This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Mark 2:23 - 3:6
Additional reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Sermon prepared by Rev. Brian Bork, Waterloo, Ontario
Sabbath keeping was a serious business for many of the Pharisees of Jesus' time – and probably not just because they so often seem so grumpy and conniving. It was a marker of civic pride – rigorous Sabbath observance was done out of nationalistic fervor – it separated the righteous from the unrighteous. Good Sabbath observance separated the chosen from, well, everyone else.
But the Pharisees surely knew Exodus 31, too, and its warning to Sabbath breakers: the penalty for violating the Sabbath is death. Pretty serious stuff. That's certainly not one of those Bible verses that we like to put on those little scripture plagues that we hang up in our homes.
In light of all that, I guess it's not much of a surprise that the Sabbath became a rigorous exercise in regimented righteousness. Down to a pretty precise degree, there was a list of things that people could and couldn't do. The restrictions were pretty tight – for instance, if you were to encounter someone who needed some medical assistance, someone who was wounded or sick, they could be ministered to only if their condition was life-threatening. If it was any less severe, you'd be in danger of violating the strict requirements of the Sabbath.
So, of course, the Pharisees are pretty put off by Jesus and his disciples into today's story.
Jesus is the very embodiment of the itinerant preacher. He's always on the move, preaching, teaching, debating. No doubt, traversing the countryside works up a bit of an appetite, and on this particular Sabbath, he and his disciples decided to have a snack, pulling a few ears of corn off the stalk in a nearby field. And, as usual, the Pharisees aren't all that far behind. Jesus and the disciples sit down to lunch, and there they are, pointing out their Sabbath breaking. Jesus responds with a little story about David and his men eating bread from the temple on the Sabbath. The Pharisees are silent. I don't know if they're silent because they've nothing to say in response, or if they're seething in anger.
But Jesus continues on, and if the story about David and his band of Sabbath breakers wasn't enough for the Pharisees, surely the next statement is. In an oblique little turn of phrase, Jesus tells them that the Sabbath is God's good gift to humanity, not the other way around. What is more, he refers to himself as “the Son of man,” claiming he's Lord of the Sabbath. This title: “Son of Man” is much debated, but in the very least, it means that Jesus is claiming the authority of King David. Like King David, he's allowed to bend the normal Sabbath observation. For the Pharisees – God's quality control agents – this is a denial of their authority in these matters.
Things get worse, in the eyes of the Pharisees. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if Jesus had only disrupted the Sabbath in that farmer's field, on the edge of town. Out there, far away from the crowds of the city, Jesus' actions could be concealed, kept away from the folks in the city who might be influenced by them. Jesus' Sabbath breaking could be swept under the rug.
Unfortunately, that's not what happens. Instead, Jesus and the disciples move into town, into the synagogue, for another confrontation with the Pharisees. There's a man at the synagogue that Sabbath, and he's got a shriveled hand. We don't know exactly what the nature of his affliction was, but it's probably safe to say that it wasn't exactly life-threatening. It wasn't the sort of injury that needed immediate miraculous attention. But Jesus heals him anyways. He frees him of his affliction by telling him to stretch out his hand – the same language that the writer of Deuteronomy uses to describe how God liberated Israel from the Egyptians.
Jesus is flaunting his Sabbath violation here, right in the face of the Pharisees.
He didn't heal the man behind the synagogue, or in an alleyway nearby. No, he had the man stand up, in front of everyone, and stretch his hand out. He had him stretch out his hand to show how he'd been liberated, here, at this synagogue, on the Sabbath, of all days. This was a disruption – a very visible disruption - of what was expected on the Sabbath.
And then Jesus asks what is perhaps the easiest rhetorical question in the whole New Testament: “Is it better to save life, or to kill?”
Again, the Pharisees are silent. They don't respond, and Jesus is angry, and his heart is grieved.
