“Enjoy Your Sabbath Rest”

(Mark 2:23-28 – Pentecost 2 – June 3, 2018)

Mark 2:23-28 – Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” But He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry, he and those with him: how he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the showbread, which is not lawful to eat, except for the priests, and also gave some to those who were with him?” And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”

Dear Redeemed, who rest in the salvation Jesus won for us:

Many who profess faith in Christ do not like to attend church. It is not uncommon for 50% or less of the official membership in a church to be in regular attendance. Besides legitimate reasons, such as health concerns and inability to get around, a host of excuses may be given. One common attitude is this: “I work all week, and the day church is offered is the only day I can do my own thing. On my day off, the last thing I want to do is set my alarm, get ready, make the commute, and follow a schedule like I do in my job the rest of the week. I need rest!”

But whenever God commands something in Scripture, it is always for our good. This is just as true today as it was in ancient Israel when God gave the Third Commandment. He was actually commanding His people to rest, for this is what Sabbath means. In our Old Testament lesson in Deuteronomy 5:12-14 Moses reminded the people of God’s will for them: “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.” On Saturday, no person or animal in Israel was to work. Why did God command this? Was it to make things difficult, to make His people slaves of inconvenient schedules, having to sit still and listen to His Word instead of being free to rest and do what they wanted on their day off?

No. God gave the Sabbath as a gift, a day when His people could enjoy the true freedom and rest He gave as their Savior. Moses points this out saying: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15). Each Sabbath, they could remember how God had saved them from slavery to enemies and brought them to rest in the Promised Land. They could be encouraged by God’s promise to continue blessing them in the future. Each Sabbath they could refocus on His promise of the Messiah who was coming to give them ultimate freedom and rest, by earning their forgiveness through His sacrifice and bringing them to His heavenly Promised Land.

So the Sabbath was actually the high point of the week. More than just a physical rest for work-worn bodies and minds, God intended the Sabbath to be a spiritual rest for heavy-laden souls. Refreshed by God’s forgiveness, renewed in the joy of His salvation and eternal life, the people could go forward into the new week serving the Lord gladly.

In New Testament times, we are not commanded to worship on a specific day. God’s New Testament command is simply that we worship. We usually meet the first day of the week, Sunday, as the early Christians did (Acts 20:7; 2:42), in honor of Christ’s resurrection on this day. But in Christian freedom, we can celebrate our salvation in Christ any day of the week.

God’s purpose for His people remains the same as ever. He wants to give our souls rest as we gather around His Word and Sacraments and receive His gift of forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus. Then we can go forth renewed in the joy of His salvation, serving Him gladly. It is for our good that Hebrews 10:24-25 encourages us regularly to gather with fellow believers: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” God gives us Christian worship, not as a burden, but as a gift; that we may be built up in faith and also build each other up in the faith, until that great Day when He will bring us to His heavenly Promised Land.

The message today is: “Enjoy Your Sabbath Rest” 1) Not as just another job, 2) But as God’s gracious gift.

1) Not as just another job…

Sadly, as we have pointed out, many exclude themselves from the blessings of Christian worship and fellowship, because it seems to them like just another job, something to take up their day off. This is a sinful attitude of despising God’s Word and Sacrament. But sometimes, even the most devout churchgoers may miss out on the Lord’s intended blessing of spiritual rest, because they start treating worship as just another job.

We hear of such people in our text. The Pharisees were the last people to neglect meeting in God’s house. They were proud of their perfect attendance. The Pharisees were big on laws. In fact this was the sum and substance of their religion: “God commands us… and look, we obey!” It was an image of righteousness and religious superiority they jealously guarded.

This is why, when Jesus came along, drawing people after His teachings about God’s Kingdom and righteousness, telling the Pharisees that their self-righteousness did not cut it with God, they despised Him. They desperately wanted to defeat Him on their own proving grounds, by catching Him breaking some point of God’s law. So the Pharisees stalked Jesus and His disciples, spying for some evidence, and… Aha, here we have it! What did they see?

“Now it happened that He went through the grainfields on the Sabbath; and as they went His disciples began to pluck the heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to Him, ‘Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?'” It is not that it was wrong to pick grain in a stranger’s field. God’s law allowed hungry travelers passing through a field to do so (Deuteronomy 23:25). But as the Pharisees maintained, even this was work; and God said not to work on the Sabbath.

This would be the equivalent of you going out in your yard this afternoon to pick ripe garden produce to eat with supper, and having a neighbor come over with a frown to say: “What are you doing? Don’t you realize this is the Lord’s Day? What kind of Christian are you?”

