The Sabbath Sets Us Free

A Homily for the Second Wednesday in Lent

Text: St. John 5:1-18


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sets us free. Amen.

What comes to your mind when I say “blue laws?” Usually, banning the sale of alcohol on Sunday, right? Maybe laws about hunting and car sales, but most of us think about those laws that kept the beer aisle in Georgia grocery stores dark on Sunday until about eight years ago (depending on which county you lived in).

These laws date back to a time when Sabbath observance was serious business – in this country, most famously in Puritan New England. Shops were closed and work was strictly prohibited. More than working, though, New England’s blue laws targeted anything that would distract from the Lord’s Day – even punishing public displays of affection.

This is roughly the situation we read in the Gospel this evening: Jesus heals on the Sabbath. And while rabbinic law permitted the healing of a dire illness on the day of rest, healing a chronic but non-life-threatening illness was out of bounds.

There is a certain logic in this, one that we could learn from today. As businesses seek more and more profits, they demand more and more of their employees. Chick-fil-a’s policy to close on Sunday may seem outdated and certainly people scoff at it, but what other nationwide company guarantees every single one of their employees the same day off to rest and spend with family? [A parishioner was quick to remind us that Hobby Lobby also closes their doors on Sunday.]

And technology has only made the situation worse. After all, with cell phones, mobile email, and social media, how many of us are now always a phone call away? Work has become more than just a means to secure food, shelter, and a few comforts; it has become a key part of our identity. In just the thirty years I’ve been alive – roughly corresponding with the internet – work has become something that follows us home, to the dinner table, and on vacation. Finding time to truly rest does take discipline. It means putting the phone down, closing the laptop, and ignoring that long to-do list at least for a day. It means finding an identity independent of what we do at work.

The Sabbath laws that the Pharisees are trying to enforce in John’s Gospel are a way of protecting the people: put down the spade, the adze, the hammer. Take a day off. No, really, a full day. Not to do chores or catch up but to actually relax. Go rest in the Lord. Be renewed.

But as we see in the religious leaders’ response to Christ as in some of the more extreme blue laws of our own history, these edicts can be taken too far. Yes, the Sabbath is freedom from work, and resting does require discipline. But while we are free from work, what are we free for?

Confronted by the Scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus tells them that while God may have rested on the seventh day, the Lord is hard at work on the Sabbath, upholding all of creation. It is only because God continues to do God things on the Sabbath that we continue to exist; if God stopped working, we would stop being.

Pushing beyond our verses tonight, Jesus tells the leaders that God will do “greater works than these,” raising the dead and giving life. “So also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.” We are set free not just from work to rest and to continue to survive, but we are set free to truly live in Christ.

And so, dear ones, rest in the Lord. And, sisters and brothers, live into the freedom God has granted.

Amen.

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