(Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Gosforth - 23 Jan 11)
“Shame! That’s forbidden! Disgraceful! Law-breaker! Jesus, you are just showing that you’re no better than gentile scum. Who do you think you are? Call yourself a Jew? Call yourself a Rabbi, do you?” And so the accusations came hurtling towards Jesus as his disciples broke the third of the 39 laws of the Sabbath.
Jesus is committing the 21st century equivalent of going to Tesco on a Sunday afternoon. That might not sound bad to you, in fact I committed the same heinous crime myself last Sunday afternoon, but for years, there has been a school of thought particularly fussy about the Sabbath and there is even an organisation called The Lord’s Day Observation Society made up of well meaning folks trying to uphold what they perceive to be God’s laws.
Afterall, back in Exodus 20:8-11 -
8-11 Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Work six days and do everything you need to do. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to God, your God. Don't do any work etc etc
You yourself may have been brought up with things that were and weren’t acceptable on a Sunday, all based on the concept that Christians are bound to the old covenant idea of a Sabbath Day, on a Sunday, inspite of the fact that the Sabbath is a Saturday and inspite of the fact that for the first 400 years of Christian faith, yes the believers met early to worship on Sunday, the Lord’s day, but spent the rest of the going about their normal business afterwards.
So what on earth is Jesus doing allowing an intentional break in this law? Not just is he allowing a break in the law by picking corn, but they’re walking more than the distance they’re allowed to on the Sabbath. Even more so he goes and heals someone. Can you get a more blatant disregard for the Law of God?
Friends, if Jesus, the Son of God, God made flesh appears to be doing something that is a direct contravention of what God has said previously, that is an invitation for us to plunge into the experience and see what is happening here. It is another case of new wine in new wineskins.
The issue of Sabbath is something that as a Christian community we need to reflect on and work through because beneath the statement of fact, there is a gift of a principle for us for living full lives in Christ.
1. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath
The first thing I want to bring out here is that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. In Jesus’ acts in this passage, he is pointing people towards a greater truth that was still sinking in and still to be revealed in its fullness: the fact that the Old Covenant Sabbath given by God through Moses was a shadow, a picture of Jesus who is to come. Jesus is not just Lord of the Sabbath, but he is our Sabbath rest. There is a fundamental difference between enjoying Christ as our rest and being a slave to the Sabbath – this is what Jesus actions here are saying to us. Let me explain.
Listen to Paul in Colossians 2:16-17, the Message paraphrase:
16-17So don't put up with anyone pressuring you in details of diet, worship services, or a Sabbath day. All those things are mere shadows cast before what was to come; the substance and the reality is Christ.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 3:17, there is freedom. Freedom from sin, and the law, and instead abundant grace.
So addressing Jewish believers, he is saying that in Christ the fullness of the law is there. In Jesus Christ there is freedom because HE is where our righteousness comes from, not through keeping laws. As Gentiles, we were never asked to keep the law anyway!
For us, in Christ, the fullness of the Sabbath principle is not in keeping a strict day of religious observance, but resting in Christ every day. Our whole lives, everything, is a spiritual act of worship (Romans 12). We are the temple’s of God’s Holy Spirit, he inhabits our every moment.
We see that being a follower of Jesus requires a radical new of thinking and acting because:
- Jesus does not fit into the old way of thinking, structures, laws and traditions. New wine needs new wineskins.
- We cannot just take Jesus and add him into our busy lives.
- We cannot add Jesus into our way of thinking, our beliefs or our traditions.
- Jesus doesn’t fit into the pluralistic, materialist, or me-centred world views that are prevalent today.
Jesus shows us here a new way that IS NOT:
- living a life of rules
- adding extra bits and pieces to the Bible
- being hard hearted
- being stubborn
- living in fear
- lacking love for others
The Sabbath, and all the law, points us towards a greater reality – the person of Jesus Christ and the life, the sanctity and preciousness of life that we can have in him. If you hear anything this morning, please hear that and drink deep. So what does that mean for us? Does it mean that the Sabbath idea has no place in our lives whatever?
2. Sabbath is made for man, not man for the sabbath
It absolutely has something for us today – and the principle is contained in Jesus words in v27 of chapter 2: “The Sabbath was made for man, anot man for the Sabbath.” Whilst the bigger picture thing is about living a life in Christ, being indwelled by him and saturated by him each and every moment, there is a very practical element to “Sabbath.” Following Jesus isn’t all work and no play. The kids showed us earlier – you can’t keep going without breathing!
