Called to Grow: A Sabbath Heart
January 29, 2017
You don’t have to read very far into Luke’s Gospel to see that Jesus is a bit of a trouble-maker. A rabble-rouser. Somebody who seems to play by his own rules and is not all that concerned about approval ratings or getting others to like him.
We saw it a couple weeks ago when Jesus began his ministry by preaching in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth. What he said about God’s kingdom extending beyond Israel to include the Gentiles was so upsetting that the people drove him out of town and tried to hurl him off a cliff.
Then last week Pastor Lindsay showed us how Jesus calls the most unlikely of people—a cluster of filthy fisherman—to be his disciples, his students who would keep company with him. It leaves you sort of scratching your head wondering, “What kind of unorthodox script is this guy following?”
It gets more troubling from here. Jesus heals a leper and a paralytic and tells them their sins are forgiven. This raises the eyebrows of the religious leaders. It’s one thing to heal; it’s another to forgive sins. Only God can do that.
Then he starts hanging around with the wrong people, tax collectors and sinners, in fact calls one of them (Levi) to be his disciple. And he teaches his disciples about important things, like fasting and prayer, that don’t follow the orthodox rules. When the religious leaders confront him about this, Jesus says to them: “You can’t put new wine in old wine skins or the wine skins will burst!”
Huh? Who is this guy? What in the world is he saying?
So when we get to our story (or stories) today in Luke chapter 6, tension is really starting to build between Jesus and the Pharisees. Like I said, Luke shows us that Jesus is a trouble-maker. And now he gets in trouble for the appearance of breaking the Jewish Sabbath laws.
One Sabbath Jesus is walking through a grain field, and the disciples are hungry. So they pluck grain from the stalks in the field and rubbed them with their hands to get to the grain. On the surface, seems pretty harmless. What’s the big deal?
But the Pharisees are stalking Jesus and his disciples (no pun intended), and they are watching. The Greek word used for “watching” is more like “spying with suspicion.” And they throw the flag and yell “foul!” They confront Jesus: “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Notice that it was the disciples who took the grain, not Jesus; their axe to grind is really with Jesus, as we’ll see).
The issue was not that the disciples took the grain from somebody else’s field. The Law (Deut. 23:25) commanded that a portion of a farmer’s field be left for those in need. The problem is that they plucked the grain on the Sabbath, and even more so, that they rubbed it with their hands, which constituted labor!
The Sabbath was a day for rest, and labor was prohibited. In fact, the Jewish tradition had specified with 39 rules what was permissible and what was not on the Sabbath. And the disciples are guilty of multiple violations in this simple act: reaping, threshing, winnowing and preparing food!
Jesus responds to the Pharisees by telling them a story they would have been very familiar with. “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?” Jesus refers to 1 Samuel 21 and 22, the story about when David and his companions were fleeing from Saul. When they come to Ahimilech, the priest, David asks for bread. All Ahimilech had was “the bread of the presence” – consecrated bread in the temple that the law said was only for priests. But Ahimilech saw that David and his men were hungry and in need, and so he gave them the bread to eat.
The point: when David was in need, the ritual law was ignored on the basis of human need. In a similar way, the disciples are hungry and in need, and so they should be allowed to pluck grain and eat it on the Sabbath.
But then what Jesus says next is key. It is like a bolt out of the blue! “Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’” This is Jesus favorite title to refer to himself. It comes from Daniel 7:13. “Son of Man” refers to one is who God’s special representative, and it would be used to refer to the Messiah. In essence, Jesus is claiming that even this most sacred observance of the Sabbath comes underneath this authority. In other words, God has given him authority, as God’s anointed representative, over how to understand the Sabbath and how one can act on the Sabbath.
Now let’s hit the pause button on the story. Jesus is not saying that Sabbath observance is bad or it doesn’t matter. Observance of the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments that was given to Moses at Sinai. In fact, as the fourth commandment, it really functions as the linchpin between the first three, which have to do with our relationship with God; and the last six, which have to do with our relationship with others. The Sabbath, at its heart, is really intended to be a gift, not a burden! It is a command to “cease working,” to set one day apart to rest and allow others to rest. The intent of the Sabbath, from the very beginning, was to promote life and flourishing among God’s people. To deepen their relationship with God and with each other.
The problem is that the Pharisees had become so focused on all the rules and regulations surrounding the Sabbath (and other religious practices), that they lost the heart of its intent: to promote life and flourishing. Let me rework an illustration that I once heard Eugene Peterson use to describe the Pharisees relationship to the law. Imagine you had a home overlooking Lake Michigan, and in your living room is a big picture window facing out towards the lake. The law was intended to be like that window. The point was not to look at it but to look through it and catch a breathtaking view of the lake. The law was giving to point God’s people to God and what it means to live in right relationship with God and each other.
