Sunday, February 03, 2019

Sermon: Mark 2:23 - 3:6 Lord of the Sabbath

Last week we saw how Jesus says that his kingdom is something new and different to what has gone before. He used those two pictures of how a new patch of cloth will pull away from the old garment, making the tear worse; and how new wine poured into old wineskins would burst them. New cloth is for new clothes, and new wine is for new wineskins.

And over the past few weeks we’ve seen how Jesus is doing a new thing in these opening chapters of Mark’s gospel. He claims to have the power to forgive sins and heal. He calls tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them as friends. His disciples don’t bother fasting in anticipation of Messiah’s arrival - because Jesus says he is the Messiah and he is already here! But perhaps the biggest battle in these early chapters is about the nature of the Sabbath.

Now, just in case you’re not familiar with that word, Sabbath means seven or seventh - the seventh day of the week (Saturday). And in the Ten Commandments, we read these words: ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour 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...’ (Ex20:8-11).

So the pattern of creation, and then the law, is work six, and rest one. And our passage this morning focuses on the events of two separate Sabbath days - in both of which, Jesus runs up against the expectations of the religious people. [Remember that the chapter divisions are a more recent development. Mark has grouped these two stories together for a purpose. We’ll see what that is as we work our way through the passage.]

You might remember that all the way through Mark 2, each episode has contained a question asked by someone - in these two episodes there is a question in each. One is asked by the Pharisees, but the second is asked by Jesus himself. So let’s dive in, to see what happened on the first Sabbath day.

‘One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”’ (23-24)

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I’m on a walk, I tend to pick up or pluck things. So, in the beach, I keep an eye out for shells or smooth stones. Or in the forest, maybe a nice leaf or conkers. And as the disciples walk through the cornfield, they pluck some ears of corn.

But the Pharisees, they see this happening, and they aren’t happy about it. The Pharisees, they’re the religious people. They take the Bible seriously, they work hard to obey it all, and so they ask the question: ‘Why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’

We’ve heard what the Law says - keep the Sabbath day holy... don’t work on the Sabbath. So what’s the problem? Well, the Pharisees, they wanted to make absolutely sure what the law meant, and so they had rules about the rules. There were, according to the Pharisees, 39 types of work that were banned on the Sabbath. Among them was sowing, ploughing, reaping, threshing and winnowing.

So, to them, the disciples were reaping, picking ears of corn; and they were probably threshing to separate the grain from the husk. For the Pharisees, the disciples were doing what was unlawful.

So how will Jesus respond? Not in the way you might have thought. He doesn’t directly answer the question, but instead reminds them of a story from the Old Testament, that we heard read earlier. But do you see how he starts it? ‘Have you never read...?’ These were the serious Scripture scholars of his day! They knew whole chunks, if not the whole of the Old Testament. Yet he asks them if they’ve ever read this bit about David.

And what’s the story? David and his men ate the consecrated bread from the house of God - bread that was only lawful for priests to eat. So the law said that only priests could eat this consecrated bread. But David and his men ate it. Why did it happen? Why was it ok? Look again at verse 25. ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?’

The law was important, but feeding the anointed king and his men when they were hungry was more important. Ensuring their survival was more important than keeping the law. So the reason the disciples were doing it was because they were hungry!

But do you see what Jesus says in verse 27? ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’ What is Jesus saying there? He’s dealing with purpose. Which was made for which? Which is to help and serve which? The Pharisees, they seemed to be elevating the Sabbath, so that the keeping of it was more important than anything else ever. So even if you’re hungry, tough, you can get something tomorrow. That would be man being made for the Sabbath - man created in order to obey the rule.

But Jesus turns that on its head. ‘The Sabbath was made for man.’ Sabbath isn’t meant to be a duty, a drudgery. It’s meant to be a delight. Sabbath, a whole day of no working, of rest from labours, is a gift to God’s people and to everyone. Sabbath was made for man, not the other way round. And, so that we get it absolutely right, Jesus reminds us that he is Lord, even of the Sabbath. He has given it as a blessing, not a burden.

Now, as you might imagine, that didn’t really go down too well with the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t seem to value what they valued and didn’t seem to do what they wanted him to do. And so, they’re watching carefully to gather more ammunition for their opposition to him.

So as chapter 3 starts, it’s a different Sabbath day, but the same battle is raging. Jesus is in the synagogue, the Jewish meeting house where they came together for teaching and prayer and worship. And we’re told who else is there - there’s a man with a shrivelled hand (a withered hand, in some versions), and this group of people watching carefully.

Look at verse 2. Now, there might be lots of reasons why you have come to worship today, I hope this isn’t why you’re here: ‘Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.’ They were evidence gathering! They were wanting to accuse Jesus, so they watch him closely, in case he does something unlawful - making someone better on the Sabbath. (Again, that would be classed as work).

But Jesus doesn’t hide away in the corner. And they don’t have to watch very closely. Jesus gets the man to stand up in front of everyone. He’s making sure no one will miss what he is about to do. But first, Jesus asks a question. (Up to now, it’s been others asking the questions, but now Jesus has one of his own.) ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’

What do you think? It’s a multiple choice question. Of the four answers, they’re really two answers. So it’s like Who wants to be a millionaire, and you’re down to the 50/50. Which is lawful? Answer A: To do good and to save life. Or Answer B: To do evil and to kill. Who thinks A? And B?

You’ve done a better job of answering than those in the synagogue that day! The answer is obviously A - it’s lawful and right and good and proper to do good and to save life, even on the Sabbath day. That’s what Jesus wanted to hear, and it’s what Jesus will go on to do as he restores the man’s hand. But do you see how verse 4 ends? ‘But they remained silent.’ They refused to answer. They didn’t want to acknowledge that Jesus was right.

Do you see how Jesus responds to their silence? As we look at verse 5, you might be shocked. You might need to look at it twice, just to make sure it says what you think it says there: ‘He looked round at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”’

You remember those WWJD bracelets that have been around for a while now? Seemingly they don’t stand for ‘Who wants jam donuts?’ But they stand for ‘What would Jesus do?’ And here, what does Jesus do? He gets angry. He looks at them in anger. We’re not used to thinking of Jesus as being angry, are we? So what made him angry? And what made him deeply distressed? The stubborn hearts of the Pharisees.

Their principle was more important to them than helping someone in need. Their rules were more important than their compassion. And it made Jesus angry. Could there be times when we make Jesus angry in this way? We have a rule, or a principle, and we’ll stick to it? And we’ll watch carefully to criticise others who don’t do things the way we do them? And we’ll use it as an excuse to avoid helping someone in need?

Jesus shows us that the Sabbath isn’t about rules, it’s about relationship - taking time out with God and his people on a day of rest and refreshment.

But the Pharisees didn’t like what Jesus was doing. To quote the old song: ‘There may be trouble ahead.’ Verse 6: ‘Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.’ Do you see the irony here? They’ve been so concerned about keeping the Law, observing the fourth of the Ten Commandments (or at least their interpretation of it), that now they’re plotting to break the sixth commandment - ‘You shall not murder.’

This morning we remember and celebrate the death of Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. He perfectly observed and obeyed the Law, so that he credits our account with his perfect righteousness, while paying the debt we could not pay. And on the first day of the week, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, Jesus rose from the grave, to bring about the eternal Sabbath rest. It’s why Jesus offers us rest in one of the ‘Comfortable Words’ from the traditional communion service: ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’

Lay down your burdens. Give up your attempts at working to earn God’s favour. And receive his rest.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 3rd February 2019.

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