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Article | June 2, 2024

Sermon: Through the Sabbath into a Strange New World

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth.”

1. Near the end of The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis’ children’s book about the apocalypse, the great Lion stands before a massive closed door which seems to have nothing behind its doorframe. He has just presented a bountiful banquet to a crowd of bickering dwarfs. But they are not able to see or experience it – as they eat the delicious pies, wines and ice creams, they think they are eating old hay, wilted cabbage leaves and putrid water. They complain and fight each other. One says, “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

The Lion explains to the children with him that the dwarfs, “will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Then the Lion goes to the door and roars so loudly that it could shake the stars. He calls, “Now it is time!” Time! Time! And the door to another world flies open.1

Today I am talking about the sabbath. We will think about what that word means, how ancient Hebrews practiced the sabbath, what questions it raised for them and for us today. But the simple thing I want to express is the idea of the sabbath as a kind of doorway into another world. We walk through the sabbath into a world which constantly changes our experience of this one, a world which helps us to see what is real and what is a distraction and what is an illusion.

The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) calls this “the Strange New World within the Bible.”2 It is ancient but deeply connected to the future. It is familiar in some ways and bizarre in others. It demands that we see what is ordinary in a totally new light. Above all this world helps us, “to reach far beyond ourselves,” for an answer which is “too large for us,” which we are not ready for yet. It brings us into contact with a solution for which we have not struggled or labored enough but which answers our deepest longings.

In that strange world we are with childless Sarah and Abraham as they decide to trust God’s outlandish promise that their descendants will be more numerous than the stars. We are with Moses in exile after he rashly murdered a man. Moses receives a wonderful second chance as God appears to him in a burning busy and announces that he will be

the greatest leader of all time. We are with Samuel at the tabernacle of Shiloh as he learns what it means to hear God speak. We are with prophets like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, called to speak out in defiance to kings, but who also promise that, “the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory will be seen by thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light.”3

And then we find ourselves in the presence of a gentle person who is not a prophet or doctor or poet or philosopher or hero, and “yet all of these and more.”4 His words alarm the authorities. With compelling power he says “Follow me!” He leaves even the most suspicious people with an irresistible impression of eternal life. In the face of doubt and cynicism Jesus gives us the hope that we too might be healed. You can hear the echo of his great impact today through the people who listen and watch and wait, the ones you see around you now, who share Jesus’ confidence in God’s love.5

Barth writes that the question, “What is in the Bible?” becomes, “What are your looking for?” Who are you? We were made for this question and the sabbath is the way we grow into the answer.

2. What is the sabbath historically? It is the seventh day of the Jewish week. According to the Ten Commandments one should abstain from work on this day.6 Sabbath has two different origin stories. The Book of Exodus (Ex. 20:11) describes it as a way we imitate God who rested after creating the world in six days. The other explanation comes from the Book of Deuteronomy in which sabbath reminds the people that God delivered them out of slavery in Egypt. God has given them a freedom to not work and sabbath ensures that they exercise this freedom.

According to the First Book of Maccabees Gentiles in the century before the birth of Jesus attack faithful Jews who because they are keeping the sabbath refuse to retaliate. They say, “Let us die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly…” (1 Macc. 2). A thousand of them are slaughtered and the leaders resolve to defend themselves in the future.

The Hebrew phrase Pikuach Nefesh means to save a life or soul. It refers to the conviction that saving a life takes precedence over keeping the sabbath. Jesus extends this to healing a man with a damaged hand. You can hear his heartbreak that religious leaders of his time object to healing someone on the sabbath.7 He says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mk. 3).

What is the sabbath for us as twenty-first century people? In scripture sabbath has two purposes. It is a day set apart for worshiping God. It is also a day for rest and recreation.

It reminds us that our value as human beings is not just about what we produce. Sabbath shows us that we should not treat our work or career as a god. Life is not just about accomplishment, not just about becoming but about being. It is about enjoying the blessings that God longs for us to receive.

Different people may interpret this in various ways but the sabbath reminds me that we have an obligation to go to church, to participate in worship with others. We are not complete as we are. The prayers, readings and hymns expose us to the strange new world of the Bible which transforms how we experience the world and act in it.

3. Let me give three examples of what we might learn as we mature in faith. The novelist Walker Percy (1916-1990) believed that he could communicate theological truths in his fictional stories. He won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer. In it the main character Binx Bolling describes his spiritual quest saying, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”8 On the sabbath, the world of scripture reminds us that we were made to search for God and that abandoning this pilgrimage leaves us empty.

In Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss,” a shy, diminutive and frankly ugly army officer with “spectacles, sloping shoulders and whiskers like a lynx’s” goes to an elegant party.9 The other officers are dancing or playing billiards. Having, “nothing to do” he wanders around the house. On his way back he gets mixed up and finds himself in a dark room. Suddenly he hears, “hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress [and] a breathless feminine voices whispers, “At last! [It’s you!].” She throws her arms around him and kisses him. Immediately she realizes it is the wrong person and hurries off before he can compose himself.

