St Barnabas & St Michael’s, July 27th 2014
Let’s begin this morning by looking our memory verse, Acts 4:13 … Peter and John are before the Sanhedrin having been arrested for preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead …
When (the Sanhedrin) saw the courage of Peter and John and realised that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
‘took note that these men had been with Jesus’ …
But look at Mark 2:24 from our gospel reading today … Jesus and his disciples were not walking through the wheat field alone! Wherever Jesus went, crowds of people went with him, including the Pharisees – there not to hear his teaching, or to see the miracles (they are in no doubt that Jesus can heal, as we shall see) but to find fault. Fault that is, according to their own understanding of ‘the Law’.
Centuries before, faithful Jews had studied to pin down exactly what God meant by each of the Mosaic laws. In particular when he said, ‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy … you shall not do any work’ (the fourth of the ten commandments, Exodus 20:8). Eventually, they had settled on 39 Sabbath observances, the third of which stated, ‘You will not reap’ (Mishnah). So here are Jesus, his disciples, and a crowd of followers walking through a wheat field (the Greek word translated corn means wheat, not maize) … did they, I wonder, follow a recognised public footpath, else the farmer might well be upset by such crowd trampling his crop just as it was ripe for harvest! Anyway …
Here they all are on a Sabbath stroll (presumably keeping to Sabbath requirements of what distance was allowed since the Pharisees were with them), when some of the disciples – we’ve no idea who or how many – began to pick ears of corn. Immediately, the Pharisees challenge Jesus – they are near enough to speak to him – ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?‘ (2:24)
The Pharisees were with Jesus, but they weren’t there to listen, to learn. They were there to find fault – and even now, they found no fault with Jesus. But as the Rabbi or teacher of the group, they considered him responsible for the actions of his disciples.
Although Mark’s report of the following conversation is brief – Matthew gives a much fuller account in his gospel (Matthew 12:1-8) – it’s clear that Jesus is gracious but firm. To respond to a question with a scripture reference was typical of rabbinical teaching – respond to a question with a scripture and perhaps a question of your own, leading the discussion to explore all possible avenues of understanding, and leading in the end to the conclusion the teacher wants his disciples to understand – we see such conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees elsewhere in the gospels. But on this occasion, Jesus leaves no room for further questions or debate as to the meaning of his illustration. He simply states his conclusion with authority – incidentally implying that they have failed to understand the scriptures they think they know so well –
Mark 2:27-28 … Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
So what is the meaning of his reference to David and the consecrated bread? Simply this (you can read the story in 1 Samuel 21:1-6) that in a moment of need, David broke the strict ceremonial law of the temple. The Pharisees viewed David as a righteous man, a hero of the faith, and this breaking of the Sabbath was acceptable to them since David was God’s chosen and anointed king.
And that is the claim Jesus makes of himself in v28 … The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Who instituted the Sabbath? God did. What was it for? To honour God in holiness. Who then is the Lord of the Sabbath? God is.
We have already seen Jesus demonstrating his ability and right to forgive sins – something only God can do – by healing the paralysed man earlier in Mark 2. Here, Jesus makes his claim loud and clear – The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. They could not mistake his meaning.
At the beginning of Mark 3, verse one, the NIV says, ‘another time he entered the synagogue’, as if it was on a separate occasion. In fact, it would read better as ‘once more he entered the synagogue’ … Matthew telling this same story in his gospel, Ch 12, makes it clear that Jesus went with the Pharisees to their synagogue – perhaps that was the purpose of their walk that day? In any case, the same Pharisees are with Jesus later that same day, watching to see what he will do, ‘looking for a reason to accuse Jesus’ (3:2). Again, they are with Jesus in the synagogue this time, but not to worship, or to learn from God’s word, or to listen to the healer who spoke with such authority; they are there only to find a reason to accuse him – of what? What outcome were they hoping for? What were they trying to achieve? They would have known that an open accusation of blasphemy (they have already decided amongst themselves that is the issue, again, see the story of the paralysed man earlier in the chapter), an open accusation of blasphemy could have only one outcome – so those self appointed guardians of the Sabbath determine to find a reason to do harm, to kill (see 3:4). I wonder, did they see the irony?
It’s easy in all the excitement to overlook the man at the heart of the story in the synagogue – we don’t know his name or anything about him. He doesn’t even ask to be healed – this time it’s Jesus who takes the initiative.
Mark 3:3 … Jesus said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Jesus will not allow the Pharisees to conceal what they are doing – this miracle will be seen by everyone there. They will all be able to draw their own conclusions, reach their own decisions about who Jesus is.
Mark 3:4 … Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
What was the point and purpose of the Sabbath? Was it simply about obedience to a random command as a test of one’s faith? Or did the Sabbath have a purpose in itself? Where did God’s word say that healing was forbidden on the Sabbath? The rabbinical laws allowed that it was acceptable to save life on the Sabbath – whether by practical or miraculous means – but this was not a matter of life and death. In fact, none of the miracles that Jesus performed on the Sabbath were …
No, the Sabbath was instituted by God as a blessing and as a privilege. One day in seven free of the burden of work, free to rest in God’s presence. The challenge is to the Pharisees’ intention to do evil – in contrast to Jesus’ purpose to do good … the Sabbath foreshadows heaven … the end of work, the presence of God … and if those laws devised by men – however faithful and well intentioned – if those laws interfered with that, then they must be set aside.
