Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath
Prayer for Illumination
Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. Accept, O Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. Ps 119. Amen.
In Canada, from 1906 to 1985, there was the Lord’s Day Act, which prohibited certain business transactions on Sundays. The Act involved numerous restrictions such as no shopping, horse racing, concerts, or moviegoing on Sundays. Even Eaton’s storefront windows were kept with the curtains down to prevent pedestrians from window shopping.
In the States, Blue Laws also known as Sunday laws, were designed to restrict or ban some activities for religious reasons, particularly to promote the observance of a day of worship or rest. It restricted shopping, or the sale of certain items, on Sunday, like alcohol or cars.
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, public playgrounds were closed, and swings in public parks were tied up and padlocked to prevent their use on Sundays until 1965.
How was your Sunday when you were little? When I was growing up, Sunday was the day at church. After Sunday worship service, we had lunch at church, and then there were different meetings such as Bible study, choir practice, and committee meetings. After that, there was a Sunday evening service. So, Sunday was totally dedicated to God.
Here in today’s text, we find a group of people whose zeal for God was so great that they made the Sabbath Act in order to keep the day as holy as possible. They are the Pharisees.
Pharisees were formed with a very good intention. These people loved God so much that they wanted to set themselves apart from others and do extra for God. They strongly believed in and diligently observed oral traditions of Moses’ Law on top of the Torah, the five books of Moses. And they added some more extra rules or instructions to follow. Eventually, they became legalistic.
For example: the fourth law of the Ten Commandments, ‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work.’ The Law commands not to do ‘work’ on the Sabbath.
The Pharisees had a passion for definition. So they asked: What is work? All kinds of things were classified as work. For instance, to carry a load on Sabbath is ‘work’. A ‘load’ has to be defined.
So they detailed it down that a ‘load’ is “food equal in weight to a dried fig, milk enough for one swallow, ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet” — and so on and on. So they spent countless hours arguing whether a man could or could not lift a lamp from one place to another on the Sabbath, etc.
By setting up strict laws regarding how to observe the Sabbath, which included 39 categories of forbidden activities, these religious leaders had made themselves lords of the Sabbath, thus making themselves lords over the people.
Even in present days, orthodox Jews are not allowed to turn light switches on/off on the Sabbath, nor press elevator buttons. So they set the timer to turn lights on automatically on Friday evening and off on Saturday evening. Also, they use the Sabbath elevators that are programmed to stop automatically on every floor during the Sabbath. Keeping these rules thoroughly was the essence of religion to them.
In today’s text, Jesus and his disciples were passing by the grainfields one sabbath. The disciples must have been hungry, so they plucked some heads of the grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. And the Pharisees who were spying on them from a distance to find a way to accuse Jesus, got the perfect paparazzi moment.
As soon as they saw the disciples were doing what they were not supposed to do on the Sabbath - rubbing the grain heads with their hands - they got up, and said, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Jesus caught His opponents completely off guard by referring to an Old Testament text which remarkably paralleled this situation. The story is found in 1 Samuel Ch 21. Do you remember the story of the first king of Israel, Saul and King David? David was already anointed by Samuel but was not enthroned yet. King Saul was so jealous of David that he tried to kill David.
This situation is similar to that of Jesus. After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the Spirit of God came upon Jesus and anointed Him. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, and yet He wasn’t recognized as their King. The leaders of the Jews were so jealous of Jesus that they plotted to kill Him.
David and his men were fleeing from Saul when they arrived at a town called Nob. Because they were on the run, they did not have enough food to eat. David asked Ahimelech the priest to give them something to eat, lying that they were on an urgent mission from King Saul. Ahimelech, who trusted David, gave him the loaves of consecrated bread that was only for priests to eat.
No Jews wanted to accuse David of wrongdoing here because they were the descendants of David. And if for David’s sake, the Law could be temporarily and technically violated, how much more for the sake of his Lord?
By claiming to be “Lord of the Sabbath,” Jesus was also claiming to be greater than David, greater than the Law of Moses which they would rather die in order to keep, and greater than the religious leaders who made all those restrictions.
Jesus claimed the authority to correctly interpret the meaning of the Sabbath and all the laws pertaining to it. He was teaching the Pharisees that the Sabbath was made for man’s benefit and not man for the benefit of the Sabbath.
