17th Sunday After Trinity
October 12, 2014
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
It’s the weekend again. Well, it’s the weekend for another couple hours, then it’s right back to the work week, right back to the daily grind. Back to the calendar making demands on your time, places to go and things to do, deadlines to meet and sleep to miss out on, all until next weekend. Most people in our world work for the weekends, those precious days off. Of course, when you look at what we do with our days off, you have to wonder what they’re days off from. Sure, we don’t necessarily go to work those days, but they’re hardly days off. There’s sports practices and games, there’s house projects, there’s grocery shopping, there’s cleaning and laundry, there’s all kinds of things we fill our Saturdays and Sundays doing. It’s not that these are bad things or that we shouldn’t spend our weekends doing them, it’s just that I sometimes wonder why we get so excited to finally get to Friday when often times Saturday and Sunday aren’t much different than the rest of the week. We’re pretty good at filling up our times of rest with stuff to do. We do it to our weekends. We do it to our vacations, filling those days with trips to adventure parks and museums and landmarks. Again, it’s not that we shouldn’t do those things. The point is that we have a knack for working just as hard during our time off as we do at our job, so much so that we often find ourselves more exhausted at the end of a weekend or vacation than we do in the midst of a regular week. As a people, we tend to struggle with rest.
Rest is a gift from God. It is part of his design for creation. God spent six days creating, and then on the seventh day he rested. Rest is so much a part of his design for this world that he included it in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Sabbath, as you probably know, is the Hebrew word for “rest.” So if you translate that commandment a little differently it says, “Remember the day of rest by keeping it holy.” In part, this rest was instituted by God so that the people in Israel and their work animals might have time to recover and not be weakened by endless labor. In their zeal for keeping God’s law, the Jews began to understand the rest of this day only in terms of physical activities. By the time Jesus was born, the Pharisees had outlined a series of regulations to guide those who considered themselves serious about God and his Word. They had a policy manual that detailed what constituted too much work and what didn’t. They wanted to be sure they rested enough to keep God happy. They outlined the proper way to prepare food so that it wasn’t considered work. They outlined the proper way to wash your hands so that it wasn’t considered work. They invented a multitude of rules and regulations to guide people in their effort to rest appropriately.
But it all missed the point, and that’s Jesus’s point to day. He poses a question that shows that God’s intent in the Sabbath Day was not to forbid work of any kind. Jesus shows that even the Pharisees would work on the Sabbath if the situation demanded it. Even they are not so hard-hearted as to leave a child or an ox trapped in a pit on the Sabbath rather than working to let get out. Jesus makes the point that the real issue is not ultimately what kind of work is or isn’t being done on the Sabbath, but on what kind of rest. The presence of rest, not the absence of work, is the key to the Sabbath of God.
Don’t forget the second part of the commandment. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” We’ve know what “Sabbath” means, but what about holy? How does one keep something holy? Well, according to the Apostle Paul, things are made holy by the Word of God and prayer. So if we rephrase the commandment once again, it says, “Remember the day of rest by keeping it filled with the word of God and prayer.” That’s the purpose of the Sabbath rest – not to stop us from being busybodies, but to get us to sit and hear the Word of God, to get us to spend time in communion with him and in fellowship with one another. Sabbath rest is not limited to Saturday or Sunday, it is any time where we set aside all worldly concerns and instead occupy ourselves with God’s Word. We come to hear the proclamation and preaching of God’s Word in this place of Sabbath rest. When we gather together for Sabbath rest here, we sing God’s Word to each other in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God. When we gather together for Sabbath rest here, we study God’s Word in depth through Bible Classes and Sunday School so that we interact with it, asking questions, meditating on the answers, and being shaped and formed into godly people through it.
Sabbath rest is all about God’s Word. Here, as we gather together for Sabbath rest, God’s Word fills this place. And yet how easily we turn this gathering into a place of work! Ask yourself: Why am I here today? Are you here to try and keep God happy by giving him an hour or so before you can go back to ignoring him the rest of the week? If so, then you are focused on the work of Sabbath rather than on the rest. Are you here because you think God hears your prayers and praises better in this place than anywhere else? Then you’re focused on the work of the Sabbath instead of the rest. If your primary reason for being here is to give something, anything at all, whatever it may be, to God, then you are focused on the work of Sabbath, not the rest. This place, this gathering, this worship is the place of our rest. This is the place where our Lord comes to us in his Word to feed and nourish us, to strengthen us in our faith, and to equip us for the work to be done in our vocations. 6 days a week our lives are living sacrifices filled with working for God by working for those he has placed around us – our children, our co-workers, our parents, our neighbors. Today is the day of rest. Today is the day where God works for you. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything at all in worship. When the Lord opens our lips, our mouths declare his praise. But it all begins with him. Sabbath rest is the time where God works on you.
