This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Morwell and then at Narracan on Sunday 2nd June 2018.
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6
I must admit I groaned in pain when this week’s lectionary gospel reading appeared. I won’t say I hate this story, because I don’t. I won’t even say that it’s very difficult to preach on, because it isn’t, and in the next hour or so you’ll see I’ve done a great job of exegesis and hermeneutics on it. Sigh, no, this passage annoys me because I have written on it so many times. So. Many. (Many!) Times. It is the favoured passage of a certain Professor Emeritus of the theological college I attended, and I have written at least three essays, and a complex synoptic comparison on it. Oh begone “Jesus walks through a field of grain on the Sabbath”, begone.
Having said that, I have made no reference to those essays or synopses in preparing this sermon, so we’re good. It also means that I’ve been able to take a fresh look at Mark’s version which we read today, and I found something new. But let’s get to that in a minute because we need to ask why the disciples of Jesus were engaging in behaviour which violates the Jewish laws around keeping Sabbath in the first place. Sadly, for you, I don’t want to answer that question; and if you look at the text, Jesus doesn’t actually give a very good answer himself. The situation Jesus uses as a counter-argument wherein David as a refugee fleeing for his life, and hungry for anything food, pauses before eating to discuss theology with the high priest, is quite different to the random picking and chewing of the disciples on their Saturday afternoon stroll. The twelve are not starving, and they are not being chased; but maybe the reason Jesus didn’t give much of an answer is that he didn’t think it much of a question: aren’t the Pharisees just being pedantic here? I mean, come on, the disciples are taking a casual stroll and grabbing a few heads as they pass through the field, even if they aren’t the army of David, it’s not as if they’re actually harvesting. Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but mindlessly grabbing at the corn while you meander through the paddock: that’s not really work is it?
Still, in defence of the Pharisees we must remember that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments. It’s not one of those pesky religious rulings made up by scholars with nothing better to do: it is an actual decree of God given to Moses in God’s own handwriting on tablets of stone. So, it pays to look at what Jesus is doing here. He is not questioning pettiness, although he does that in plenty of other places and that certainly is part of what he’s doing here: no, Jesus’ primary critique is for the traditions of interpretation. The way Jesus is speaking about Sabbath is akin to a prophet today claiming a divine mandate to redefine murder, or theft, or adultery and marriage. And what does Jesus say? How does The Word of God – The Word made Flesh reinterpret a central teaching of Jewish scripture? He says that people are always more important than doctrine. In other words, if your interpretation of The-Word-of-God-revealed-in-scripture inhibits any person’s wellbeing, (including your own), then you need to rethink your interpretation. God is never in error, and scripture is never in error, but the way you’re reading and thinking just might be. According to Jesus sabbath is foremost a blessing, a gift of God, an entire day set aside each week for the fullness of shalom. It’s not just an R.D.O., or a public holiday, and it certainly isn’t a day of mandated boredom in the name of some malevolent, laser-eyed god looking to obliterate anything that blinks or breathes before the precise instant of sundown on Saturday. Jesus says that to be legalistic about the Sabbath is to be wrong about the Sabbath. In other words, to be legalistic about this teaching of scripture is to be in profound theological error since Sabbath is not a legalistic matter. Legal yes since it does pertain to the Law: but its application is never punitive. If you want to know what is lawful on the Sabbath read on to Mark 3:4 where Jesus asks a group of lawyers gathered at worship that question. What has been legislated, and how is it interpreted, Jesus asks. What did Parliament decree and how have the majority of local magistrates understood and applied this? What is the legal precedent here as established by the full bench of the High Court? Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath: to save life or to kill? asks Jesus. Now as a one-time English teacher I can tell you that this is an open question: Jesus is asking a question that requires a sentence answer because he gives a number of options. Which is it, kill or save? Which is it, good or evil? And what do the scholars answer? What? Well they don’t answer do they: but if they had been brave enough I wonder what they would have said. Probably “save and do good” right? Wrong. Think of what they believe about God: I think they would have answered with a closed answer, one word, “no”. Just “no”. Is it lawful to do good or evil? No. Is it lawful to save or kill? No. “Jesus,” they say, “you need to understand that it’s not lawful to do anything on the Sabbath. Even if you do good then you are guilty of doing something simply by doing: to do good is just as horrific as to do evil because to do is to sin!”
