Video of the Divine Service here. (No separate audio of the sermon, but you can find it at approximately 12:05 of the video.)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What’s the deal with the Sabbath? Have you ever traced it through, considered the Sabbath as it appears throughout the Scriptures? There are people who call Sunday the “Christian Sabbath.” There are, besides the Jews, of course, sections of Christianity that do indeed worship on the Sabbath, the seventh day, Saturday. But why do most Christians not worship on the Sabbath? It’s still in the Ten Commandments, isn’t it? As we number them, it’s the Third Commandment: “Honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” So then why don’t we worship on the Sabbath, instead of on Sunday? (As a side note, if we have trouble getting people to come on Sunday, can you imagine how much trouble we’d have on Saturday morning?)
But before we ask why we worship on the first day of the week, rather than the seventh day, we should ask why it’s such a problem for Jesus. Why is Jesus always getting in trouble for doing things on the Sabbath? Why is it a central point in the controversies between Jesus and the leaders of Israel? For example, here, in Mark 2, the Pharisees—somehow, from somewhere—see Jesus’ disciples going through a grain field on the Sabbath and picking heads of grain. They ask Jesus why His disciples are doing what is not lawful, not acceptable, on the Sabbath. And right after these verses, they’re going to watch Jesus is the synagogue, to see whether He will heal a man with a withered hand, in order to accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath.
Jesus is accused of not observing the Sabbath, but that’s not true. In fact, Jesus seems always to observe the Sabbath. He goes to the synagogue with the rest of the Jews to hear God’s word, and it’s there that He preaches His first sermon. He is, as far as I can tell, always in the synagogue or temple on the Sabbath day. So He does observe it. But, at the same time, of all the commandments Jesus reaffirms, the Sabbath is never one of them. Do not steal, do not kill, do not murder, do not commit adultery; love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. But never, at any point, in any Gospel, does Jesus reaffirm the Sabbath command.
And the Apostles in the book of Acts follow His example. They are always gathering with people on the Sabbath, to hear the Word of God, to pray, or to preach to those gathered in the synagogue that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Scriptures. And then they gather on the first day of the week to hear the Word of God and break bread, Word and Sacrament.
But what is clear is that the Pharisees have completely missed the point, not only of the Sabbath, but of the entire law of God. In fact, I would suggest that how one treats the Sabbath command actually demonstrates whether someone understands correctly Jesus or the Scriptures. The Sabbath was given, as Jesus says, for the sake of people, not people to serve the Sabbath. The Sabbath was given for rest and refreshment, so we do not destroy the bodies God has given us. More than that, it was given for the sake of other people—our workers, for example—so we don’t destroy their bodies with work. Everyone must rest. It is built into the cycle of creation as God Himself rests on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.
And it is still true that our bodies need rest. We were never made to work constantly and continuously. It’s bad for us. We need refreshment and restoration of our physical bodies precisely so that we can serve our neighbors in our vocations. Exhaustion and a lack of rest won’t help us and it won’t help anyone else either. So David, exhausted from his journey, asks the priest for bread, and the priest gives him the sacred bread for his refreshment, even though it was “unlawful.”
But Jesus is greater than David; He is the Lord of the Sabbath. It’s His day. He created it. And as the Lord of the Sabbath, He says that is actually for the sake of God’s people. It’s for their healing and for their restoration, so healing and eating are good and right to do on the Sabbath. And as the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus, the Son of Man, finishes the work and then, when all the work is done—when it is finished—He rests on the Sabbath day, on Holy Saturday. Just as He fulfilled the covenant marked by circumcision in His own body, so He fulfills the Sabbath rest in His body by His death.
And then, on the eighth day, Jesus rises from the dead, and a new creation begins. This is the day that we gather to hear His Word and receive His holy gifts because this is the day the Lord rose from the dead. It’s not the Christian “sabbath.” You will look in vain for any such thing in the Scriptures. There’s the Sabbath day, and then there’s the Lord’s day. And as much as our bodies still need rest, our bodies and souls need more. Because no matter how much we rest, eventually our bodies will wear out and they will rest in the ground, in a grave. We need more than physical rest, so Jesus gives us eternal rest.
Honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, we say. The rest that Jesus gives is about making us holy, and there’s only one person who can do that. Only Jesus, by His Word and Gifts can make you holy. No amount of your work will make you holy. No amount of your rest will make you holy. Only God’s Word in Christ. This is why the Small Catechism explains the Third Commandment the way it does: 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. His Word is the holy thing, and so we gladly hear and learn it.
We cease our work, knowing that God is over all things, and gives us everything we need. And then God does His work of making us holy by His holy Word and holy Sacraments. And even more than we need physical rest for our bodies, we need this spiritual rest for both body and soul. We need His Word. We need His Supper. We need His forgiveness. We need it into eternity. Because even though we live in the eighth day by being baptized—in a font that has eight sides, no less—this is a day that is in this world, but not of it. We rest now, looking forward to the eternal Sabbath rest that Jesus gives. Come to Me, He says, all you weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Now we make our weekly rhythm and pattern, circling around the Lord’s Day of making us holy. But soon we will rest from our labors, and blessed are they who rest from their work in this creation. And then we will, all together, enter the eternal Sabbath rest in the new creation, when all will be refreshed, restored, and recreated.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/1/18