June 3, 2018
Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:26--3:6
Today we begin eight weeks working our way through the Gospel of Mark, so I wanted to give you a little overview of that Gospel. I’ll tell you more about some specific themes as we encounter them, but today we’ll start with a couple general things.
First, Mark’s Gospel is down-and-dirty. It is super fast-paced and has a sort of frenetic energy about it, like he’s just so excited to get this story out he can’t be bothered with things like smooth transitions or having all the theological pieces in place. Compare that to John, who is so diligent about how things fit together, and these long, beautiful, even poetic theological discourses – nope, not Mark. Mark’s Gospel is marked by rough edges, ineloquent transitions, and the use of the word “immediately,” which appears dozens of times. It is raw and energetic, enthusiastic and exciting.
Why is Mark so urgent and excited? It has to do with his context. His is the earliest Gospel to be written, right around the year 70. The first generation of Christians, those who knew Jesus, has begun to die off, and there is a need now to write down this story. In addition, the world is in turmoil, with wars and threats and danger round every corner. Christianity is about 40 years old, and they have been waiting for what they thought was Jesus’ imminent return – but after 40 years he still hasn’t come, so surely all this turmoil means he is coming soon! So Mark is rushing to get this story out just as quickly as he can, to share this amazing good news with as many people as possible. Although all the resulting rough edges can be jarring and frustrating for a casual reader, they also provide ample opportunity for us to read ourselves into the story – and that is just what Mark intends for us to do: to see ourselves as one of the disciples, on this journey with Jesus.
Now, the story we hear today comes early in Jesus’ ministry, but Jesus has already begun to make a name for himself. By this point he has already performed many healings and people seek him out for help. But he’s also managed to upset a lot of people, and so he is being watched. After Jesus appears today to violate the Sabbath – twice – some of those people are so upset that they already begin to plot against him, and it’s only chapter 3!
But that question – about whether Jesus does, in fact, violate the Sabbath – is at the heart of today’s Gospel reading. And so first we will hear what, in fact, the law says about the Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is from the 10 Commandments, and it is the explanation of why we are to keep the Sabbath. Then in the two stories in Mark, we see Jesus living out this law in a way that the keepers and interpreters of the law, the Pharisees, did not approve. Yet Jesus teaches us something very important about the place of Sabbath-keeping as people of faith. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” It’s an important story for the Israelites: the story of how God’s people were slaves, brutally treated with no rest, and God sent Moses to stand up to Pharaoh and lead them all out, through the Red Sea, and into freedom. It’s no surprise that it holds such an important place in Jewish and also Christian faith. It is a story that shows us that our God is a God who wants us to be free, who hates slavery. Our God is a liberating God! Our God wants us to have life, and to be captive to nothing and no one – not a king, not a situation, not our sin – and will go to great lengths to show us that.
Christians, of course, are all about the resurrection story, as we should be, and that is also a story about freedom, because on the cross, Jesus frees us from sins. But there is something so earthy and cool about that Exodus story, isn’t there? To literally march out of slavery, through a huge body of water as if being washed of all that used to bind them (just like a baptism, right?), even as that which would hold them captive still chases after them, and then for that same body of water to drown all the captors! Come on, it’s a great story!
It’s no wonder that God makes a whole commandment to help God’s people remember it. “Remember that you were slaves,” God says, “And now, because of me, you are not. So one day each week, don’t do any work, alright? And don’t make anyone else do any work either!” It’s as if God is saying, “I went to pretty great lengths to make sure you would be free from slavery, so don’t go and make yourselves into slaves by working all the time!”
You see, it is truly a grace-filled commandment, an insistence that we remember all that God has done for us, that ours is a God of freedom. This commandment is a gift to us. As Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, so don’t get confused and think that humankind was made to be anything but free on the Sabbath. Just take a day, one day, to remember that God wants for you to be free and to have life.
And yet, we do a pretty darn good job of breaking that commandment, don’t we? Oh, maybe you think, “Well I go to church, I pray, I’m doing fine!” But to think of the Sabbath only as “going to church” is a narrow understanding of it. While going to church is a great way to remember the Sabbath, it is so much bigger than that! To truly honor the Sabbath, is to celebrate our freedom, our life, and also to help others find that same freedom and life.
That’s what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading today. You see, the Pharisees have that narrow understanding of Sabbath. They stop at “you mustn’t work” and forget about why we mustn’t work – that is, so that we might celebrate our liberated life, and help others do the same. When Jesus sees a man with a withered hand, he sees someone who is unable truly to celebrate his freedom. He cannot work, he cannot participate in his community or support his family, and because of this, his culture sees him as less-than, as an unimportant, non-contributing member of society. When Jesus heals his withered hand, it is not so much about the hand. It is about him being restored socially, restored to wholeness and dignity.
In other words, the man receives life and liberation. It’s exactly the sort of “remembering the Sabbath” that glorifies God.
But I think we sometimes struggle with this just as much as the Pharisees… because we all find ourselves captive to something. Sometimes it is something physical, like an illness, or injury, or just the natural consequences of growing old. But I’m thinking more about the more spiritual captivities in which we find ourselves: the ones whose chains are made of our guilt, or doubt, or resentment, or anger, the ones whose shackles are an unwillingness to forgive, whose iron bars are the belief that we are somehow not worthy of God’s love and grace. Those are the captivities to which I think we are all prone to find ourselves. These feelings, they hold us back from fully celebrating the life we have been given in Jesus Christ, and the liberation that God wants for us.
We know that God wants freedom for us – if the Exodus event weren’t enough, we have the fact that God came to earth to dwell among us, then brought all of our sin with him to the cross, dying, and rising again so that we wouldn’t have to fear death and the devil. If God really wanted us to continue living in the captivity of our fears, guilt, anger, etc. then why would God go to such great lengths to give us otherwise, to show us another way?
God dearly wants us to remember the Sabbath, to remember that we were slaves, but no longer are because of the saving work of our almighty God – the God who led the Israelites across the Red Sea, and the God who died on a cross and rose again.
And that, actually, is why coming to worship is a great way to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Because when we gather here, we tell this story. We remember it together, with and for one another. We hear of God’s grace and unlimited love for us, love not because we are good, but because God is. And then, as Jesus said to the man with the withered hand, he says to us, “Come forward.” Come forward and receive this life-giving meal, this remembrance of God’s story and work. “Stretch out your hand,” he says, and receive this bread of life and wine of salvation. And in receiving this grace, we, the men and women with the withered souls, are restored.
Remember the Sabbath, brothers and sisters. Remember that you are free. Remember that no chains in this world are more powerful than God’s ability to break them. Remember that nothing you could say or do would put you out of the reach of God’s love and grace. Let us live this story, and seek to find ourselves in it.
Let us pray… Lord of the Sabbath, free us from all that would hold us back. Help us to remember to give thanks, on the Sabbath and every day, that you are a God who liberates us from sin and death. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.