In their actions, though, the Pharisees do give an answer to Jesus' question. Given the choice between saving lives or killing, they've chosen the latter. This story ends with the Pharisees in the company of the Herodians, plotting how they could kill Jesus. Perhaps this is to be expected. After all, death comes to those who violate the Sabbath.
I wonder how many of us here this morning can identify with this sort of Sabbath seriousness? No doubt, our Christian Reformed tradition has a bit of this Sabbath seriousness in it. Someone once told me a story of a Sabbath experience in her childhood, about forty years ago. It was a scorching hot Sunday afternoon in July, and she and her friends wanted to beat the heat by jumping in the pool. Trouble is, this was the Sabbath, and her parents weren't too sure about whether Sabbath observance allowed for swimming. In the kitchen, her parents debated the pros and cons of allowing the kids to swim. Finally, they came up with what seemed to be the most moral and law-abiding solution. The kids could swim, even though it was Sunday. But they had to be careful not to splash.
The parents meant well – and maybe they were inspired by a degree of holy fear that we are sorely missing today. But I'd wager to guess that stories like these are pretty foreign to us now. I'm not sure that a legalistic Sabbath is something that we struggle with these days. In fact, it's probably the opposite.
I'd argue that Sabbath rest is a bit of a foreign concept in our culture. Think about the people we admire: those who are driven. Folks who work long, long hours are the ones considered for the promotion or for the pay raise. The busy life is the sought after life. It's the way we measure success. It seems the movers and shakers – the influential politicians and business people – also work 60, 70, 80 hour weeks?
It seems that this sort of work ethic – a kind of workaholism – is to be expected in an economic system that prizes growth, profit, and accumulation of stuff. These are the virtues of our age, and the Sabbath only stands in the way of realizing it. A 24 hour period of rest? How absurd – imagine that! All those potentially productive hours gone to waste, never to be returned.
Maybe economic growth isn't the best indicator of whether this is a good thing. Especially when we take into account:
That we may be the most stressed-out people in the world.
That we have soaring instances of heart disease, of stomach ulcers, of depression -- the physical manifestations of being overworked.
That we are fatigued.
We have withered hands – but we talk about them with a new vocabulary. Tendinitis. Carpal tunnel. Tension headaches. Pain, swelling, or numbness in our joints.
We're in the midst of the dissolution of healthy families and communities. Hours spent at the office, or studying at the library are hours spent away from family. From friends. From community.
You know what? Exodus 31 still stands. Death does come to those who violate the Sabbath. Perhaps not death cast upon us by a vengeful God, but a death that follows from missing out on the benefits the Sabbath offers. Work related afflictions are a kind of death – sometimes a very real death, if we acknowledge the link between stress and heart disease. Weakened bonds of family and community are a kind of death.
How peculiar is it, then, that we are such willing participants in the workaholic economy? It's rather masochistic, isn't it? Why do we do this to ourselves? Do we want to die?
Perhaps the answer lies in our sense of self, and our relation to work.
Think of what people say when you ask them: “How's it going?”
It's just a pleasantry, I know, but the response is telling. When you ask people how they're doing, the usual answer is “busy.” Not “good,” not “sad,” not “joyful,” not “happy.” “Busy.” We’ve probably all said it.
Why is this the first thing that comes to mind? Are our schedules really so jam-packed that the best adjective we can come up with to describe ourselves is “busy”?
Well, there's probably a couple reasons why we self-identify as “busy.” The first is that when we speak of our busyness, we're advertising something to the world. We're advertising our importance. Important folks are always busy. Always on to something. Lot's of irons in a really big fire. There's something self-aggrandizing about calling ourselves busy.
But it's not just a matter of self-importance. It's also true that we're busy out of anxiety. We're busy being busy because we're busy being anxious. Anxious about work that needs to be done. We didn't get where we are by slackening the pace, right? We need to work to stay ahead. We need to work to provide, to take care of those around us. The responsibility falls to us. And no doubt, in a floundering economy, it might seem that way. We have to work harder to hang on to our jobs. We have to pull those all-nighters, so we can get the grades that'll help us find that career in the diminishing job pool.
