Sermons from the Sabbatical: Why a Sabbath?

A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.
Sermons from the Sabbatical: Why a Sabbath?
Mark 2:23-3:6; Deuteronomy 6:12-15
August 6, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

Before the reading:
Good to be back… thank you for the sabbatical. It has been (to quote a new friend from England) a rich experience. A time to reflect, to renew, and to gain perspective. You’ll hear more in weeks to come. You may not be surprised that being away has me thinking about purpose of a Sabbath. So I wanted to dig deeper.

The Sabbath was and still is important to the Jewish community. In Israel, shops still close… families cease from work… the Jewish quarter in Old Jerusalem is quiet… and if you want to find a faithful Jew, you know where to go: the Synagogue. For Muslims and Christians the good news is this: there is little or no traffic on the highways on Fridays and Saturdays in Israel.

So today we heard one scripture about Jesus debating the proper use of the Sabbath (when was the last time we had that debate?!). The debate is important because they were trying to follow the commandment you here in the passage today:


I remember when I was in seminary the story of our very reformed and Presbyterian theology Professor John Leith who went out to preach one Sunday and he was with a student who was driving. Dr. Leith was from Due West, South Carolina and raised in a conservative Presbyterian home that taught very strict Sabbath observance. So on Sunday they were allowed to read the Bible but never to shop.

Well, on this Sunday they were on the way home and the student told Dr Leith that they were about to run out of gas. He had not filled his tank on Saturday. The student said, “Dr. Leith, we need to stop at a gas station.” Dr. Leith said, no, they would wait until Monday. This is the Sabbath. vThe student said, Dr. Leith, I don’t think you understand… we are really about to run out of gas. We won’t make it back to Richmond!v Dr. Leith finally relented and said,v “Okay, you can stop at the next gas station… but only buy25 cents worth.”

Now there is a man who was trying to keep the Sabbath.

Sharon and I had a conversation about this early in our marriage. One Sunday afternoon, I suggested that we go to a movie. Sharon resisted. She had never been to a movie on a Sunday. She came from a line of Presbyterian pastors and a family that had honored the Sabbath by not doing certain things. Her mom couldn’t even read the comics until Sunday morning. I came from a family who went out to eat after church… meaning we were breaking the Sabbath for someone… You always knew I was more liberal than Sharon didn’t you!

I wonder if you ever struggle with what to do on the Sabbath… When a coach says we are going to practice on Sunday morning, do you struggle with the decision? Or when you have another conflict, do you struggle? Do you find another way to remember the Sabbath if you are tied up on Sunday morning?

Occasionally I run across a Christian who tells their coach that they will not practice on a Sunday morning. What a bold witness. I am not sure what a coach may think. I do know when my Muslim friends stop what they are doing and pause for prayer 5 times a day, I admire that witness to their faith. Or when Jews stop what they are doing on Friday night… it is a bold witness. So when Christians do the same thing, I assume others admire that witness…

But I acknowledge it is hard to stand up to a culture that no longer respects the idea of Sabbath.

Truth is, the subject of how to observe the Sabbath has never been easy and in fact it has had a long history of debate… going back at least to the time of Jesus…

In the time of Jesus the subject of Sabbath and what you could or could not do on the Sabbath was a source of great controversy. They debated questions like should you heal or not heal on the Sabbath. If you are hungry, can you pick grain from the field?

When the leaders wanted to discredit Jesus, they started an argument about the Sabbath. If he was not practicing it correctly as they saw it, then he could not be seen as a faithful Jew or good rabbi and teacher. He obviously was not a Bible believing Jew if he did not practice Sabbath as they saw it. Some have suggested that one of the key reasons Jesus was criticized and crucified is because of the way he practiced or did not practice the Sabbath.

The reason this was a hot and divisive argument is that the Sabbath is deeply rooted in the law of God, the whole of Scripture and traditions of Israel.

Read the Scriptures and you will read several times when God’s people are called to cease and desist from something or another.

There is the weekly Sabbath… where the commandment says everything and everyone is to be given a day of rest once a week: even slaves and donkeys and oxens and livestock… even the resident alien in your town- they may not even be Jewish! Once a week everyone gets a break! No one has to work on the Sabbath! No emails, no grading papers, just a time to rest. Sounds kind of nice!

Then there is the Sabbatical year… once every 7 years there is a sort of reboot to take place: The farmland is to lie fallow, debts are to be forgiven, and stored food is to be shared with others. Once every 7 years you get to start over…

Then after 49 years (seven cycles of seven years) there is a Jubilee year. A major reboot. In that year all debts were to be forgiven (no more student loans!)… all captives and slaves set free… everyone gets to start over. It’s a radical idea… so radical some doubt whether it was ever observed.

Why is this so important? Look deeper and you will see why. More than a command, Sabbath was created by God as part of the fabric of creation. The 7th day is a day of rest… Read Genesis you cannot have creation without a Sabbath.

And I think I understand why. Just look at what life without Sabbath looks like. You don’t have too look far. I’ve experienced this and so have you. Here is what life without Sabbath looks like: It looks tired, worn out and burned out. People send emails and tweet words and post on Facebook words that they would not likely share if they were rested people. People who are stressed out from a 24/7 life are not at their best. People treat family members, friends and co-workers in ways they would not treat them if they were well rested.

We pay a price for ignoring the Sabbath… a high price. Ignoring the Sabbath is like ignoring the law of gravity… you may think you are the exception to the rule but try jumping off a roof and flying… Gravity wins. So try breaking the Sabbath law and sooner or later you will pay a price.

