Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Sermon: Nehemiah 11-12 Dedicated

If you were to put together the soundtrack for your life, which songs would you include? Perhaps there are particular songs that fit into particular periods of your life; songs that, when you hear them, you’re reminded of a specific day, or incident, or period of your life. Maybe the song that was your first dance at your wedding. Or a song from your childhood that sparks memories.

One of the songs that seems to stick in my memory was released 21 years ago. And twenty years ago, when I was finishing school, this was the soundtrack to our secondary education. It’s by Fatboy Slim, and the words go like this:

‘We’ve come a long, long way together,
through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you, baby,
I have to praise you like I should.’

At the age of 18, those words seemed to sum up our schooling, and the end of an era that was the Wallace High School, Lisburn. But as I sat down to consider these chapters of Nehemiah, it seemed as if they could be included in his soundtrack as well. You see, we’ve come a long, long way together from when we first met Nehemiah back in September.

Back in chapter 1, Nehemiah was in Susa, the capital of the kingdom of Persia. He was an Israelite who had never been in Israel, born and brought up in exile far away from God’s promised land. He had just heard the news of the state of the city of Jerusalem, and it had caused him to weep.

The people who had returned to Jerusalem were in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem was broken down, and its gates had been burned with fire.

City and people were in disgrace. It caused Nehemiah to weep, but more than that, to pray. And so Nehemiah prayed, as God had put it on his heart, to go with the king’s support, to rebuild the city and its people.

And since September we’ve been following the hard times and the good that Nehemiah faced back in Jerusalem. It wasn’t an easy job to rebuild the walls - not everyone was on board with the idea; and there was opposition from outside, threats, and taunts. There were problems inside the city too, as the rich exploited the poor to make a quick buck. But despite all those problems, the wall was built in fifty-two days. Nehemiah then turned to the other item on his checklist - to rebuild the people of the city. He did that through the reading of the Law, hearing what God wanted of his people - which led to joy (the joy of the Lord is your strength), but also to repentance, and a resolve to follow God’s word. We saw that last week in their solemn agreement, setting out their promises to obey what God had said.

Tonight, in chapters 11-12, we see the final elements coming together in Nehemiah’s grand plan of building up the city and the people. And remember why all of this is so important. God had promised that his Messiah, his king, would come through the Jewish people. So it’s vital for God’s promises to be fulfilled that the Jewish nation is intact and prospering - so that Jesus will be born. So let’s see how the final details of Nehemiah’s plan came together.

You might remember that back in chapter 7, we heard how ‘the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.’ (7:4). That is only really resolved at the start of chapter 11. The leaders live in Jerusalem, but there’s still more room. So ‘the rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns.’ (1)

The people themselves were tithed, a tenth of them to live inside the city of Jerusalem. And the rest of the chapter is a list of the residents of Jerusalem - at least 3044 men (plus wives and children) - from Judah, and Benjamin, as well as priests, Levites and gatekeepers. And we read of where the temple servants and singers settled.

Things really are coming together. And as chapter 12 comes, there are more unpronounceable names, with the family tree of Levites and priests. You’re welcome to have a read through them all later on yourself. But we’re going to pick up again from verse 27, at the climax of all that Nehemiah had set out to do.

And just as my old school-leaving song put it, ‘I have to celebrate you, I have to praise you like I should.’ Here we see the great outpouring of celebration and praise to God, because of all that has been accomplished in the city of Jerusalem.

The occasion is the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. With its dedication, Nehemiah’s building project is complete. The city will be secure, and returned to its previous position. The disgrace is finished, as they celebrate. And they take it very seriously!

‘At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. The singers also were brought together from the region around Jerusalem.’

Now, with Holy Week and Easter on the horizon, the choir will be gathering from next week to practice some special pieces. (You’re very welcome to come along and join us!) And here we see all the singers from all their villages come together to sing along to the Levites playing their instruments.

