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Sermon: Choral Evensong - 6 March 2016

Sunday 6th March 2016
Choral Evensong
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‘Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40.31)

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My Scottish father always had a habit, which slightly irked me, of referring to Sundays as ‘the Sabbath’. So if there was Six Nations rugby match on a Sunday - actually it was Five Nations then – he would say, tut-tutting, and tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Och, sport on the Sabbath’. That reflected the strict Sabbatarianism of parts of Scotland, which has declined, but which in some places still exists today.

That Sabbatarianism is portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire, when the Scottish athlete and top sprinter – the Ussain Bolt of his day - Eric Liddell, foregoes the highly likely prospect of an Olympic 100 metres gold medal, in Paris in 1924, because the heats for the race were to be run on a Sunday. Liddell withdrew from the race and received no medal, although he did win gold in his less favoured 400 metres which was run on weekdays.

In the film there is even a scene where Liddell is shown reading the lesson in a church in Paris from the very passage we read this evening from Isaiah, ‘Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength’ and perhaps aware of the irony, ‘they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’.

There are some sportspeople who still take that line today, such as the Scottish rugby player Euan Murray, who sits out of fixtures on a Sunday. That is one manifestation of the way in which the concept of the Sabbath is handled today.

Another is to say that the Sabbath is about resting in God: a time to renew one’s strength by resting in the Lord. It becomes harder and harder in a 24/7 society, when the world trades as we sleep, for us to find pools of rest and refreshment. To my horror the other day, a member of the clergy who is ‘retired’ spoke of the necessity of identifying a day off on which to recover and be renewed. Retirement seems to bring no respite.

Perhaps in different ways we all recognise what Eric Liddell’s wife says to him in the film, “You’re so full running that you’ve no room for standing still.” That echoes Isaiah’s words, ‘Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.’

We have come to a point where we neglect the concept of a day of rest, we compromise sleep, which is surely God’s gift to us as a time of rest and recovery, and we adopt a macho posture about our inability to rest and sleep. The phrase ‘power nap’ was coined to give the impression that this is a strong, powerful sort of thing that busy executives do, rather than the rather limp sounding need for 40 winks after lunch. The term ‘rest day’ sounds like skiving.

As I have pondered what sleep is all about over the last couple of years, I have connected that to the concept of Sabbath and the need, as in Isaiah, to be renewed by drinking from the deep well-springs of God’s love.

Reference to the Sabbath, in many peoples’ minds is characterised, by either the strict Sabbatarianism of the west of Scotland, or of their perceptions what they imagine to be an overly legalistic Jewish observance of the Sabbath. We might feel a little more generous about Sabbath when we sing ‘O Sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above, where Jesus knelt to share with thee the silence of eternity, interpreted by love!’ but otherwise ‘Sabbath’ tends to sound killjoy and miserable. The horse long ago bolted when it comes to the place of Sundays as a corporate, societal Sabbath.

We remember, of course, that Jesus himself said, ‘the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2.27) and he ‘violated’ the strictest interpretations of Sabbath imposed by the zealous, for example not healing people whilst permitting the rescue of animals (cf Luke 13.10-17, esp vv 15, 16). He exposed the constraints of human Sabbath custom. But often that is deployed as an excuse not to honour or even consider what the Sabbath might be about.

And what is it about, and how might we handle it today? Of all the Ten Commandments probably the most violated is the fourth commandment:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

The Sabbath is part of the very Creation itself and sets the pattern of rest and the pursuit of holiness. Our text from Isaiah captures it too, ‘Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength’: Sabbath properly configured is a time to do just that. The Sabbath connects directly to God’s rest at the Creation. The commandment has the priority of holiness within it. The Sabbath is made for us, to give us space to be renewed in holiness, renewed like an eagle, resting and nesting in the Lord.

The Sabbath tells us that the goal of each week, and the sleep of each day, is not optimisation and maximising the productivity of every moment, so much so that we can talk about the ‘holiness of resting’ so that we can renew our strength by waiting, stopping, pausing.

This runs against the grain of our culture, and it has a hugely adverse impact on the health – mental and physical – of individuals, on the well-being of society and the whole environment. We suck people and habitats dry in the false belief that we will be satisfied and renewed by them.

Lent is a time of grace to reconsider the patterns of our lives, to acknowledge and confront the self-justifying busyness of our lives and to stop, pause and wait on the Lord, who will renew our strength.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016