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“What’s a Sabbath For? Who Needs One?”

Feb.26/12 Mk.2:23-3:6


As time goes on, the pace of life seems to get faster and faster. Back in the horse-and-buggy days, before appliances, before electricity and the telephone, the ‘world’ in which country folk lived was basically just a few miles wide. A lot has changed in a century! Now with cars and excellent roads, we think nothing of driving to Ottawa after church for a quick visit with family. Communications improvements have shrunk the globe dramatically: now it’s as easy to call Japan or Jasper as to call St.Jacobs. With the internet, if a tsunami strikes the shores of southeast Asia, we can be watching it from our living room within minutes. We anticipate our weekly Skype video call connecting family from several provinces at once. Throw in social networking through Facebook and Twitter, streaming news feeds, and you can have instant programming 24/7: the world crowds in, it can even be hard to turn it off.
    Back then, our options for what to do on a Sunday afternoon were limited; today, it’s hard to know where to begin - so many options vie for your attention.
    When we lived on St.Joseph Island, our family occasionally got to help some dear senior friends make apple cider - by hand. You took the chopped-up apples and piled them in several layers of cheesecloth. This was held within something that looked like a barrel whose staves had been partly exploded – there were gaps between the upright wood strips that held the cheesecloth in but let the juice out. Then you turned a big screw on top that pressed a plate down onto the cheesecloth bag, squishing the apple mash tighter and tighter until as much juice as possible had been squeezed out.
    Sometimes modern life feels a lot like that apple cider press. Between work obligations, and play options, and family responsibilities, life quickly becomes fully booked. You can arrive at the end of the week exhausted, and realize you’ve just got to turn around and do it all over again; you start to feel like that squished pulp, everything’s been drained out of you.
    Know that at that very moment, you have a Saviour who cares for you, and can offer a way to be revived. You don’t think He and the disciples ever felt that life was that busy? Check out Mark 6:31, which pertains to a time when they’d just returned from an exciting preaching mission: “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."”
    Here we catch a glimpse into the heart of the Lord of the Sabbath: He’s merciful to us mere mortals, He desires us to be rested and refreshed. The Lord’s Day is not meant to be a restrictive burden, but a gift by which we can both honour God and bless Him for His sovereign provision, AND be healed and strengthened.
    You may have seen the move Amazing Grace featuring British prime minister William Wilberforce who doggedly kept on in his fight to abolish slavery. This important and famous statesman wrote this in his journal about his Sundays: “Blessed be God for the day of rest and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size.”