But first there’s an important priority. Verse 30: ‘When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.’ Everything has been purified, has been dedicated to God. And so they’re ready to begin the celebration.

From verse 31, Nehemiah divides the leaders, the choirs, and people into two groups. And they’re to go on top of the wall in opposite directions, playing and singing God’s praise, until they meet up at the house of God. And the nearest picture I could think of as to what this would be like was, forgive me, the Apprentice Boys of Derry! Before their big parade in August, they parade around the city walls. And what’s going on in Jerusalem is a bit like that.

Do you see what they’re doing? They are encircling the city in praise. They are covering the city in praise. And with each step that they take, they are praising the God who fulfilled his purposes, despite the taunts and threats of the opponents. Taunts like Tobiah’s words back in chapter 4: ‘What they are building - if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’ (4:3). Here, the people of God are walking on their wall. The work has been done. And God is to be praised.

By verse 40, both choirs have made it to the house of God. The singers take their places. The trumpets are sounded. And the note is a note of joy. ‘And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.’ (43)

If you were making a movie of Nehemiah’s story, this is where you would end. The camera hovers over the scene, as everyone rejoices, job done, and then pulls back, with the sound of rejoicing still audible, until the titles roll.

As Solomon, in an earlier period of Israel’s history had said when he dedicated the temple, ‘Praise be to the LORD, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses.’ (1 Kings 8:56)

Solomon could see the fulfilment of God’s promises, and yet there was more to come - not least the destruction of the temple he was dedicating. And for Nehemiah, he rejoices as he sees God fulfilling his purposes in his day, but as you can see, even his book isn’t finished, let alone the whole of God’s plans and purposes. So for us, even as we celebrate at all that God has done for us, as we look back, and see the long, long way we’ve come, the hard times and the good, and even as there is much to celebrate, and much to praise God for, there is still more to come. He is not finished with us yet.

For Nehemiah, the remaining verses of our chapter is setting practical details in place, things like storerooms and people to supervise them. They build on the precedent of what David and Solomon had commanded, and they provide for the service of God’s house, just as they had promised at the end of chapter 10: ‘we will not neglect the house of our God.’

Tonight, take an opportunity to look back; to reflect on how God has been at work in your life to fulfil his plans and purposes. Rejoice in all he has done. But don’t just settle for what’s happened in the past. Continue to look to the future, to dedicate yourself to his service, to look to what he is doing today, and tomorrow, and how you can be involved as he builds his kingdom, and works towards that great and final day of rejoicing.

Perhaps we can give the final word to Fatboy Slim:
We’ve come a long, long way together,
through the hard times and the good.
I have to celebrate you, Jesus,
I have to praise you like I should.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 24th February 2019.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sermon: Mark 3: 20-35 Jesus: Mad, Bad, or God?

One of your friends has just started dating their new boyfriend or girlfriend. And then you’re introduced to them. Later on, or the next time you meet your friend, you know what they’re going to ask you. Well, what do you think of him/her? Or, something newsworthy happens and the TV cameras roll into town, asking people: what do you think about what’s happened? Or, on the way home from the rugby match last night, the chat was asking what did you think of such and such a player?

It happens so often that we’re probably not even aware that we’re doing it - but all the time we are forming opinions about other people. Every time we meet someone or see them or hear about them, we’re revising our thoughts on them - for good or ill. And that’s also true of our opinion about Jesus. Every time we open our Bible (or not!), every time we come to church and hear another little bit from Mark, we are forming and re-forming our opinion about what we think of Jesus.

In this morning’s reading, we get to hear some people’s opinions about Jesus. And these opinions might be influential, as you make up your own mind about Jesus. Because in this morning’s reading, we hear the verdict of Jesus’ family, those who had known him the longest and the closest; and we also hear the verdict of some religious leaders from Jerusalem itself, the centre of the Jewish religious system.

