Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff


Sunday 21st August

Our readings today from both Isaiah and Luke’s gospel focus on the Sabbath. 

            Now the Jewish Sabbath, along with circumcision and the food laws, was one of the badges of Jewish identity within the pagan world and one of the most important rituals observed among the Jews.

            The word Sabbath is the Hebrew word for ‘rest’ and the Sabbath was to be a day in which people ceased from their labours and gave themselves to a remembrance of the Lord.

            However, the Pharisees in the days of Jesus had changed the Sabbath into something it was never meant to be.  They’d written up chapter upon chapter concerning what it meant to keep the Sabbath.     

            It was on these rules and regulations that the leader of the synagogue was basing his spurious claim that Jesus was wrong and an affront to God by healing the crippled woman on the Sabbath.

            ‘You hypocrites’ was Jesus’ angry response ..... you would untie your ox or your donkey on the Sabbath and so isn’t it right that this daughter of Abraham should be released from the chains that have bound her for 18 years?

            It’s not the only occasion where Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath law.  There’s the incident of the disciples picking and eating grain and again when he challenged the Pharisees over the healing the man with the withered hand.

            Jesus tells the Pharisees ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’.  He is not saying that the Sabbath is not important, but that God’s command was to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  The issue is not whether the Sabbath should be observed. The issue is the nature of the Sabbath – what it is all meant to be about.

            Isaiah provides the following guidance on keeping the Sabbath ‘You shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say Here I am’ and .... ‘if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord...’                 

            But the Pharisees had instituted a complex and confusing system of Sabbath law of their own. Strict laws regarding how to observe the Sabbath that were oppressive and legalistic.  They were therefore able to impose their own authority over the people who needed them to make sense of this minefield of intricate laws.

            It also enabled them to keep God at arm’s length.  By being seen to keep all the rules and regulations, they could convince themselves – and the people - that they were righteous.  It didn’t matter how they lived their lives or how they treated people.

Jesus had warned the people and his disciples ‘do whatever they teach you but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to help them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others’

            So when Jesus came along and started driving a coach and horses through that theory, it was no wonder that in the synagogue on that particular Sabbath the religious leader was panicking ..... not only was the crippled woman freed from her bondage .... Suddenly a new insight into what’s happening begins to dawn on those present.  They were acutely aware of the presence of God among them, realised that worship needn’t mean being bound by the dictates of their teachers ...... the leader was in danger of losing his standing in the community.  What Jesus is doing for this poor woman is what he’s longing to do for Israel as a whole, and for each one of us today, to free us, to put us right so we can stand tall and straight.

            As Creator, Christ was the original Lord of the Sabbath (John 1:3; Hebrews 1:10).  When He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), Jesus was attesting to the fact that, just as the Sabbath day was originally instituted to give man rest from his labours, because of His sacrifice on the cross, we can now forever cease labouring to attain God’s favour and rest in His mercy and grace.
            In the letter to the Hebrews the writer is drawing attention to just how gracious God is.   We can come to Jesus, who presents a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. Jesus is the mediator of this covenant, Jesus has fulfilled the law, he has defeated the law of sin and death and set us free to live God’s law which has always been a law of love.

            All God has ever wanted from us is that we honour him, we acknowledge that without him we are nothing – indeed that nothing would exist – and accept that his love for us, for his whole creation is such that he wants the very best for us.  He wants us to trust him, to not turn our backs on him and go our own way.

            And nothing has changed - setting time aside to turn away from our labours or our busyness and turning our attention to God is essential if our relationship with him is to grow and our faith deepen.

            The church throughout the past two millennia has worshipped on Sunday instead of Saturday to honour the resurrection of Jesus and keeping the first day of the week special, meeting together to worship, to pray, to be fed by the word and the meal that we share is a way of keeping our focus directed away from ourselves and on God; of setting our lives firmly right-side up - as the letter to the Hebrews said last week – for the coming week and to take the words of Isaiah to heart  If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.’

            But we can so easily fall into the trap that allows satan – who Jesus said had kept the crippled woman bound for 18 years – to keep us bound up in strict observance of rituals and traditions.

            Keeping our worship special isn’t about sticking rigidly to a prescribed format, it’s about allowing the Lord to be our source of life; of realising that he is the only one who can make us whole, who can provide all that we need or desire to be completely who we were always intended to be.

            It doesn’t mean that religious rituals are wrong but we need to understand their true purpose.  They aren’t designed for God’s welfare but for ours.  Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, that means he is free to do with it what he wishes and if our focus becomes centred on the rituals and traditions, however meaningful and important they have become to us, instead of being focused on Jesus, then we may very well become like the Pharisees and become unable to recognise him and unable to be moved by the Holy Spirit.

            Hebrews refers to God’s promise ‘to once more shake not only the earth but also the heaven’ ..... in The Message – which makes these verses far easier to understand – it goes on ‘the phrase one last shaking means a thorough house cleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakeable essentials stand clear and uncluttered, so we are left with an unshakeable kingdom.’ – God’s Kingdom. 

            That doesn’t mean changing the way we worship simply for the sake of it, but seeking God’s will and in the words of Saint Ignatius, praying for the grace that all our intentions, actions and operations may be directed purely to the praise and service of the Divine Majesty.   Thereby ensuring that the unshakeable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.

            During the week we go out into a world where, if we hear the name of Jesus spoken at all, it is often as a swear word.  So what a joy it is to be together on this Lord’s day, to be a family, to pray and to praise, to worship and give thanks to our Lord, to be strengthened by Him and by one another so that when we do go out into the world, our light shall rise in the darkness and we will be able to reflect something of his love to each person we come into contact with.  Amen