I wonder whether the letters V.A.R. mean anything to you? Video Assist Referees are the football equivalent of the T.M.O. in rugby or the Third Umpire in cricket. They are officials who are given access to video replays and technological tracking devices in the hope that this can eliminate all refereeing errors in sport and consign to history, once and for all, the ‘we wuz robbed’ element of sports, when refereeing howlers unfairly changed the course of a match.
They are based on the premise that if only we can get the laws perfect, the game itself will be perfect. But in practice, the introduction of the V.A.R. has been accompanied by a series of high-profile howlers to the extent that on Wednesday the system was described as ‘comical and embarrassing’. And it fares little better in other sports. For example, despite the TMO, most neutral commentators thought that refereeing decisions in the last Rugby World Cup robbed Scotland of a famous win over Australia (in stark contrast to the excellent refereeing in the Calcutta Cup last weekend). And in cricket, the use of Third Umpire appeals has simply changed the behaviour of both players and referees, with the result that it simply creates new problems.
The simple fact is that there is no law that can perfectly regulate human behaviour and no policing system that can perfectly enforce it. And yet we need laws. We can’t live together without some common understanding of how we should respect one another’s rights and property.
But our tendency, when faced with laws is to wriggle out of them. That’s why sports have had to resort to evermore elaborate ways of enforcement, but laws will only work when we recognise their goodness and want to obey them, for the sake of good living together. That’s why one of God’s key promises is that he will write his laws on our hearts, so that we will want to obey him. And part of the journey of Lent is to offer him our hearts again so that he can do that.
Because, of course, the same tendency applies in our faith. Take the 10 commandments. Most Christians would say they are fundamental to the way they behave, but in practice we tend to treat them as though they were 10 suggestions. And when we do obey them, we do it rather legalistically.
Take, for example, the commandment about the Sabbath. To some the command to rest is interpreted so legalistically that it becomes a burden. You can’t cook, carry so much as a book or even press a button. So the Sabbath ends up becoming a chore. To others the command is simply absurd, to be routinely ignored. But neither of those positions is right. Look at it again. What is it for? Above all, it’s a day for God. You’ve got six days to get your business done in, but the seventh day is for God’s business. That doesn’t mean you don’t worship God the other six, but it does mean that the Sabbath is dedicated to God.
Secondly, it’s a day to offer rest to others. It’s not just you who rests, it is everyone who might work for you, even for nature itself. It’s even a day for the ‘alien in your land’, the non-believer, the outsider who doesn’t understand what it’s about. It’s a day when they can taste the peace that only God can provide, because we, the people of faith, have given them that day.
Thirdly, it’s a day of joy. It mirrors the 7th day of creation, when God looked at all he’d done and proclaimed it good. And because the Crucifixion and Resurrection pointedly took place either side of the Sabbath, it is also a day that looks forward to the re-creation of God’s perfection in heaven. It’s a day of celebration and release. It’s a day when we feel again the wonderful joy of being saved, when we learn to be God’s people once again and when we allow him to write his laws on our hearts.
I know that these days it’s as difficult to keep the Sabbath as it is to give up plastic for Lent: almost impossible. As a ministry team, we have been looking at what it means for vicars not to work on a Sunday. Of course, if you approach it legalistically, it quickly becomes impossible. But if you look at the spirit of the Sabbath, we can observe it. We will lead you in worship, we will visit those who can’t be visited on the Monday. But we won’t work. We won’t do emails, sit at our desks or hold meetings. I have no problem with people playing sport on a Sunday or going for walks, or cooking fabulous roasts for the family – that is all part of the Sabbath joy. But personally, I won’t shop on the Sabbath, not even online and I won’t work, unless it is necessary for someone’s wellbeing and won’t wait until the next day.
Observing the Sabbath, indeed observing any of God’s law, is difficult: full of compromises and problems, but we still have to find a way to keep it. Not legalistically – that’s the same attitude that Jesus was getting cross about in the Temple, but get to the heart of it, to have the spirit of the law written on our hearts.
In the case of the Sabbath, we are to observe it as a day for God to bless you and to bless creation. Some people, of course, have to work. It’s unavoidable these days, but insofar as you have a choice, don’t fill it up with your business, but live it as a day when you turn back to God and allow his joy to flood your life again.
And don’t make others work for you. Rather, make it a day when they too can feel that joy. They may not believe, but if we can give them the gift of rest and joy, they might just catch a glimpse of the spirit of God. They might just see, as it were the hem of his robe, and that might just be enough for them to be healed and restored.
Now that is precisely the spirit of what we are doing this coming week, in Moving Mountains. It is described as a mission, but it’s not a mission in the sense you might be thinking. We won’t be donning pith helmets, going out and lecturing the heathen on their godless ways and finishing up with a rousing chorus of Onward Christian Soldiers. That’s not what mission means any more (I’m not sure that it ever was).
What we are doing is re-imagining mission. It is a mission in the sense that it’s for reaching out to those who are not members of our fellowship. But what we’re really doing is offering them a taste of Sabbath rest. We’re giving those who don’t believe in God a taste of what life looks like when you do believe in him – and know him; a taste of what life looks like when you stop obsessing with your own business and connect again with the God who made you – and with his other children. We’re celebrating the joy of Christian living in the hope that they will get a taste of it. And maybe they’ll get a new take on it all. Maybe, whatever they thought about Christianity before, they will see through that and begin to see the living God at the heart of it all.
So whether it’s Bolton giving away free bacon butties to mirror the lavish generosity of God, or the benefice Craft Day at Cliburn mirroring the creative image of God implanted in each of us, or our Mothering Sunday service here celebrating our true identity as Mother Church, it is a celebration from beginning to end. And maybe God’s joy will infect us all, because that’s how he writes his laws on our hearts, so that we want to live his way.
So come. And bring your friends and neighbours, bring your families and bring your own hearts. Because, when we really find the true God at the bottom of all our laws and practices, we realise what those laws and practices are for: the best way to live, the only way we can truly live together in a deep, meaningful relationship, the only relationship that truly provides what our souls need: the relationship of perfect love with our creator, to be shared with each other and the whole world. Amen.
Preached: Crosby Ravensworth, Great Strickland 4 March 2018