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Mark 2:23-28 (New International Version)
Lord of the Sabbath
23One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?" 25He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26In 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." 27Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
Give me my time!
9 THE 1 IN 7 PRINCIPLE
Years ago when I was a player in the brass section of the Birchmount Park Collegiate Band we made a trip to the thriving metropolis of Plattsburg, New York. During that trip we passed a church that resembled any number of other small churches one could see on any trip through rural country-side. What distinguished this church was its sign which told all who were interested that it was a Seventh Day Baptist Church. I never knew there was such an animal. I had heard of Seventh Day Adventists but not of Baptists who worshipped on Saturday, which is, of course, the sabbath.
That sign told me all I know about that church, which is that in a very literal fashion, they obey the fourth of God’s Ultimate Top 10 and I don’t. The sabbath means seventh day which is Saturday.
In the first years of the church, those who believed Jesus was God’s Messiah remained, for the most part, within the local synagogue and joined in observing its sabbath rituals. In addition to this, groups of Christians also met on the first day of the week, usually to share a meal which ended with a remembrance of Jesus through what we now call the communion, Lord’s Supper or eucharist. They met on the first day in recognition that it was on the first day of the week that Jesus was raised from the dead.
At some point in the first century this arrangement proved to be unworkable. If nothing else, I presume those Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah simply tired of hearing from those who did believe that they had missed what God was doing. The Jews who did not believe in Jesus as Messiah were in positions of power within Judaism and the Christians were expelled from active involvement in the
synagogues. Very quickly, the Christian day of worship became Sunday, the first day of the week.
I assume then that early on these Christians must have concluded that what was at stake in this law was not its literal observance, but rather a principle, an understanding, a particular approach to life. That’s what I want us to take a look at today.
9 THE SABBATH IS FOR US
My teenage fall, winter and early spring Sundays were almost always the same. Sunday School and worship took up the morning, homework was done in the evening and in the afternoon there was usually a game of road hockey. I always played goal—my hero was Johnny Bower.
One day there was a mad scramble for the ball in front of my net. I went down in an attempt to cover the ball with my glove. One of the other team’s players took a whack at the ball with his stick. Somehow his stick and my face met in the middle. Specifically, his stick grazed the side of my face and put a serious glitch in the frame of my glasses.
Now I want to underline that my father was not in any way a mean-spirited man but he greeted the sight of my injury with these words: “It serves you right for playing on Sunday.” Let me say it clearly—this sort of thing is not what the fourth commandment is about.
Have a close look at the words of this commandment. It is not to be a day of work. Why not? Let me put it this way. Creation is to mirror creation. And once again I don’t think it matters a wit if you believe in a creation of six literal days or not. If you believe God was the creator, the Bible tells us that after God had accomplished the beginning of creation, God rested. The need for rest, the need for refreshment, the need to stand back from work, the need to set apart a day for the purposes of God is built into the creation of the world.
Why is that? Let’s have a look at our text from Mark’s gospel. The issue, according to the Pharisees is that no work is to be done on the sabbath. Therefore, they call into question the
obedience of the disciples to the Torah, the law, when they observe them plucking heads of ripe grain and having a snack. In other words, they accused them of “harvesting” on the sabbath.
The issue, according to Jesus, is the original purpose of the fourth commandment. Jesus says we were not made to be servants of the sabbath but rather the sabbath was to serve us. What are God’s concerns then? One of them is our well-being. We were not made to work all the time.
In the early days of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford decided to keep the assembly line running seven days a week, but not with a second shift, with the same workers working all the time. The decision was reversed within six months, but it had nothing to do with any sort of religious conviction on the part of Mr. Ford. What he discovered was that while labour costs had gone up, productivity declined. We are not robots; we were created to live within a rhythm of work and play, activity and rest.
Another concern God has is for justice to be served within that rhythm of work and play. Did you notice that in the commandment? In the Exodus version of the commandments this is implied, but it is made explicit in the Deuteronomy version. Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12–15). God reminds his people that they were slaves in Egypt, that he rescued them and therefore they are to treat those who serve them with justice. The one day in seven of rest is a recognition that God requires justice to be done even in the treatment of slaves.
This concern for justice among those who serve us can take many paths. Let me offer a couple of examples. The Starbucks company has taken some abuse for the price they charge for their beverages, designer coffee it is sometimes called. But, if I am going to enjoy a cup of coffee each morning, should I not do whatever I can to ensure the farmer who grew the beans is paid fairly and the server who got the froth just right on my tall skinny vanilla extra-hot decaf latte is paid fairly, if for no other reason than he or she can remember all that detail and serve my drink just the way I like it?
Have you heard of those who are only buying local food? I must admit I’m not sure if such people include bananas in their diet, but they are asking us to think about the wisdom of such things as a steak that travels somewhere in the U.S. to find its way to the meat counter at Loblaws. Last time I checked we still had beef producers in Ontario. And what is being sacrificed in places like California and Florida and Mexico and Chile to make sure I can buy strawberries in the dead of winter? Long ago, I decided, by the way, the tomatoes we get shipped to us in the winter taste too much like the cardboard container to be bothered with.
What does this have to do with the day of rest? Just this—the day of rest is a symbol of our willingness to seek God’s justice for our world.
9 RESTING IN GOD
There is one more thing. When Jesus confronts the Pharisees he turns up the tension in a way that seems odd to us when he announces the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath. The sabbath, the seventh day, the day of rest is God’s day and Jesus is telling us, I think, this day is part of God’s plan. It is something that points us both to today and tomorrow.
We have talked about today in looking at God’s concern for our well-being and for justice. What about tomorrow? The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says this: So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labours as God did from his (Hebrews 4:9, 10).
The sabbath, the day of rest is a symbol of the destination to which creation is headed. In other words, the creation story is given to us not only to help us understand the origins of the universe but also the destiny of the universe. Within the one story is a foretelling of the larger Story. Creation moves from chaos through order to rest. This is God’s design. The people of God are going to enter that rest at the culmination of history. We are to live now in the light of that promise.
To do so means we take seriously the claim of God that life is to be balanced between work and play, rest and activity. This is why your pastors all through the years have said you ought to be in church on Sunday. It’s not so that we can report to our colleagues what the numbers were like on Sunday, although we do that. Nor is it to make sure you have a chance to put your offering in the basket, although stewardship is an important part of the Christian life. The reason you need to be in church for one seventh of your time is because we believe our life is aimed in the direction of God’s rest where we will enter into unbroken fellowship with our Saviour. This is practice for that.
God says to you, give me my time! Do you know that life is more than what you do? You would if you took time to rest in me. Do you know that life is more than all the things that overrun your garage and spill out into the storage unit you rent for $40/month? You would if you took time to rest in me. Do you know that I made you for a life that will be completed in the perfect fellowship of my rest? And if that’s to be the life of heaven, don’t you think it makes sense to get a little taste of it here on earth?