The fifth chapter of the Gospel of John opens with the account of a man paralyzed for thirty-eight years, bereft of everything except his superstitions about a magic pool he thought would heal him and make him walk. Undoubtedly a Jewish man, he'd probably asked the religious leaders for help, but Pharisees being Pharisees, all they could do was tell him he had to get his act together if he was ever going to get well. Seeing no hope in that, the paralytic turned to a futile fantasy, hoping against hope that someone might help him take a dip in the enchanted pool. Along came Jesus. Irritated with the senselessness of what he saw, he asked the man: "Don't you want to get well?" Undeniably frustrated himself, the paralytic replied, "Sir, I'm trying my best." To which Jesus said, "Get up. Rise, pick up your mat and start walking!" And miraculously, the paralyzed man did just that.
Regrettably however, the religious professionals could not have cared less about the miraculous recovery. They only cared that the former paralytic had the audacity to carry his mat on the Sabbath.
Since the LORD had "Sabbathed" or "rested" on the heels of his creating the world, He commanded through Moses to "remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work." Of course, the LORD rested from his work not because he was tired or because work was a bad thing. God's rest reflected his satisfaction with the goodness of his creation, His joy over a job well done.
However, Sabbath celebrates not only life made good but the promises of greater life and goodness to come. Sabbath signals a halt to the hopelessness of human striving and to the frustrating limits of this finite world. Sabbath draws attention away from worry and stress, expanding our horizons to anticipate the horizons of heaven. Though generally applied to the seventh day of the week, Sabbath was specially applied to other festival days to remind God's people that this world is not all that there is. Sabbath whets our appetite for eternity.
However the Pharisees had lost focus on this bigger picture, choosing instead to obsess over the details. So have centuries of Christians overly concerned with what you can't do on a Sunday.
Not so with the 17th-century pastor and poet George Herbert, who properly envisioned the Sabbath in a poem entitled "Sunday":
O day most calm, most bright
The fruit of this, the next world's bud,
Th'endorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his blood;
The couch of time; care's balm and bay:
The week were dark, but for thy light:
Thy torch doth show the way . . .
Thou art a day of mirth:
And where the weekdays trail on ground,
Thy flight is higher, as thy birth.
O let me take thee at the bound,
Leaping with thee from sev'n to sev'n,
Till that we both, being toss'd from earth,
Fly hand in hand to heav'n!
George Herbert was born into a distinguished Welsh family in 1593, the sixth of ten children. Well-educated, Herbert aimed high, attaining a seat in Parliament, the admiration and sponsorship of Sir Francis Bacon, as well as the favor of King James (of the Bible fame). But then King James and Sir Francis both died, as did Herbert's mother (his father had died years prior). Then the plague hit. Deciding, perhaps, that these events constituted the hand of God on his life, Herbert abruptly cast aside his political ambitions and turned to life as a rural pastor. His friends thought he'd lost his mind. How else to explain choosing to become a minister?
Herbert accepted a call to a little village church and rebuilt it with his own money. He visited the poor, consoled the sick and the dying, and reconciled neighbors at odds with one another. Meanwhile he composed a manual on ministry entitled The Country Parson, in which he set forth his ideals for the Christian life.
He wrote that "The Country Parson upon the afternoons in the weekdays, takes occasion sometimes to visit in person, now one quarter of his Parish, now another. For there he shall find his flock most naturally as they are, wallowing in the midst of their affairs: whereas on Sundays it is easy for them to compose themselves to order, which they put on as their holy-day clothes, and come to Church in frame, but commonly the next day put off both . . . .He admonishes them in two things; first, that they dive not too deep into worldly affairs, plunging themselves over head and ears into carking (that is worry), and . . . overdoing it [that is being too busy] to the loss of their quiet, and health, [and faith] when they doubt God's providence, thinking that their own labor is the cause of their thriving, as if it were in their own hands to thrive . . . Secondly, he adviseth them so to labor for wealth and maintenance, as that they make not that the end of their labor, but that they may have wherewithal to serve God the better, and to do good deeds."