Freedom from Burden to Rest (June 3, 2018)
Freedom from Burden to Rest
Do you, at times, feel burdened by the Sabbath? Does having a day off from work and coming to church sometimes feel like a burden? You might be thinking, what a ridiculous question! Of course not! It would be unchristian to think in such a way. But I’ll ask you to take a moment and really just think about that honestly. Maybe you are a young mother, who knows it’s good for your children to be in church. But when Sunday comes around you are anxious, and nervously wonder, “How am I going to get the kids quietly through the service today?” Maybe you are a bit more advanced in years. Perhaps your eyesight is going, or your ears just don’t work like they used to. And once again, you know this is where you are supposed to be on Sunday morning, but honestly, it’s hard to get a lot out of church. Either you can’t see the Bible readings or hymn lyrics. Or you can’t hear much of the sermon that is preached. Maybe you are a business owner, working hard to keep up with demand. And even while you are at church, your mind is elsewhere. Either on the work that is piling up as I speak or perhaps planning family time because it’s hard to get much family time during the week.
Do you sometimes feel burdened by the Sabbath?
There’s another group of people who share in your struggle. The Sabbath law was actually put into place at Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the 10 Commandments. “The seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work… For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Ex 20:10-11). Over the years, the Jewish legal experts had gone to great lengths to define exactly which activities were permissible on the Sabbath and which were forbidden. And although their motivation in carefully defining the Sabbath rest was well intentioned, it showed their lack of understanding of what God’s law was intended to do. They saw this as a means to be honored by God and man for their piety. They wanted to earn their salvation by keeping God’s law to the letter. The Pharisees viewed the Old Testament as a book of rules and regulations to be kept in order to earn salvation. They didn’t realize that the law, with all its rules and regulations, was actually means to dramatically demonstrate that they could NOT save themselves because they were sinful human beings. Their lack of understanding and their legalistic approach are very evident in their interaction with Jesus here.
As they saw Jesus’ disciples snacking on the ripe grain as they walked along, they accused Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mk 2:24). You see, according to their thinking, the disciples were “harvesting” grain when they picked a small handful to snack on. And harvesting would be considered work, which was therefore unlawful to do on the Sabbath. However, it was really the Pharisees who were in the wrong. It was they who added their own rules to God’s law. It was they who had gone beyond what God’s law required, forced it upon other people, and demonstrated that they misunderstood the purpose of the law completely. They were making the Sabbath out to be a day of burden, not a day of rest. They were burdening themselves by earning righteousness through carefully defining and obeying the law, but the Bible says that’s not the purpose of the law! “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Rm 3:20). Through the law, we realize just how great our burden of sin is. We realize that we cannot find rest by slavishly obeying the law to become righteous. Rather, we realize that there has to be another way. We realize that we need a savior if we ever want to be freed from our burden of sin.
So let’s reassess our reasons for observing a Sabbath day. Let’s reassess why you have come here; why you go to church. God intended the Sabbath as a blessing – a day of rest for his people. In fact, that’s what the word Sabbath means – “rest.” And on the Sabbath God wants to bless us with both physical and spiritual rest. By requiring the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath, his intention was to bless them with physical rest because it is beneficial for the human body. Now, if one of your livestock fell into a cistern, out of love for that animal and considering your wellbeing, God provided an exemption to get that animal back (Mt 12:11). If your neighbor was starving and needed something to eat, it would be unloving to ignore them and turn them away simply because it was the Sabbath. God intended the physical rest for blessing, not as a burden.
And the same is true for the spiritual rest that God offers on the Sabbath. Now, perhaps parents with young children don’t always feel like they are getting much spiritual rest when they can’t listen to more than two sentences of the sermon. But what about when you hear the words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? What about the example and routine you are setting for your children so that they are in a habit of coming to God for spiritual rest? And if you are older, and can’t see the hymns to sing them or can’t hear much of what is preached, what about the texture of the bread in your hands or on your tongue? What about the smell and taste of the wine as God reassures you – gives you tangible proof – that all your sins are forgiven in the death of Jesus? And for those whose minds might be on work, or to-do lists, what about those short Bible readings printed in the bulletin that you can go back to and reread as God sets the tone for your busy week ahead. In fact, even those who have to cut out early can still take little snippets of God’s Word with them so that they can find rest in their hectic lives. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
That leads me to my next point. What is the function of the Old Testament Sabbath in the New Testament era? Jesus gets to that when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). As it is with many of the Old Testament laws and customs that God had established, the Sabbath served a dual purpose. First, it was meant to benefit the people of Israel by distinguishing them among all the other nations and focusing them on the one true God. And second, it was also meant to point ahead to a deeper fulfillment. I’ll use the example of the Passover Lamb. The sacrifice of the Passover Lamb was an annual reminder for the Israelites of how the one true God showed his power and authority over false gods and powerful nations. It also reminded the Israelites that the Almighty God was a gracious and saving God. That was seen in their deliverance from Egypt, but it would be seen in its fullest sense in the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb – Christ Jesus, who died to deliver God’s people everywhere from their sin. When that happened, the foreshadowing of the annual Passover Lamb would cease, because it’s fulfillment had come.
In the same way, the Sabbath day of rest was meant to benefit God’s people. There is value in taking a day off from work for the sake of physical and emotional well-being. There is also a spiritual benefit of observing the Sabbath. Not by slavish observance to the letter of the law, like the Pharisees did, but by offering the believer a special opportunity to worship, to study God’s Word, and to meditate on his plan of salvation. And in this sense, the Sabbath also served as a foreshadowing of the far greater rest that God provides for his people through their Savior Jesus. That’s exactly what the second reading today says, “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Col 2:16-17).
That is true Sabbath rest. In Christ we are freed from the burden of sin to the rest of forgiveness. That’s why we come Sunday after Sunday. Not because we have to. Not because Sunday is the God ordained New Testament Sabbath. But because here, in Word and Sacrament we find rest for our burdened souls. We are weighed down with sin and long to hear the words, “I forgive you ALL your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We are burdened with life decisions and looking for guidance from God in his Word. Or we are longing for the encouragement from brothers and sisters in the faith who get us – who know what it’s like to be a Christian in a world that is straying farther and farther from the truth. Or we are burdened even just by the guilt of one sin, that doesn’t seem to understand the words “I forgive you all your sins,” so we long to see, taste, touch, the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament. A sacrament which connects us to the death of Christ where God forsook Jesus of your sin, and then Jesus cried out that the punishment for that sin “is finished!” So that as you walk away from the altar, you are freed from that burden because it was nailed to the cross.
Brother and sisters, breath that sigh of relief. You didn’t come here today to struggle with kids. You didn’t come here today because you are obligated despite not being able to see or hear. You didn’t come here as an inconvenience to your already busy week. You came here today because over and over again God tells you that you are forgiven, shows you how you were forgiven, and even puts into your hands that rest from the burden of ALL your sins. I know. I know that because of your various circumstances you may not be able to get everything out of worship that is offered, but you get something! And in that something God assures you that you are forgiven.