The human heart is a religion factory busily cranking out religions one after another. Ever since Adam and Eve took a bite out of the fruit that brought good and evil into perspective, and then tried to hide behind their own self-stitched fig leaves, we’ve been suckers for religion.
I’m speaking of religion with a capital R – the various ways we cook up to try to butter God up and get Him to march to our drum beat. Or the various ways we try to atone for our sins and justify ourselves instead of simply dropping dead to sin, admitting it, and being forgiven of it. The most religious people I know are the ones who rarely, if ever, go to church. They believe all sorts of things without an ounce of evidence. They actually believe that if you step on a crack your mother’s back will actually break. Knock on wood, avoid unlucky numbers, hang good luck charms from the rear view mirror. Tiger Woods wears red on Sunday because his mother thinks it brings good luck.
We take perfectly good and wholesome gifts from God and turn them into religions. Things like money and love and food. We turn eating into a religion (called “dieting”) and pay sacrifices to the high priests of food who will tell us what to eat and when so we can be happy and healthy. All for a price, of course. And when we transgress the commandments of dieting, we feel guilty over that piece of chocolate cake or that plate of fettucine with alfredo sauce. The dieting gods are not pleased. We must atone for our sins. I’ll work out twice as long tomorrow. It’s all religion.
There are plenty of religious police around to keep an eye on everyone and make sure you’re walking the walk. The Pharisees were the religious police in Jesus’ day. They were religious bookkeepers who distilled 615 biblical principles from the Torah. Six hundred and fifteen dos and donts. They kept them, too, to the letter. They kept their eye on others to make sure they were keeping them too. And they especially kept their eye on Jesus and His disciples, because He didn’t seem terribly interested in keeping them.
In fact, Jesus already had three religious strikes against Him already in chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel. Strike 1: He kept bad company. He ate with tax collectors and all sorts of disreputable sinners. Not the sort of company a respectible rabbi would keep. When they challenged Jesus on His table company, He said, “Hey, it’s the sick who need a doctor, not the well. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” So I guess if you aren’t a sinner, you don’t need Jesus at your table.
Strike 2: Jesus didn’t fast, nor did His disciples. The Torah had only one fast day, though others could be called in the event of emergency. The rabbis made fasting a twice a week event, every Tuesday and Thursday. Nothing wrong with it. Our small catechism calls it a fine outward discipline. Sure beats dieting. But God didn’t have much to say onthe subject, one way or the other. When confronted with the fact that Jesus and His disciples weren’t fasting when everyone else was, He asked them, “Do wedding guests fast at a wedding reception? As long as I’m around, there won’t be any fasting. But the days are coming, when I’m no longer around, and then they’ll fast. But not now. Besides, you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins or they’ll blow up because they’re already stretched to the limit. And you can’t put me into the old, worn out wineskin of your religious rules and regulations, because I’ll explode those.”
Strike 3: In today’s Gospel, Jesus and His disciples are strolling through a grainfield on a Sabbath day. On Saturday, the seventh day, the day you weren’t supposed to do any work. The Pharisees had 32 different kinds of work you weren’t supposed to do on the Sabbath. Among them were harvesting and threshing grain. So here are Jesus’ disciples going through the field, plucking heads of grain, rubbing them between the palms of their hands. That’s harvesting and threshing to the religious police, who are ready to book Jesus on a three strikes violation. “Look at your disciples. Why are they doing what is forbidden on the Sabbath?”
About the worst thing you could be in Jesus’ day, short of a pervert or a murderer, was a Sabbath breaker. The punishment for breaking the Sabbath was death. The commandment, as God gave it to Moses on Mt. Sinai, was simple and straightforward: Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Set it apart. Don’t treat it like the other days. It’s holy. Six days you work, and on the Sabbath you don’t work. You rest. That’s what Sabbath, shabbat means – rest. You, your children, your servants, even your ox and donkey. Everyone gets a day off.
The rationale was two-fold. In Deuteronomy, it was a weekly remembrance of redemption. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” Slaves worked seven days a week; God’s free people worked six and rested one. In Exodus, the Sabbath theme was creation. God made the whole universe in six days and He rested on the seventh day to enjoy what He made. If God can take a day off, so can you, unless you’re trying to outdo God, or be God in place of God. And so on Friday evening after sundown, you had a nice dinner, a glass of good wine to toast the God of creation who made all things good, you went to sleep, and on Saturday morning you went to the synagogue to hear God’s Word and to pray with your congregation. It was a day to pray and to play, but not to work.
