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Let us pray. Startle us, O God, with your truth and open our hearts and our minds to your wondrous love. Speak your word to us; silence in us any voice but your own and be with us now as we turn our attention, our minds and our hearts, to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I began to think about this sermon for the first Sunday in Lent almost two months ago. It was the second week of January, the week that was marked by the murder of eleven people at the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent manhunt and eventual deaths of two suspects in a shootout with police. It was then something that could hardly be avoided—I was drawn to the end of our text: But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. When we read that the number of Christians murdered in 2014 by Islamic militants is twice what it was in 2013—4,344 compared to 2,123—we are rightly concerned when we read about any person of faith who is filled with fury. That is where we start today. It is where we start our Lenten Study of Luke, the third of the synoptic gospels.
You may wish to turn to our text, found on page 63 of the New Testament in the pew Bibles and page 1610 of the large print edition. I think it might be helpful for us to see there is a “yes…but” feel to the way in which Luke has presented his retelling of the story of Jesus. Look back one chapter and I will attempt to explain what I mean. Beginning at 5:17 Luke tells us the story of a paralyzed man who is lowered on his bed through the roof by some friends. Jesus heals the man, which is wonderful, but, he also tells the man his sins are forgiven. To the Pharisees this is blasphemy, because only God can forgive sins.
The next story which begins at 5:27 concerns a tax collector named Levi who gives a banquet in Jesus’ honour to which he also invites a bunch of friends including some of his fellow tax collectors. The Pharisees are again offended. Why would Jesus share table fellowship with such sinners?
Chapter six begins with two incidents that involve Sabbath observance. Can we take a little break here for a story? When I was a teenager most Sunday afternoons were taken up with a rousing game of road hockey. There were several companies within walking distance of my house that had large paved parking lots that were invitingly empty on Sunday afternoons. On one of those days I was the goalie for my team; that was the one position where I demonstrated some proficiency. There was a scramble in front of the net, I went down to try and smother the ball. One of the players tried to whack the ball and got me instead. Somehow his stick ended up between my glasses and my face and I got some nasty scrapes on my cheek and forehead. When the game ended and I came home, my father pronounced his judgement. “Serves you right for playing on Sunday.”
That was my father playing the role of a Pharisee. Wait! Don’t be offended on my father’s behalf. We need Pharisees to interpret the Torah, the law of God. What does the law say? Many of you will know it. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). What does that mean? As a kid I needed some help with that. The first thing I remember being taught was that Sunday, the first day of the week, was not strictly speaking, the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week. Because Jesus had been raised on the first day of the week, we Christians had transferred the rules about the Sabbath to Sunday.
That seemed reasonable to me, as I recall—the idea of one day per week set aside for the Lord. There was a time when it was indeed the whole day set aside. Within the lifetime of some of you there were churches that had a Sunday schedule that looked like this: morning worship was at 11 a.m., Sunday School at 3 p.m. and evening worship at 7. That’s pretty much the whole day. By the time I was a child it was the morning that was given over to God and I figured from 1:30 on that was my time. My father, who, by the way, rarely attended church when we were children, repeated to me the interpretation of the law of Sunday observance that had been given to him as a child.
That’s what Pharisees did. They were not priests; they did not take a turn in offering the sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple. Their job was to help God’s people understand every implication of God’s law. “They determined meanings for particular cases, and thus attached to a given law might be scores of case-by-case regulations. And why? Because of their basic conviction that the will of God was to be done in every situation twenty-four hours a day. Thus they tried to keep the faith, preserve the community, and protect it from compromise and foreign influence (Interpretation: Luke, 74).
That puts these scholars in something of a different light doesn’t it? We need Pharisees. In fact this congregation pays the salaries of two Pharisees. It’s not the only thing we do but David and I deal with these sorts of questions all the time. You see, even people with just a vague memory of what it was Jesus said know that he told us to forgive our enemies. Even some who haven’t been to church or heard a sermon in decades know that Jesus even went so far as to tell us to forgive more than once. But what does that mean?
