Sunday, June 03, 2018

Free in Christ

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Mark 2:23-3:6
Years ago, I’ve read, there was flooding happening in a section of rural Holland. Government officials determined that a small village lay in the flood’s path. The government contacted the local pastor, the closest thing to a public official there was in the village and said that the community might be spared if the people worked all that day, a Sunday, to build a temporary dam.

The pastor was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to lead the villagers in saving their community. That seemed like the right thing to do. On the other, it was the sabbath day, a day set aside by God for His people to rest and hear God’s Word. Building the dam would be work. Resting seemed like the right thing to do. 

So, the pastor called a meeting. He asked what the villagers thought should be done. Discussion followed. To make sure that all points of view were considered, the pastor said that while he was certainly in favor of observing the Sabbath day, there were times when Jesus was confronted with what might be called “emergency” situations when He worked on the Sabbath. Might this flood be such a situation? 

At this, an elderly man spoke up: “Pastor, I must say something that I have never ventured to bring up before. But sometimes, I think that our Lord was a bit of a liberal.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see an example of why that man thought of Jesus as “a bit of a liberal.” 

We also see that Jesus views things like the Sabbath, along with all the other commands of God, the law of God, from His perspective as God, not from the world’s perspective, whether the world’s perspective is that held by religious people confident of their own goodness or by secular people who think nothing of God

Let’s take a look at our lesson, Mark 2:23-3:6. As we do so, I want to warn you that we're going to have to spend some time on the Biblical and historical background. But stick with me, as I think it will be worth it.

The Gospel lesson starts this way: “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’”

The Pharisees, as you know, were a sect of Judaism for hundreds of years. Pharisaism was a people’s movement, composed of mostly poor people without influence over the religious and political elites of their time. The world was a fearful, place for the Pharisees, changing all the time. Looking for stability and certainty, they turned faith in God into a moral and political program. There were many fine Pharisees, but many others used their “religious program” to shame and intimidate people into compliance with their version of God’s will. They also scrupulously observed God’s Law, or at least their version of God’s Law, as an act of defiance of the Romans, who occupied their country. We find Christians doing much the same today, whether they're conservative or liberal. Instead of proclaiming the Gospel of new, everlasting life with God for all who entrust their lives to Christ, they want to tell people what to do.

The Sabbath was mandated by God, of course. In the Third Commandment, God says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” God set apart a day so that His people could rest after six days of work, just as He had rested when He created the universe. 

The Sabbath had other functions as well: 
  • to give particular focus to worshiping God; 
  • to gratefully remember God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt in ancient days; 
  • to joyfully anticipate the day when the Lord’s Messiah--the Christ, God’s Anointed One, referred to by the Old Testament book of Daniel as “the Son of Man”--would come into the world and establish His kingdom. 
But for the Pharisees, the Sabbath wasn’t a day of rejoicing or faith-filled rest; it was a day to prove how wonderful they were. For them, the Sabbath was a flag they waved in the faces of the Romans, not as a witness to God’s goodness and desire to save all humanity from sin and death, but as a symbol of their own moral superiority.

They used the Sabbath also as a moral and religious bludgeon on their fellow Jews. The Pharisees acted as a kind of unofficial secret police, seeking to out anyone they deemed insufficiently Jewish, insufficiently loyal to God, or insufficiently loyal to the Judean homeland. 

That’s how they act in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus and His disciples are walking through a grain field. The disciples are hungry. They pick some of the heads of grain, grind them on the palms of their hands, and eat. 

Now, everybody knew that God’s law allowed hungry travelers to glean from crops in the fields through which they passed. 

But the Pharisees get upset with the disciples because in their harvesting and grinding, they're doing work on the Sabbath. They're violating the Third Commandment. 

When the Pharisees confront Jesus on this, Jesus doesn't deny that the disciples are doing work on the Sabbath. Nor does He deny the importance of Sabbath observance as a moral law given by God. 

But Jesus does point to an Old Testament precedent to demonstrate that the Pharisees' criticism of His disciples was not of God. 

Back when King Saul was still in power in the 11th.-century BC and trying to kill David, who had already been anointed by God to be Israel’s second king, David and his men, running for their lives, sought refuge from the high priest Abiathar. David and the others were famished and asked for food. The priest was out of everything but the consecrated bread, or the bread of the Presence, which God’s law stipulated could only be eaten by the priest. 