But then, over time, you started to notice that there were smudges on the window. People would press their faces up against it, get finger prints on it. And so you became preoccupied with meticulously keeping that window clean, removing all the smudges, keeping it spotless, that you stopped looking out the window and noticing the beauty of the Lake. You were fixated on keeping the window clean, and you missed the whole point.
Well, something like this was happening with the Pharisees in the way they observed the law, especially the Sabbath. They were focused on keeping the window spotless, had 39 specific rules to do so, that they stopped looking through the window to see the beautiful view. As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus helps us recover the heart of Sabbath as a gift for life and healing.
Not only is the Sabbath a gift in which we allow God to meet us in our deepest place of need, but the Sabbath is also a gift for loving others and meeting the needs of others. That’s what we see in the second Sabbath story in Luke 6. Let’s hit “un-pause” and get back into the story.
On another Sabbath, Luke tells us, Jesus enters a synagogue and is teaching and there is a man whose right hand is withered. Once again, the Pharisees are “watching” Jesus, that is they are “spying” on him. And all the more after that last episode in the field.
They’re spying on him this time to see if he will cure this man. According to the Sabbath rules, a person who is not in immediate mortal danger can wait to be healed after the Sabbath. There is no urgency here. They are watching and ready to bring charges against him if he breaks the rules.
Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and so he says to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” Then he asks the Pharisees: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?”
They don’t know how to answer the questions. They’re speechless. Are they supposed to answer, “No, it is lawful to do evil and destroy life?” Jesus once again changes the rules, or re-introduces the intended rules, by pointing to the intent of the Sabbath: to promote healing and life. Whereas in the field it was about God providing for the needs of the disciples themselves, here in the synagogue it is about God providing for the needs of others, especially those who are marginalized and in need of healing.
Jesus turns the table on the Pharisees here and says something indicting: if someone is need, even on the Sabbath (or maybe especially on the Sabbath), and you must make a choice: to help them and do good (which is what the Sabbath is all about) or to refuse to help them and to do evil. The question is not, “Should I or should I not act?” The question is, “How shall I act? To do nothing is to act in a way that does someone harm.”
Jesus then speaks, tells the man to stretch out his hand, and the man’s hand is restored. The Pharisees are once more speechless. The Greek says they were literally filled with “senseless rage”—irrational in their anger—because Jesus breaks the rules. And so they begin plotting to kill him. Don’t miss the irony. The Pharisees, who were outraged a moment ago that Jesus was giving life on the Sabbath, now plot to destroy Jesus on the Sabbath. Who is really breaking the Sabbath rules here?
What can we learn from these two Sabbath stories today? Jesus recovers for us the heart of what the Sabbath is intended to be for. Whereas the Pharisees were consumed with their own rules—and there were so many of them that were burdensome and restrictive—Jesus shows us that the whole point of the Sabbath is that it is about life, healing and renewal. It is about relationships—our relationship with God and with our neighbor. Jesus calls us to act the law of love—love of God and others. That’s how you rightly keep the Sabbath.
The Pharisees were too legalistic about the Sabbath. They had narrowed their understanding to the point where they missed out on the gift of the Sabbath. There may be some of us who had the same experience with the Sabbath growing up—it was all about rules and what you couldn’t do on Sundays. Maybe that is still true for you.
I’m guessing for many of us, the pendulum has swung the other way. Due to the way society has changed and how busy our lives are—between demands of work or kids activities or just getting caught up in the frenzy of constant activity—Sunday really is a day that is pretty much like any other. Of course Sunday doesn’t have to be your Sabbath—it can be any day. But we are so caught up in a culture of productivity and busyness that we don’t really ever rest. And this can be just as harmful as a legalistic approach.
Jesus himself practiced Sabbath and invites us into this healthy rhythm. The importance of taking a day to cease working and worship and rest and be renewed. But rather than giving us a list of 39 (or more) rules, Jesus gives us a simple guideline: what will be life-giving for you? Your relationships? What does your body and soul need? Let God meet that need. One of the most beautiful things about Sabbath is that it reminds us of our limits; that God is God and we are not. And how can you be someone who promotes life and healing in others? How can the Sabbath be a means by which God grows your heart in love for God and love for others, especially those in need? That’s the key question.
That’s really it. Jesus invites us into the heart of Sabbath-keeping so that, by his Spirit, he might create in us a Sabbath heart. A Sabbath heart is a heart that lives every day, not just Sundays, open to the Spirit and oriented in love towards God and others. A Sabbath heart recognizes that every day is holy and holds opportunities for us to grow and participate in God’s mission.
A Sabbath heart is formed in relationship with Jesus. When Jesus says he’s the Lord of the Sabbath, he doesn’t only mean that he is the one who teaches us on what it means to practice Sabbath. He means that he is the fulfillment of the Sabbath, that he himself is our Sabbath--our rest, our life, our healing and renewal. The call to discipleship is a call to come be with him.
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt. 11:28-30).
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.