But what do you think of Jesus? That’s what matters. To help you narrow down what you think, CS Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, narrows down the options. There are only three. He says that Jesus is either mad, or bad, or God. Those are your options. And, it just so happens, that we find two of those options in our reading today. So as we dive into the passage, keep asking yourself - which of these represents my view of Jesus? What do I think about Jesus?

As our reading opens in verse 20, we’re in familiar territory in Mark’s gospel. None of this should come as a surprise. Jesus has entered a house, and again a crowd gathered. Mark keeps talking about the crowds following Jesus, coming to hear him teach, coming to be healed, coming to see who Jesus is. But this time, the crowd is so great, that Jesus and the disciples aren’t even able to eat. There are so many people, with so many demands, that Jesus isn’t even able to get a bite to eat. He’s so busy that he’s in danger of overdoing things.

But there’s an intervention on its way. Look at verse 21. ‘When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”’

So that’s the family opinion. They’ve heard how Jesus is getting on, he’s overwhelmed but still keeps helping other people, and so the family decide to intervene. They’re coming to take charge of him. And do you see how it fits into CS Lewis’ categories? The family say ‘He is out of his mind.’ He must be mad!

Now, later on we’ll see what happens when they arrive. But, while they’re still on their way to take charge of him, Mark tells us about another opinion about Jesus. And this one seems to be important. ‘And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”’ (22).

So these are religious leaders who have travelled down to Galilee from Headquarters in Jerusalem. They must have heard something about Jesus, and they’ve come to see for themselves, to investigate all that’s happening, to formulate an official viewpoint. And their official report says - ‘He is possessed by Beelzebub!’ He’s empowered by the devil, the prince of demons, to drive out demons.

We get another summary of what they’re saying in verse 30. ‘He has an evil spirit.’ So Jesus’ family think that he’s mad; the religious leaders think that he’s bad. He’s working on the devil’s team, as he drives out demons, or evil spirits.

So what do you think? Is Jesus mad? Is he bad? Or could he be God? To help us decide, it’s important to not just listen to what other people were saying about Jesus, but also to listen to what Jesus says about himself. And so from verse 23, we see how Jesus answers their accusation. ‘So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables.’ He’s replying to the teachers of the law, and he shows them how absurd their accusation is.

First of all, from the middle of verse 23: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.’ (23-26)

Now, very conveniently, both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party provided examples of this truth this week! There were divisions within each party, over Brexit and other things, and the moment came when the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs left to form The Independent Group. Whether they’ll be able to stand together or not, we’ll see as time goes on. But the principle is clear - division and disunity leads to disaster. So if Satan is divided against himself, and Jesus is driving out demons by the power of the demons, then Satan is finished. So that’s ridiculous to think that Jesus is bad, that he’s possessed by Beelzebub or an evil spirit.

So what is going on? Why is Jesus driving out demons? How does he do it? ‘In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. then he can rob his house.’ (27)

Jesus is speaking in parables (23). And when you look closely at this parable, you find that Jesus portrays himself in a way you wouldn’t expect. So there’s a strong man, who’s in his house with all his possessions. Now, how could someone carry off the strong man’s possessions? You would have to tie up the strong man first of all, and then you’d be free to rob his house.

And the surprising thing is that in this parable, Jesus pictures himself as - not the strong man, but the stronger man who robs the strong man’s house. You see, in this parable, the strong man is Satan. He’s secure in his house. He has all he possesses. But Jesus has come into the world to rescue people from demons and evil spirits. Jesus can only do that because he is stronger than the strong man. He has tied up Satan, and is free to rescue people from his hands and his possession.

Satan isn’t divided. Jesus has come to oppose Satan; to overpower Satan; to bring about freedom; to bring about good. So he isn’t bad (as the religious leaders thought) - he is good. In fact, he’s more than good, he is God.