We pick up our text at Mark 2:23; this is the fourth conflict with religious authorities that Jesus has since the beginning of the chapter. He’s rapidly developing a reputation with them as a rebel - at least as far as THEY’RE concerned. They’ve taken to watching him closely; David McKenna comments that they “have taken to lurking behind every grainstalk.”
    Now, remember that rural Palestine did not enjoy good Roman roads everywhere, no 66-foot road allowance as we have today: back in those parts, people travelled using wide paths, not much more than donkey-trails, so the vegetation in the fields would grow up close at hand on either side. V23, “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain.” By the Pharisees’ definitions, to pluck a head of wheat or barley was technically to ‘reap’, and to rub it in your hand was to ‘thresh’. By the way, they weren’t stealing - Deuteronomy 23(25) allowed travellers this freedom. But because it’s the Sabbath, the lurking Pharisees jump out from behind their respective grainstalks and exclaim in v24, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
    Let’s pause at this point and review what this word ‘Sabbath’ was all about. It comes from a Hebrew root meaning to cease or desist, to rest, to refresh. In Genesis 2:2 God rested from all His work of creating on the seventh day, so blessed that day and made it holy, setting it apart as belonging to Him.(Ex 31:17) When the Hebrew released slaves are travelling from Egypt to Sinai through the wilderness, double the manna is given on the sixth day so they don’t have to go out and collect it on the seventh; they can rest. What a contrast to Pharaoh’s tyranny and slave-driving tactics, that added to their burden by forcing them to collect straw for bricks as well and still meet their daily quota! See here the basic dynamic of sabbath: not only resting on man’s part, but also offsetting blessing on God’s part, double-dose. The Lord says to Moses, “Bear in mind that the LORD has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days..." So the people rested on the seventh day. (Ex 16:29f) The Lord gives it as a gift, a benefit or help.
    In Exodus 20(11) at Mount Sinai, Sabbath observance is incorporated into respect for God’s things in the Ten Commandments: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” When Moses gives a recap of the law in Deuteronomy 5(14f), a second rationale is added: “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work...so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.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.” Hear the difference? There’s a humanitarian aspect: God gave YOU a break by saving you from those Egyptian bullies; so you give YOUR workers a break, too!
    God knows we are fallen, and can be greedy, heartless, Scroogish when we’re in charge over other people. Sabbath then sets limits to our exploitive tendency to drive hard out slaves or employees or even ourselves; it limits our authority, our tyranny, and reminds us who’s REALLY ‘boss’! We don’t ‘own’ that day, God does, it belongs to Yahweh - whose pleasure is to let people rest and rejoice in Him.
    So the Sabbath became a strict observance in Israel. In Numbers 15(32ff) a man who is found gathering wood on the Sabbath day is stoned to death. Nehemiah and the prophets called the people to repent of their Sabbath-breaking ways: Isaiah 58:13f, “"If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the LORD’s holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the LORD, and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob." The mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Note how he frames it: not a day for doing ‘just as you please’ but to delight in doing God’s will, to ‘find your joy in the Lord’ and enjoy His blessing. He’s the One who can cause us to ‘feast’, it’s not just a matter of our own effort, or the amount of overtime our employees put in. Blessings will flow from a proper observance of the Sabbath.
    Hold onto that general principle. Unfortunately, in the time between Old and New Testaments, experts’ understanding of the purpose of the sabbath changed. Oral tradition developed which majored in the minors, they got incredibly picky, as in how far you could walk on the sabbath, whether you could eat an egg cooked on the Sabbath, etc. The ‘oral tradition’ of the experts became more important than the original intent of God’s command. The New Bible Dictionary notes, “Two tractates of the Mishnah...are devoted to a consideration of how the sabbath was to be observed in detail.It was against this burdening of the commands of God with human tradition that our Lord inveighed.His remarks were not directed against the institution of the sabbath as such and not against the Old Testament teaching.But He did oppose the Pharisees who had made the Word of God of none effect with their tradition.”
    So when the Pharisees protest to Jesus that His disciples are doing what is ‘unlawful’, He might have been tempted to ask, “By whose definition of ‘lawful’? Are YOU the authority, or Moses?” But instead of resorting to word-wars, He appeals to the authority of Scripture, and their esteemed ancestor King David. In Vv25-26 Jesus recalls how David was given bread from the priests that was generally intended for them alone to eat, because he was ‘hungry and in need’. Consider the state of the individual before being quick to condemn. Ahimelech, the priest at the time, was MERCIFUL: he made a concession, given that David and his men were ceremonially clean. Ahimelech gave David bread AND Goliath’s sword AND guidance; as a result, later Ahimelech was condemned to death by jealous King Saul for conspiracy because he helped David (1Sam 22:16f).
    This is a doubly interesting passage for Jesus to pick: not only does it authoritatively support a merciful approach to sabbath-keeping; just as Ahimelech was killed for helping David, Jesus is about to be condemned to death by the Pharisees (3:6) for calling for mercy for His disciples.
    In v27 He reminds them about the whole purpose of the thing: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The day belongs to God, but He has also given it to us for rest and refreshment. Robertson comments that Christ here “subordinates the sabbath to man’s real welfare.”
    V28 follows, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Jesus is in an indirect way claiming authority for Himself to interpret the Sabbath-laws as God originally intended, not as religion had twisted them to become burdensome. God’s in charge, not us – that limits our bossiness, our right to accuse others, how hard we are with them and even ourselves. The Sabbath is meant to be a relief-valve in the pressure-cooker of life.
    William Wilberforce (the British PM we mentioned earlier) also wrote this in his journal about two political friends who committed suicide: “With peaceful Sundays, the strings would never have snapped as they did from over-tension.” What about your Sundays? Is there time for peace, to slack off the strings so you don’t ‘snap’?


