NOTES FOR SERMON – 21 Aug
Over sixty years ago my then childhood mind was full of the sorts of
dreams that only the young can delight in; dreams that were
unlimited by such apparently trivial considerations as mortality or
ability. I dreamt mostly of flying – and not just during the day; in
my sleep I often found myself being able to soar unaided over our
house and wing my way to new and exotic places. Those dreams would
often be accompanied by my mother’s voice calling my name, but
fading with time and distance. I was walking in the air well before
Raymond Briggs and Aled Jones brought it to us.
Frequent visits to the local library – either in town or to the
rather exciting mobile one - furnished me with books about aviation
and many tales of those magnificent men and their flying machines.
One of those men was Douglas Bader, who lost both legs in a 1930’s
flying accident when he flew too low near some other pilots.
Nevertheless after being fitted with prosthetic legs, Bader then
became a great RAF fighter pilot and leader of men during the
From his story I learned two things that would stay with me for the
rest of my life, which included over 40 years as a pilot. Yes, my
dreams came true!
The first thing I learned was not to show off in front of you
friends – it will only end in tears. The second was contained in a
message that Bader sent back up the line when he was being
criticised for bending the rules to get the job done; that job being
to shoot down enemy aircraft. The message said: “Rules are made for
the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.” Over the many
years since I first read it I’ve continually subscribed to that
philosophy. Mind you, the film actress Katherine Hepburn had a nice
take on it too. She said, ‘If you stick to all the rules you’ll miss
a lot of the fun.’
Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any rules – that way lays
anarchy. What would life be like if we were not at least guided by
some sort of framework of morality and ethics? How could sports and
games exist without rules? Humanity, wherever we find it, evolves
rules to enable social stability. Back in the mists of time the
tribes that grew into societies in the Middle East formulated their
own social structures. Not all of them were good.
But about 3,500 years ago the creator God called Jaweh, who had
chosen one vast tribe to help him reveal himself to the world,
decided that it was time that his chosen people should have some
rules for life.
You all know the next bit. Having rescued the Israelites from
slavery in Egypt and set them on their way to becoming a nation with
their own territory, God met with their leader, an old man called
Moses, and gave him ten rules that the people should apply to their
lives. Ten’s not a lot is it? Most sports have many more rules than
that; try reading the rules of golf for instance.
The fourth of God’s rules, or commandments, is, using a modern
translation: ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six
days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a
Sabbath to GOD, your God. Don’t do any work—not you, nor your son,
nor your daughter, nor your servant, nor your maid, nor your
animals, not even the foreign guest visiting your town. For in six
days GOD made Heaven, Earth, and sea, and everything in them; he
rested on the seventh day. Therefore GOD blessed the Sabbath day; he
set it apart as a holy day.’ Fairly clear isn’t it? Take the day off
work and it will give you time to pay attention to God.
The Hebrew word Shabbath means to desist, rest or cease. Today we
often simply equate the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday. To be pedantic the
Jewish Sabbath is not our Sunday but Saturday.
It starts at sunset on Friday and finishes 24 hours later and the
full observation of the fourth commandment is crucial to orthodox
But between the compilation of the Old Testament, mainly done by a
man called Ezra, and the time of Christ the lawyers had got in on
the act and they formulated over 600 legal restrictions for the
conduct of life under the Law of Moses. In fact two whole treatises
on the observance of the Sabbath were written by the religious
teachers as part of a 6,000 page document called the Talmud. It’s
even available on-line, if you’d like to read it!
Jesus quickly became well-known for his animosity to these rule
makers. They’d distorted the original meaning of the day of rest
intended by God. What he wanted was for people to break away from
their work, from the cares of everyday life and take time out to be
holy – and that simply means be set aside from worldly things. To
take time to think about the bigger picture, the meaning of life and
to worship their God.
The gospels record seven occasions when Jesus healed folks on the
Sabbath. Every time he did so the petty-minded, religious jobsworths
Their rules stated that people who broke the Sabbath regulations
could be cut off from society and cast out of the Synagogue – a word
that simply means gathering and is equivalent to our word church.
Drastic measures indeed.
So was Jesus breaking the God-given law inherent in those Ten
Commandments, which underwrote all the Law of Moses? Our reading
from Isaiah included an exhortation to the people of Judah to, and I
quote: “keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as
you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the
LORD’s holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your
own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you
will find your joy in the LORD”.
Jesus answered his detractors and critics by putting them on the
spot. ‘You hypocrites!’ he says, ‘Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath
untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it
water?’ In Matthew’s Gospel he asks, ‘‘if any of you has a sheep and
it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and
lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep!
Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
On that day, he gave himself the title of the Lord of the Sabbath
and, Mark’s Gospel tell us that Jesus said that the Sabbath was made
for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words ‘get your
There’s a huge difference between not doing work and doing good. As
ever it is love that matters. Isaiah told the people not do as they
pleased; pleasing God is what’s important. He said that they
shouldn’t chatter meaninglessly about things that don’t matter.
Concentrate on things of God not things immaterial and unimportant.
Earlier he exhorts folk not to be malicious and point accusing
fingers. That message is inherent in what Jesus wants of us all.
We are allowed our rest, our day off, even us supposedly retired
people. As Malcolm Forbes, the founder of Forbes Magazine, once
said: ‘Retirement kills more folk than hard work ever did.’ But our
shabbath day should be a time when we come closer to God
collectively as a church, as well as individually. Remembering the
meaning of the Hebrew word, we should heed Isaiah’s advice to desist
from malicious talk about things that don’t concern us, cease
pointing fingers at others and rest fully in the peace, love, grace
and mercy of our Lord.
As the ultimate wise man Jesus knew that some rules, especially
man-made ones, were there for his guidance and, although being no
fool, he did know that obedience to his father was not wrought by
rules and regulations but by love. And remember this: healing is his
business, whatever day of the week it is.