We can see that in how he speaks in verses 28-29. He says that there is forgiveness available for ‘all the sins and blasphemies of men’ - Jesus himself is the guarantee of that statement, because he is on his way to the cross to die to make that forgiveness possible. But there is one sin that is an eternal sin, for which there is no forgiveness. Some churches talk about mortal sins and venial sins, but the truth is that all sins are mortal - any sin deserves the penalty of death. But Jesus describes only one sin as an eternal sin, for which is there is no forgiveness. And it’s this: ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.’ (29)

So what is this sin? It’s to describe the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of a demon. It’s to call ‘evil’ what is good. It is to deny that God is God. Verse 30 helps us to see what it is: ‘He said this because they were saying. “He has an evil spirit.”’

Jesus is not bad. To think that would be dangerous. But is Jesus mad? Remember, that’s what the family of Jesus thought. And by verse 31, they’ve arrived to take Jesus home, away from the crowds, away from everybody, for some peace and quiet and less of this mad nonsense!

So they send word inside the house to call him. Now, perhaps Jesus response would have confirmed their suspicions that he was indeed mad. It certainly would have been hurtful, even painful for them to hear. But the message comes: ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’

‘“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”’ (33-35).

Jesus came to rescue us from the hands of Satan, and when he does so he forms us into his new family - a family not based on blood relations, but on being brothers and sisters of Jesus. And the family likeness is obedience to God. Whoever does God’s will is part of the family.

That must have been hard for Mary to hear. She had borne him, had raised him, had given her all for him. It sounds as if Jesus has gone mad! Family ties were even stronger in those days than our family ties are these days.

But fast forward from that day, and we discover that eventually Mary and some of Jesus’ brothers become his brothers in the family of God. James becomes one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, and writes one of the New Testament letters (describing himself only as a servant of Jesus!). Jude, who writes another of the New Testament letters describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James.

And you can be a brother or sister of Jesus too. It depends on coming to a right verdict on who he is - not mad, not bad, but God, who came to rescue us from the strong man Satan; God, who came to give his life to secure the forgiveness of our sins; God, who came to welcome us into his family by giving us the Holy Spirit to help us to do the will of God.

So what do you think of Jesus? Mad? Bad? Or God?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 24th February 2019

Friday, February 22, 2019

Sermon: James 5: 7-11 Fruitful - Patience

This morning we’re thinking about patience. Now, when I was growing up, my granny had a saying that went like this: ‘Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can. Seldom in a woman, and never in a man.’ Do you think that’s true?

So let’s do a little test. On a scale of 1-5, with 1 very patient and 5 not very patient, how are you...

when you’re counting down the days to your birthday
when you’re stuck in traffic
when you’re sitting in waiting for a delivery
when you’re in a queue
when you’re in the dentist’s waiting room
when you’re looking forward to half-term holidays

Now, if you’ve kept a note of your scores, then I’ll tell you later on what your score means... And if you couldn’t wait to hear what your score meant, then you’re probably impatient!

So how patient are you? If granny’s rhyme was true, then we all have some work to do. We’re not as patient as we should be. But why should we be patient? Why are we even thinking about growing in patience?

We’re looking at patience today because it is one of the fruit of the Spirit. We’ve already sung about the full fruit of the Spirit in our service - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And we’ve been looking at each of them in turn at our Church Family services to see what it is God the Holy Spirit wants to grow in us.

Some of us might be more patient, because of our natural personality, and some of us might be less patient, because that’s the way we are. But all of us can grow in the patience that the Holy Spirit wants to grow in us - because he is at work in us when we belong to Jesus.

So to help us think about growing in patience, I’ve brought along some things to help us. I need someone to help me - someone who is good at gardening and growing things. So I’ve got a planter, some soil, some seeds, and we’re going to plant these lovely flowers. We can see what it’s going to look like, we see the pattern and example here on the packet.

And for the fruit of the Spirit, the Lord Jesus is our pattern, and our example. When we want to see what the fruit of the Spirit look like in real life - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we can look at Jesus, and see how he demonstrated all the fruit of the Spirit.