God has designed us to need rest, refreshment, restoration – time we need to replenish our souls. All those wonderful ‘re-‘ words remind us that God the giver delights to “Lead us by still waters and restore our soul” (Psalm 23). In the hustle and bustle of life in the 21st century we must, must, as Christian people teach the world what it means to take time out. As they say, no man or woman lying on their death-bed ever says “I wish I spent more time at the office.”
In the craziness of life, we would do well to take refreshing days either by ourselves, or with our families in recreation. Also, time to focus on Jesus, prayer, in his Word. Not days bound by some religious nonsense about what thou must and thou musn’t do, but to enjoy the richeness and fullness of life.
Listen to what one writer says about the principle of Sabbath:
“I decided to start taking one day a week to cease from work. And what I discovered is that I couldn’t even do it at first. I would go into depression. By the afternoon I would be so . . . low.
“I realized that my life was all about keeping the adrenaline buzz going and that I was only really happy when I was going all the time. When I stopped to spend a day to remember that I am loved just because I exist, I found out how much of my efforts were about earning something I already have.
“Sabbath is taking a day a week to remind myself that I did not make the world and that it will continue to exist without my efforts. Sabbath is a day when my work is done, even if it isn’t. Sabbath is a day when my job is to enjoy. Period. Sabbath is a day when I am fully available to myself and those I love most. Sabbath is a day when I remember that when God made the world, he saw that it was good.
“Sabbath is a day when I remind myself that I am not a machine. Sabbath is a day when at the end I say, “I didn’t do anything today,” and I don’t add, “And I feel so guilty.” Sabbath is a day when my phone is turned off, I don’t check my email, and you can’t get ahold of me.
“Jesus wants to heal our souls, wants to give us the shalom of God. And so we have to stop. We have to slow down. We have to sit still and stare out the window and let the engine come to an idle. We have to listen to what our inner voice is saying.” (Rob Bell in ‘Velvet Elvis’)
Does that sound like something you need? I do.
3. So, what is lawful to do on the Sabbath?
Jesus finishes his encounter by pointing out the profound answer to the question, ‘what is lawful to do on the Sabbath?’ by his actions. He says it is good to do good, not evil. This points us to the fact, not only of being free from pharisaical law and restriction, but to the fact that good servant stuff, getting involved in the work of the Kingdom too, is good for the soul, good Sabbath stuff.
Now, I’m not talking about church council, manning the welcome desk, admin, or all the other things we often mistake for deep spiritual ministry. Yes, practical tasks need doing – we should see them as our necessary work. But I’m talking about blessing others from the abundance of our own life in Christ. Ministering to one another in prayer, worship, the sacrament of conversation and service one to another. Jesus healing on the Sabbath as a deep act of ministering the peace, the shalom of God into the life of an individual. This is how we carry Sabbath into our day to day – by ministering the grace of God.
Let me finish with a story.
There was an old Rabbi, in his 80s, a father to his religious community. After Sabbath service each Saturday morning they noticed that the Rabbi would often slip out from the conversation and disappear somewhere. Now, this Rabbi was known for being very close to God. The rumour started to spread that on the Sabbath afternoon, the Rabbi would go out and he would be taken up to heaven to sit in God’s presence.
One day, the elders of the synagogue decided to find out what he did on the Sabbath and so sent someone to follow him. The young man followed the old Rabbi through the streets of the city and watched him enter the home of an elderly couple of the synagogue. From the window, he watched the elderly Rabbi prepare meals, sweep the floor, puff up the pillows of the elderly couple and kiss them both sweetly on the forehead before leaving for home.
The next week the others gathered round the young man, anxious to find out what happened to the Rabbi on the Sabbath afternoon. “Does he go up to heaven?” they asked excitedly.
The young man says: “oh no, no. He goes much higher than that!”
Jesus is the one who IS our Sabbath rest. Live and dwell in Him. Receive from him the rest for your soul in the very day of life. From that place of overflow in the presence of your Lord, go then and do what is lawful to do on the Sabbath. Then you will know what it is to live life in fullness and blessing so abundant. But it all starts with Jesus...