I’m reflecting on Sabbath this week in light of the Coronavirus phenomenon we’re all experiencing in one way or another. Sabbath might seem a strange thing to be spending time on, since we’ve been thrown into a type of “rest,” quarantined at home, figuring out home-schooling, trying not to let cabin fever get the best of us (and it’s only beginning), and, sadly, sometimes enduring some horrible situations. On the other hand, we’ve seen ways that this new reality has the potential to bring out a lot of good: family meals and walks, not always feeling so rushed, long phone conversations, and time on the front porch (at least long enough for a nice photo 😊).
Surely this is a reminder to all of us that we have precious little real control over our own lives – which is one of the main truths about Sabbath.
Sabbath-keeping is a big deal, and for a reason. Keeping the Sabbath is, by far, the longest of the ten commandments; it’s a sign of God’s covenant with Israel (Exodus 31); it occupies a massive amount of the legal material in the Torah; the prophets refer to it often; and Jesus butted heads with religious leaders over and over and over about what the Sabbath means.
Consider two Sabbath conflicts in the gospel according to Matthew — one about Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and the other about Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath (both in Matthew 12:1-14). Both conflicts tell us about Jesus’ heart and also about what the Sabbath means for us. Jesus never ever suggested doing away with Sabbath observance; instead, he constantly tried to restore the Sabbath to its original intention, not letting restrictive rules and hardened hearts cloud the real meaning.
In the first conflict, the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples picking and eating grain while walking through a wheat field. (Just how the Pharisees saw them doing so is another question.) Jesus meets them on their own turf, referring them to three places in Israel’s Scriptures to exonerate his disciples.
Next, Jesus enters a synagogue, where there awaits a man with a shriveled hand. The Pharisees can’t wait to see what Jesus will do. They want to catch him in a violation of the law so they can build a case for his execution. They ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Jesus seethes with anger at their insensitivity to human suffering and then asks the man to step forward. “Stretch out your hand,” he tells the man.
Imagine the scene: People hold their breath as the air hangs heavy in the room. A fly buzzes. The man’s eyes dart back and forth and then finally rest on Jesus, who has not taken his eyes off the man. A deep breath, and the man slowly pulls his hand from inside his cloak. Half of his livelihood as a worker has been useless to him, not to mention the stigma, the embarrassment, the shame of his handicap. But in Jesus’ presence, he bares it all and stretches it out, and as he does, it is completely restored!
This account, along with the Sabbath command, shows us two central truths: 1) God burns with passion to see people be made whole (in fact, he is willing to die for it); and 2) we all have a shriveled hand.
It’s not just that Jesus happens to heal this particular man on the Sabbath; it’s the meaning behind the Sabbath that has healed him. That is, we cannot ultimately heal ourselves, or provide security for ourselves, or fix our lives. That comes to us from somewhere – and Someone – else. And that is what Sabbath reveals.
For today, stop for a few minutes to rest in Jesus. Ask him to reveal your shriveled hand to you so you can present it to him.
God bless you to be a blessing today!
Bob Jacobs is Pastor of Westminster Church, Rapid City. If you're interested in more of Bob's writings, check out his personal blog at www.brittlecrazyglass.wordpress.com.