Verses 1-6 in chapter 3 represent conflict number 5 between Jesus and the religious authorities. In baseball it’s ‘3 strikes and you’re out’: here we see that it’s conflict #5 that seals Jesus’ doom. In the space of just one chapter, Jesus has gone from a wonderful miracle-worker to a religious outlaw with a price on His head.
    3:1 begins, “Another time he went into the synagogue...” It was Jesus’ custom to attend synagogue on the Sabbath; Luke 4:16 records, “...on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue, as was His custom.” In the early church, this ‘custom’ of gathering to worship weekly with those who believed in God naturally was transferred from the seventh day (the Jewish Sabbath) to the first day, when Easter happened - Resurrection day. In Revelation 1:10 John refers to it as ‘the Lord’s Day’; Acts 20:7 indicates Christians came together on the first day of the week to break bread; 1Corinthians 16:2 also shows they gathered with their offering on Sunday. Historical documents such as Justin Martyr’s Apology also indicate the church’s practice was to gather on Sunday.
    Sunday is ‘church day’! My father and mother made sure they took us to church; that implicitly showed they were choosing to submit their authority to the Lord’s authority. It can be tempting at times to just laze at home or amuse ourselves as so many non-believers do, but Hebrews 10(25) urges, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another...” You may be able to pray to God in the back 40, but you can’t meet with others and encourage them solo.
    Back to the text. At the synagogue was a man with a shriveled hand, perhaps injured or diseased and paralyzed. But v2 notes some there with an even more serious condition: shriveled hearts! “Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath.” By now we’re long past the point of objectivity: the Pharisees are ‘looking for a reason to accuse’ Him, they intend to do it – they’re just waiting for the grounds, the excuse. They have murder in their hearts. So they ‘watched Him closely’ - Wycliffe translates this, “they aspieden Him” - they ‘played the spy’, they’re being sneaky, covert ops here. But who are they trying to fool? Remember from 2:8, Jesus knew what they were thinking in their hearts. Shriveled hand - shriveled heart: who has the worse condition? V5, Jesus “looked around at them in anger” and is “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts”; NRSV, “grieved at their hardness of heart”, NLT “deeply saddened by their hard hearts.” Angry and sad both at the same time. The Greek word means ‘to cover with thick skin, to harden by covering with a callus’; their hearts were hardened, not tender and circumcised.
    Incidentally, some of you may have seen the CBC documentary Thursday night on ‘Sext Up Kids’; one statistic said 70-80% of teenage boys are watching porn.  The website went on to note that, as a result, when these guys do find the right woman for them eventually, they may find they’re unable to form a relationship. Sexual sin has so scarred or numbed their heart, their emotional capacity, they can’t meaningfully bond on that level. As Proverbs 4(23) says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”
    Spies may be sneaky, but Jesus by contrast seizes this opportunity as a teachable moment, to make a point. He’s very intentional and deliberate as He says to the man, “Stand up in front of everyone:” how brave Jesus is! Such courage! He has more than an inkling that if He proceeds, the man’s hand will be healed but He Himself will be ‘putting His neck in a noose’, so to speak. But like Ahimelech daring to help fugitive David on Saul’s most-wanted list, Jesus dares to help this man even though that’s putting Himself on the most-wanted list of the Palestinian powers-that-be.
    But before He does, He pauses to make His point. V4, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” Which is lawful – what’s the real purpose or aim of the Sabbath, its root meaning or intent? He poses 2 extremes: do good / do evil, save life / or kill. Of course it’s a rhetorical question, anyone with a heart MUST answer positively: it’s to do good, to save life (same verb as ‘to heal’), to HELP mankind as God first designed the day. Jesus’ ‘middle name’ (actually His first name, Yeshua) is “The Lord saves / heals / makes whole”.
    But his opponents offer only a stony silence; they refuse to answer because they’re determined to hang onto their legalistic club, they’re ready to hammer someone.
    V5, Jesus looked around at them in anger, saddened / grieved at their hard, stubborn hearts. Yes He was angry; “anger against wrong as wrong is a sign of moral health” (Gould). Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand” - setting in motion a profound and disturbing string of events: the man’s hand was completely restored, BUT v6, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” Because the man was able to stretch out his hand, Jesus would have His own hands stretched out and nailed to a cruel cross (cf Jn 21:18).


The Sabbath carries an element of God’s mercy to us, His creatures. By these two incidents Jesus showed the real role of the Sabbath is for, not against, people’s nurture, refreshment, strengthening, and healing. In its best application, the Sabbath both encourages us to honour God and restores us, is a saving / wholistic agent in our lives. The New Bible Dictionary comments, “To heal was a work of mercy, and the Lord of the Sabbath is merciful.”
    In the parallel passage in Matthew 12(7), Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” God invites us to be more loving than legalistic, to not let our religiosity become deadly, life-sucking. Legalism has the tone, “I’m going to make somebody else pay” - like the Pharisees just waiting and watching to catch Jesus in some slip-up. Mercy, however, absorbs the cost somebody else can’t pay: Ahimelech was merciful to David, he ‘took the hit’ of Saul’s fury; Jesus is merciful to us - He ‘took your hit’ by saving you, even though it required Him to go to the cross.
    One little closing note: honouring the Lord’s Day can be a way of having mercy on yourself. Our bodies, it seems, are wired to do best when we yield to Jesus’ authority and pause for a day from pushing ourselves. US News & World Report notes the following from a magazine put out by Blue Cross: “A recent long-term study of executive heart-attack victims shows that 75% of those who died at work died on Monday.Of those who died at home, 50% also died on Monday.A major factor in those deaths (says the magazine) was the ‘Monday Blues’ associated with returning to work after an exhausting weekend.” Resting on Sunday apparently helps us not blow an adrenaline gasket! Take time for the Lord; have mercy on yourself and those you love. Let’s pray.