Jesus Is Lord of the Sabbath
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
3 Another time, Jesus went into the synagogue again and noticed a man with a deformed hand. 2 Since it was the Sabbath, Jesus’ enemies watched him closely. If he healed the man’s hand, they planned to accuse him of working on the Sabbath.
3 Jesus said to the man with the deformed hand, “Come and stand in front of everyone.” 4 Then he turned to his critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer him.
5 He looked around at them angrily and was deeply saddened by their hard hearts. Then he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” So the man held out his hand, and it was restored! 6 At once the Pharisees went away and met with the supporters of Herod to plot how to kill Jesus.
God has a wonderful sense of humour, with a significant dollop of irony coupled with an ability of course to oversee timing. And he enjoys this in combination.
When invited to speak again at Hambledon, I was given a particular reading for next Sunday then through a mixup, and these things happen, Gertrude prepared it instead. As I hadn’t started mine, I was more than happy to swop. Duly turned to the passage. A reading about legalism, pedantic nitpicking and criticism of lawyers, the Pharisees in those days. To misquote Sir Alan Sugar, God was having a right old laugh. What are you going to do about that one, he was saying. This will be interesting he thought. Don’t we just enjoy being in relationship with people we love and trust and who can have a laugh with us.
But as I didn’t feel any strong compulsion to deal with legalism, apart from being able to share in the irony of how the timing had gone, I’m not covering it. Maybe another day with more time. This passage in Mark chapter 3 is about the sabbath. But so are the previous verses in Mark which is why I have read out both passages combined. I’m sure when Mark was gathering his material for the first written gospel, it had a chronological element. But I’m also sure it was a gathering together in themes and topics. I don’t believe these were consecutive Sundays. They are two elements which I think Mark wants us to read together and whoever were the worthy people who decided on the Bible’s chapter breaks, they got this one wrong.
The Religious leaders at the time in Israel were also lawyers in that they set the religious law which was the law. Even at this early stage in Jesus ministry they were looking to trap him and, bluntly, kill him to stop his ministry. And to do so they used legal devices of the laws they had themselves created. But these were technical and pedantic laws they themselves had added to the Jewish law, the Torah. They had created very strict rules on what you could, and more precisely couldn’t, do on a sabbath. Rules still being observed strongly today in parts of the Jewish community in London and elsewhere. But let us strip away those legalistic rules. Back to first principles. What did God say initially? Ten Commandments. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Exodus 20.8. It then goes on to speak in the context of not working and rest and holiness, following God’s example in creating everything in six days and resting on the seventh.
So this is asking questions of us about the sabbath. What we now have as Sunday. And it calls us to examine how we are spending Sundays, or the sabbath, separate day. Would we heal somebody if for example we couldn’t do so on Saturday or Monday and therefore leave them in their state? Would we do urgent, needed work if again we couldn’t on Saturday or Monday? And how do we actually spend our Sunday?
I have only limited time but let us just share some elements.
Let us start with who moved the sabbath. Sunday instead of the Jewish sabbath of dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday. It wasn’t Rome, the dominant world leader at the time, as it doesn’t explain why the orthodox church, the Armenian and Coptic church also worships on a Sunday. It wasn’t the Emperor Constantine. He did a lot to help the Christian church at the time from the top. He certainly changed the week from 10 days to 7 days. But Christians were already worshipping on a Sunday and his purpose was to make it easier for them once a week. In fact it was the early Christians. Across the Christian church by the end of the century in which our Lord lived, they were worshipping on a Sunday. They did so because it was the day of the resurrection, a testimony by them of the importance of Christ rising from the dead. It was then and now the central point of faith. It was their distinctiveness from their surrounding Jewish culture. It was also the day of so-called first fruits which Paul uses to describe Christ. The early Christians took the sabbath and made it Sunday.
We associate Sunday with going to church, to worship. In fact the sabbath commandments do not require worship on the sabbath. They prohibit work. Of course it’s a pretty easy inference to say that if one is going to worship together, it’s easier on a day when everyone is not working. So it is in cultures where the nonworking day is not Sunday. The vicar of my church in Sydney now works in the emirates and it’s always a delight for Ann and I when passing through to go to their services. On a Friday. That’s the day the emirates don’t work. Their holy day. And so all the Christians gather together on a Friday throughout the day in worship. No one is working. It is perfect sense.
