The idea that the Sabbath is meant to be a day of rest, a day to stop work and honor God, is as old as Moses. In fact, to honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy is the 4th of the ten commandments. In our Gospel for this morning, Jesus has a disagreement with the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, about what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy.

In the Jewish laws of the time, there were 39 types of activity that you could not do on the Sabbath. Jesus believed these laws had become more important to the Pharisees than the essential purpose of the Sabbath – that it was meant to be a day for restoring and replenishing. And although the Pharisees protested, from Jesus’ point of view what could be more appropriate on the Sabbath than to feed the hungry disciples with a few grains of wheat and heal a man with a withered hand. Jesus wasn’t trying to defy the law; he was trying to point out that the Pharisees’ relationship to the law was backwards.

What do I mean? Well, up until this point, just about all religion was based on the premise that said –obey God to be accepted by God. That means, if you follow God’s law then you can be assured you are okay with God, and if you don’t then you aren’t. So, if obeying the law is critically important to the wellbeing of your soul, then you better get the law right, you better understand how the law applies in every circumstance. Hence the need for 39 specific laws dealing with the Sabbath. Some of these 39 activities forbidden on the Sabbath included: carrying, burning, extinguishing, finishing, writing, erasing, cooking, washing, sewing, tearing, knotting and shaping. But what Jesus was proclaiming in all his conflicts with the Pharisees was that because the Son of Man has come, there is a new paradigm. The good news of the gospel says that Christ gave his life for us and that through his death and resurrection, sin and death have been conquered. Therefore, we are reconciled to God through Christ, not through our own efforts to follow the law. It’s all gift. It’s all grace. We are sinners who are saved by sheer grace, not because we have worked so hard at being good and are therefore owed our reward. Old Religion said – I obey; therefore, I am accepted. Christianity says – I am accepted just as I am, therefore, because of that gift, I want to obey. Jesus wasn’t opposed to the law, he just wanted to put it in the right place.1

In his book, Shantung Compound, the theologian Langdon Gilkey tells the story of his family’s years in a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. It is a powerful account of the brutality of war and what is best and worst about human nature. In one part of the book, Gilkey recounts the train ride after his family was rounded up by the Japanese, along with hundreds of others, and shipped off to an internment camp. At a time of great stress, when people were panicked because they didn’t know if they would live or die, on a train trip going to places they did not understand, Gilkey remarked that he heard singing coming from somewhere on the train. Gilkey writes, “It came softly at first and then grew loud enough to drown out the cries of the children around us. We looked back to see a car filled with pipe smoke through which we could discern dim, monastic, bearded figures. These monks, cheerful and certainly untroubled by discomfort, were loudly singing Dutch and Belgian drinking songs. After a moment’s surprise and delight at this totally unexpected easy good humor, some of us moved back to their car, joined in lustily, and sang ourselves hoarse as the train lurched over the dark plains and into the darker unknown ahead.” Gilkey points out that these monks, in a very simple way, had risen above their situation. They trusted Christ more than they feared an unknown future and as a result, they were able to offer comfort to people amidst a terrifying situation.

Friends, the monks on Gilkey’s train ride were at peace because of their faith. They had a deep and abiding sense that through Christ they were loved and accepted by God and therefore, live or die, their future was assured. But our culture is pervaded by this other approach that says our acceptance is dependent on our ability to prove that we are worthy. I mean, how many of us were taught that we are only as valuable as what we can achieve? Deep down, how many of us are driven to succeed because we believe our value comes from our success, our status, or our accomplishments.

During the year after I graduated from college, when I was still wrestling with God about whether I was supposed to go to seminary, I spent a year working in an acute care psychiatric hospital for adolescents. I’ve spoken a little about my experience there before. Very troubled teenagers from ages 13-18 were treated in the hospital sometimes for weeks or months.

During my time there, there was one young man I will never forget. He was sixteen years old, a very gentle and kind person who was in great anguish. He was admitted to the hospital because he attempted to take his own life but failed when the gun misfired. In talking with him, he explained that he believed he had no choice but to end his life after failing a biology test some weeks before. In his mind, this failing grade would bring down his average for the year and therefore, when it came time to apply for college, he would not have the GPA he needed to get into top schools, which meant he would not be able to have the career he wanted, which meant he was a failure, and his life was not worth living.

Unlike the monks who were able to find peace and even a little bit of humor in the midst of a horrible situation because they knew the deep truth of where their value and identity came from, this young man was fully convinced that the only worth he had completely depended on what he could accomplish. In his mind, the value of his life hinged on proving that he was worthy. It was a story that broke my heart, and in fact, that story influenced my decision to go to seminary because I couldn’t imagine anything more important than helping others to know how much they are loved and valued by God.

My friends, on this Sabbath day, I hope you will take some time to honor the 4th commandment. I hope you will take some time to rest and find a little bit of restoration and replenishment. And if you are here this morning worried that no matter what you do you will never be good enough for God – then rest in Christ. If you are here this morning concerned about what is or isn’t on the other side of death – then rest in Christ. If you are struggling with guilt because of something you have done or left undone in this life – then rest in Christ. If you find it easier to forgive others than to forgive yourself – then rest in Christ. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, battling an illness, or wrestling with old age – then rest in Christ. And it you are burdened by anxiety because of the state of our world – rest in Christ.

Remember, the greatest blessing from observing the Sabbath is to find rest for your soul. And the deepest most profound rest comes from the realization that because of God’s grace you have nothing to prove, there is nothing you need to do to be worthy in God’s eyes. Your worthiness has already been taken care of by Christ – who loves you so much that he gave up his life on the cross to reconcile you to God and to free you from the power of sin and death. And this same Christ promises that if you trust in him and what he has already accomplished, then your future is assured, and your life’s ending is secured. May it be so. Amen.

1 Timothy Keller, “The Lord of the Sabbath,” February 19, 2006.


The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith