Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17

Maybe I’m a little too eager to humbly identify myself with Jesus’ antagonists – today, with the synagogue official in Luke’s story – but this time I’m sure of the connection. That’s definitely me. I picture myself reacting if someone came into worship asking for money. What if they just stood up during the joys and concerns, or during this sermon I worked so hard on, and made their need known? Well, I know how I’d react. I’d try to push them off to noon, or until Tuesday when I’m back in the office. I would probably fulfill their request, or refer them to the best agency to meet their needs, but I’d work hard not to do anything right now. That’s not because I’m indifferent to their need, it’s because I’m concerned for other people too. There’s a time and a place for meeting material needs, and this isn’t it. Right now, people are at worship, trying to find God in this space and time. My impulse is to avoid disturbing all of you, so the needy person will have to get help later.

And Jesus, in no uncertain terms, calls me a hypocrite. I don’t practice what I teach. My actions and my words don’t line up, so I can’t criticize anyone else in their need either. A hypocrite is not necessarily an awful person, but it’s someone who isn’t living with a whole heart. Their life is out of line with their ideals, like most of our lives are. The synagogue official is just defending the Sabbath, protecting this sacred space and time by referring to the other six days when work is permitted.

That synagogue official could have quoted Exodus 20:8-11:

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work – neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. In six days I, the Lord, made the earth, the sky, the seas, and everything in them, but on the seventh day I rested. That is why I, the Lord, blessed the Sabbath and made it holy.

But he, or Jesus, could also quote Deuteronomy 5:12-15:

“Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, as I, the Lord your God, have commanded you. You have six days in which to do your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to me. On that day no one is to work – neither you, your children, your slaves, your animals, nor the foreigners who live in your country. Your slaves must rest just as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and that I, the Lord your God, rescued you by my great power and strength. That is why I command you to observe the Sabbath.

Not that I imagine Jesus or the synagogue official “proof-texted” each other. I’ve never seen that kind of argument work, by the way, because one scripture doesn’t really preempt another. Instead, Jesus disagrees differently. He looks at a deeper level of life, asking his questions from beneath Exodus and Deuteronomy. What common reality underlies both passages? Both Sabbath commandments are about the same two things: remembering who God is and living into God’s dream of freedom from oppression. I love the Sabbath our synagogue official is defending, especially the time it gives us to rest and see again who God is. The Sabbath is there to remind me that God is more than me and my work, that God provides before I can make anything for or by myself. That’s the emphasis of the Exodus commandment, that the Sabbath comes from the gift of creation. If even God can rest, then the world certainly doesn’t depend on my frantic doing.

Deuteronomy tells the other side more clearly: The Sabbath demands freedom from work because God freed us from slavery. The Sabbath is built on a God of justice and freedom. We’re called to honor God’s freedom by reveling in it; on the Sabbath, we’re free to rest because we have no master but God. It’s like celebrating the Fourth of July every week. Further, we’re called to extend God’s freedom to others. Both versions of the commandment also apply to your slaves (ancient households had slaves, that’s how it was). Deuteronomy tells it twice, just so you don’t miss it: your slaves can’t work either. That is, you can’t make them work. On the Sabbath, you’re no one’s master – because no one has a master other than God.

Jesus goes to this deep principle that both commandments share. The Sabbath depends on God and participates in God’s freedom. And that’s how we fail to honor the Sabbath. We fail first when we work, when we untie our animals and lead them to water; as if God couldn’t have given them water already if not for our ropes. We fail in the second place when we refuse to work, when we decline to heal and extend justice; as if freedom from bondage were somehow against God’s wishes.

Jesus violates a time-honored structure in order to honor a deeper value. The Sabbath, as they say, is a sanctuary in time. It’s a day filled especially with God’s presence, providing and healing the world. The command not to work is a temporary restriction that teaches us how to rest and know God’s presence. Stopping work was never the point. Knowing God’s presence and living as God’s people, that’s the real stuff of Sabbath. Jesus “breaks the Sabbath” to live into it. Sometimes God removes something temporary to reveal the permanence at the root of everything in the temporal world.

Hebrews talks about God shaking the world to its foundations, clearing away everything temporary, to reveal what was permanent all along. Hebrews’ whole argument depends on the idea that God is more real than the world around us, that what we see in this world are just shadows of reality. So those Old Testament heroes from the last two weeks lived in a shadow, with no access to God’s true world yet, but they saw it. Now that Jesus has shown reality as it is, we can do away with the shadows from our past and live into a new reality. Hebrews claims that God will shake our worship, the temple sacrifice, even the division of holy time and space from the rest of the world. God claims it all.

It’s not that this world doesn’t matter. In fact, as God reveals her claim on all of life, how we live gets more important. Hebrews is not against the world any more than Jesus is against the Sabbath. This is about transforming temporary forms, not about getting rid of their eternal meaning. Instead, God is who God has always been, eternally creative and dynamically faithful. God’s plan to shake the world to its foundation is part of God’s continuing faithfulness to the world in its deepest sense.

God’s constancy shows up in the changes around us. God is the life of the universe, and the universe is always changing. Life always means change. As your body breathes in and out, your cells eventually replace each molecule that once made them up. The only time biological change stops is at death. When the cells quit renewing themselves, life ends – or maybe it’s the other way around. God is that Life. God reveals himself through the change of what’s alive. God’s creativity shows itself through eternal change.

Or imagine the church – this group of people, this institution, this building. If the church were any of these things alone, it would end. People die, buildings fall down, even institutional forms disappear. The structure of Peter and Paul’s church had disappeared even by the time Hebrews was written. People who go back to that form today acknowledge (with the rest of us) that we’ve all drifted away from the “original church.” Sometimes these changes have been things to lament, but more often they’ve been things to be grateful for. God is still at work within us, still reforming us.

Think about it in terms of this building. Since 1923, we’ve had new light fixtures, a new sound system, new carpeting. The paint, the organ console, the front doors are all different from before. So is this still the same building? They weren’t replaced because the first form was wrong at the time, but because it was time to move on to something new, to meet new needs. We trust that God is somewhere in this, calling this congregation into new ministry through our building, transforming our life yet again.

This is not the same building, at least on the surface. This structure is never the same as it was before. We’re never the same congregation as we were before. As individuals, we’re never the same people as we were before. That’s at least the case with what we’re made of; we have different oxygen, different people and ideas, different bricks and wood. At a deeper level, there’s something constant despite (or because of) those changes: God is still within us, among us, around us. God’s life is in our changes. Eternity is revealed in our transformations. The more things change, the more God stays the same.

As the summer ends, as the world cycles on, as people grow older and transition into new phases of life and life eternal – as life keeps stuttering through its ups and downs, even when today’s changes seem all for the bad – look with Hebrews, look with Jesus, at a deeper truth. God lives in us. God is with us today, tomorrow, and always.

Amen.

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