We might pray as if it all depends on God, but we work as if it all depends on us.
So we become slaves to our busy schedules. Slaves to our Blackberries. Slaves to our offices, our classrooms. And, we become slaves of ourselves. Slaves to our self-importance, and slaves to our anxieties.
Did you notice what's included with the Sabbath commandment in our reading from Deuteronomy? There's a context given – it's not just an arbitrary command, coming straight out of the blue. No, the Sabbath commandment calls Israel to remember their liberation from slavery in Egypt. God stretched out his mighty hand, and liberated Israel from the toil of unmitigated work.
The Sabbath, then is the symbol of Israel's liberation. They were no longer slaves to their Egyptian overlords, and they could spend one day a week reveling in this freedom. The Sabbath was liberation. It was liberation from the lash, from the overseer, from back breaking labor under the Egyptian sun.
It was the disruption in the slave economy of Egypt, of how God burst in and freed Israel. It was a celebration of the fact that the Israelites no longer served Pharoah, but a new master – the Lord. And Israel didn't have to suffer through unrelenting toil to please this master. Instead, this master gave them a Sabbath – a day on which he would make them holy, sanctified.
No wonder Jesus is so filled with holy anger at the Pharisees. The Pharisees had turned this wonderful gift – this gift of liberation – into an obligation. They'd turned it into a marker of righteousness. They'd turned it into work. No doubt, it was more work to keep the Sabbath than to break it. The thing that was supposed to remind the Israelites of their liberation was transposed into just another obligation.
But obligation is still part of the picture, I guess. The fact remains that the commandment to keep the Sabbath is just that: a commandment. It's on the Old Testament short list. If the Pharisees and all their Sabbath obligations were so off the mark, how are we to recognize this commandment?
Consider the fact that Israel had been in slavery in Egypt for generations. Generations of unrelenting work. The only culture, the only measure of the world they'd even known was one of work. The enslaved Israelites didn't know what rest was.
If work for Pharaoh was the only thing they'd ever known, they wouldn't really know how to relax, how to take time off, how to reclaim the time that was spent at work. They might not even want to take time off. Perhaps you can think of a few people in your own life who don't know what to do with themselves when there's no work to do. So God compels. He commands the Israelites to take that Sabbath rest, because they probably wouldn't do it, if they didn't have to.
And Jesus doesn't let us off the hook in today's story, either. We might feel that our culture of busyness can give us a curious interpretive lens: we might see Jesus' public disruption of the Pharisees' Sabbath as a way of saying: the Sabbath is a good suggestion. It's optional. Wouldn't that be convenient? We could drop that Sabbath thing, seeing how busy we all are. We'd sure get a lot more accomplished. But look through the Gospels – Jesus never once dismisses the Sabbath, or says that it's something we're allowed to drop, to give up. When he bursts in and disrupts the Pharisees' Sabbath, he's not saying “you can just drop it.” “Just forget that whole Sabbath business.” No, he bursts in to liberate the Sabbath from the clutches of the Pharisees. From the clutches of work. From the clutches of works righteousness. He bursts in to reframe the Sabbath – to help us all remember what it's really about. The Sabbath is assumed.
So, the commandment from Deuteronomy still stands, which is good news for us, here today, despite how the Pharisees might have ruined our notion of “commandment.”
So many of us are like those Israelites, caught up in work, in busyness. With our eyes forward, focused on the grindstone, we don't see God's good gift of the Sabbath, placed before us. Our sense of self – our self importance, our anxieties about all the things that we need to get done distract us from the truth of the matter: that we've been set free. Ironically, it's a commandment that reminds us of our liberation. Liberation from the anxiety of worrying whether we'll all get it done on time. Liberation from that fiction we tell ourselves: that it all depends on me.