So, who here today would like to belong to that religion? Not me!
I should say very quickly, in case you are confused, that that religion is not Judaism. Jesus is the ultimate Jew and is speaking to other Jews about the God of Abraham: so, don’t get all cocky in your Christianity. The Pharisees were acting poorly as Jews in this example, Jesus was acting perfectly as a Jew. That broad kindness always trumps the finest point of legislation is a Jewish concept, and Jesus didn’t invent it.
Anyway, Jesus is justifiably angered by the lawyers’ response, and by the lack of it, and the man is healed regardless. Notice that the man is healed by his own action. Jesus doesn’t actually do anything, Jesus doesn’t actually break the commandment even according to the Pharisaic definitions because it’s the man who sticks out his hand to petition and receive God’s healing. That is when Jesus turned to the Pharisees and Herodians and said “you wanna argue about the Sabbath some more then talk to the hand.” Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but I reckon I probably would have.
But what is Jesus actually angry about? What’s the actual trigger that moves him from despair to disappointment and rage? Well in Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus is angered by the leaders’ hardness of heart. “Why does the man have to bring up his troubles on the Sabbath,” they seem to be asking. “And in the synagogue too. Why can’t he just stay home with gloves on and come tomorrow if he wants to be healed?” And let’s be honest, they do have a point, don’t they? I mean, when presbytery made the effort to build a manse next to the church what is wrong with Monday? And why do these people who need God have to interrupt church? I’m glad you laughed there, this would have been my last Sunday here if you hadn’t. But I wonder how far our patience really would extend if someone we didn’t know came looking for God’s miracle during our regular Sunday event. Or worse still, someone we do know; someone who should know better than to be noisily troubled one Sunday when, after all, we all know where Damien lives and we’re sure he won’t mind giving up his Monday off if it means we can all get out of here unruffled and before 11:00 this morning.
Oh Lord we want our church to grow, please send us an interruption!!
Rituals must be subordinated to the needs of living people: but so must work be subordinated to the needs of living people.
As we listened to 1 Samuel 3 being read this morning I was reminded that Samuel was in bed and almost asleep when God spoke to him, even if he was in the sanctuary. Had Samuel been living a 24/7 existence I think he would not have had time or energy for the voice of God to penetrate his exhausted haste. It is for this reason, among others, that early nineteenth century Methodists were the leading voices in advocating for sabbath keeping. This was not because they were as pious as Pharisees but because they agitated for the sacred right of every workingman to have time for sleep, eating, relaxation, and worship. In view of this I wonder about those Christians who do not have a healthy attitude toward the Sabbath; some believing that taking one whole day in seven is an instance of old covenant, Old Testament Law to be set aside in the name of new covenant, New Testament Grace. Really? God’s ordained and directed regular pause to experience the peace that passes all understanding is a demand of legalism and not a fruit of grace? Really? So, where does Paul tell us that we are no longer obligated to have a day off? Imagine a religion free of the compulsion to rest, and to let your slaves have a day off. How awesome is Christianity that we are free to work 24/7 and to expect the same of our employees, especially the Christian ones. How remarkable is this good news that we are no longer enslaved by a blood covenant that commands a day off as if not working on Sundays was as important as not committing murder, rape, or fraud.
So, who here today would like to belong to that religion? Not me!
The call of Samuel is one story of how a person, in this case a quite young boy, can best hear God when he or she is at rest in the world. God speaks peace, shalom to the frazzled and anxious mind. But once the mind is settled into shalom then God is able to reveal the wonders of grace and the message of God’s will. Samuel had not sought the Lord’s voice, but because he was at peace in his life he was in the best place when God sought him. Those among us today who are currently seeking God for some specific answer, or just for the sense of being closer to the One you worship and adore, would do well to take a sabbath. Let God rest you, calm you, still you, and guide you. Don’t let the legalists tell you what is or is not appropriate for a Christian or a Sunday – seek God and allow God to seek you.
And if Sunday is the only day that you have time and space in your week to do that, then do that. If not this afternoon, then next Sunday. You have my permission to not come to church next week if you need to go up to the mountains or down to the river to pray: just make sure that you do. Maybe you’ll just have a pleasant time like the disciples, maybe you’ll be healed by God like the man with the once-withered hand, or maybe God will tell you fearful and wonderful news about the world and your place in it.
Let me know how you go.