As we continue on our summer sermon series, 20 questions in 10 weeks, today’s questions both touch on the topic of calendar.
The first is:
“What Season was Jesus born? Fall, Winter, Spring, or Summer?”
And the second is:
“Why do people go to church on the Sabbath?
Let us pray.
On the face of it, the question “What season was Jesus born?” seems a little odd. When I asked a colleague about it, his response was, “This is like asking what color Christ’s hair was… the actual answer can only matter if we’ve prioritized something that doesn’t matter as though it does.”
But, I looked around a little, just to see where people go with this question, and found out there is a lot of arguments against celebrating Christmas that start with the question “What season was Jesus born in?”
So here’s how the logic of these arguments go: “Oh, of course Jesus was born in the Winter.”
“That’s impossible, the shepherds had sheep outside, and it is too cold in the winter to have sheep outside.
For that matter, no Emperor would hold a census in winter, because he wouldn’t want to be cruel to his subjects!
And it would be so cold that the Virgin Mary would have frozen to death and Jesus would never be born.
And so clearly Christmas is actual the Pagan practice of worshipping the Sun’s birth on “Sol Invictus.”
So, a few things to consider about this argument:
Firstly, every person who makes this argument cites Adam Clarke, an Irish academic from the 1800’s. Now the little village Clarke lived in was kinda cold in December, between 45 and 36 degrees. But, Bethlehem averages between 57 and 45 degrees in December, not swimming weather, but it’s not going to kill you either.
Secondly, Roman Emperors were cruel from time to time.
Thirdly, there was no formal recognition of this type of worship of the sun until 274CE, 72 years after the death of Irenaeus, the first recorded Church Father to suggest December 25th as Christ’s birth.
But I agree with my friend, arguing about this type of thing is majoring in the minors, and not really the Lutheran way of doing faith, but I’d imagine that would help the questioner think about the date of Christmas a little more.
The more interesting of the two questions, at least to me, is: “Why do people go to church on the Sabbath?” And spreading the question out a bit: what’s the Sabbath for?
Reading in exodus we see a very severe accounting of Sabbath—it’s about rest and holiness… and if you don’t do it you are to be put to death.
In Genesis and Deuteronomy we get two sources of this command.
From Genesis we see the Sabbath is holy on account of being associated with God’s holy act of creation, and Sabbath is about rest because on the 7th day God rested.
From Deuteronomy we read that the Sabbath is holy because of God’s liberation of his people from Slavery into Freedom, and it requires rest because a people who were once slaves should not let anyone in their society live in the slave-like condition of constant labor.
And when Jesus argues with Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath, he draws from that 2nd tradition, the liberation tradition—saying:
“What better day is there than the Sabbath for making straight the crooked path,
lightening the load of the heavy burdened,
and liberating the lives of the loveless and luckless.”
And as we read today, when push comes to shove, he shoves the severe restrictions of Sabbath rest out of the way for the sake of that tradition of Sabbath liberation, declaring “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
And with all that background in place, the question again, “Why do people go to church on the Sabbath?”
In a sense we don’t, Sabbath traditionally is from Friday at dusk to Saturday at dusk.
The majority of Christians, however, go to church on Sunday, in order to worship on the day Jesus was raised from the dead.
But, there is a touch of Sabbath on Sunday in worship. We keep it, (and just so you know I’m now parroting Luther’s explanation of how Sabbath and worship go together…)
We keep it, to break up the routine of work work work, or work play work play work play—so that we can find an opportunity to inject the Holy into these weekly cycles by participating in public worship. And this public worship we do, is holy because we hear God’s Holy Word and we praise God through song and prayer.
And of course, I’m preaching to the choir here, you all showed up, you honor the holiness of time by being here. And I do want to say to you all by being here you are doing something good and holy.
Yet, in a sense, it is not enough to just show up—Luther points to a peasant, who over-indulged the night before, waking up in pig trough, cuddling with a sow, so hung over he couldn’t make it to church to hear the Word of God—and says “and yet those who come to worship and neither learn nor retain the promises of Christ are no better off.” They too have broken the Sabbath.
Still, for Luther, Sabbath does retains a sense of rest as well. We keep Sabbath for the sake of our bodily needs—we carve out as a society a time when everyone has a chance to stop from slaving away at work, because without rest we grow weary, crazy, and less human.
So, in addition to reflecting on God’s good promises as found in scripture, Sunday ought to be a time that is “good… for nothing.” Just good to be, and to rest, and to reside in the goodness of God’s world.
In short, Sabbath is about rest, liberation, and holiness.
It’s about rest, a time that is “good… for nothing.”
It is also about liberation, acts of kindness and justice are part of living into the holiness of God’s time.
It, finally, is holy in and of itself, dragging us into the reality of God through our worship together in which we receive and cherish the promises of God.