About the Sabbath – February 9, 2020
Psalm 67, Mark 2:18-3:6
February 9, 2020
Last week we talked about the people Jesus “hung around with.” If you remember, the Pharisees were upset that he dined with tax collectors and sinners!” And again, the tax collectors had their own category of sinfulness!
But we also talked about the fact that Jesus did “hang out” with the Pharisees. We sometimes forget that. We tend to think of him being with the outcasts of society. But at first, the religious leaders did want to connect with this Jesus. They didn’t understand it, but they could see that something important was happening.
Then I said how, eventually, a “rift” developed between them. Because Jesus started challenging their teaching and practices. We see that in our scripture for today. And here, right of the bat, we see him challenging them on one of their biggest things – the Sabbath Law.
I think the first reaction we have to this story is that we think the Pharisees were being “picky.” Don’t we? Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grain field, and the disciples were picking the heads off of the grain. And the Pharisees accused them of breaking the Sabbath Law. They were “harvesting” the grain! They were working on the Sabbath! Seriously?
We see that as being “picky,” don’t we? But actually, these Pharisees were just being themselves. They weren’t necessarily singling Jesus out. This is the kind of thing they did. They were all about keeping the Law – to the letter. And they were very proud of that! And they held themselves to the same standards! But Jesus called them on all of that. At one point in this ongoing argument, he said, “You’re keeping the letter of the Law, but you are missing the spirit of the Law!” Later, he said, and I love this, “You’re straining a gnat and swallowing a camel!” What a great image!
So, the disciples were “harvesting” on the Sabbath. And as if that weren’t bizarre enough, Jesus then goes into the synagogue, and there he meets this man with a withered hand. And the Pharisees were watching him. Because they wanted to see if he would heal the man. And again, it was still the Sabbath. It was “later that same day.” And they believed that if he healed the man, that would constitute “working on the Sabbath.” That would be a breaking of the Sabbath Law.
We think that is very picky! It’s almost incongruous! The man would be healed! A powerful miracle would take place! But Jesus would be guilty of breaking the Sabbath Law. That sounds absurd! Later, he would heal a blind man by spitting on the ground and making mud and putting it on his eyes. And that was breaking the Sabbath Law! Never mind that a blind man received his sight!
These guys seemed so out of touch! They had devised so many rules and sub-rules about what constituted working on the Sabbath, that I think it must have become exhausting keeping all those rules! Do you get it? It was exhausting keeping the rules about resting. That seems hugely ironic, doesn’t it? They were concerned about whether Jesus would “toe the line,” if he would “follow the traditions.” But he challenges them on that. And in this story, he gives them this response, that I think is the focus of this story. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Now, let me say that, to a certain extent, I have to side with the Pharisees here, or at least sympathize with them. Because in some ways I think they were better off than us. They may have become picky, and even a bit ridiculous, they may have been focused too much on the letter of the law, but at least they were keeping the Law!
In our world, too many people are not guilty of “keeping the letter of the Law rather than the spirit of the Law.” They have forgotten to keep the Law at all! And there are times we are all guilty of that. If I asked to see hands – which I won’t – but if I did, how many of you could honestly say you were good at “keeping the Sabbath?” As you think about that, think about these words of Jesus. “The Sabbath was made for man,” he said. And he was right! The Sabbath was made for us!
Years ago, I had a plaque on my wall that said this. “Things are not always ‘righteous’ simply because God commands them. Sometimes God commands things because they are righteous.” Do you get that? “Things are not always ‘righteous’ simply because God commands them. Sometimes God commands things because they are righteous.”
In other words, sometimes God commands things because they are good for us and because he wants the best for us. In fact, I would say that often God commands things because they are good for us and because he wants the best for us! Yes, sometimes he commands us to avoid certain things – because they are bad for us. But I think more often the former is true. God loves us and wants the best for us. Not, God’s in command and wants to control us. That’s what some people think about God. They think he’s all about rules, and “thou shalt not’s” and control.
No. God wants the best for us! So, he made the Sabbath for us – for our benefit. So, how are we doing with that? I think this is something we should revisit a lot! It’s that important! And I think there are three ways Sabbath happens in our lives. The first, and the one we think about the most is the weekly Sabbath. That’s the main one in the Bible. For the Jews, that’s the seventh day, and it corresponds to the day God rested in the creation of the world. And for them, the Sabbath was also the time of worship.
We, of course, changed the Sabbath day to the first day of the week. Because that’s the day of Jesus’ Resurrection. And for us it is also the time of our worship. But I’m afraid too often we think of the Sabbath day solely as the day of worship, and we forget the “Sabbath rest” part of the day. We don’t even use the word “Sabbath” any more, do we. And I think it’s to our detriment.
My last church was one that came out of the old “United Presbyterian” tradition. They had some very conservative roots. And I’ll never forget one old gentleman who told me that, when he was growing up, they were not allowed to use the word “Sunday.” They had to refer to that day as “Sabbath.” So it was “Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sabbath.” Imagine what it would be like if we were to substitute the word “Sabbath” for the word “Sunday” in our daily conversation. Would it help us to remember the idea of “Sabbath rest” a little better?
The problem for many people is that the Sabbath, even the idea of “Weekend” has been lost. Nowadays, we pack so much into weekends, that “rest” is the farthest thing from our minds. And for too many people, Monday has become a time to rest up from the weekend!
It’s the same with the second way we might think of Sabbath. And that has to do with the word “Vacation.” If you think about it, that’s supposed to have something to do with a kind of “yearly Sabbath.” It’s a yearly time of rest, regrouping, and rejuvenating. But does that happen? Too often our vacations are exhausting! And instead of coming home rejuvenate and refreshed, we have to rest from the vacation!
I keep thinking, is it any wonder that “stress” is the worst “disease” of our age? Stress changes our body chemistry, it raises our blood pressure, it increases our anxiety, and it disturbs our sleep patterns! Have you seen all the commercials these days about the “beds” and “meds” that are supposed to help us sleep? Do you remember me saying the three most used medications in this country? Do you remember what they are? Antidepressants, stomach acid medications, and sleep aids! What does that say about the level of stress in our society? And today I’m asking, what does it say about our sense of Sabbath?
I think sleep is the third way we think of Sabbath. It’s like the daily Sabbath. And for so many people today, there’s no Sabbath there, either! If you remember, the day for the Jews begins, when? At sundown. We think of the day as beginning at sunup, and the time of rest comes at the end. The Jews think of the day beginning at sundown, and the day begins with rest! It begins with rejuvenation. And I think there’s something to be said for that.!
Think about when we pray. Too many people see the night time, the end of the day, as a time for prayer and connection with God. But I’ve heard, and I believe it’s true, that the people who have to most affective prayer life start the day with prayer. It starts with “resting” in God. That sets the tone of the day! It orients us toward God for the rest of the day. At least that’s the idea.
Maybe our Jewish friends are on to something! Maybe our bodies would work better if we started the day with that rejuvenation, with that connection with God, with that Sabbath. Certainly, our spirits are better off that way.
So, think about the Sabbath, this Sabbath day. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” That was a great answer to the Pharisees. Jesus was not diminishing the importance of the Sabbath. He was reestablishing how important it really is – and why! Remember, Sabbath is right at the top of the list of Commandments God gave to Moses. “No other Gods,” and then “Sabbath!” Rest! Jesus was telling us how important that is, and that it was made for us, because God wants the very best for us.
Eternal God, your love for us is overwhelming. Help us to know you more each day. Help us to know how you love us and want the very best for us. Help us to learn to rest in you each day, and to know the peace that only you can give, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.