October 11, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And it happened that when Jesus went to the house of a certain ruler of the Pharisees on a Sabbath to eat bread, they were watching Him maliciously. And behold, a man who had edema was before Him. And questioning, Jesus spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “It is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, isn’t it?” (vv 1-3). You can just see this whole spectacle unfold—Pharisees jockeying for position at the arch-Pharisee’s table, all eyes on Jesus, and then a man with edema—dropsy as many English translations put it; congestive heart failure as your doctor would put it—is shuffled in before Him. “What’s He going to do?” They all think.
Then Jesus’ question: It is lawful to heal on the Sabbath, isn’t it? Do you hear the sarcasm in Jesus’ voice? He perceives the snare that these teachers of the Law are laying for Him because He perceives their hearts. This dinner invitation wasn’t to honor Jesus, or to celebrate His ministry. It was set up precisely to see what He would do when presented with a sick man on the Sabbath. Would He do good and break the Sabbath with work, or would He keep the Sabbath undefiled and not do good? They think that they have Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
When God gave His commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, He added this commentary on the Third Commandment: Remember to keep the Sabbath day holy. Six days you should labor and do all your work, but on the seventh, the rest day of the LORD your God, do not do any work — you, your son, daughter, male or female slave, your cattle, and your foreigner who is within your gates. In six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, and on the seventh day He rested. This is why the LORD blessed the rest day and made it holy (Ex 20:8-11 AAT).
So that these divine instructions would not be defiled, the millennia of Jewish commentary heaped upon God’s own word have arrived at some very precise definitions of what actually constitutes work on a Sabbath day. Here are a couple of examples of Sabbath laws from a modern Jewish commentator: “Lights which will be needed on Shabbat are turned on before Shabbat. Automatic timers may be used for lights and some appliances as long as they have been set before Shabbat. The refrigerator may be used, but again, we have to ensure that its use does not engender any of the forbidden Shabbat activities. Thus, the fridge light should be disconnected before Shabbat by unscrewing the bulb slightly and a freezer whose fan is activated when the door is opened may not be used.”
“Many objects have been designated by our sages as Muktzah–we are forbidden from moving them, in some cases, even for activities permitted on Shabbat. Muktzah may not be moved directly with one’s hand or even indirectly with an object (such as sweeping it away with a broom). However, Muktzah may be moved in a very awkward, unusual manner, with other parts of the body, e.g.: with one’s teeth or elbow, or by blowing on it.”
Here’s the irony. It probably takes more work to rest according to all the rules and regulations for Sabbath observance, than it would be to actually work. And that’s the perversion of the Sabbath that Jesus addresses in today’s Gospel—the Law-loving Pharisees even managed to turn rest into a work.
Jesus says to the Pharisees earlier in His public ministry, The Sabbath was made for the sake of man, not man for the sake of the Sabbath (Mk 2:27). The order of creation bears this out. Man was made first—day 6, the crown of God’s very good creation. The Sabbath didn’t come until after man was created. For one whole day in the beginning there was man and woman and no Sabbath. The next day was the day of rest, the day when God rested from His labors. But God does not grow weary; He doesn’t need a breather from all the hard work of the six days. He creates the Sabbath for man. The day of rest is for man to rest, to be refreshed, for recreation. That’s the outward effect of this Law—not so that man could create a unique kind of work for that day.
When Jesus cures the man with edema, He says, “Which one of you, having a son or an ox who falls into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (v 5). The sad answer to the question is that there were probably some among those gathered who would not have a quick answer to that question. With the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, Jesus cuts to the heart of the Pharisees’ disobedience, as well as our own.
Just as it was not enough for the Jews to keep the Sabbath by simply avoiding work, so also, it’s not enough for us to keep the Sabbath day holy by simply going to Church. This commandment is not kept by sitting in a pew, being in the presence of the soundwaves of preaching, it’s not enough to put a Bible or a devotional book in front of your face. It’s not even enough to sincerely listen to every word the preacher preaches and to take copious, color-coded notes in your Bible. You profane the Sabbath day if you turn these things into a work. If you go to Church out of duty to God (or perhaps your grandmother), if you study Scripture to prove to God that you can defeat atheists in debates, if you hang on the preacher’s every words just so that you can get your sermon notes done for the week, you are profaning the Sabbath day. You may be keeping the letter of the Law, but the letter, St. Paul says, kills.
Long before the Sabbath day was a Law, it was a promise. The Law, Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, didn’t come until thousands of years after the Sabbath was first instituted. It didn’t have to be a Law in the beginning. The Sabbath was made for the sake of man, to be a gift of refreshment, to be a day of recreation. But by recreation, I don’t mean throwing the football around, hiking through the woods, or going to see a movie. By recreation I mean re-creation. For six days man was given to work, but on the seventh day, man rests and God goes to work.
The Sabbath was made for man, and in particular it was made for one very unique Man. The Son of God, who became also the Son of Man, worked six long days beginning with a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. For the first five days, He taught and prayed, prayed and taught. He gave a New Testament in His own body and blood. His work was crowned on the sixth day with a circle of thorns as He hung upon the cross, bleeding for the sins of the world. No harder work has ever been done, no heavier burden has ever been borne. As the sun set on that sixth day and the Jews were working to prepare for their rest, Jesus breathed His last breath and the faithful rushed Him into a borrowed grave so that they would not have to break the Sabbath.
And for the seventh day, Jesus rested. It was finished.
Jesus rested like no man had rested before. Deep in the heart of the earth, Jesus buried the sins that He bore to the cross—including yours. During His Sabbath rest, He put to rest every profaned Sabbath. The Third Commandment was the last commandment that Jesus perfectly fulfilled in the rest of death.
But on the next day, the first day of the week—or, rather, the eighth day of the previous week—Jesus awoke from His Sabbath rest. His lungs drew new breath. He rose from His stony bed and began a new creation. He appeared to His disciples and spoke them that Sunday. He blessed them, and forgave them. But He didn’t limit His Word only to that Sunday. Other days of the week, Jesus appeared as well, but always on Sunday.
The pattern continued after Jesus ascended to heaven as well—the disciples were daily in the temple preaching. St. Luke tells us in Acts 20:27 that years later the custom of the disciples was to meet on the first day of the week to break bread. In other words, it was the apostolic custom, patterned after Jesus Himself, to meet every Sunday for preaching and the Lord’s Supper.
The Sabbath day is no longer limited to only one day of the week. Any day becomes a Sabbath day when it is sanctified by God’s Word and work. It’s not just the church-going, the preaching, the Bible-reading, or the devotional that keeps the Sabbath. It’s the faith that rests in the presence of God and receives His work, His re-creation.
With a couple of sentences and a compassionate touch, Jesus teaches us what is lawful on the Sabbath. That Sabbath Law is fulfilled when Jesus brings His healing and re-creation. The man with edema was cured by a Word and a touch. You are also cured by a Word and a touch, or you might say the Word and the Sacrament. These are the means by which God works for you and in you. These are the promises that the work that pleases God has already been done, and that the rest that pleases God has already been done. These are the means by which you find true rest. These are the means by which the Spirit gives life to what the letter of the Law kills.
The Sabbath Is for Re-Creation
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard