Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 2:23–28
The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 2-3, 2018
When I was growing up, I heard about a man in a nearby town who happened to mow his lawn on a Sunday, and who subsequently received a letter from the Town Council advising him that such work was not permitted on Sunday because Sunday was the Sabbath day, and the Sabbath was a day of rest. True story! Can you imagine such a thing happening today? If anything, we have moved in the opposite direction. Sunday is now just another day to do everything that we weren’t able to get done earlier in the week. Our children’s sports practices and games now take place not just on Sunday afternoons, but Sunday mornings as well. Sunday is the busiest day of the week for grocery shopping. Sunday is many things, but I’m not sure it is a day of rest anymore. And yet, in our hyper-busy and over-scheduled lives, perhaps this is exactly what we need the most, even if we do not recognize this ourselves. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches about the Sabbath, liberating it from the confining restrictions that we would place upon it, teaching us that it was made for us, not we for it, and that he himself is Lord of the Sabbath. This becomes the theme for preaching under the theme “Sabbath.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
The word “Sabbath” comes from the Hebrew language, shabbath, meaning “to rest.” Long before the covenant was given by God to his people at Mt. Sinai, as we heard in today’s Old Testament lesson (Deuteronomy 5:12-15), the concept of Sabbath is found already in the account of creation in the opening chapters of Scripture: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1-3). Sabbath, the seventh day, was the original day of rest, and is still observed as such by our Jewish friends, from sundown on Friday evening to sundown on Saturday evening. The first Christians, who were themselves Jewish, began to gather for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, in honor Jesus’ resurrection from the dead “on the first day of the week” (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). And so the Christian concept of Sabbath was gradually transferred from Saturday, the seventh day of the week, to Sunday, the first day of the week.
The Gospel lesson for today is part of rising controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders as He confronts their rigid, unbending rules that shut out the light and love of God. There are five controversies that occur here. First, in healing a paralytic man, Jesus heals not only his body, but his soul as He pronounces forgiveness for his sins (Mark 2:1-11). And the response? “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Next, having called Levi, or Matthew, the tax collector to come and follow him, Jesus sits down to eat with tax collectors and sinners, the outcasts of society (Mark 2:13-17). And the response? “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Next, Jesus’ disciples don’t fast like John’s disciples did (Mark 2:18-22). What’s up with that? Jesus’ response is that people don’t fast when the bridegroom is with them, and that “New wine is for fresh wineskins.” The controversy over the Sabbath is the next issue (today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 2:23-28) and Jesus proclaims, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” And the last controversy is Jesus’ healing of a man with a withered hand, again on a Sabbath day (Mark 3:1-6). This proves to be the tipping point against Jesus: “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him.” Jesus was shattering long-held traditions about the Sabbath; what a person could and could not do. Even something as harmless as walking through a field of ripe grain on the Sabbath, rubbing the heads of grain together, and eating them could be construed as work, since this was technically harvesting grain. Is this splitting hairs or upholding time-honored tradition?
The heart of it all is what Jesus says at the close of the Gospel lesson: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28). Sabbath is about freedom, as the Old Testament lesson reminded God’s people of old: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Slaves do not get the luxury of a day of rest. So, what will we do with this Sabbath day of rest? Will we spend it in running ourselves ragged, trying to pack in as many activities as we can, only to find ourselves exhausted when Monday rolls around? We would do well to remember what Paul the apostle writes in today’s Epistle lesson (2 Corinthians 4:5-12): “But we have this treasure in jars of clay…” Paul reminds us that we are fragile and easily broken, like jars of clay. Jesus, as Lord of the Sabbath, calls us to use this wondrous gift of freedom in ways that will honor God and bless our lives as well as the lives of others. What does this look like? It might be unplugging from our electronic devices in order to be more present, not just with one another but with God. It might be rediscovering the beauty of God’s creation in the natural world around us. It might be rearranging our time and schedule for the week in order to have Sunday as a Sabbath day of rest. One person’s rest may be another person’s work. If we spend much of our week in front of a computer screen, then Sabbath rest may well be physical exercise to rejuvenate the body. The word “recreation” is really “re-creation,” which is to be created again, anew. Sabbath is a weekly opportunity for us to be recreated anew as God’s sons and daughters. For many, Sunday means sleeping in, leisurely enjoying your coffee, going out for brunch. It doesn’t mean being in worship. This is the challenge before us in the culture we live in: reclaiming Sunday as a day of worship and rest. For the child of God, it’s both/and, not either/or.
In his explanation of the Third Commandment, Luther writes about what “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” means: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” Luther rightly focuses on the gathering of God’s people around Word and Sacrament, for preaching and teaching the Word of God. Interestingly, Luther says nothing about Sabbath rest. Perhaps this was assumed, but perhaps Luther felt that the primary need was not physical rest, but spiritual rest and taking to heart Jesus’ invitation: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). We all come bearing cares and concerns, worries and burdens of life. Jesus invites us to turn these over to him, that we may find Sabbath rest. Our rest comes from knowing that Jesus has lived that life of perfect obedience to all of God’s laws and commandments in our behalf. He has done for us what we could never do on our own. Jesus has laid down his life to pay the price for our sin and disobedience. When He cried out on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), it was and is forever finished. There is nothing you or I can do to add anything to that perfect sacrifice of love that is Jesus. The only thing we can do is offer heart-felt thanks and praise. That is where we can rest securely and truly be at peace, until we ourselves are laid to rest and enter into that eternal Sabbath which the Lord has prepared for his people.
In closing, I would commend to you two books that I have found helpful about Sabbath and its relevance for our lives today: Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, by Marva J. Dawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) and Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, by Wayne Muller (New York: Bantam Books, 1999). Sabbath remains God’s gift to his people through Jesus, who is Lord of the Sabbath. The twin gifts of rest and worship, given so long ago, are needed now more than ever in our lives. May we find blessing and peace through them for our journey of faith. Amen.