The Sabbath debate continues in the next story. Ch 3 v 1 says “Another time he went into the synagogue,” there was a man with a withered hand. Our Bible doesn’t have any description about this man. But the Gospel which the Nazarenes use tells us more about the man. He begged Jesus, saying, “I was a mason, earning a living with my hands. I beg you, Jesus, restore my health to me, so that I need not beg for my food in shame.”
Again, some of the people who were gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath watched Jesus closely to see if Jesus would break the Sabbath rule or not, whether Jesus would heal the man or not. It’s like these people come to church not to worship God but to find anyone breaking the regulations they made.
Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” What do you think they were thinking? They might have wanted to say in their heart, ‘to do good,’ but they didn’t say anything.
Mark tells us that they remained silent, and they chose to do exactly the opposite thing. V6 says, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” They were stubborn and they themselves chose to do unlawful things on the Sabbath.
Jesus knew what they were thinking. V 5 says, “He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts,” and Jesus did what the Pharisees had been waiting for, breaking the Sabbath regulations by healing the man.
Jesus had the man stand in front of everyone, and told him, “Stretch out your hand.” As he slowly stretched out his withered hand which he had to use for begging in shame, his hand was restored completely right in front of his eyes… right in front of all those people. Jesus not only healed his hand but also restored his honor and dignity.
Why did God command us to keep the Sabbath? First, as we can see from Genesis, it was the creation ordinance. God created the heavens and the earth and everything in it for 6 days and on the 7th day, He rested. He calls us to do the same.
Secondly, in Deuteronomy 5, God adds another reason for the Sabbath, saying, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
In Egypt, the Israelites had to suffer from forced labor as slaves. Pharaoh even told his Egyptian slave drivers “to make the work harder for the people so that they keep working”. When the Israelites tried to take a break, the slave drivers would whip them back into labor.
God reminds us that we are not slaves anymore. In the Old Testament, it was referring to the freedom from slavery under the hardship of Egypt; in the New Testament, it refers to the ultimate freedom from the bondage of sin and death. We are freemen and free women. It’s the heart of salvation.
What can we take from today’s text? The Sabbath is a gift and a blessing from God to enrich our lives not to restrict. God wants us to come to Him and rest in His presence. We should not be trapped by any traditions like “We’ve always done it this way…” OR by ‘what others think of me’ like worries. Do not focus on the mistakes in the bulletin or PowerPoint OR the pitch of the worship team OR other people’s attitudes. But focus on God who is here among us.
Now most of you are retired or semi-retired, and I assume that you cannot wait to come to church on Sunday so that you can fully enjoy worshipping God, right?
At the BC Synod yesterday, I had an opportunity to talk to an elder from a small congregation without a minister in a rural area. She confessed that she sometimes had an anxiety attack on Saturday evening. She was aging but she had many responsibilities in her church. She wanted to go to church without worrying about all the tasks she had to do. I felt sorry for her.
Is coming to church on Sunday a burden to you? I really pray that coming to church or serving the Lord does not make you sigh but laugh. I pray that each and every one of you feels enriched and blessed when you leave the church. However, remember that it’s not about you but it’s about Jesus. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, not you.
Do not let the unfamiliar music, the wrong order of service, the mistakes on the bulletin, the accent of the minister, the taste of coffee, or the attitude of the person beside you hinder you from enjoying God and His warm presence.
It’s okay if she is not wearing Sunday dresses; it’s okay if he is not singing; it’s okay even if Bev or Debbie is playing fast; it’s okay even if the Communion servers start serving the elements at the wrong timing; it’s okay even if our little children make noises and ask a thousand questions. For God, doing good, saving a soul, giving life, and acting with compassion are more essential and necessary than mechanical and ritualistic worship.
Brothers and sisters, today, as you sit here, worshipping the Lord your God, are you joyful? Do you feel peaceful before the presence of the Lord of the Sabbath or feel restless because of your duty or things you need to do after service?
In today’s text, let us take away one thing. The Sabbath is given by God as a blessing. Be still and rest in the presence of the Lord and fully enjoy spending time with God. As you leave this place as believers, set free in Christ and blessed by the Lord, be a blessing to the people around you. Do good and save a soul in the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Sabbath.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, thank You for Jesus Christ our Redeemer who set us free. Because of His death and resurrection, we can now fully enjoy this day - the day of rest, the day of restoration, the day of healing, the day of worship. As we leave this place after service, help us to be a blessing to others, healing and forgiving. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.