Saturday, May 13, 2006

Christian Faith: The Basics, Part 7

The Third Commandment:
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God, and so we should not despise his Word and the preaching of the same, but deem it holy and gladly hear and learn it.
Anybody who reads the New Testament will eventually be struck by a seeming paradox in Jesus. He seems to both keep and break the Sabbath, as proscribed by the Third Commandment:
  • Like other good Jews on the sabbath, Jesus regularly went to synagogue to worship and hear God's Word. In fact, long after Jesus had been crucified and had risen from the dead, His Jewish followers, often spurned by their fellow Jews, after Jesus' example nonetheless kept the Jewish Sabbath.
  • But, by the lights of the Pharisees, a pious group of Jews who were in agreement with Jesus far more often than they disagreed with Him, Jesus also regularly broke the Sabbath, doing work. At times, in fact, Jesus seems almost to deliberately flout the Sabbath law. This was among the chief reasons the Pharisees joined the conspiracy to have Jesus killed.
What gives?

Jesus looked beyond what Martin Luther called the externals of the Third Commandment. He looked at what the commandment was really about. Luther observes that this command is about more than simply refraining from our usual labors for the sake of giving our bodies a rest. The people who spend Sundays in bathrobes, working the New York Times crossword puzzles could be said to be observing the Sabbath if that were the case.

But the substance of the commandment, what Luther might call its internalities, deals with something other than the doing of work. The commandment literally tells us to sanctify to make holy the holy day. This is what Jesus was talking about one Sabbath day when He healed someone, much to the consternation of the Pharisees:
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, “Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?” But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?” And they could not reply to this. [Luke 14:1-6]
In a very real sense, Jesus in the very act of laboring at healing had sanctified the sabbath day by committing an act of compassion and grace.

In one way, every day is a Sabbath, a gift of grace from God. And followers of Jesus Christ are to add to the holiness of each day. Yet, we still have this command. So, why should we still, in 2006, keep Sabbath days? Martin Luther suggests that there are two good reasons:
We keep them, first, for the sake of bodily need. Nature teaches and demands that the common people...who have attended to their work and trades the whole week long...should retire for a day to rest and be refreshed.

Secondly and most especially, we keep holy days so that people may have time and opportunity, which otherwise would not be available, to participate in public worship, that is, that they may assemble to hear and discuss God's Word and then praise God with song and prayer.
He goes on:
This is not restricted to a particular time...for in itself no one day is better than another. Actually, there should be worship daily; however, since this is more than the common people can do, at least one day a week must be set apart for it...
Luther concludes by warning against a superficial, externally-oriented understanding of the commandment:
How does this sanctifying take place? Not when we...refrain from external work, or deck ourselves in garlands and dress up in our best clothes, but...when we occupy ourselves with God's Word and exercise ourseleves in it...
Think of it this way: Our weeks are cluttered with lots of busy-ness, some of it may even be essential. God commands that we declutter some time each week to join others in corporate worship and to pay heed to His Word. Paying heed means not just passively listening or reading God's Word, but like Jesus, actively living that Word and sharing it with others by our actions as well as our words.

I love these words from Luther:
...this commandment is violated not only by those who grossly misuse and desecrate the holy day, like those who in their greed or frivolity neglect to hear God's Word or lie around in taverns dead drunk like swine, but also by that multitude of others who listen to God's Word as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear preaching and depart again with as little knowledge of the Word at the end of the year as at the beginning. It used to be thought that Sunday had been properly hallowed if one heard a Mass or the reading of the Gospel; no one asked about God's Word, and no one taught it either. Now that we have God's Word, we still fail to remove the abuse of the holy day, for we permit ourselves to be preached to and admonished but we listen without serious concern.
God doesn't want one-seventh of our weeks; He wants our whole lives. But He gives this commandment as a means of allowing us to be refueled on His Word; to help us cultivate the habit of paying heed to that Word; and to prod us to establish a pattern of acting on the promises and the commands of that Word. Luther writes:
Even though you know the Word perfectly and have already mastered everything, still you are daily under the dominion of the devil, who neither day or night relaxes his effort to steal upon you unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against all these commandments. Therefore you must continually keep God's Word in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears. For where the heart stands idle and the Word is not heard, the devil breaks in and does his damage before we realize it. On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understanding, new pleasure, and a new spirit of devotion, and it constantly cleanses the heart and its meditations.
Whether on a Sabbath day or during a time of rest, the most prominent element of our restfulness should be an attentiveness to God's Word that prepares us for our periods of work and activity. Steeped in the Bible, we're more prepared to make the right choices, to live in accord with God's will.

Those who worship weekly and turn constantly to God's Word keep the Sabbath...and every day...holy!

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