Gathering together as a Christian community has been a strength of the Christian church worldwide and throughout history. It is today. And that is not possible if a large part of that community is at work. This is one of the challenges facing us in 2020 as it has for the past 35 years and more. In 1985 there was a major campaign to open up shops on a Sunday. I declare an interest. I was strongly involved in what was then known as the keep Sunday special campaign. Shop opening was promoted by an alliance led by B&Q. It was a really tough campaign. Christians found themselves working closely with the unions who were anxious about the impact on workers. Thank God, we won. I still remember the Parliamentary outcome. The same day Ronald Reagan bombed Libya, April 1986. 10 years later the campaign was renewed. I wasn’t so involved second time round. There was now limited shopping including garden centres. There was clear inconsistencies in the law as it was applied. Evidence suggested Christians were keen to shop; many of us felt the 1986 campaign had not been echoed in pulpits. And so Sunday trading was greatly introduced. Six hours maximum with, at least in law, some protection for employees. In 2006 there was a review but no change made. Only a few weeks ago there was a proposal to help the economy on lockdown by extending Sunday trading and again that was unsuccessful. It is not just evangelical Christians who have an anxiety of seven identical days each week. But of course we now have all amenities open. Sunday may not now be when the country goes to church but it is when it goes to leisure whether National trust properties, the cinema, sport or whatever.
And some of us of a certain vintage will have noticed a significant change in the patterns of Christians who are generation and more ago would have had a very different Sunday experience. Let me say it. Sundays were grim. We didn’t work but that was about it.
When people are not working such long hours and days, the differential of Sunday disappears. But when we are, we really value Sunday. When I was growing up, my father used to go into work on a Saturday morning and he really valued Sunday. When I was studying at the College of Law, living in Godalming and attending Busbridge church, it was intensive, full on six months course, six days a week and I really valued those Sundays. I couldn’t have got through those six months without having every Sunday off. I spent this July book writing with a strict deadline of the end of July. I was working six days, long days, and the Sunday off was so important. I believe we value Sundays even more when we are in intensive work
The word sabbath means rest. And this should be our guiding principle. Rest does not mean work. Sometimes I and other Christians may work for a short time on a Sunday because it gives us a more restful state of mind for the start of the working week. I don’t think there should be any guilt. Sometimes we will miss church because we are travelling to see family or friends. I don’t think there should be any guilt. Some will have no choice except to work on a Sunday. The emergency services of course and not a narrow definition. Look at the Bible reading. Jesus refers to what David had done when he and his companions were hungry and, crucial words, in need. This being in need is not a blanket exemption for any work on a Sunday but I believe we are entitled to seek his will about Sunday work on this principle found in Mark. Some will be in employment during the week which makes it impossible not to do some Sunday shifts. It is the state of our country, economy and workplace. I myself don’t believe it is a reason necessarily to turn down a job offer. Many Christians would say it would be better to be in work with some Sunday work than without. I appreciate and respect some may have other opinions.
So it is about rest. And having a rest makes it easier and better to work. Much is written about the benefits of exercise leading to benefits for work and life. Much less about the benefits of one day a week off leading to the benefits for work and life, but it is the same principle. God made us body as well as soul. Some of us during lockdown have been working far longer hours, without having to commute, and finding ourselves in a very unfit state. Having rest is a spiritual principle for our well-being everyday. If time permitted I would have looked at the Jubilee principle, of rest every seven years and then every 49 years. I think it’s still got something to say for our economic life including how we deal with debt.
So how do you spend Sunday? Of course it is a wonderful opportunity when most are not working, to gather together in worship, praise and fellowship, and we should and we must. We must hold on to our Sunday distinctiveness as a Christian community in our country. We should still do our best to prevent laws which will detract or imperil that opportunity for us as a Christian church. But we must also look to how to rest positively. Okay that might be simply zonked out on the sofa. A literal rest. But the Bible expects rest to be a positive, active event. How we spend a day of rest will be different at different stages of our lives. How we spend it will be different if we are on our own or with others. It will be different for families with children and for those retired. Fortunately we have moved away from a Christian tradition that imposes a straitjacket on our lives.
Sabbath was made for man. It was made for rest. It was made for us to have the opportunity therefore to come together. It was made for our bodies to recover after a hard working week. It was made for our minds to have a chance to focus on different things. It was made for positive activities, for enjoyment and fun, for difference, and for healing of mind and body and soul as we saw in the passage.
Jesus loved the sabbath and he loved the opportunity of making people whole. May we share our Sunday with our Lord. Thank you Jesus for giving us a special day. May we keep Sunday special. Help us to know how to do so, individually and as a church community