Sermon preached for the Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Observe the sabbath day and 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 a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work–you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”
And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.
And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”
Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.
The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
My brother is a board game fanatic.
Now, I like a board game as much as the next person. Maybe a little more. But my brother takes it to a different level. Did you know there is such a thing as an indie board game community? Maybe you did. Maybe you’re even a part of it.
I was fortunate to be gone the week before last on a rare family vacation. I got to spend four days with my whole family—the longest we’ve been together in five years—and it was great. But for that four day trip, my brother showed up with about 20 board games. And none of them you’ve heard of.
Which meant that the first night we sat down to play, Robert needed to explain the rules to us. And here’s the other thing about indie board games—they are complicated.The rulebooks are more like tomes.As the minutes ticked by and the rules piled up, each making less sense to me than the last, I could feel myself getting antsy. I just wanted to play, and see what happened. Figure out the rules on the fly.
Which, eventually, is what we did. We just started playing. And to no one’s surprise, Robert (who already knew the rules) was the only one who did that well. And when one of us did make a good move, it was usually only because we’d asked my brother what to do.
Knowing the rules gave my brother the power in that game. We sort of fumbled around the board, while he would remind us what was allowed and what was illegal, what was smart and what was dumb. Now my brother cares more about having fun than winning, so he was generous and fair with his advice. But he definitely had the power.
And I imagine how easy it could be to get twisted up in that kind of power. Especially when you’re playing for more than chips.
Our gospel reading today introduces us to the Pharisees, the game runners of the first-century Jewish community. The Pharisees were the ones who knew the rules. Who could say what was legal and illegal, what was a smart move and a dumb one. They were the ones who’d had the time and education to learn the hundreds of laws from the Torah, and who had dedicated their life to obeying every last one.
The problem, of course, is that they had begun to revere the rules over the people following them. They loved God’s word more than God’s children. And they were all twisted up in that power, the power of knowing the rules better than anyone else, of being able to win the game when no one else could.
And anyone who changed the rules of the game on them was necessarily a threat.
Which was exactly what Jesus started doing.
Jesus shows up, and we’re only two chapters into Mark here, and he’s already breaking the rules.
And not a little one. Not an obscure rule that half the people never follow anyway. But a biggie. The rule about work on the Sabbath.
God’s command to rest—to have absolute rest—on the Sabbath day is all over the Torah, from the first lines of Genesis to the Ten Commandments to the constitutional policies of Deuteronomy to the frustrated rantings of the prophets. Sabbath was—and still is—critical to Jewish identity. No other ancient culture encouraged, much less demanded, a day of rest from its people. There were no weekends in Jesus’ time. If you were wealthy, you lounged, and if you were poor, you worked sunup to sundown seven days a week.
Unless you were Jewish.
The commandment to keep Sabbath, for the most part, wasn’t one of those rules people grumbled about. Mostly it was cherished.
Of course, the big rule—keep Sabbath and do no work on it—had spawned lots of little rules, and those could be a burden. And you best believe the Pharisees reminded the Jewish people of every last one of them. They believed they already knew God’s will, spelled out in a thousand lines of ink for them. The only thing left to do with a life of faith was simply to fall in line.
And then Jesus—well, God, actually, although he makes a point of not letting on at the time—Jesus comes and breaks the rules. Encourages his disciples to break the rules. They gather grain on the Sabbath, and Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Jesus, who has set himself up in this community as a teacher of the law, as a religious authority, as a model of faith, breaks the very ruleseverybody knows God wants us to follow.
And the Pharisees see it and think aha! the jig is up. This guy’s just a big faker all along. A hypocrite. A huckster. No real man of God would break God’s rules. That’s just not how faith works.
And yet Jesus’ response is compelling. We were hungry, and we needed food. That was more important than the rules. The man was suffering, and needed healing. That was more important than the rules.
In fact, Jesus suggests he’s not really going against God’s will at all. God’s will was for Sabbath to be a time of rest, and fullness, and restoration. It was meant to be a chance for God’s people to catch their breath, take joy in what God had made, and that God had led them out of slavery so they couldrest, and simply be with God. To enjoy life, and the living of it. That was supposed to be Sabbath.
Jesus reminded them that the whatof the Law was not as important as the why.God’s Sabbath was made for humans, for them to rest, not humans for the Sabbath, for them to carry it as a burden. The work Jesus does on the Sabbath brings life. It breaks the rules, but it brings life, and that’s what Sabbath was meant to do all along.
We’re early in Mark’s gospel today—the first gospel. Mark was the first person, as far as we know, to write down the complete story of Jesus, probably around 70CE. He’s writing for the next generation—people who didn’t know Jesus, and may not know anyone who did. The eyewitnesses are dying out, so Mark turns to the written word.
I have to wonder what those first listeners were thinking, after the story about Jesus breaking the rules. They don’t know what’s going to happen, after all. They don’t know who Jesus really is. They don’t know whether this rule-breaker is going to turn out to be worth following. Here is chapter two, all they can do is keep reading, keep listening to what Jesus says, and find out.
Over the next few months, we’re going to sit ourselves down beside those first listeners, following Mark’s gospel as he reveals bit by bit who the son of man is, who this Jesus is who came to break the rules and make some new ones. We’re going to see why Jesus needed to be.Why Jesus needed to come down here, in a body, and put up with stubborn legalists and clueless disciples and vindictive soldiers.
I’m going to give you a clue right now, though. I think it’s because he needed to talk to us. And because we needed to be able to talk back.
The life of faith is a conversation.
We have lists of rules, teachings to obey, guidelines to channel our behavior. But nearly every one of those rules will break at some point. The world is big and complicated and the rules don’t always apply—or they don’t always apply the way we think they would.
Which is why we need a God we can talk to.
We need a God who can help us sort through which rules to apply, and when, and how. How to make choices that bring life, that bring the life God wants for us all.
Each of us has tricky situations in our lives—someone we love who makes hurtful choices, a job that puts food on the table but clashes with our values, a beloved sport that makes too many demands on family time, a practical reality that undermines the ideals of our faith. And the Bible is big. I could probably show you half a dozen rules that could apply to any of these situations. And I’d be glad to talk through them with you.
But more than me, I hope you’re talking to God. I hope you’re praying, however it is that you pray. I hope you’re asking the living God what you should do when choices are hard. I hope you’re not settling just for following the rules. I hope you’re working to follow God.
Mark’s gospel is the story of a God who comes to sit on our porch at the end of the day and talk through how things are going. It’s the story of a God who gets angry and sad when people get hard-hearted. It’s the story of a God who gets hungry on his day off. It’s the story of a God who’s here, in our lives, not some far-off deity who could never understand what it’s like.
Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to be faced with a choice, and to have to rethink the rules to make the right one.
And that’s exactly the kind of friend I need, when I’m faced with a choice of my own.
I think back to playing that complicated board game with my family. I could have stolen the rulebook from my brother and tried to work it all out myself. I might have been successful. I might have even won.
But it was more fun to let him guide me, to let him tell me which rules applied, to ask his advice on what moves to make, to laugh with him when I got it wrong and watch him smile when I got it right. It was more fun to run the rules through him, because I know—unlike any rulebook—he’s in my corner.
And if you ever—ever—tell him that I compared my brother to Jesus, I’ll deny it with my last breath. But being Christian is kind of like that. It’s turning to Jesus with our questions, our choices, our confusion, our frustration. It’s asking his help when it’s our turn to play.
The rules aren’t bad. But they aren’t Jesus. And it’s Jesus I want in my life.
Guys, we can’t do this alone. We just can’t.
So hear the good news: we don’t have to.