This is the final week in our Epiphany season exploration of “Who is Jesus?” Next week Christians celebrate Transfiguration Sunday, and then the follow Sunday is the first week of Lent. Already. We will continue in our study of the book of Luke all through the season of Lent and even through Easter. But after this week Jesus shifts the orientation of his ministry and so we will follow that shift. But today, we have one more identity of Jesus to explore. These are the stories that begin to reveal to us who Jesus is. Instead of just making doctrinal statements, Luke tells stories to help not only learn facts but understand why those facts matter. Let’s review.
The first week we talked about how John the Baptist presents Jesus as the Affirming Judge. We can either judge OR affirm, but Jesus can do both.He can correct us without shaming us.
The second week we heard the story of Jesus’ inaugural address in his hometown where he announces God’s release for everyone. Being released requires releasing, but that’s a choice we have to make for ourselves.
The third week week we encountered Jesus as the Fisher of Friends. When he calls people to follow him, they have to follow him into deep water. Being a disciple involves risk and release, but also reward.
Last week we recognized Jesus as the Son of Man slash Human One. We live in an either/or world; we like to keep things in neat categories. But Jesus comes as the Both/And Savior, releasing us from tidy restriction into messy freedom. We are invited to trust this Both/And Savior to restore our either/or world.
This week we will encounter Jesus as Lord of the Sabbath. We are going to hear two stories, both about how Jesus honors the Sabbath. Right before these stories, Jesus has engaged in a debate about old and new. This is an endless debate, especially in religious circles, isn’t it? In this debate we fall into the same trap we talked about last week, the trap of either/or. One must be better than the other. But as you may expect, I think Jesus is saying something more thoughtful, more nuanced, than just which one is better. It’s not a question of whether we get rid of the old and embrace the new. It’s a matter of how we embrace the new while being faithful to the essentials of the old.
Listen now for the voice of God within the words of the Scripture. This is Luke chapter 6, verses 1 through 11. I’m reading mostly from the Common English Bible.
One Sabbath, as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Human One (or Son of Man) is Lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there.
Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and his hand was made healthy. They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.Luke 6:1-11
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
For Jews in Jesus time and Jews today, keeping the Sabbath is hugely important. The core way you honor the Sabbath is by not working. That’s what it says in the 10 Commandments: you shall not do any work. But—
it doesn’t say what counts as “work.” And so, in an honestly faithful effort to honor the Sabbath and keep the commandment, the Jews had for many years been debating and writing specifications of what counted as work. Let me give you a modern-day example.
I have a friend who works as a caterer and she has catered meals for Jewish families down in Columbus. Once in a Jewish home she noticed a small stack of toilet paper squares within arm’s reach of the toilet. Her client told that “tearing” is an action that is not permitted on the Sabbath and so they tear and stack the toilet paper in advance so no one has to tear on the Sabbath.
Now before you laugh at that, or think it’s ridiculous, I invite you to consider when is the last time you thought THAT HARD about whether your everyday actions are honoring God. Christians are quick to denounce legalism. But perhaps in touting our freedom we have lost some of our reverence. Rules are there for a reason. You will never have a good reason to break a rule until you understand the reason it was created in the first place.
In these stories, Jesus is not breaking Old Testament law. He’s not saying, “Don’t keep the Sabbath.” It’s not either/or. Jesus is taking the reason for the law and applying it in a new way. He is thinking very hard about how his actions honor God.
The point of the Sabbath is renewal. The Sabbath was given as a command to the ancient Hebrew people after they were released from slavery in Egypt. And when God gave the instruction, God connected this day of rest to the people’s former captivity. The people were commanded to rest because they remembered what it was like to be slaves. Resting was an act of remembrance and resistance. Slavery is not God’s intention. Everything in creation needs to take a break. The ancient Hebrews were commanded to rest and they were also commanded to allow rest to their servants, the non-Hebrew immigrants who lived in their communities, and even their animals. Everybody and everything needs to rest. You know what it’s like to be slaves. Observing this deliberate day of rest will keep you from becoming slaves again to your own production and it will keep you from enslaving others. Keep the Sabbath. Rest.
