Mark 2:23-28 (reading 27-28)
... 27 And He said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. 28 "Therefore the Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath."
We’re not very good at resting. On the one hand, we don’t rest enough. In America instead of the doctor recommended eight hours of sleep per night, we’re averaging 6.8. Over a week that adds up to over 8 hours of missed sleep, sleep that your body can’t catch up on. In addition to that, four in ten working Americans leave some or all of their paid vacation time unused. On the other hand, we rest too much. We have more leisure time than ever before! People have on average about five and a half hours of leisure time a day. Five and a half hours to spend watching T.V., emailing and Facebooking on your phone or on your computer, texting your friends, and working out. And yet how often do people complain that there’s nothing to do! It’s easy to get bored. We’re just not good at resting.
That includes resting our souls. Resting our bodies? We can do that—albeit not always very well, but resting our souls? How do you tell your soul to rest when you’re thinking back on your life, on some of the things that you’ve done, the things that you don’t want anybody else to find out about ever? How do you tell your soul to rest when the future just seems so uncertain?
That’s originally what God gave the Sabbath for: it was the gift of rest to His people Israel. In fact, Sabbath is just the Hebrew word for “rest.” It was God’s command given from Mt. Sinai, a command that you heard Moses repeat in our reading from Deuteronomy: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy… Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work” (5:12-14). And not just you—but your entire household, even your workers and animals—everyone was supposed to rest! But this wasn’t just about resting your body; it was about resting your soul. The Sabbath was for taking time to remember the saving power and mercy of the LORD, to put the focus on Him and what He’s done, to receive His blessings.
So then why were the Pharisees so mad at Jesus for simply letting His disciples enjoy a tasty snack and a leisurely walk on the Sabbath? “Look, why do they do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (v. 24). Don’t you see what they’re doing, Jesus? They’re plucking heads of wheat! That’s harvesting! And then they’re rubbing them between their hands to get the kernels out! That’s threshing! Don’t you see that they’re working on the Sabbath? Why, if your disciples and everybody else would just follow the rules like they are supposed to, God would stop punishing us and set us free from these oppressive Romans occupying our country!
And that was the key, wasn’t it? The Pharisees had it all figured out. Instead of placing the Sabbath focus on the Lord and what He has done for His people, the promises He has kept, they placed the focus on themselves—and whether or not they were working. And so they came up with little rules to make sure you were keeping the Sabbath law. For example, you can take a walk on the Sabbath, but you better not walk more than 1,100 meters because that’s work. And with all the rules, the Pharisees had successfully turned God’s gift of rest into work!
And that mindset is still around. There was a book that made its way into our house when I was a kid. I think my dad had gotten it from a coworker. It was one of those books, the kind that you read once, and then pass along or throw away. Certain parts of it were fascinating because the author was talking about how the end of the world was coming, and how this was all connected to everything bad that was—and still is—happening in our country. But his solution was this: We need to pass an “every-Sunday” law in America, mandating that no work be allowed on Sunday and that everyone go to church. Then, our troubles would be over; God would bless America once again. It’s up to us! If we can just do this, if we can just get everybody to worship God again, then everything would be great!
Granted, this guy was a bit of an extremist, but he’s not alone. How many of us grew up in places where there were “blue laws,” laws prohibiting businesses to be open on Sundays? See, this is what happens when we remember the first part of the 3rd Commandment—the part about not working—but forget about the second part: the part about remembering God’s grace and blessings.
And that’s where we fail, isn’t it? We’ve all got a little Pharisee living inside us. We think that worship is all about us and how what we’re doing is making God happy. We think that by showing up in church on Sunday morning we’ve done our duty to God in keeping the 3rd Commandment. And that if everybody just followed the rules like us, we wouldn’t be in the mess that we’re in as a country. Never mind that during the worship hour your mind was totally distracted with the thoughts of everything else that you’ve lined up to do today. Never mind that, sometimes, when the final “Amen” comes you can’t wait to get out of here—to get going on all those other so-important things.
We just don’t know how to rest. We forget the meaning of the Sabbath. But not Jesus. That’s why Jesus was going for a leisurely walk with His disciples on the Sabbath. He understood the true nature of the Sabbath—of the kind of rest the Sabbath was for. Because Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath. He was Lord of the Sabbath’s true meaning. As true God, He had invented the Sabbath! And as the Son of Man, the promised Savior, Jesus had a perfect knowledge of the Sabbath laws from Scripture. When the Pharisees challenged him for letting the disciples do what was “unlawful” on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded them of the time when David did something “unlawful” in the days before he was king. In hunger and need, David and his friends had turned to the house of the Lord for help. So the priest gave David the show bread—bread that was lawfully meant only for the priests to eat.
The point Jesus was making was this: the restrictions of the Sabbath were never meant to be so rigid as to get rid of common sense. If your ox or donkey fell into a pit on the Sabbath, you could get him out. If you’re hungry on the Sabbath, you can eat. And even on the Sabbath, mercy outweighs sacrifice every time (Hosea 6:6). That’s because in the end, true Sabbath rest doesn’t come from anything that you do.
As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus is also the Lord of the Sabbath’s fulfillment. We can’t properly rest, so Jesus rested for us. Jesus knew what true rest was. And so every Sabbath, Jesus rested—body and soul. After a long night of healing the sick, what did Jesus do? He went off by Himself—not just for some quiet time, but to pray and meditate on God’s Word. After John the Baptist was put to death, what did Jesus and His disciples do? They rested. They sailed for the far side of the Sea of Galilee to find a quiet place to rest and to pray. Even the night before He died, when He was about to bear the guilt of all people’s sins, what did Jesus do? In the Garden of Gethsemane, praying, He found strength from His Father in heaven. Jesus always took the time to find rest in the words and works of His heavenly Father.
And then Jesus took that perfect fulfillment of the Sabbath with Him to the cross. He traded that perfect fulfillment away to us, in exchange for our lack of desire to hear God’s Word, our self-centeredness, our refusal to let God sanctify our rest and relaxation, our neglect for the care of our own souls. It wasn’t a fair trade; but Jesus took all those sins on Himself, suffering hell for them, because He loved us. And now God counts all those sins as paid for, washed away in the blood of Jesus; and when God looks at you, He sees only the perfect obedience of His Son.
We’re still not good at resting. Sometimes our worship lives can be like the man who can’t fall asleep—because he’s too worried about falling asleep! We can get so focused on what we’re doing that we forget why we’re doing it in the first place—whether in coming to church, or in our daily devotion routines at home. And it’s when we forget—that’s when we start to become legalists, just doing it to follow the rules. That’s when it becomes work—something toilsome that we want to avoid. So stop focusing on yourself—on how well your devotional life is going, how often you’re in church. Instead focus on the Word of God. When you sit down in church or at home over your Bible, focus on what God wants to give you. Remember what Jesus says: “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath” (v. 27).
Worship is not about what you do. Worship is primarily about receiving the blessings God has for you, the rest that Jesus has for us as the fulfillment of the Sabbath. The rest we have in knowing every last sin is paid for; the rest that comes from the assurance that Christ is always with you; the rest you have in the promise that Jesus is reigning over all things for your good because He loves you. The rest that lasts forever in eternal life with Him. The rest that Jesus promises to all those who are weary and burdened… “rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28).
Now that’s the kind of rest that you can never have enough of; the kind of rest you’d never leave unused! Lord Jesus, make finding that rest, wherever and whenever we can, never a chore and always a joy. We praise, you Jesus, as the Lord of the Sabbath—the Lord of true, refreshing rest. Amen.