This is hardly an authoritarian commandment. It's more like the words of a host who prepares a feast for a starving friend. “Now eat!”
But the Sabbath that we learn about from Jesus is free of those pharisaical restrictions. Instead, it comes with the commands like: take and eat. Be nourished and strengthened, like the disciples wandering through the corn field. It comes with commands like “be healed,” like that man with the withered hand in the synagogue. On the Sabbath Jesus says: “be healed of your afflictions. Be healed of stress. Be healed of the despair that says you'll never get it all accomplished.” On the Sabbath, Jesus says: “hang back, I've got it covered. I've got it under control.” Of course, Jesus says that every day of the week. But it's the Sabbath that allows us to cultivate the discipline of acknowledging this truth. It's our opportunity for us to actually live like it's the truth. To put things down in the knowledge that things will be ok, because things are out of our control.
For the Israelites, the Sabbath was the marker that God burst in, disrupted their lives of slavery, and freed them for fellowship with him.
For the Pharisees, the Sabbath was the opportunity for Jesus to burst in, and disrupt their works righteousness. To disrupt the litany of obligations that the Sabbath had become.
For us, the Sabbath is still a disruption. It's a weekly inbreaking of God's grace, which is sufficient to liberate us from our self-importance, from our busy schedules, from our anxieties. The Sabbath is a weekly inbreaking, a tantalizing foretaste of a new economy: the economy of the Kingdom of God. An economy free of stress. Of anxiety. Of work without rest.
When's the last time the Sabbath was a disruption for us?
Death may come to those who break the Sabbath. But the converse is also true. Life comes to those who keep the Sabbath. Because of the grace of God we can put down tools of our trade: laptops, hammers, dissertations, textbooks. We can stretch out. Relax, recharge. Meditate on the grace of the economy of the Kingdom of God. Flaunt that grace in the face of the workaholic economy. Lean on God's outstretched and everlasting arms, and be given rest.
Order of Worship
Call to Worship (Psalm 27, Luke 4)
The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
My heart urges, “Seek the face of the Lord!”
His face I will seek.
When Jesus began his ministry on earth, he announced that the kingdom of God is near:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Let us now seek the face of our gracious God, and come before him in worship.
Almighty Triune God, we come here today to hear your good news.
We come to find freedom, to be healed.
In your generous love, work among us,
that in our worship you will be glorified
and we will be encouraged, challenged, and strengthened.
Opening Song: PH #625 (1x) – Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,
through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
As God has greeted us, let us greet each other, offering one another God’s peace.
(You may wish to say “The peace of the Lord be with you” or “God’s peace to you today.”)
Service of Praise
“How Great Thou Art” #483,
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” #556
Confession and Assurance
Jesus once told the Pharisee Nicodemus, “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Even those of us who know and love Jesus, the true light, too often hide in the darkness. Let us confess our sin to God.
God of grace, we have faced temptation in many forms.
But unlike Jesus, who refused the devil’s schemes,
We do at times say yes to the evil one – and no to you.
[Silent prayers of confession]
In your mercy, O God, forgive us. Heal us.
And renew in us again a desire to be like Jesus, our Lord and our light forever. Amen.
People of God, hear these words of assurance: You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds we have been healed. (1 Peter 2)
Thanks be to God.
As people forgiven and healed by God, let us recommit ourselves to holy living. “The most important command,” said Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12)
Song of Dedication: SNC #81 – Cry of My Heart
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 2:23-3:6
Sermon: “Stretching on the Sabbath”
Moment of Silent Meditation
Please silently reflect upon the Word of God you have received.
How now shall we live in response to that Word?
Song of Response: PH #260 - Not What My Hands Have Done
Closing Song: PH #363 - Your Hands, O Lord, in Days of Old
The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid? As we go from here, may these words be our creed of assurance.
Benediction with Choral “Amen, amen, amen.”