Read: Matthew 12:1-8
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat (Matthew 12:1 NRSV).
It has to be said. Many people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, Sabbath conjures up unhappy childhood memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On the woman’s first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath day….
Although stories like this are becoming increasingly rare, they explain a lot about why many of us have negative associations about the Sabbath. Even our language gives away our attitude. We talk about observing or keeping or honoring the Sabbath. But how often do we talk about celebrating the Sabbath?
Hold on to that question a moment while we consider Jesus’ confrontation with the first-century version of the over-zealous neighbor lady.
In Matthew’s story, the Pharisees play the role of the Sabbath police. When they see Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating heads of grain on the Sabbath, they threaten to write them a ticket for Sabbath breaking. Jesus is ready with a couple of citations of his own, however, and reminds them of a couple of important precedents. His closing argument is that the “Son of Man is lord of the sabbath” (v. 8). I’m sure that sent the Sabbath police scurrying back to the precinct….
What the Pharisees and the neighbor lady fail to understand is that Sabbath is more about “yes” than it is about “no.”
In an earlier installment of this series, we talked about Sabbath as God’s invitation to rest, tranquility, and delight. We can hear hints of this in the passage just prior to the one about the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. It’s impossible to miss the power of Jesus’ appeal when he beckons to us and says,
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11:28-30).
I will give you rest. Now that’s a promise worth celebrating. And it’s an invitation we can’t afford to resist.
If you’re one of those people that has negative associations with Sabbath, try creating some positive associations instead. Imagine a sphere of space and time that’s been set aside especially for communing with God, each other, and the rest of creation. Explore what it means to celebrate Sabbath. Because at its heart, Sabbath is much more like a party in a beautiful place with people we love than it is a list of obligations. Maybe this is why the Sabbath is greeted like a bride in Jewish tradition. When “she” is with us, it’s a time of great joy and celebration—a time to savor each other’s company and give thanks for the beauty of life.
So, let the celebration begin. And what the heck…let’s invite the neighbor lady!
Prayer: Show us how to say yes to the Sabbath. Welcome us—as we welcome others—into that sphere of serenity, celebration, and delight.
Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:
Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.
Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!
Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.
In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.