Ten Commandments – Deutronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23-3:6
In Lent, across the North Scarborough Group, we’re doing our best in our sermons and services to think about the Ten Commandments. Lent is a time of reflection and self-examination, and, as we did in the confession, we can use the commandments as an aid to reflect.
The Ten Commandments used to be prominent in every church in England, on a big board somewhere in plain view. I’m not sure why they were so prominent as I’m not sure they were particularly big in the thinking of the early church or even in the Bible. They were certainly there, in the Bible, and taken seriously, but I don’t think you’d have found them on the wall of a synagogue or an early church meeting place. They don’t have a central place in the Old Testament and are not mentioned in the New Testament. Occasionally one or other of the Ten Commandments gets a mention, but they’re never referred to collectively as if they were a key moral code or a particularly important part of the Christian life.
I suspect the prominence in our country is to do with some hangover from 17th Century Puritanism – a sort of Christianity that rather liked to say, “Thou shalt not!” about anything that might conceivably be fun or pleasurable. But it has got into the psyche of Christianity in our nation – years spent by generations of churchgoers looking up at all those, ‘Thou shalt nots’ and ‘Thou shalts.’ I’m not sure, either when the boards started to come down or weren’t included in many new churches, but the damage has been done. The perception in the minds of many is that God is sat on a cloud frowning and occasionally bellowing, ‘Thou shalt not!’ at us if we get close to enjoying ourselves.
Many think that the Ten Commandments are all there is to being a Christian. I’ve been told many a time, ‘I don’t go to church, but I’m still a Christian. I keep the 10 Commandments!’ And I’ve also heard many, mostly, but not entirely, older folk, saying everything would be OK if only people would keep the 10 Commandments. Perhaps that’s not far from true. But there’s a danger in thinking the 10 Commandments are all there is to it. Think for a moment. Most people think they do OK by the Ten Commandments because they haven’t ever committed adultery, shoplifted of murdered anyone, but you can keep every one of the commandments to the letter and still be an absolute swine!
You may not actually kill anyone, but you can bitch and snipe, and grumble, and insult, make people’s lives a misery, be full of hate and anger at those different from you. You may not actually commit adultery but what if you ignore the needs of your partner, abuse them, flirt with others, continually think the grass would be greener on the other side of the fence if you had a different partner? You may not steal, but is your money invested in companies that exploit the environment, rip off poor communities, underpay their workforce, and so on? It’s not as straightforward as we think. Jesus made the point in his Sermon on the Mount, that if you are angry with someone without cause, insult them, lust after another’s wife, etc, you are breaking the spirit of the law.
One commandment, though – the one we’re thinking about today – is pretty much ignored by non-Jews today, and I think that is very damaging to us and to our society. That commandment is Sabbath. Here’s a little story:
A priest, an imam, and a rabbi were talking one day about how good God had been to them. The priest told of an occasion when he was caught in a snowstorm so terrible that he couldn’t see a foot in front of him. He was completely confused, unsure even of which direction he needed to walk. He prayed to God, and miraculously, while the storm continued for miles in every direction, it seemed to calm just around him, and he could clearly see 100 yards around him and he was able to find his way home. The imam told a similar story. He had been out on a small boat when a heavy storm struck. There were 20-foot high waves, and the boat was sure to capsize. He prayed to Allah, and, while the storm continued all around, for 100 yards around his boat, the sea calmed, and he was able to return safely to port.
The rabbi, too, had a story. “One Sabbath morning, on the way home from my prayers, I saw a very thick wad of £20 notes in the gutter. Of course, since it was Sabbath, I wasn’t able to bend down and pick it up, for that would be work, neither am I allowed to touch money on the Sabbath. But when I prayed to God, though everywhere else, it was Sabbath, for 10 feet around me, until I reached home, it was Thursday!”
Sabbath has got twisted in that sort of way. It was already twisted by Jesus day. So many extra rules about how to honour the Sabbath and keep it holy had grown up. There’s a famous example of the rule that, if a lady spotted a grey hair in the mirror, she couldn’t pluck it out on the Sabbath, because that would count as harvesting! Jesus’ disciples fell foul of that, by plucking ears of corn for a nibble on the Sabbath, but the resulting debate gave rise to his saying, which goes to the heart of Sabbath. “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath.” That is true of all the Commandments. They are for our benefit – to make life better, not harder – to make life more restful, not more awkward. God is not frowning at us, watching in case we have fun!
