Working from Sabbath Rest

By Jen Flanagan

In this story from Luke, we have three main characters

  1. Jesus – who was teaching that day, so was obviously accepted by the local community
  2. The woman who was healed of a crippling condition she had suffered for 18 years, and
  3. The temple leader, who, like Jesus, was well-versed in the law and tradition.

It seems that Jesus was preaching as was normal, and, in the middle of his teaching called the woman forward.  We don’t know what Jesus was teaching about that day – maybe something to do with healing and/or being freed from bondage, maybe not – maybe it was something quite different – but either way, Jesus was prepared to interrupt himself to see a fellow human being freed from her pain and distress.

It also seems that the woman didn’t ask for healing – she had probably heard of Jesus, and of the healings he had performed elsewhere, and she may have hoped that she would get a chance to ask for healing, but not there and then.  At that time, she was in the temple for worship – as was most likely her normal sabbath day activity.  She would have been taught about Sabbath rests from childhood, and, like the leader of the temple, did not think it was appropriate to ask for healing on that day.  She would have had no idea that Jesus would call to her to come out in front of everyone – she was probably quite confused as to why she was being singled out – but I’m sure she was thrilled to be healed – after all she had coped with a debilitating disease for years 18 years – that’s a long time to be living with pain and discomfort.  And Luke says she praised God for her freedom from her pain and suffering.

The third person in the story was not so full of praise to God for the wonders he had witnessed that day.  It seems he didn’t dare criticise Jesus directly, but had a general complaint about people who came to be healed on the Sabbath. He wasn’t denying the miracle of healing, just the time and place.

And what was his reason for complaint?

Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath – healing, by definition, was work – so Jesus was violating the Sabbath rest.

I’m sure most of us can remember the rules about not working on Sundays.  And worrying about what others would think if someone was caught working.

I know of a family with six children.  Every Sunday, the husband and father rested.  He worked hard, and I’m sure he needed the rest – but no-one in the family questioned that the wife and mother cooked 3 meals every Sunday – including a roast dinner – that, somehow was not considered ‘work’.  She never had a restful Sunday!  Are any of you aware of similar stories?

It was not so drastic in my family for two reasons:

  1. We lived on a dairy farm – and cows had to be milked every day – they had no ideas of a day off, and
  2. My mother had grown up in a family of six girls.  I can imagine the restlessness that happened when six girls were forced to sit still all day.  My grandfather was a bit forward-thinking – he declared girls being bored and bickering did not give God any glory whatsoever, so he allowed his girls to ‘do stuff’ on Sundays – much to the horror of their neighbours.  In the 1920s & 30s,  in a small town that was a considered radical. As that was the way Mum had been brought up, we had a similar freedom in our home – as well as needing to milk the cows & see to them.

The rules which governed the Sabbath in Jesus’ day were very strict and specific, and we look on them as over the top, but so were the rules in western society up until late 20th century.

But what was the reason for these rules.  As we know it stemmed from the fourth commandment – remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  There is a reference to the creation story – and the 6 days of creation, with God resting on the 7th.  But in recent years, I have learned to look at it differently – God created humankind on the 6th day – and what was the first think people did?  Rested!  And then on the 8th day they started work.

So, instead of the 7th day being a rest from work – Adam and Eve worked from rest!

How often do we think of days off as being rest from work – when we should be thinking of working from rest – with rest being the emphasis, not the work.

And what is the point of the rest? 

Originally, God gave the Israelites a day off a week for worship, joy, freedom and rest. By Jesus’ time it had evolved, by the addition of hundreds of restrictions, into a legalistic bondage that was more concerned with external behaviour than with human need. There were many, many restrictions placed on the Sabbath, and there were as many loopholes created in order to get around the restrictions.

Despite Jesus’ example, by the 20th Century, Sundays had become days of duty instead of days of joy, worship and rest.  Worship was often far from joy-filled – I don’t remember daring to laugh in church as a child – did you?  And the rest of the day was not much better, despite the relative freedom we were allowed. 

