Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sermon: Luke 6: 1-11 Lord of the Sabbath

One of the surprising things you find as you read the gospels is that not everyone welcomed Jesus. We tend to think that as he taught and worked miracles that everyone must have been glad to see him. It comes as a surprise, then, to find that some people didn’t like him, in fact, more than that, they hated him.

The leading group of haters was the Pharisees. These were the leading religious group of the day. They were serious about keeping the Old Testament law. They wanted to be right and good, by their own efforts. So they made a show of being as good as they could, and looked down on other people who were obvious sinners.

Now you’d think that these would be the very people who would welcome Jesus. This is God’s Son, come into the world, and they’re trying to reach up to God by their works - surely they’ll be glad to get to know God’s Son? But it’s just not like that. Instead, as we’ll see, they begin to openly challenge Jesus because of what he says and does.

The issue is the Sabbath. Earlier in the service we heard the Ten Commandments read. Number four begins in this way: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work...’

The Pharisees wanted to try to keep all the law, so they wanted to be sure that they wouldn’t break it. After all, how could you be sure that you weren’t accidentally doing something you shouldn’t? If you aren’t allowed to do any work, what does it mean by work?

Just to be absolutely sure, they had developed a whole series of rules - and then rules about the rules - to make sure that you wouldn’t be guilty. So whenever they see Jesus and his disciples walking through cornfields, plucking some heads of grain and eating them, they are raging.

‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?’ The Pharisees are arguing that the disciples had reaped, threshed and prepared food. In other words, they had been doing work - harvesting and preparing food was against the law. For them, no work means no work of any kind.

But Jesus doesn’t answer them directly. Rather he points back to a time when David was on a mission with some of his men - fleeing from Saul who was king and trying to kill David. They were hungry, and called with the priest Ahimelech (1 Sam 21), asking for bread. But the only bread he had was the holy bread of the Presence - which had sat in the tabernacle. It was only meant to be eaten by priests - according to the law, but David had taken it and eaten it.

These were the serious scripture scholars. They prided themselves in their Bible knowledge. They probably could recite the whole Old Testament off by heart. Yet Jesus says: ‘Have you not read...’ Of course they had read it, but they hadn’t taken it to heart.

The law was good, but it was even better to feed hungry people in this instance, especially when the hungry person was God’s appointed and anointed King. So here, Jesus is saying that the disciples were hungry, and it was better to be fed then to observe their rules about the laws and be left hungry.

But that’s not all Jesus says. Look what he goes on to say next. The Pharisees might be acting like the sabbath police force, watching to make sure people keep the rules. They might think that their job is to decide who’s in the right, but he himself is in charge of it: ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ The Son of Man is one of the titles used by Jesus, it’s from Daniel (as we saw) and points to the Messiah, the Son of David. If David could do that, well, one greater than David is here - who is lord of all, including the sabbath.

The Pharisees might have had an idea about how they thought the Sabbath should work, but they aren’t in charge of it. Jesus is the one who is lord of the Sabbath. What he says goes. Just think - if you were wanting to know about how a car worked, would you ask a random passerby on the street, or the designer of the car? What anyone else thinks of it doesn’t really matter, compared to the person who designed and made it.

Here we have Jesus, the Son of Man, the one who is lord of the sabbath. He can tell us how it’s meant to be - no matter what the Pharisees might say.

Round one to Jesus. But now, the Pharisees are ready for him. They’re watching even more carefully. Look at verse 7, they watch to see if he will cure the man with the withered hand ‘so that they might find an accusation against him.’ Once again, the man’s life isn’t in immediate danger, so to heal is to work, according to their reckoning. What will Jesus do? To heal or not to heal.

But Jesus puts the question to them: ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ Do they think the law is better served by leaving someone unwell, if you can heal them? Will they boost their own standing if they narrowly keep the rules but leave a man to suffer longer than needed?

As Jesus tells the man to stretch out his hand, it is suddenly made well, restored. It’s a moment to celebrate, as the man is healed. But the reaction of the Pharisees is to be ‘filled with fury’. They begin to discuss what they might do to Jesus. Far from keeping the Sabbath holy, they’re not plotting murder. The religious people with their manmade rules are exposed.

It’s an illustration of what Jesus talked about at the end of Luke 5. Jesus is bringing in the new garment, the old garment can’t be patched up, it’s a new way of living. The old wineskins can’t contain the new wine as the religious categories just don’t stand up to the way Jesus is presenting. The Pharisees see the command to sabbath as thou shalt not - things not to do. It’s easy to outwardly keep that list. But on the inside, the sabbath isn’t being kept. Instead, Jesus presents sabbath under his rule - as a reminder of the creation where God rested and enjoyed his creation - but also as a pointing forward to the sabbath rest which is eternal life.

So this year, why not try a different approach to your sabbath (whether that is Saturday or Sunday or whichever day you get a break from routine)? Use it as an opportunity to rest from your labours (as far as it is possible). Be restored as you connect with Jesus. Use it positively to do good as you help others, especially those in need. And take time to focus on what lies ahead - the perfect sabbath rest which has been won for us through the perfect work of the Lord Jesus on the cross as he gave his life in obedience to the whole law to redeem and save we who have broken the law.

In that perfect sabbath, every body will be restored; every need satisfied; our earthly labours completed. Our mini sabbaths point to that endless sabbath. ‘Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest’ - as we share in Christ’s death, so too may we share in his resurrection to eternal life. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 5th January 2014.

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