Jesus’ point is clear – and the Pharisees know they can say nothing to make their case, so they remain stubbornly silent.
What of the man himself? Again, we don’t know anything about his motivation, or his reaction to being made the centre of attention, or what he thought of Jesus, but twice he does what Jesus says, he stands (v3), and then at Jesus’ command (v5) he stretches out his hand – and by the time his arm is straight his hand is completely restored, made whole. A simple act of obedience leads to the revelation of God’s healing power at work through Jesus.
Not that the Pharisees needed such evidence of Jesus’ power – they had no doubt that he could heal the man – look at verse 2, they watched (Jesus) closely to see if he would (not could) heal him on the Sabbath. But they were blinded to the implications of such freedom (and willingness) to heal. They had only one thought in their minds, v6 … Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
This is not (as we have seen) the first time they have considered killing Jesus – that had been their settled intention since they first decided he was guilty of blasphemy after the healing of the paralysed man when Jesus first forgave his sins. An accusation of blasphemy, if proven, lead to death by stoning according to the law of Moses. But this direct challenge from Jesus – by placing the man in full view of everyone, and the challenge to their interpretation of God’s laws and their stubborn refusal to accept that God was at work here, lead them to do something unimaginable – not to seek Jesus’ death, that was already settled, but to join forces with the their implacable enemies, the Herodians! It was unheard of that the Pharisees would set aside their hatred of those who collaborated with the Roman authorities, who supported Herod’s oppressive regime. But once they had so decisively rejected the possibility that Jesus may indeed be who he claimed to be, anything was possible.
These men had been with Jesus, just as the disciples had … but the result was very different.
Look for a moment at our other reading this morning … 1 Timothy 1:6f … Some have … turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.
1 Timothy 1:8 … We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.
The Pharisees and others didn’t set out to oppose God, they were faithful men seeking to live a life of integrity. Their fault lay in a basic misunderstanding of God himself … they thought that the laws he gave were the standard he expected men to reach in order to receive the many blessings he had in mind for them. They didn’t understand that God gave the law to show them they could not, of themselves, ever reach the standard of holiness he requires. That was why Jesus came … to make us holy in God’s sight by dying for our sin … so for those of us who love and trust Jesus, every day is a Sabbath; we can rest in God’s presence because Jesus has dealt with all that stood in the way of our relationship with him.
There’s a lot more I could say about this passage … but I think we have enough to be going on with.
What has any of this to do with us? Two things in particular … the first is to make sure we have time to be with Jesus. Yes, in one sense he is with us all the time, but the two principles of Sabbath still apply, rest and presence … that is time out of our everyday lives – however exciting, busy or boring they may be – time not only to rest, but to actively, perhaps creatively seek time apart with Jesus. In it’s original form, the Sabbath was a particular day of the week … in our 24/7 culture, we need to be more deliberate about it. We may set aside a short time each day to pray, go to church on Sunday (clearly, since you are all here) but what do we do with the rest of our day? Do we give God enough of our time?
And secondly, let’s make sure we’re reading God’s word, the bible, and that we understand what it actually says, not what we think or hope it says. Too often we let other people shape our thinking about the bible … rather like a game of Chinese whispers, something gets passed along from person to person so that by the time it reaches us it’s rather distorted and out of shape. Read it for yourselves … go home and read the passages again, check that what I’m saying is what’s really there. And if you’re not confident about reading the bible for yourself, get hold of some notes or a bible guide and have them by your side as you read. God is speaking to you … directly … in his word. So take time to listen.
Not everyone who spent time with Jesus recognised who he really was. The Pharisees came to him with their minds already made up. So his teaching and miracles fell on deaf ears. Others were too busy to pay much attention, though they enjoyed the atmosphere and entertainment he provided. Some of those he healed failed to follow through … we know nothing else about the man he healed that day on the Sabbath, but there are stories of others healed by Jesus who failed even to say thank you, let alone turn and worship him.
Even the disciples failed to understand the full implications of his teaching and his miracles until sometime after his death and resurrection. And in the meanwhile, they had some stupendously idiotic ideas as to what it was all about!
But because they had been with him for nearly three years, with hearts and minds seeking and open to God, eventually the penny dropped.
Can you imagine how it would have been to be with Jesus as the ceiling was torn open for the paralysed man? To see him pick up his bed and walk out? Or to be there when Levi meekly gave up his lucrative role as a tax collector to simply follow Jesus … and can you imagine the party he threw for all his friends?! Or think what it would be like to be walking through the countryside with Jesus at your side, chatting about this and that, listening as he explains something or tells another of his stories. And what would it have been like to witness the confrontation in the Synagogue that day? For such a miracle to be almost incidental to the atmosphere of confrontation … all that in a matter of days, less than two chapters of Mark’s story – and there’s more to come!
Being with Jesus is the most exciting, challenging and dramatic experience you will ever have. And if it’s not, then perhaps we need to get a bit closer …