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Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 2, 2024

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Mark 2:23-3:6

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

“When I was a kid, my bedtime was 9pm. I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up so I could go to bed whenever I wanted. Now that I am a grown-up, it turns out that that time is 9pm.”

“When I got in trouble as a kid, I had to go to bed early. My childhood punishment has become my adulthood goal.”

These popular memes point to two truths about us as human beings: First, we need rest. Second, we don’t always know that we need rest. Little kids are particularly known for resisting getting the rest they need, a truth which is reflected in these memes, but, particularly when it comes to spiritual rest and sabbath-keeping, adults are just as guilty.

The fact that God had to issue a commandment about rest is revealing. It says something about us as human beings. We need to be told to rest. Even though it is obviously good for us, even though we long for it, even though we recognize the benefit of it, we need to be commanded by God to actually do it! And even then, like stubborn toddlers, we often resist!

Today in our first reading we hear the Third Commandment as it appears in Deuteronomy: “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.” Our reading further elaborates that NO ONE is to work on the sabbath day – not family members, not servants or slaves, not even one’s animals. Everyone needs rest, and once every six days, everyone should get it.

But the sabbath is not only about refraining from work. The sabbath is to be kept holy. And so the sabbath is to include a focus on God, remembering God’s act of salvation. As the scripture says: “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.”

God’s people were instructed to remember what it was like to NOT have a sabbath, when they were in captivity in Egypt. They were to use the sabbath as a time to remember God’s saving act of delivering them out of captivity. This remembering was to shape how they practiced the sabbath. This remembering was what made the sabbath holy.

The days when businesses were all closed on Sunday are long gone, with one notable exception. Chick-fil-A is as known for being closed on Sundays as it is for its waffle fries or its Chick-fil-A sauce. Their being closed on Sundays stands out because it is so rare anymore for most businesses, especially restaurants. Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy used to work in restaurants that were open 24/7. He remembered working brutally long hours, including on Sundays. When he founded Chick-fil-A, he insisted that his restaurant would never be open on Sundays so that his employees would have an established day every week when they knew they could rest, recharge, and especially so they could attend worship if they so desired. This “closed on Sunday” rule for his franchises has held to this day, and it is estimated that the company willingly forfeits $1.2 billion dollars every year in potential revenue because of it. I think Mr. Cathy would say it is worth it. People need the sabbath. They need it not only to rest, but to attend worship and remember what God had done to save them.

In our gospel reading we hear how the Pharisees spotted Jesus and his disciples walking through a wheat field on the sabbath, plucking heads of grain and popping them in their mouths as they went. This was like snacking on Wheat Thins, only probably not quite as good. This was legal. It wasn’t considered stealing from the farmer. There was an allowance stipulated in Deuteronomy which allowed for the practice as long as you didn’t use a sickle and take too much. But it raised the question – were they “working” on the sabbath? Were they, technically, harvesting? The Pharisees seemed to think so.

In response, Jesus reminded them of the time David was in a tough spot with some of his soldiers. They were being pursued by Saul. They were tired and hungry and weak, dangerously so. They came to the Tabernacle, desperate for something to eat. The only food available was the Bread of Presence, which had been ritually offered and was only to be eaten by the priests. However, given the circumstances, the priest gave the bread to David and his men to strengthen them.

Jesus cites this story and then concludes by saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” In other words, the sabbath was given to strengthen and restore people. It was not given as a way for people to impress God, or to earn points with God by following it as a rule. It was a gift. It was the gift of rest, of restoration. And so whether it was the plucking of Wheat Thins for a snack in the field or the consumption of the Bread of Presence given by the priest, it was completely in line with the intent of the sabbath. Jesus then goes on to say that he is the Lord of the Sabbath. He, of all people, would know how to properly observe it! He, of all people, would know how to keep the commandment!

Later that day, Jesus went to the synagogue. There he saw a man with a withered hand. This almost seems like a set up. The Pharisees were right there, watching to see what Jesus was going to do. It almost seems like they were baiting Jesus with this guy. And sure enough, right then and there, while they were watching him, Jesus healed the man’s withered hand. At this point the Pharisees left, intent on doing whatever it would take to destroy Jesus.

It is often thought that the Pharisees were merely being legalistic about the Sabbath. It is often thought that their primary concern here is that Jesus wasn’t following the rules. That’s certainly part of it, but the greater issue here is that Jesus was asserting his authority. I imagine Jesus staring back at them while healing the man’s hand with eyes that said, “You can’t tell me what to do.” The bigger issue was that Jesus claimed to be the Lord of the sabbath and went around acting like it.

It is also often assumed that Jesus was setting aside the commandment, that he was rebelling against the restrictive rules that help people keep the commandments. But this isn’t really right either. Just a few chapters earlier Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Jesus had utmost respect for the law. What he was doing instead was reminding people of the commandment’s intent. He was reminding people of what the commandment was for in the first place. He was reminding them that in the Third Commandment, God is giving the gift of rest, the gift of restoration. Feeding and healing are entirely consistent with this, and so Jesus was indeed keeping the commandment. He was observing the sabbath.

God knows not only that we need rest, but that we need to be told to rest. When it comes to sabbath keeping, we often act like stubborn toddlers, thinking we know best, thinking we don’t really need it, thinking we can get by without our weekly time of rest and restoration. And so God gives us a commandment: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.” We are not only commanded to have a weekly day of refraining from work, but a weekly day of worship, a weekly day of remembering God’s saving acts, a weekly day of being in the Word. As Luther writes in the Small Catechism explaining the Third Commandment, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

As Luther infers, this commandment is best kept not by observing it as a rule. It is best kept by receiving it gladly as a gift. Our Lord Jesus has not come to abolish this law, but to fulfill it. And he fulfills it by using the sabbath as a time to give us his gifts. As we remember the night in which he took bread, he gives us the bread of his presence to strengthen and renew us. As we come to worship on the sabbath day, he takes the withered parts of our lives, the withered parts of our souls, and he restores them. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus said, “and I will give you rest.” This is what the sabbath is for, and it is a gift!

One of the things I miss most from when my boys were little is how they used to sleep on me. When they were overtired as babies they’d get fussy, and as toddlers they’d get cranky. They obviously needed rest. Eventually they’d settle down. They’d lay on my chest. I would feel them slowly start to relax, their bodies getting heavier on mine as their muscles stopped fighting it. I could feel their breathing getting slower and deeper. And then they’d be out. I loved that feeling. It wasn’t that it was comfortable. Usually it wasn’t. Usually I was too hot. Usually my arm would cramp up from how we were laying. What made it such a wonderful feeling was the love and the complete and utter trust they had in me which allowed them to rest so deeply. They were safe in my arms, and so they could sleep deeply, getting the rest they so desperately needed.

I think God must love that feeling too. I think God loves that feeling of having his children love and trust him so completely that we melt into him, getting the rest we so desperately need.

Whether you’re five or fifty or eighty-five, without enough rest we get fussy. We get cranky. And so God our Father has given us the sabbath as a time for us to rest in and on him.

Today God invites you to be strengthened by the Bread of Presence. Today God invites you to bring the withered parts of your lives to him for healing. Today God invites you to relax, to let go of control. Today God invites you to rest in him, remembering all he has done to save you.

He has given you a commandment to do this, but he’d rather give it to you as a gift.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church