And it was a divine commandment. Non-negotiable. As I said, the punishment for breaking the commandment was to have the whole congregation pile rocks on you. That’s how seriously God took shabbat, rest. The rest of the world could work its tail off 24/7 if it wanted, but God’s people going to show the world how free people live and take a day to rest in God.
The Sabbath was God’s gift. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. It was a little appetizer, a foretaste of the rest that comes in Jesus. It reminded the Israelites that they were saved by God’s goodness and not by the volume of their work. It reminded them that work was a gift of God too, and that unfinished business could wait for a day. Nothing was so important that it got in the way of the Word of God and prayer. And it reminded them that they were free. Free to work and free not to work. Free to worship. Free to play.
Work, worship, play. We tend to get those confused, don’t we? We work at play, worship at work, and play at worship. No wonder we’re always busy, always restless. We don’t make time to pray, to hear God’s Word, to worship. We’ve lost intentionality in our lives. That’s what fasting and Sabbath were about. Living intentionally before God. You didn’t say, “I don’t have the time.” You made the time. You left room. We’re passing on this business of busyness to our kids too. Too busy for church, to gather, to be quiet, to stop what we’re doing. That’s not freedom. If you can’t say “no” to work or play, you’re a slave to whatever you can’t say no to.
We need our rest. God knows that. Eight hours of sleep a night would do us wonders. Putting some daylight into that packed schedule would benefit us more than the reading of many self-help books and much therapy. Resting in God’s Word, resting at the Lord’s table, resting in prayer. There’s no substitute. Pills won’t help. Diets won’t do it. Nor exercise. Nor religion. There is no substitute for shabbat.
Leave it to the old Adam in all of us to make rest a work, a burden. God says, “I order you to take a day off,” and we say, “Do I have to?” What kind of perverse logic is this? The Lord says, “No work,” and we say, “Now what exactly do you mean by ‘work?”
Religious man takes the gift of God, the Sabbath, and turns it into a religion of necessity, and uses it as a religious club against others. We make up our rules and regulations and squeeze our principles, and then measure everyone against them, though we refuse to be judged by them ourselves.
But Jesus turns the tables on all that. He reminds the Pharisees of an episode in Israel’s history, when David was in the battlefield, and he and his soldiers were hungry, and they came to Ahimelech the priest and asked to eat the consecrated bread from the tabernacle. Now the letter of the law said that only the priests could eat that bread. But the religious rules were bent and exceptions were made, because the rules were made for man, not man for the rules.
Religious rules can’t save us. They never could. God knew that. He even took the trouble to prove it. He made a nation out of Egyptian slaves. He gave them a land and a law. And He told them, “Keep the law and you get to keep the land.” Simple as that. And what do you think happened? They lost the land. That’s the big lesson from OT Israel. You can’t give natural born sinners a law and expect them to keep it. You can threaten punishments and promise rewards, but in the end they’ll turn it into a religion and break it.
The Sabbath couldn’t save. It wasn’t intended to save. It was supposed to be a picture of our salvation. A gift of rest in a world that doesn’t know how to rest. Yet even a commandment to rest, to not work, which should be the easiest one to keep, can’t be kept. Instead it became a yardstick and a club in the hands of the religious. Another reason to hate Jesus. He’s a “sabbath breaker.”
Not really. Jesus kept the sabbath. The traditions of men, He broke, those man-made religious rules and regulations we love so much to parse. But Jesus kept the sabbath more purely and completely than any Jew who ever walked the promised land. And He did it for all of us, for the entire world. He’s Lord of the Sabbath, yet He kept the Sabbath to pure perfection, as He did every commandment, every point of the Law.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and weighed down, and I will give you rest.” True, eternal rest – shabbatin the fullest sense of that word – is found in Jesus. St. Augustine once said, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in God.” In the end, the Sabbath is not about a day. It was a special day for OT Israel. We have no such day. Sunday isn’t the Sabbath day, even though some Christians act as though it is. It isn’t. Sunday is a tradition, because of Jesus’ resurrection, not a divine commandment.
The Sabbath came to its fulfillment late in the day one Friday afternoon, nearly 2000 years ago, when the Lord of the Sabbath was taken down from His cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and they wrapped His body in clothes and spices, and laid Him to rest in the tomb and closed the opening. On the seventh day, God rested, having completed the work of creation. And on the seventh day, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath, rested in the grave, having completed the work of the world’s redemption. “It is finished.”
“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’”
Rest in peace. In Jesus, you have Shabbat, rest. Rest from the Law, rest from your sins, rest from all the burden of your busyness. He is Lord of the Sabbath, and He is your rest.
In the name of Jesus,