Perhaps part of our inability to truly rest comes from fear. We are afraid to take away all the distractions because it will force us to come to grips with reality. Perhaps we fill our days with activities so that we don’t have to face the guilt or shame clinging to our conscience. Perhaps we fill our vacations with exciting events because we’re afraid that if we weren’t moving then we wouldn’t have anything to talk about with our spouse or kids. Perhaps we bury ourselves in projects at work to numb ourselves to that nagging sense of failure and not living up to expectations. Perhaps we are afraid of true rest because once the distractions are gone, the reality of our failures and shortcomings begin to gnaw at our conscience. Like taking down the curtains and pictures will show you just how filthy your walls are, like taking out the couches and chairs reveals the dirt in the walkways of your carpet, so also removing the distractions of business often forces us to see our lives in a new light. Perhaps the same thing happens in our relationship with God. Perhaps we insist on considering our faith and our thanks and our praise to be the result of our own efforts because it distracts us from what we know deep down inside: that there will come a time when our bodies will fail. There will come a time when, if you live long enough, your arms and legs won’t be strong enough to do the work you once did. Your mind won’t be sharp enough to remember the things you once remembered. Perhaps fear of that helplessness inspires us into blind ourselves to the reality of our true standing before our Father in Heaven. We refuse to see ourselves as weak or helpless in any way, so we cling to what we think we have accomplished; we refuse to let go.
The problem with coming into our Lord’s presence to offer him our best efforts and intentions is that they are never enough. We often think too highly of our own accomplishments, which can make us smug and self-righteous before God. Jesus compares approaching God with our own efforts to showing up at a wedding reception and sitting down at the head table that’s obviously reserved for the bridal party. What would you think if you walked into your wedding reception and saw the head table filled with casual acquaintances from work or those old college friends that you haven’t seen in 5 years but still wanted to invite? If you take it upon yourself to sit in the place of honor uninvited, you will be humiliated in front of all the guests when the bride and groom show up and ask you to move. It’s embarrassing when it comes to a wedding reception – it would be catastrophic when it comes to eternal life. The problem with our efforts is that they are temporary. They are never enough. It would be not only silly, but a bit arrogant to place them before God as if he should be impressed by them. It’s not that they’re useless, it’s that they’re useless for our salvation.
But if all we get out of the Sabbath rest is being forced to come to grips with our own weakness and shortcomings, we remain focused only on the absence of work, not the presence of rest. When you think of the Sabbath rest, remember the man healed of his dropsy. There is work to be done on the Sabbath, but it is not our work to do. Jesus works on the Sabbath. He does the healing. He comes to us in his Word. He comes speaking words of forgiveness through the servant who is here in his stead and who speaks by his command. He comes to us in his body and blood. He comes to bring our inability into focus so that his life and immortality can be brought to life. He comes into our lives filled with personal failures and unhappiness and brings healing and restoration. Like the rejuvenation you feel at the end of an actually restful night of sleep or after a particularly relaxing weekend, so also our Lord comes to us in our time of rest to strengthen us for our the lives of service waiting for us when we leave this place.
Another great obstacle to Sabbath rest is pride masquerading as boredom. “I already know that stuff,” we tell ourselves, “why should I bother going to Church to hear it again.” Or we’ll say, “I already went to church, why should I bother with Bible Class.” But being in our Lord’s Word is not merely a matter of instruction or head knowledge. We don’t spend this time in God’s Word for purely informational purposes. This is the place of Sabbath rest and restoration. As Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “Know, therefore, that you must be concerned not only about hearing, but also about learning and retaining God’s Word in memory. Do not think it is optional or of no great importance. . . . Likewise, those fussy spirits are to be rebuked who, after they have heard a sermon or two, find hearing more sermons to be tedious and dull. They think that they know all that well enough and need no more instruction. . . . Let me tell you this, even if you already knew God’s Word perfectly and were already a master in all things: you are daily in the devil’s kingdom. He ceases neither day nor night to sneak up on you and kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts. . . . Where the heart is idle and the Word does not make a sound, the devil breaks in and does the damage before we are aware. On the other hand, [God’s] Word is so effective that whenever it is seriously contemplated, heard, and used, it is bound never to be without fruit.”
There is godly fruit to be borne as we live in the devil’s kingdom. It’s spiritually dangerous out there. We are constantly under the threat of attack. Satan attacks our conscience. The world attacks our beliefs. But there is God’s work to do in our lives and in our world, so in spite of the danger we do it. We arm ourselves for battle with the full armor of God, knowing that our enemy prowls around like a lion seeking to devour us. It’s tiring. It’s exhausting. But not here. Not this morning. Today is your Sabbath rest. Today is your opportunity to be filled with the life-giving Word of God which prepares you for the rest of the week, for the rest of your life, and for the life to come. Today is your day to rest while Jesus heals you from whatever scars the world has left on your conscience. May God grant us hearts that rest in his Word and lives that reflect the healing we have been given in this Sabbath rest.
 Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions p.367 (Large Catechism. Part I: The Ten Commandments, paragraph 80)
 1 Timothy 4:4-5
 Ephesians 5:19
 Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions p.369-370 (Large Catechism. Part I: The Ten Commandments, paragraphs 98-101)