It’s the late nineteenth century, and a sweet, cold treat known as the ice cream soda is taking America by storm…
Soda fountains are popping up in pharmacies all across America, to become just as ubiquitous as Starbucks is today.
And on Sunday mornings, after church, the flocks were flocking to the pharmacy to satisfy their sweet tooth.
This began to concern some of particularly pious town fathers in the city of Evanston, Illinois—who were concerned that “the soda menace” was desecrating the sacred Sabbath. So they convince the city to pass an ordinance, outlawing the sale of sodas on Sunday.
But the law couldn’t suppress peoples’ appetite for the treat—so the pharmacy owners began serving ice cream with flavored toppings, minus the soda water (in keeping with the law). They name the treat the Ice Cream Sundae, and the rest is ice cream history.
Flash back eighteen hundred years, and the religious leaders of the day were scandalized over a new threat to the Sabbath—but it wasn’t ice cream…
It was a man named Jesus who had been teaching in the synagogues before large crowds of people. Standing in the crowd was a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. Seeing her, Jesus calls her to himself; he lays his hand on her, and she’s instantly healed. She stands up straight and begins praising God.
But the religious leaders, the Pharisees, are not happy. Jesus has just committed, in the synagogue, an egregious violation of God’s law, straight from Exodus 20– “six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall do no work…”
This is the third of the Ten Commandments instituted by God following the exodus from Egypt. God’s people had been slaves, and the Egyptians were (literally) working them to death. Pharaoh gave them no time to rest and pray and worship God. Now that they’re free, God commands a Sabbath day to rest and be devoted to prayer, worship, and family.
In the Pharisees’ eyes, Jesus broke the Sabbath. He “worked.” But in Jesus’ eyes, here was a woman with “a spirit that had crippled her;” in other words, she was a slave to her infirmity. Satan had her bound. Jesus set her free.
That is what the Sabbath is all about. It’s not merely a legalistic demand that we keep, under the threat of God smiting us. The Sabbath is a gift. It is time be unbound from commitments and obligations that demand so much of us. Sabbath is God unbinding us from misery and fear so that we can be in the presence of God. It is time to be released from what CONSUMES us, to be attached to the one who CREATES and RENEWS us.
God gives us Sabbath because we need it. We need Sabbath because we need God.
But it goes without saying that our world observes no Sabbath. Instead of being a “stop day,” Sunday has become a “cram day” to do everything we want and need to do before Monday morning rolls around and it’s too late. It’s the day to race against the clock—lest we fail to accomplish, to accumulate, and to experience everything that’s important to us. And it’s our last opportunity to catch up on sleep and “me time” before, work, school, and schedules get us back in their grip.
How easy it is to push the invisible God out of our lives, to keep ourselves on the fast track to having it all, knowing it all, and doing it all. How easy it is to just forget God because we’re bone tired and we have nothing left to give him.
And as obligations pile up, so does the stress and anguish of life. And we become bound—by our obligations, by our desires, and by everything that brings stress and fear into our lives.
Life demands much from us—and we will never lead a life of any peace, purpose, or lasting significance unless we become bound to the author and giver of life through deliberate and consistent Sabbath-taking.
We all need Sabbath—and not just for rest; we need it to be in the presence of God.
Church on Sunday morning is a no-brainer—because God’s grace for the journey of life comes to us in Word and Sacrament. And with so many brothers and sisters in vocations that put them at work on Sunday, we as a church need the Holy Spirit to guide us and equip us to give the gift of worship to those people, too.
But one hour of worship will never be enough. We need unplug ourselves from the devices and technologies that consume our attention; we need to shut off the TV; set aside the housework and put a few things off so that we can be devoted to prayer and study of the Word. God will always be with us, no matter what we do—but God’s presence won’t mean a thing unless we become present to God by listening and reading and praying. And we must not do these alone; we must pray and worship and study as families, as friends, as sisters and brothers in our baptism.
The miracle of Sabbath is that God’s presence brings us peace and joy and strength for whatever lies ahead. Even if we’re busy and the pressures are high, God can use a little bit of Sabbath to change everything.
We need Sabbath—but so do our neighbors. Even the unbelievers. And not just Sabbath for rest; Sabbath to encounter the real presence of their creator. We can give Sabbath to our neighbors by caring for their needs; by taking the time to listen to them and pray for and WITH them, by bringing them to church on Sunday. We can give Sabbath even with the simplest acts of patience, generosity, and caring. Imagine that; a little Sabbath for the waitress frantically trying to wait on ten tables; a little Sabbath for the cashier at the grocery store. A little Sabbath for the person who needs a friend, a meal, a little encouragement, or a lot of forgiveness. Unbind someone from loneliness, defeat, and despair. It’s easy to give the gift of rest—and when you give that gift, you’re giving the gift of God—because God’s love is shining through you.
We’ll probably never again see a time when all the businesses close on Sundays. Sabbath will never come easy. But why not pray, then, for God to bring you Sabbath? If God is going to COMMAND Sabbath, we can be sure that this is a prayer God will answer. Sabbath for you, Sabbath for neighbor, Sabbath to rest in the presence of God.
This week, let’s be intentional about taking Sabbath—and don’t forget to give Sabbath, too.