of God – a reference not only to eternal salvation, but to living here and now as God’s redeemed people (Hebrews 4:1-11). It is a rest we enter through Jesus Christ, Lord of the Sabbath.

That final fulfillment, that ultimate realization of Sabbath, is anticipated here and now in the practice, the discipline of Sabbath observance – in taking a day to worship and play, to gather with God’s people to pray and to walk in the woods or picnic at the park. Our lives are too busy. At a young age our kids get caught up in the hectic demanding schedules that wear us out as adults. We’ve got to find ways to say “no”, we’ve got to find ways to “stop”, we’ve got to find ways to “sever” our electronic umbilical cord to the workplace or the background noise, in order to make space in our lives for God, for the Lord of the Sabbath. I constantly struggle against this debilitating temptation. I enjoy being busy. I enjoy working hard. And, like the ancient priests of Israel, I work on the Sabbath. But it is not all about me. I am not indispensable in God’s work.

Eugene Peterson, translator and writer of The Message Bible, has recently published a memoir titled The Pastor. The frontispiece features a quote from Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, and reveals that one of the persistent themes for Peterson’s life and ministry has been practicing Sabbath:
To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart,
the harpooners of this world
must start to their feet from out of idleness,
and not from out of toil.
Peterson, Eugene. 2011. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Peter Abelard, the 12th century philosopher, theologian, and tragic figure, struggled with experiencing that promised Sabbath rest, struggled with the disconnection between wish and fulfillment. But he captured the themes of this Scripture with his hymn:
Truly, “Jerusalem” name we that shore,
city of peace that brings joy evermore;
wish and fulfillment are not severed there,
nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer.
When Sabbath is understood, as in the letter to the Hebrews, the hymn of Abelard, and here in John’s gospel, to include its final fulfillment here and now, no wonder that Jesus speaks of his Sabbath work as giving life to the dead and passing judgment on this broken world (Brown, 218-219).

John 5:24-29 - Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. 25 "Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27 and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and will come out-- those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

No wonder Jesus speaks of his Sabbath work as giving life to the dead and passing judgment on this broken world. And no wonder he tells this now-healed man, “Stop sinning” (5:14). Sin has become part of the old order, the original creation. Sin has no place in God’s new creation. And, to “stop” sinning? That’s Sabbath – Sabbath as “stop”, Sabbath as “sever”, Sabbath as making a clean break to start anew.

Let’s return to the opening words of Jesus in this story: “Do you want to be healed?” (5:6). The man in the story takes the question as an accusation – do we ever do that – and begins to defend himself. Healing, when we listen to Jesus preach, isn’t the point. Jesus as life-giver, doing his Sabbath work, is the point. But the man is so busy defending himself that he can’t respond appropriately to Jesus and his question, to Jesus and his offer of even more than healing.
“Do you want to be healed?”
“Yes! More than anything!”
That’s not what Jesus hears, but he still shows mercy to the man.

My fear is that I respond too often like the man in the story. Too often, I am far from a sympathetic character. Jesus approaches me with the gift of Sabbath. And all I can do is defend myself. You see, I’m not really ready to stop sinning and enter the new creation. And I’m not really ready to make room in my life or my time for Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath. My defensiveness – what is it protecting? My sin? My time? What, exactly, does my sin do for me? And, how, exactly, am I really in control of my time and handling it well?

I am grateful that Jesus remains merciful. Because, as defensive as I am, I really want in on that new creation.
wish and fulfillment are not severed there,
nor do things prayed for come short of the prayer.
May the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord of life, bring our deepest, God-given wish to fulfillment in that day and this. May we be healed.

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