I remember reading, as a child, the Little House on the Prairie books, and being troubled when I read in one how Laura Ingalls Wilder had been severely told off – even beaten, perhaps, I can’t remember – on the Sabbath because she and her siblings had been having fun sledging! That was in the late 19th Century, but I know a lady in her 50’s at St Laurence’s who was brought up to believe fun on Sunday was definitely not on! It was a day for being holy – and for ‘holy’ read ‘miserable’! But that is to completely misunderstand what Sabbath was, and is, for. We can badly miss the point if we just stick rigidly to rules and think that’s what the Commandments are about. Think of Jesus’ opponents forbidding healing on the Sabbath but happy to plot his death.
Sabbath is holy, in the first place, because it was the day God rested from his labours of creation. But it wasn’t as if God needed to rest. What is going on is that on the seventh day God enjoyed the creation he had made. And as it is written in the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is to be kept by the Israelites because they were slaves once, and they weren’t to be slaves again, and they weren’t to make anyone else a slave – even an animal! But we make ourselves slaves to continual busyness all the time.
Our culture has become what we often call 24/7. I remember all the arguments a few years back about the Keep Sunday Special campaign. At the time I didn’t particularly think it mattered, and it seemed wrong to prevent people going shopping just because of my belief, which they didn’t share. Keep Sunday Special smacked, to me, of the Little House on the Prairie attitude. But now I’m not so sure. I think we have lost a lot in losing the specialness of Sunday. There’s a lad at St Laurence’s left us last year to go to university and is going great guns in his faith. When he was about 10 he always came to church with his friend, but that friend was a keen footballer, and we lost him to football fixtures on a Sunday. I wonder, if he had stayed in church with us and his friend, whether he wouldn’t now be like his friend – full of the faith. And, as someone who doesn’t understand how anyone could conceivably go shopping as a leisure activity, I lament the opportunity all those shoppers would have for doing something more worthy – and all those shop assistants who have to work. The day for spending time with families seems to have gone and that’s a great sadness.
But, of course, Sabbath in the Bible isn’t Sunday at all – it’s Saturday. But never mind what day we keep it on – there are always people who will have to work on any given day – emergency services, and so forth. But we can still keep Sabbath in principle. Just from a sanity point of view we need to have time off – it’s good if it can be a whole day. It doesn’t matter if you have fun and do lots of stuff that day, that’s what it’s for, but when do we have time for God?
We can keep Sabbath time every day if we make time for it. The Sabbath principle is as valuable as it ever was, particularly in a society that has got itself in a big hurry and doesn’t know how to slow down. Employers seem to expect their workers to work all the time. Even if they get a day off, they don’t have enough time for their families the rest of the week. I think that’s a violation of the Sabbath principle. And even if employers don’t do it, we’re quite capable of doing it to ourselves. I’m preaching to myself here as much as to anyone else. When is our Sabbath time.
We tend to feel guilty if we lie in bed in the morning and gaze at the ceiling, or if we soak in the bath until we’re pink and wrinkly. Even if we stop for a cup of tea and gaze out of the window. We have ago at our teenagers who seem to be able to snooze until midday. What a waste of life! That’s what we think. Or are we just secretly jealous!? But I think it might also be true that most of the really important thoughts and ideas we have ever had have come in those moments that we might otherwise consider wasted? How much of life we miss if we’re always doing something ‘useful’!
Sabbath says God didn’t create us to be always doing stuff! He created us to be! He created us to enjoy him and his creation and enjoy the gift that our lives are. How do you feel if you give someone a book as a present – one you think they’d really enjoy, and they never actually get round to reading it. How would you feel if you cook a really tasty meal, and your guest just shovels it down and runs out of the door? Well multiply that by a lot, and that’s how God feels when we ignore the wonderful gifts of life because we are too busy doing stuff. Even when we’re too busy doing stuff for him! Sabbath is a reminder of what life is for.
Someone from St Mark’s gave me this poem a week or two ago and I keep coming back to it. It’s by R.S. Thomas. I’ll give you all a copy after. It’s called ‘The Bright Field’:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
The pearl of great price is being able to turn aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush. Life as God intended it does not consist of hurrying. To be sure, there’s hurrying to be done, but Sabbath reminds us there is much more. I’m also reminded of that poem, ‘Leisure’ – ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’
I read this book for Lent a few years ago and found it quite an eye-opener. It’s called, ‘Do nothing to change your life.’ A double meaning there. How often do we do nothing without feeling guilty? If anyone would like to borrow, you’re welcome.
We may not keep a Sabbath Day as such – though it would be valuable if we did – but let’s keep at least some Sabbath Time.