Although things are more relaxed today, I wonder if we really think about the Sabbath rest as a being a day of restoration, of joyful worship and freedom? A day preparing us for the work in the days following.

Our lives are so full.  We, as individuals, and as a church have much to do.  Our days are full of things – things we are sure we must do, things we are sure that God wants us to do – things we are sure that no-one else can do or will do if we don’t do them. Sometimes we are so busy we don’t stop and think or rest.

Jesus demonstrated the sabbath rest continually.  There are many references in the gospels to Jesus going off on his own to pray, and spend time with God – early in the morning, in the evening, sometimes he left the crowds to go off with his disciples – all examples of time of restoration, preparing himself for the work ahead.

Last week Margaret spoke to us about a Jesus who demonstrated ideas that brought division within families.  A Jesus who had the fire in his belly for reform, for justice, for plain-speaking, for honesty, for generosity – for everything that relieves oppression, feeds the hungry and gives hope to the broken-hearted.

And Jesus was nothing if not consistent.

In the tabernacle that day, while teaching, possibly about freeing the oppressed – he saw a woman who was oppressed.  And she had been oppressed for 18 years.  Bent over – possibly to the point where she couldn’t see Jesus’ face, could not catch his eye, even – and Jesus could not bear to see her continue in that state any more.  Jesus chose to interrupt himself, called out to her, brought her out in front of everyone, and told her she was freed from her infirmity – not healed as such – but freed.

That is what the Sabbath rest is for – Freedom from all that drags us down, and freedom for those around us. 

When he arrived at the tabernacle that day, Jesus may not have been planning to heal anyone.But he was confronted with someone in desperate need.  Jesus always was compassionate and caring for his fellow humankind. He could not bear to see this woman suffering any more. So he changed his plans for the day. 

Jesus was prepared for the unexpected because he took his rest – he spent time with God.

Are we flexible enough to change our plans when confronted with the needy? Are we prepared to interrupt ourselves in the middle of whatever we are doing – our busyness – our worship – our lives in general – to take care of anyone different who crosses our path? Are prepared for the unexpected because we have taken our Sabbath rest? And the sabbath rest need not be weekly.  It can be a daily break or a seasonal break.

I feel like I am coming out of a seasonal break myself. Some of you will realise that I have been in Canberra for about 18 months. Before that, I was living in Tasmania, and was an active member of the West Tamar Parish of the Uniting Church.  There I held several positions as well as being a lay-preacher-in-training.  There, I preached at least once a month, assisted others leading services at least once a month, and led the music on other Sundays, as well as responsibilities of secretary and treasurer. All this while working full time.

When I arrived in Canberra, I was very tired – I don’t think I realised how tired I was, and for the first few months I was here, I was often sick.  However, I have now had a period of time without these responsibilities and have been able to intentionally spend more time with God.  I am now feeling much more energetic and am now becoming more involved in things here, especially in the 10.30 service.  I have recently started working in a new job, as well.

By taking a break from all my responsibilities, and resting in Jesus, for a season, I am now ready to work from that rest.

Do we, as individuals, and as a congregation rest in Jesus, daily, weekly and seasonally, worshipping him joyfully, revelling in the freedom we have to do so, so that we can then move into our world, ready to work for God’s kingdom, ready to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, lift up the broken-hearted and seek justice for down-trodden everywhere?

We know there is much to do, but where do we start?

Maybe, we need to let go of all our busy-ness, and rest in God first so that we will be prepared to be the church God wants us to be.

Let’s pray: God of abiding – thank you for the gift of the Sabbath rest.  Teach us all how to abide in you, in your love – to revel in your love, joy and freedom, and to move from that rest into your world to work and live according to your will. Amen.

Photo of Jen Flanagan

Written by Jen Flanagan

Jen is a lay preacher in training at TUC. As well preaching, Jen often assists with leading the 10:30am service and is a member of the Thursday Community Fellowship ministry team.

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