Back in the 1980`s I attended a Public Meeting which had been called to discuss the soon to be introduced Sunday Trading Laws. I vividly remember a point made by the local MP. There we were – members of the local Council of Churches – making quite legitimate, important points about the likely impact on family life, employment conditions, social cohesion and all the rest; all of which I believe have been borne out in the years since the Act was passed- but the MP said, “Yes, but what`s the particular point you as Churches need to make?”.
I thought at the time that this was a kind of diversion. He was a very clever man and I thought it was an astute way of putting us back in our box, so to speak but I`ve since come to believe that I one sense he was absolutely right. There we were making points which any socially responsible person could have made and not once was the name of the Lord our God mentioned.
What I`m getting at is that we completely caved in and appeared totally ignorant of our heritage and the ground on which we stand. Putting it simply we didn`t have the insight, the courage or the conviction to say that as Christian people we believe God calls us to keep the Sabbath; that this is His pattern for human living. On reflection I feel quite ashamed really. We had capitulated and that MP was quite right in challenging us to ask, “What is distinctive about you anyway? What`s your real contribution?”
Now there are probably many reasons for our coyness (to put it kindly) not least generations of embarrassment that an over enthusiastic Sabbatarianism resulted in people being subject to some pretty boring Sunday afternoons marked by a long list of things you weren`t allowed to do… Let`s face it, it was hardly the gift which Jesus claimed it to be! And I sense also that many of us have grown up believing that our faith has to be what we call `relevant`- by which we mean it has to fit in with and be useful to our understanding of the world- whereas an authentic faith begins somewhere else- it`s about changing the way we look at and behave in the world. But in any case perhaps more seriously this moment was, for me a sign of a Church which had become detached from its heritage. What we offered was a rather amateurish sociological analysis of the world rather than letting our Lord`s prescription for living be our guide.
This prescription is given of course, in the Ten Commandments which we heard this morning. At that meeting we had in a rather embarrassed way consigned to antiquity. The Jewishness of our faith and the record of God forming his people (contained in the Old Testament) were not seen as important or somehow, pertinent to our time. But here they are in front of us; the Ten Commandments. And as many a `wag` has noted they`re not Ten suggestions. Not Ten nice ethical principles. Not, as I`m always saying, ten boxes to tick so that you can get the right side of God. No, they are a declaration in ten short statements that since you ARE God`s people… then this shall be the shape of your common life.
You see we need to remember the context. These are the words God gave his people having set them free from slavery in Egypt. They are the path to be taken by a grateful people who know themselves to be the object of his love and mercy and who are called to exemplify to the nations what REAL living looks like. It`s those desperate days in slavery to Pharaoh and his economic system that drove them so hard for over four hundred years that help us see how pertinent this text is for today. In keeping the Sabbath we recognise that there is a God-ordained pattern for life; that the rhythms of time are not a matter of personal choice or preference or indeed accidental; and they are for our good for several reasons as I want to illustrate in a moment.
But a couple of weeks ago I heard something I`d not come across in a while. One of the International Rugby Teams announced that it wasn`t able to field one of its players because he had declined to play on a Sunday for what the statement called `religious reasons`. As I say, we don`t often hear that kind of thing these days; and the temptation, as I say is to infer that this chap is caught up in the `bad old days` I was referring to a moment ago…. As if to say “He`s obviously a sincere fellow, entitled to his view but nobody`s serious about that anymore”. But what if he`s reminding us of something important? What if he`s not subject to a rather cramped and `kill-joy` kind of culture? What if he`s simply saying, “I want my life to be shaped by something more than the needs of the market. I want my life to be shaped in a way that demonstrates my loyalty and devotion to the God who calls me to freedom rather than an anxious, workaholic existence?” What if he is reminding all Christian people that we have lost sight of something important? I wonder…..
You see if I stand here and suggest that we all begin to take seriously this call to shape our life around the Sabbath we`ll need a little more time to work through how we go about putting that into practice in the life-giving frame Christ himself adopted. But how many of us believe that`s either possible or desirable?