But Abiathar may have been a bit of a liberal: He thought that feeding hungry people might be good use of bread dedicated to God. So, he let David and his men eat. This, Jesus is telling the Pharisees, was the right thing. 

Then Jesus reverts to the original discussion about another one of God's laws. “The Sabbath,” Jesus tells them, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

God gave the Sabbath not as a badge or a flag for proud, judgmental people, but as a day for rest and celebration

And then, to underscore His authority to teach in this way, Jesus tells them: “So the Son of Man [that’s Him, the Messiah-King foretold in Scripture] is Lord even of the Sabbath.” 

Listen: God gives His Law to show us what it's like to live as His children, not to make us judges of others’ lives, to show people who are grateful for His undeserved grace how best to live if we want to honor God

Jesus isn’t just Lord of the Sabbath, He’s the Lord of everything, the great I AM. He alone has kept God’s Law perfectly so that He can set free from sin, death, and darkness all who turn from sin and surrender to Him.

On another Sabbath, our Gospel lesson says, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were out to trap Him. So, He decided that it was a good time to do some of God’s work. He had a man with a shriveled hand stand in front of the crowds following Him. 

Then He asked the Pharisees: “'Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) 

Mark tells us that the Pharisees said nothing. Then we’re told, starting at verse 5: “He [Jesus] looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” 

At the very least, the Pharisees might have said, “Wow! We’re so happy for the man healed by Jesus!” 

But in this miracle, they didn’t see a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom. 

They didn’t comprehend that Jesus was and is God. 

They didn’t stop to think that it might be OK to do good to others on the Sabbath day. 

Instead, they were enraged. Mark tells us, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:6)

Those are strange bedfellows, the Pharisees and the Herodians, by the way. 

The Herodians were a powerful class of people who supported and were enriched by their connection to King Herod. Herod wasn’t Jewish, though he claimed to be descended from David. He had been put on his throne by the Romans. The Herodians were secular people out for power and money. The Pharisees allying themselves with the Herodians made sense for only one reason: They both wanted Jesus dead and out of the way.

What does it all mean for us? Just this. Pharisaism started out as a well-meaning movement by people of God. They wanted to follow God in a frightening, tumultuous world. But instead of clinging to God and trusting in the grace He gives to all who believe, they clung to the Law, which cannot save us because no one but Jesus has ever perfectly kept God’s Law

The Law can point us to our need of God’s grace given in Jesus. 

It can be a guide to us in our prayer lives, as we allow it to show us our sins and vulnerabilities. 

But only Jesus can save us. 

In the end, Pharisees, ancient and modern, are no different from secularists who don’t believe in God: They put their trust not in God, but in themselves and their own goodness

The Pharisees saw themselves as God’s protectors and God’s enforcers. But God is bigger than all of us. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal. As believers in the God Who saves us through Jesus Christ, we don’t need to protect God and we don’t need to enforce God’s holy will on the world. When Jesus returns to the world, He will sort everything out. Remember how He said that when He returned to the world, He would separate the wheat from the weeds--the righteous from the unrepentant.

In the meantime, our call as Christians is simple: 

  • To trust in Christ alone. 
  • To live our faith in Christ. 
  • To tell others about Christ. 
Anything else, all the other stuff churches waste their time doing, is not of God

By trusting in Christ, seeking to live our faith in Christ, and telling others about Christ and His grace, right out loud for all the world to see, we may, like our Lord, encounter opposition, not just from secularists but from modern Pharisees who claim to be Christians. 

In fact, the Christian's biggest and most unforgiving critics may be other Christians. Years ago, one of my sisters told a friend of hers that her brother was a pastor. The friend was excited to hear that. "Really?" she asked. "Where is he a pastor?" "He's not in town," my sister explained. "But he served a Lutheran congregation." Her friend's attitude soured. "Oh," she replied unenthusiastically, as though she'd learned I was an underworld kingpin. "No," my sister quickly reacted. "He is a Christian."

But no matter how much shade the world or even other Christians throw our way, it's OK. 

When you follow the Lord of the Sabbath, the King of all creation, Who has conquered sin and death, what’s a little opposition? 

What difference does it make if we bear others’ condescension or condemnation? 

What difference does it make even if we die for our faith? 

The Christian lives in the assurance enjoyed by St. Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) 

If the world thinks we’re  “a bit of a liberal” because we live, depend on, and share the love of Jesus with others, so be it

We confess and follow Jesus, the Lord of love, and He will never let go of those who trust in Him. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

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