A couple of weeks ago I was in a grocery store and a nice woman says to me, “You are Jody Welker, aren’t you?” I said yes and a nod of recognition came to me.
This was a Kirk member who had not been to church in a long, long time. These are sometimes awkward conversations but she made it a gracious one. She introduced me to her teenage daughter and said, “This is our pastor”… then we talked about life and she said it is just so hard to get up on Sunday morning… we are so busy and so tired… so tired.

So tired from hectic pace of life that all of us experience. What she was saying is that her body, her soul … needed rest. She wasn’t designed to run 24/7, seven days a week.

For the last couple of years I have enjoyed listening to the singer Carrie Newcomer who is a Quaker. Her music centers me… she has a song that has a line that I have shared with some of you in personal and pastoral conversations… that we are going faster than our soul can go: There is one verse that especially speaks to me and I wonder if it may speak to you:

One subject line, one click away
But at the end of the day
I couldn’t even say
The things that I had done

So I spent the morning sweeping floors
I didn’t want much more
Than to do just one thing at a time
And call it mine

Come back, come home
I’m gathering the crumbs and the stones
Been travelling faster than my soul can go

I don’t know about you but more days than not it seems like my life and yours is going faster than our soul can go. It seems to me that we are trying to defy the very law of creation… where we were meant to rest as God rested after 6 days of work.

In some ways the Sabbath is a day for our soul to catch up… but more than that, it could be a day for our soul to take pleasure in the work and creative life we have enjoyed that week.

As God rested and made the day holy, so are we. God rested from work and enjoyed the creation. So should we!

So, why the Sabbath? To let the soul catch up… to rest…

So I think it a good thing that people go out and enjoy God’s creation. I’m not surprised that people feel connected with the creator when they take a break at the beach or mountains or at Umsted park. They tell me how close they feel to God in nature. Well of course, it is God’s creation after all!

One Sunday after worshipping with Joe at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Sharon Joe and I took a hike on a hot day up Echo Canyon to a waterfall. It was a good thing to do as we enjoy God’s creation. Certainly good for the soul.
On another Sunday afternoon after a wonderful worship in Montreat with great music and preaching… our family went on a hike in the NC mountains to enjoy some beautiful waterfalls near Old Fort. It was good for our souls.

But note we did this after worship. This was also important.

Because worship is important for the Lord’s day. Israel spent Sabbath in worship. So did Jesus. So did the disciples. So have Christians for most of the past 2000 years.

Why worship? Worship is not just about “going to church” (to be honest, I wish we’d retire that phrase… it sounds like you are going to worship a building or institution)… Better to say, “I went to worship last Sunday”

On the Sabbath, worship is the most important thing we do. Why? Without worship we forget the creator… the one who gave us life and breath… we forget the one who has blessed us with work and creativity… and we forget that the fate of the world… or our lives is not all up to us.
You know, a lot of people think the fate of the world and their lives are up to us. That the world could not revolve and live one more day without us. Worship reminds me who is in control of this world. Without worship, it is easy to become self-centered and isolated from the God who made us and loved us. Without Sabbath worship, we begin to worship the other gods in our culture: basically the ESPN gods… sports and entertainment gods… and all of their “stars”. Worship on Sunday puts those other gods in their place… The first commandment says, “you shall have no other gods before me”… Sabbath worship walks that talk.

Another reason one day is set apart for worship is to reboot our relationship with God… if you got lost during the week, you return to the home of the one who made you…. Who loves you… who wants to give you the rest you seek…

When I come here, I often remember the words of Augustine, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee”

I’ve been reading a book of prayers by Peter Marshall – a giant in the Presbyterian pulpit years ago… used to be senate chaplain. My Mom gave my dad a book of prayers. We are told that before he would pray prayers he would tell his congregation this:

“The most precious moments of our morning worship are the moments we spend with the Risen Lord. We cannot see His form, but we can feel his presence. He knows all about you-your hidden perplexity, your secret shame. He waits by appointment, anxious to speak to you reassuringly, comfortingly, forgivingly. You may tell Him your needs now in your own way.”

It was obvious to Peter Marshall that when we come to worship, the living God was present… and of course God is always present wherever we are. But here is the difference. I think we come to worship not so much to summon God’s presence but for us to become present with God… to come to the one who says, “Come unto me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

So it is out of love, not legalism, God sets aside a day for our souls to come and remember who is God… to rest in God’s presence… and then be energized to go about doing the Lord’s work… which hopefully is not just what you do at the Kirk… but is what you do the rest of the week in whatever calling God has given you.

I learned this on my first Sabbatical many years ago. I was on a 10 day retreat in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Our leader Roy Oswald was speaking to a bunch of burned out pastors. Most pastors I meet on Sabbatical are burned out. On one presentation, He lifted up the image of a cup… and he said so many of us give out of the cup so much that we drain it and we are giving out of the bottom… the dregs. That is not good for anyone. The goal of the Christian life is to give out of the fullness… the overflowing…that’s where joy is shared.

I remember that lesson and remember that the Sabbath is meant to fill our souls to overflowing.

It’s hard for a preacher sometimes because we work on the Sabbath… (And why my favorite services are those others lead)… It’s also the reason that every day I try to begin by marking out a little Sabbath in our sunroom… sitting down with this cross … with an online devotion… with prayer… as if to try to find a little Sabbath before a busy day.

I am told that when Jews who have become inattentive to their religion wish to go deeper, rabbis all tell them, “you must begin by keeping Shabbath” .

Someone once shared this important insight about the Jews:
“more than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”

It makes you think… in our busy, burned out world… filled with people practicing yoga, meditation… seeking to find peace and joy… it makes you think that what they are looking for has been here all along as a gift of God… the Sabbath. It’s more than a command, it is a gift. Observing it, the Scripture suggests, will be good for our soul. And just what the great Doctor has ordered! Amen.

[1] From Introduction to the Prayers of Peter Marshall