Some might be thinking I`m talking out of my hat and shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted…. No one wants to be thought odd or a religious freak these days! That Rugby player is probably some kind of fanatic…..But that just leaves ME asking, “Then why are we reading this stuff anyway? And what do we really think it means to have our lives shaped by our devotion to Christ?”
You see my hobby horse this Lent is what I`m calling `The shape of Christian living`. And I know it`s not politically correct nowadays because people say “Who are you trying to tell me how to live my life?” but it does seem to me that this is one of the key questions… “If God IS God, then how shall I live?” And on what basis do I make some of the things he tells me for my good somehow `optional`? My point is that by being neglectful of the Ten Commandments and especially the call to Sabbath rest we have left ourselves as Christian people totally lacking in distinctiveness; with nothing to say to a society which is beset by anxiety and totally at the mercy of the pressures of a market-driven environment and what one author called the `tyranny of time`. We have nothing to say because we`re up to our neck it ourselves; up the same creek and refusing to use the paddle.
Last week I had yet another conversation with someone who works in one of our local hotels. They are working insane hours, split shifts… never the same day off…many of these people are living bewildered lives. And what I find quite moving is that when you tell them, as I have done, the story of Israel`s time in slavery and the reasons for the Sabbath… they get it. They see how trapped they are; they know exactly what it means to live in Egypt and long for something better- but what about us?
Well let`s firstly remind ourselves that the traditional Sabbath of course is Saturday but we as Christians transferred it to Sunday- as the day on which we celebrate the Resurrection. And the key thing to remember is that Sunday- as the First day of the week- means that what we do THIS day sets the agenda for the rest. What we have learnt from Christ is that we begin in worship…. we go on in service and witness. But why should we take this seriously? Why should we re-order our priorities and make some serious changes in our lifestyle to reflect all of this?
Well, firstly as I say, because it`s a commandment rather than a suggestion. Now, that doesn`t sound very positive; and we don`t like to hear that kind of thing these days but maybe we need to think again. We can get as `shirty` about this as we like but it does us all good to be reminded that this is for our good and that we are under authority and accountable.
Secondly Sabbath is a gift; it`s an invitation to enter God`s rest; to mark and acknowledge our created-ness; to resign as general manager of the universe. For one day of the week we take our hands off the wheel. We refuse to let production and consumption and the anxiety that goes with it be the final word on who we are. Which is why thirdly it`s an act of resistance. An act of resistance those of us at that public meeting totally flunked. Now Jesus had some pretty caustic things to say about those who used the Sabbath as a means of remaining deaf to the call of compassion but how many things do we get up to every day of the week that are little more than signs of capitulation? Excused by those immortal words, “Everybody`s doing it!”
Sabbath says you don`t have to DO more, SELL more, CONTROL more or ACQUIRE more. You don`t have to fill every day- and the lives of our children with more and more activity. This ONE day, this Sabbath rest is there to break the cycle; it is freedom from `should` and `oughts` and the coercive pattern that says you must….That`s why Sabbath is also an act of witness; witness to a reordered way of living. Living, as I was trying to say last week, in the way of the Kingdom. I suppose I`d like to think some of us might take this to heart. Personally I`m a bit weary of all those conversations where everyone bemoans the `way of the world` without remembering that our faith gives us the resources not only to survive it`s challenges but transform it.
So, instead of being secretly embarrassed by all this talk of keeping the Sabbath why not embrace it? Why for instance, do we continue to regard Worship as of secondary importance, so easily pushed aside when something else happens to come up? Are we frightened of what others will say if like that Rugby player we site `religious reasons` for not joining in? You sometimes hear people say “The devil is in the detail” Indeed he is; in the small apparently insignificant choices we make. But I would want to say that “God is also in the detail”. When those same apparently insignificant choices are made out of loyalty and obedience to HIM, then our lives are founded on rock.
It`s only in recent times that I`ve appreciated how far that public meeting was an illustration of the bankruptcy of our faith. In a culture that is subject to the `tyranny of time` we failed to draw everyone`s attention to the gift of Sabbath: the call to obedience, resistance and witness. We`re told, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God….” I think it would be good to explore what this means and take it to heart. For as the French author Georges Bernanos once said the tragedy is that people don`t so much lose their faith “they merely cease to shape their lives by it”.