For the rest of the evening the officer keeps recalling the way she smelled, the feeling of her arms around him and her lips on his cheek. He wonders which of the women at the party it was. Chekhov writes, “an intense groundless joy took possession of him.” For months he keeps going back in his memory to that moment. Much later he returns to that town and sees the mansion from across the water. He realizes that that moment of intimacy was not meant for him, and that he would always be alone. “And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to [him] an unintelligible and aimless jest.”

This reminds me of how we feel when we see someone waving, and then wave back only to realize that they were waving at someone else. There is a deep hurt in many of us who feel like no one will ever love us. No one will say “At last! It’s you!” Some of us may wonder if people would still love us if they really knew what we had done or who we are. When we are in this frame of mind, the strange world of the Bible reminds us that Jesus constantly teaches that God loves us as a father. Jesus shows us that we are not defined by the worse things we have thought and done, that there is always a chance for reconciliation.

When we look at the news of the week, the conviction of a former United States president, the intractable suffering in the Middle East and Ukraine, it can feel like there is no agreed upon foundation for how we treat each other. The historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) writes that there are three basic strategies when things fall apart.10 First is what he calls archaism or nostalgia. I see this in myself when I long for the church of my childhood. This is also the appeal of the slogan Make America Great Again. But we simply cannot go back to the past. Social changes, patterns of migration, changes in business and technology cannot simply be reversed.

Toynbee calls the second strategy for dealing with change, futurism. This is to dismiss the importance of the past and present in order to focus our decisions only on an imagined future. The third strategy is what people do when the first two do not work. It is to opt out or withdraw for the sake of preserving ourselves.

But there is a fourth way. It is more clearly articulated in the Bible than anywhere else. It is a way of living in the present, of living in the presence God or being in Christ. This way folds the past and the future into this moment. The tradition calls this Nunc Eternum or The Eternal now. It is the source of the joy that we see in deeply faithful people. It is a trust in God’s never-failing providence.11

Who are we? What are we looking for? Like the dwarfs of The Last Battle, we have been so afraid of being taken in that we have often chosen cunning over belief. For the span of a moment we can come to see our life as a rich banquet but we inevitably forget. Thank you for being part of this Grace Cathedral sabbath, for celebrating God’s creativity and God’s gift of freedom. Thank you for believing in the search for something more, for listening to God’s voice in the Eternal Now saying, “At last. It’s you.” O Lord shake the stars and open for us that door to the other world. It is time. Time. Time.

1 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle (NY: Harper Collins, 1956) 168-170.

2 Karl Barth, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1928) 28-50.

3 “The LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(Isa 60:2-3). Also from Handel’s Messiah:

4 “Then comes the incomprehensible, incomparable days, when all previous time, history, and experience seem to stand still – like the sun at Gideon – in the presence of a man who was no prophet, no poet, no hero, no thinker, and yet all of these and more! His words cause alarm, for he speaks with authority and not as we ministers. With compelling power he calls to each one: Follow me! Even to the distrustful and antagonistic he gives an irresistible impression of “eternal life.” “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, [31] and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” “Blessed is the womb that bare thee,” cry the people. And the quieter and lonelier he becomes, and the less real “faith” he finds in the world about him, the stronger through his whole being peals one triumphant note: “I am the resurrection and the life! Because I live — ye shall live also!”

And then comes the echo, weak enough, if we compare it with that note of Easter morning-and yet strong, much too strong for our ears, accustomed as they are to the weak, pitiably weak tones of to-day—the echo which this man’s life finds in a little crowd of folk who listen, watch, and wait. Here is the echo of the first courageous missionaries who felt the necessity upon them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Here is the echo of Paul: “The righteousness of God is revealed! If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. And he which hath begun a good work in you will finish it!” Here is the deep still echo of John: “Life was manifested… We beheld his glory… Now are we the sons of God. … And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Karl Barth, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man, tr. Douglas Horton (NY: Pilgrim Press, 1928) 28-50

5 We are with Saul the persecutor of Christians as he becomes transformed into Paul, “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4).

6 The Book of Leviticus describes it as a time of complete rest for gathering in worship.

7 “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mk. 3:5).

8 “Then it is that the idea of the search occurs to me. I become absorbed and for a minute or so forget about the girl.

What is the nature of the search? you ask.

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighborhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.” Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (NY: Ivy Books, 1960) 9.

9 Anton Chekhov, “The Kiss.”

10 Alan Jones, “Sermon: The Second Sunday after Pentecost,” Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, California, 28 May 1989.

11 Today’s collect, that is, the prayer that gathers all of our prayers together and is changed every week which starts out our Sunday services has often puzzled me. It says, “O God, your never-failing providence sets in order all things both in heaven and earth…” I do not think this means that God controls every last detail of our lives using terrible things that happen to us for some greater good. Instead it means that there is a way that God orders everything in creation. We come closer to understanding this through the possibilities opened in the sabbath.

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