Beautiful, right? Challenging, right? Take a day and don’t produce anything. Take a day and opt out of the cultural pressure to define yourself by what you accomplish. Take a day and opt of the cultural pressure to buy something. Take a day and waste it. Pay your employees to waste a day. Don’t do any homework. Don’t pay any bills. Don’t shovel the driveway or vacuum the living room. Just don’t. Sleep. Snuggle. Read. Do a puzzle. Play with the cat. Play with the kids. Make a snowman. And don’t think about all the stuff you aren’t getting done. Just rest.
Crazy, right? Who does that? For an entire day? Impossible. Maybe. Maybe not. But you see how if you decide to do it, you immediately start asking what’s allowed and what’s not. Does a puzzle count as accomplishing something? Can I empty the litter box if it really needs it? That’s what happened with the Jews. In an effort to be faithful to the spirit of the law, they got very specific about the letter of the law. And in the Jewish religion, what an individual does affects the community. Since my breaking the Sabbath could bring God’s judgment on all of us, Mary and Brian have a vested interest in making sure that I’m taking my day off like I should. See how it gets tricky really fast?
The Pharisees believed that if everyone would just follow the rules, God would bless them. God would free them from the occupation of Rome. God would restore them to what they thought was their former glory. They started out just honestly trying to make things better by getting everyone to do the right thing. They were very influential in their communities and so their interpretation of the rules carried a lot of weight.
But here comes Jesus, challenging their interpretations. Claiming that he has authority to interpret God’s law, to say what is allowed and not allowed on the Sabbath. And his interpretation is based on the original idea of renewal. You honor the Sabbath by doing good. He’s not breaking the law. He’s expanding the interpretation of how you follow the law. He claims that God’s command to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God is always the supreme command and should be kept every day of the week. Now, he didn’t go out of his way to do it. He didn’t exhaust himself on the Sabbath by scheduling a full day of harvesting and healing. But when the opportunity to do good was right in front of him, he didn’t avoid it. He interpreted the old rules in a new way. He is lord of the Sabbath.
The reason this is threatening to the Pharisees is because it messes up their categories. They see him as a legitimate threat to the Jewish people because he has a different interpretation of the law and they’ve worked hard to understand God’s law and try to implement it. So don’t characterize them as legalistic or just write them off. Because their struggle is our struggle. We’ve worked hard to set up our religious systems. And we think we have good reasons for what we do. We have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.
But what happens when God messes up our categories? What happens when our church grows and God sends us new people with new ideas? What will we say when they ask us why we do things the way we do them? Have we examined our traditions in light of our larger values to see if they are still serving our needs, if they are still honoring God, if they are still designed to renew us and others? Friends, we are not going back to how things were before the pandemic. We can only go forward. We will lovingly debate and decide how to be faithful to the essentials of the past while embracing the future. We will meet the challenges of new seasons in a way that honors our values and principles. And we will trust that we are being guided by the one who knows best how to apply the old rules in new ways, the Lord of the Sabbath.
This tension between old traditions and new meaning is something we encounter every time we come to the Communion table. This is the oldest tradition in Christianity and yet we continue to find that it has new meaning for us. That’s because even though the table is the same, we are not the same. We come to this table as we are, where we are, with what we are feeling and experiencing today, and we find in this same bread and cup the renewal that we need today.
This morning we will use some new language, a bit of a different liturgy from our traditional one, to remind us that we can be faithful to the essentials of the past while embracing the future. For hundreds of years our ancestors in the faith have claimed that this is the joyful feast of the people of God and we discover that it’s still true. We come from the north and south and east and west. We come in every type of body seeking a renewing of the life of Christ in us. We come and are met by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.