Sermon - Sunday, 3 June 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 3 June 2018.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 5:12-15 / Mark 2: 23 - 3:6

Text: Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy; as the Lord your God has commanded  you                                                                                                                                                                                    (Deuteronomy 5: 12)


From the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry where he drives out an evil spirit, Mark is keen to let us know Jesus encountered a great deal of opposition.

Questions about healing, questions about fasting, questions about the company Jesus kept: if the gospel’s opening chapters reveal that in Jesus of Nazareth God’s power is at loose in the world in a new and decisive way, these same stories suggest there is trouble ahead, trouble from the scribes and the Pharisees, trouble from those who feel their power and position coming under threat.

Mark tells two Sabbath stories.

In the first Jesus and his disciples are going through cornfields and picking some ears of corn as they walk.

Confronted by the Pharisees who claim their actions are unlawful, Jesus reminds the Pharisees of what happened in the days of King David when he entered the Temple, ate the consecrated bread reserved for the Temple priests, and gave some to his companions.

The Sabbath was made for man, Jesus tells them, not man for the Sabbath.

On another Sabbath Jesus visits a synagogue, a holy place on a holy day, and is left angry, partly by the Pharisees lack of human compassion but also by their failure to grasp the deeper purpose of God’s commandments.

Meeting a man with what is described as a ‘shrivelled’ hand, the Pharisees watch to see what Jesus will do: heal the man or not.

And knowing he was being watched, when Jesus asks them whether it was lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill, they are stunned to silence.

You can just picture him standing there, shaking his head in bewilderment.

Turning to the man, Jesus asks him to stretch out his hand and as he does so, the man finds his hand completely restored.

So from the beginning of his ministry, Mark wants us to know Jesus faced opposition – and one of the things central to his dispute was a different understanding about the purpose of the ancient commandments, in particular, the commandment about the Sabbath and what it meant to keep it holy.

Observe the Sabbath day: sacred days were probably quite common in the ancient world but the instruction to keep a weekly Sabbath as a day of rest may well have been unique to Israel.

Whereas the Biblical scholars suggest that among other nations sacred days were marked by taboos, arbitrary superstitious prohibitions in case the gods should be offended, [1] the Sabbath commandment prohibited one thing – work.

Drawn from the Genesis account of creation where for six days God created the heavens and the earth and then rested on the seventh day, in the earlier account of the Ten Commandments found in the book of Exodus, because God rested on the seventh day, God’s people are instructed not to do any work on the Sabbath [2].

In the later version found in Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are reminded of their enslavement in Egypt, a horrible time in their history when they endured forced labour and were made to work all the hours.

Having experienced the grinding hardship of unremitting toil, God’s people are now instructed to take a day’s rest from their labours – and not just them, their family, their employees and their animals too.

Although work is not defined – this was not an invitation to idleness because animals would still need to be fed and watered as much as human beings would need to look after themselves – the principle of what was being proposed was clear enough.

God’s purpose is always to provide for our well-being, the well-being of others and the well-being of all creation, and so from ancient times the Sabbath was given as a day apart from the normal routine of life, a day when as well as the human heart and soul, the whole of God’s creation could be nourished in different ways. 

And this was one of the things which so upset Jesus when confronted on a Sabbath by a man with a shrivelled hand.

The Pharisees had lost sight of God’s concern for human well-being and all that leads to the flourishing of human life.

Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath, Jesus asked, to save life or to kill?

Can’t you hear his voice shaking with anger and frustration at the Pharisees’ complete failure to grasp the Sabbath had been established for the welfare of women and men, of family and community life?   

So what do you suppose was at stake for the Pharisees in this on-going Sabbath dispute with Jesus?

In ancient Israel what had started off as a fairly simple commandment had over time become surrounded with myriad regulations on what was and what was not permitted on the Sabbath.

And as the Pharisees understood it, observing the Sabbath was intended not just to encourage personal rest and recreation but to provide public markers of a community’s devotion to God.

From their perspective, obeying the many rules and regulations was what faithfulness looked like while breaking them carried the risk not just of offending God but of diminishing the commitment of the whole community of faith.

And so as the opening chapters unfold, what begins as a fairly mild questioning of Jesus and his disciples with the Pharisees wondering if they don’t quite understand what they were doing healing or plucking corn, soon becomes an aggressive interrogation as the Pharisees sensed the threat Jesus actions and attitude posed to their power and control.

And they were right to feel threatened.

This commentator puts it well when she writes;

Jesus’ radical freedom to authorize acceptable Sabbath behaviour poses a threat to those who seek governance over these matters[3]

All of that was a long time ago however, and important as it is to understand something of what was at stake for the Pharisees in their confrontation with Jesus, it is also wise to ask what is at stake for us?

Or to put that in other words, what do we do, what do you do, to keep the Sabbath holy?

As we listen to these ancient texts about God’s commandments and Jesus’ disputes with the Pharisees, we do so against a background of incessant noise and activity.

With news channels running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with the big superstores open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and with mobile ‘phones never far from our hands, ours is a world of constant activity, constant communication, constant interaction and constant noise.

Is it any surprise all the evidence suggests that our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health is suffering as people end up feeling more and more anxious and stressed, burdened by the constant demand upon their time and energy?

How many families, working Mums in particular, struggle with the competing demands of balancing work and home and family life?

Juggling the different balls, keeping all the different plates spinning; choose your own metaphor but it feels as though these patterns of behaviour have crept up and become part of everyday life almost without us noticing.

Asset rich and time poor, always on the go, little time to pause and catch breath, a frenetic scheduling of all our competing commitments – and at what cost, at what cost to our health and well-being, at what cost to our family’s health and well-being, at what cost to our community’s health and well-being, at what cost to our spiritual health?

At a time when the internet has allowed us to be more connected than at any other time in human history, it is worth pondering why loneliness, isolation and feelings of being disconnected are named as among the major social and spiritual ills of contemporary life?

Observe the Sabbath day:     

One of the gifts of the church is the gift of sanctuary, a holy place, a place of refuge, a place of retreat, a place of quiet contemplation when, apart from the frenetic routine of life, you can be still and, in the presence of God, centre your-self, re-orientate your-self as you focus again on the things of life that really matter and the people in life that really matter.

So listen again to the story of Jesus and his disciples walking through a field and picking some corn and his Sabbath confrontation with the Pharisees over a man with a shrivelled hand - and as you take in your hands the bread and wine of communion know something of what it means to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy?

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] David F Payne, The Daily Study Bible: Deuteronomy, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1985, p40


[2] Exodus 20: 8-11

[3] Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, Preaching the Gospel of Mark, Westminster John Knox Press, London, 2008, p46