“Do I need to forgive if the other person doesn’t ask for forgiveness?” What exactly is it that God asks of us? Pharisees help us understand what it means to obey God.
Sabbath observance was a huge deal for God’s people. In the first incident we read about in our text, Jesus is called to account for the actions of his followers. Jesus and the disciples have been walking. They must have done a great deal of walking during the time of Jesus’ ministry in Palestine. They didn’t have much choice. Public transit was quite unreliable in those days. This particular day was a Sabbath and beside the path was a field of grain. Take note, the disciples are not accused of stealing. There was nothing wrong with each disciple taking enough for himself. The accusation was that they had broken the Sabbath law; they had done work on the Sabbath. That was forbidden.
The Pharisees are doing what they do; they interpret the actions of the disciples in light of the law. The disciples picked some heads of grain—that’s reaping the harvest. They rubbed their hands together —that’s threshing; and, of course, they picked the edible grain out from the residue—that’s winnowing. One, two, three strikes…you’re out!
Sabbath law is important. There is a great example from the book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. You will remember the story. Nehemiah is a Jew living in Babylon who hears that the restoration of the city and the Temple is faltering. He receives permission to go to Jerusalem and heads a renewed rebuilding effort. One of the last things we are told that this courageous leader does is insist that the Sabbath be observed. But listen to what he says. “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the sabbath day? Did not your ancestors act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Yet you bring more wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath” (Nehemiah 13:17, 18). Do you see the dots that he is connecting? The exile is directly related to a failure to observe the Sabbath.
I will say it again. We are not talking about the so-called “blue” laws that sought to regulate behaviour on Sundays. We are talking about something that the Pharisees believed was at the very heart of what it meant to be one of God’s people. What does Jesus say in response to their criticism? “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
For the time we have left I would like us to think about what it means for us that Jesus made this claim. You see I think this is what really sticks in the throat of the Pharisees. The disciples of Jesus were not the first people to help themselves to a natural snack during a sabbath walk. It is also certain that God is most honoured and glorified by those who do good instead of harm on God’s day. What bothers the Pharisees, what fills them with fury is their suspicion that Jesus is claiming that the laws of God find their focus and fulfilment in him. It is as if Jesus says, “I made the sabbath; what I say is good for the sabbath is what is right and just and fulfils the will and purposes of heaven.”
Let me push this a little bit further. I find it interesting that the little morsel of this story that I most remember is only reported by Mark, that Jesus said the sabbath was created for humans and not the other way around. So when my father took me to task for a Sunday afternoon game of road hockey I decided that because of what Jesus had said about the sabbath being made for me, my Saviour was OK with a Sunday morning for worship and a Sunday afternoon for the life and death struggle of parking lot hockey.
The reality I think is this, that Jesus is less concerned about the day of the week than he is about who I confess that he is. Here’s my logic: it seems to me that in the creation story, Genesis 1:1 to 2:3, that there is a holy place given to that seventh day. God speaks about what he did on the other six days as being good, but the seventh day is the only one that is blessed and hallowed. That day becomes vital in the life of God’s people. It is a holy day, a day when neither the citizens of Israel nor their slaves are to do work. The seventh day is part of what transforms this rag tag bunch of separate tribes into the people of God. Jesus says that he is Lord of that day. The Pharisees want to know who he thinks he is.
That’s a question that continues to be vital to us. I am reminded of something C. S. Lewis said about Jesus. “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Let’s be clear. This is not about who’s off to Swiss Chalet and who’s going to open a can of soup at home. The Pharisees would condemn either one. What’s involved here is where you stand in relation to Jesus. He claims to be the Lord of the Sabbath. If that is true then he also needs to be Lord of our lives. If you are really hearing what he has to say, then you will either be in a fury or you will follow.