Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 3 June 2018.
I wonder how many of us were able to determine all the turning points of our lives. Some may have had complete control over the critical decisions that led us to where we are, while for others we may have responded to the circumstances that where there and the opportunities or constraints that presented themselves.
And so for Samuel, the critical decisions of his life were made when he was a young child. He was desperately wanted by his mother who had not been able to bear children and yet she promised him to the Lord for His service before she even conceived.
And so Samuel served before the Lord in the temple and under the oversight of the elderly and rather ineffectual High Priest, Eli.
No doubt Samuel was duly attentive to his duties and lessons, but it was all about fitting into the circumstances of life as best he could.
And yet it all changed one night when he made his bed in the temple and God called him by name. What had been duty and conformity was to become personal commitment. What had been law and custom now became love and attentiveness as he served and worshipped.
That call came when Samuel had no reason to expect it and in many ways he was a prisoner of his own circumstances. But even when constrained by life Samuel was able to serve faithfully and to devote himself beyond the call of duty as he found a new love for his God.
Paul however had thought he was in control as he went about his own business, until he discovered to his horror that he was not. The God whom he had been serving in the laws and traditions of Israel now presented him with something else – and far from being in control Paul was now at the service of another. Indeed, he was at the service of the church as a whole as he followed his Lord’s commission.
Now his mission would have to be followed without thoughts of personal advantage or comfort or convenience.
Now he would take many and thankless risks on behalf of the church as he served his Lord. He would make claims on none and yet would be available to all.
There would be no question of elevated positions or fancy titles. There would certainly be no career progression or structure, unless you would care to count the beatings and stonings and imprisonments, never mind the casual insults, all climaxing at an execution block in a Roman prison.
For Paul ministry was never going to have anything to do with personal fulfilment or advancement or comfort. It would all be about self-giving, and indeed the self-pouring that he described twice in letters to his friends.
And all this gives us a way of looking at Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath. He was criticized for letting His disciples breach the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Sabbath, yet He went on to make a point about the Sabbath by healing a man with a crippled hand.
So: what was the Sabbath for? Doing evil – No. Doing nothing at all? Maybe if you were particularly scrupulous. Doing good? For Jesus the answer was an emphatic ‘Yes’.
The Sabbath was within God’s gift of the 10 commandments and yet had become a burden of restriction and control. This was never going to be the purpose of the law which should release and refresh the souls of the people, and not suppress them.
But we still have the question of how we use the Sabbath or the Sunday ourselves.
For many it is the day when there are no other commitments – except visiting the parents or grandparents, or attending conferences (when others are put to work), or taking the children to their sports engagements.
But these agendas have no room for the people of God assembling to worship together or to learn together or just to enjoy each other’s company. And when Sunday by Sunday we are taken away from that gathering together then we fall out of the habit. It is no longer something we are looking forward to.
Then the guilt sets in and there is a sense that something is not quite right, but how to deal with it without really upsetting others? Or being seen as a prig or some kind of religious nut?
Then there is no real refreshing of the soul, and we have the same-old, same-old in our life’s routine. Prisoners of habit when there really is something else and something more to explore and enjoy, a new sense that there is something else even more fulfilling just waiting to be savoured and relished.
No, we were never made for the Sabbath so that we could be controlled or imprisoned by it. Rather it was given to us so that we really could be refreshed in it, and come to anticipate its blessings as we continued to serve the Lord during the week.
The Lord never made the Sabbath to be a burden. It was always intended as a spring of refreshment and a storehouse of plenty – if we can and will receive it. But it does look for our response.