The Pharisees were legalists. Legalism is when you go beyond what God’s Word says and make man-made laws that bind people’s consciences. True, God’s Old Testament law did not permit full-fledged harvesting of grain on the Sabbath. A person was not to put unnecessary work and activities before God’s Word. But the Pharisees sliced and diced God’s law into so many religious traditions that you could hardly lift a finger or take a step for fear that the Sabbath police would pull you over and write you up for a breach of faith with God.

So here were the Pharisees, frowning at Jesus for letting His hungry disciples pluck a little grain. In response, Jesus shows that for their zeal, they really did not understand the Scriptures and God’s real purpose for the Sabbath. God had given it as a day for souls to find rest in His salvation. But they were making it into yet another job, a restless day of works-righteousness.

To emphasize this, Jesus refers to another Old Testament law which said that only the priests could eat the showbread that was offered to God in the temple each Sabbath (Leviticus 24:5-9). Yet, when David was fleeing for his life from Saul, and his men were hungry, the high priest made an exception to the rule (1 Samuel 21:1-6). Something greater was at stake than just a matter of outward regulations. Human need is of higher concern to God than religious ritualism.

Here Matthew’s account records more of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees. Jesus went on to remind them how even the priests worked on the Sabbath as part of their ministry at the temple (Matthew 12:5). We might compare this to pastors who work on Sundays by preaching God’s Word. Again, when the Pharisees condemned Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath, He asked: “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:11-12). We might compare this to a farmer who must work with a veterinarian to save a dying cow during church time, or a doctor who is required to perform emergency surgery. It is not that they sinfully choose to neglect and despise God’s Word and Sacrament, but they are doing necessary good in their God-given callings.

Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 12:7-8: If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” God is not interested in slavish obedience to laws, but in matters of the heart. Where the heart is focused on Christ as the Savior, the soul truly is enjoying God’s Sabbath rest, whatever day of the week it is.

Regarding our own heart focus, caution is in order. We may very well conform to God’s will outwardly, but in our heart be doing it for wrong reasons. Our sinful nature relishes thoughts like: “Look at me, with such good church attendance. Look at me, with all the ways I serve and sacrifice in God’s house.” There is a Pharisee in us that jealously guards an image of self-righteousness. Perhaps on church day, we convey a more spiritual self than on other days. Yet, we may not actually be taking God’s Word to heart, but thinking of everything else we would be doing if church were done and we could be on the run again. So we make the Lord’s Day into just another day of focusing on our work, just another day on the job. We can actually miss out on the rest God wants to give our souls – just as those who stay away from church do.

2) But as God’s gracious gift

Here Jesus concludes by giving us a right focus in our worship: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, God does not give us regular Christian worship as a burden we have to perform, but as a gracious gift. After all, the Divine Service, as the name implies, is not really about what we do to serve God. It is all about what God is doing to serve us. It is all about God bringing His Sabbath rest to us in the name of Jesus. Through His Word and Sacraments, God serves us with the forgiveness and eternal life Jesus earned for us.

Jesus says: “Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.” All those Old Testament laws, including the Sabbath Day, were mere shadows pointing to Christ (Colossians 2:16-17). They are not fulfilled by sinful man, but by the perfect Son of Man. Jesus has become our Sabbath by fulfilling the Law and all righteousness for us. We can truly rest in God’s presence as He calls us righteous for Jesus’ sake. Jesus has become our Sabbath by removing all our sins from us on the cross. We can truly rest in God’s presence as He fully forgives us for Jesus’ sake.

Therefore Jesus invites us: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). We need that rest, don’t we? We come to His house because we have huge burdens of sin to confess and lay on Him. We come because we are heavy laden with all our failures week after week to love and serve in our family, our workplace, and every calling. We come because we are weary of struggling day after day with health troubles, relationship frustrations, job dissatisfaction, future concerns, and all the troubles of life. We come before the Lord as weary travelers in a sin-fallen world who desperately need His rest. And while we pass through the fields of this world and pluck the heads of grain by which He sustains us in this journey, above all, our hearts look forward to His promised heavenly rest.

Dear followers of Christ, let us enjoy our Sabbath rest, not only one hour on Sunday morning, but each and every hour. For like those first disciples, we walk with Jesus every day. It is not a burden, but a gracious gift, that we can open His Word daily, commit our needs to Him in prayer, and hear Him say: “Be at rest; I forgive all your sins. Be at rest; you are in My loving care.” It is not a burden, but a gracious gift, that we can keep meeting together around His Word and Sacraments, receiving His gift of forgiveness and eternal life. It is a high point in the week as God’s family that we can meet in our Father’s house, be strengthened in faith by His promises, and mutually encourage one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. So let us enjoy our Sabbath rest in Christ, and go forth into the new week refreshed in the joy of His salvation, serving Him gladly… until that great Day when He will bring us to His blessed heavenly rest.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.