And when we read the gospels, we find how patient Jesus was. He always had time for people, he spent hours and days caring for people and healing people, he was never in a hurry, in a word, he was always patient.

And in our first reading, we see just how patient the Lord still is. You see, Jesus lived, and then died on the cross as our Saviour to take away our sins. He was raised to new life on the first Easter Sunday, and he ascended back to heaven, promising his disciples that he would come again. Peter says that, as time goes on, and Jesus hasn’t yet returned, people are going to be asking, so, where is he?What about this return that he promised? And some will even think that Jesus isn’t going to come back at all.

But in verse 9, Peter tells us what’s going on. ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ The reason that Jesus hasn’t come back to this earth yet isn’t because he’s slow at keeping his promises. No, he is being patient, giving us more time to turn to him, to repent and trust him. If Jesus had returned fifty years ago, then many of us wouldn’t have been in his kingdom. Or thirty years ago, or ten years ago. Some of us here in Richhill have become Christians, followers of Jesus, in the last year - that’s why Jesus hadn’t already come back this time last year. He was being patient. And maybe the reason he hasn’t already come back is so that you repent today - as we’ll see in the Baptism questions a little later on, to repent is to turn away from sin, and to turn towards God.

The Lord is patient towards us, not wanting us to perish, but wanting us to turn to him, before he finally returns. And because Jesus is patient, we who follow him, we want to be patient too, to be like Jesus in every way. That’s what our other reading is about. Being patient.

Do you remember what we planted earlier on? I’m just wondering to myself, have those seeds done anything yet? Have they started to grow and sprout? So I’ve got my little trowel here. Boys and girls, do you think it would be a good idea to dig them up to see if they’ve started to grow?

It would be a bad idea! I need to be patient, to wait for the seeds to sprout and grow in their own good time. It wouldn’t help the seeds if I was digging them up every five minutes to see if they’re doing anything. I need to be patient. And that’s what James, the brother of Jesus tells us in his letter. He says: ‘Be patient, then brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.’

The farmer doesn’t harvest his crops until they’re ready. He has to wait for the rains in the autumn and in the spring before his harvest is ready. And we need to be patient as we wait for Jesus to return. But that’s not always easy. We see all the bad things happening in the world, and we know that Jesus will put all things right when he comes, and so we have to wait patiently.

And we need to be patient with other people - just like Jesus was. We need to see people the way Jesus sees them - as the people we are to love and care for and help and talk to about Jesus.

Many of us will know Psalm 139. It’s a Psalm about how amazing and wonderful God is, that he knows everything about us, wherever we go, whatever we’re about to say - God knows everything about us. And no matter where we could go, God is always with us. And, as we come to the Baptism of little Rachel, the Psalm also talks about how God ‘created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ And then it says this: ‘All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’

So often we’re always looking forward, always rushing on to the next thing. So maybe you were eagerly waiting for Rachel’s birth - we can’t wait to meet her! And maybe you’re eagerly waiting for her to start walking and talking - we can’t wait for her first steps! But all of us can get caught up in this - we can’t wait to finish school. We can’t wait to start our first job. We can’t wait to get married. We can’t wait to get a bigger house. We can’t wait to have children. We can’t wait to retire. We’re always looking forward, wanting the next big milestone to come. Always rushing on, a microwave society always in a rush.

But every one of our days has already been written down. God knows how long we’ve got. And so we don’t need to rush on. We can be patient, taking each day at a time. Seeing what God has prepared for us to do today - in the people we meet, the opportunities we have, the places we find ourselves. It doesn’t come naturally, and it may not come easily. But God is calling us to be patient, and to grow in patience, to become more like the Lord Jesus. And God gives us the Holy Spirit to help us to grow his fruit of patience in us. So let’s pray, as we seek to follow Jesus in this way.

This sermon was preached at the Church Family Service with Baptism in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 17th February 2019.

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.