Law Breakers (Mark 2:23-3:6)

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When we hear the story of Jesus’ disciples eating grain they had picked on the Sabbath day of rest in Mark 2:23-28, we might wonder what the Pharisees were so upset about. The disciples weren’t hurting anybody and I’m sure that the people who owned the field wouldn’t have missed a few stalks. So what’s the problem?

When God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses in Exodus 20, God said explicitly that his people were not to do any work on the seventh day of the week (vv8-11). What was called the Sabbath was meant to be a day of rest. In order to define what was ‘work’ so the Jewish people could keep this commandment, a complicated set of rules developed which defined what a person was and was not allowed to do. From this perspective, picking grain from a paddock was considered ‘work’ and so the disciples were breaking God’s command.

The Pharisees’ reactions might appear to be a bit extreme, but do we sometimes react in a similar way? Most Christians have our own ideas about how we should observe our own day of rest. We might not have them written down, but most people I’ve known in the church have their own set of rules about what and how we should do what we do. I’m meaning things like what songs or hymns we should or shouldn’t sing, what liturgies we should or shouldn’t use, when we should sit and when we should stand, how people should dress, how children should behave, and the list could go on. It might be uncomfortable to admit, but most of us have a set of rules that we think people should follow in the church. Then, if people don’t do what we think they should, we can start to be critical of them, kind of like the Pharisees were of Jesus’ disciples.

What is ironic is that Christians are breaking the Sabbath law just by worshiping on Sunday. Biblically, the Sabbath day of rest is Saturday – just ask someone from the Jewish community or a member of a Seventh Day Adventist church. There are two main reasons I’m aware of why Christian changed it to Sunday. The first is that the early followers of Jesus met together on the first day of the week to remember and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The second reason was because they wanted to send a clear message that we are no longer under the law but under grace. As people whose relationship with God and eternal futures are not based on whether or not we keep the law, we are free to meet together and worship whenever is good for the community of faith.

That is why Jesus replies to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying that ‘the Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath’ (v27 NLT). Jesus teaches us that people were not created to be slaves of the law along with its rules and expectations. Instead, God gave us the law to serve us. Rules are meant to be a blessing, not a burden, especially in Christian community. If our rules are no longer serving God’s people, or if they are becoming a burden to God’s people, then we need to ask whether they are fulfilling God’s purpose. If that is the case, then maybe it is time to set those rules aside in the freedom the gospel gives us.

What seems to matter most to Jesus, not just in this story but all the way through the gospels, is people. If the rules get in the way of people finding grace or healing, love or forgiveness, then Jesus breaks the rules to give them what they need. This is what made the Pharisees so angry with Jesus, and even here, at the start of the second chapter of Mark’s gospel, the religious and political leaders of Jesus’ time are already starting to wonder how to get rid of him. They begin planning to kill him because Jesus prioritizes people over their rules. For Jesus, people are much more important that religious rules and laws.

What would our communities of faith be like if we took the same approach? I understand that we all have our preferences about when and how we worship, the style of music and liturgy (or lack of it), how people should dress and behave when they come to church. But how might our churches be different if we were willing to put our preferences and expectations aside and made people our priority?

In our congregation we have two worship services each Sunday: an earlier service with a more formal liturgy and hymns played on an organ, and a later service with less structured liturgy and a band playing more modern songs. I put the challenge out on Sunday for people to think about what things might be like if we prioritized the people of the other service – the young, the elderly, and everyone in between – over and above our own set of rules about what worship should or shouldn’t be. If we took Jesus’ words seriously about God giving us a Sabbath day of rest for our good with people being what matters most, how could we show others how important they are to Jesus by prioritizing them?

We need to remember that Jesus prioritizes each and every one of us by giving his life for us. We extend and communicate grace and love to each other when we prioritize each other and are willing to make others in our community of faith more important to us than our rules, laws and expectations. When we understand that Jesus prioritized people over rules, no matter what their age, background or gender might be, then we begin to embrace them in God’s grace and love as we follow him and do the same.

I have been serving this congregation now for almost three years. There are people in our church who think I am changing too many things too fast. There are others who think I’m not changing things quickly enough. This is the life of a pastor – it is impossible to keep everyone happy. However, the change I’m really working towards and hope to see is not about service times or styles of music or liturgy. The change I hope for is in our hearts. I would like us to recognize that rules were made for people, not people for rules, and that Jesus prioritized people over rules.

As followers of Jesus, then, I hope that we will make people our number one priority, even if it means breaking some rules to do it.

The Naming of Jesus (Luke 2:21)

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When I was a child, there were always things I had to do before I was allowed to watch television. I had to finish my homework, clean up my toys, tidy my room and wash the dishes. Only when they were done was I allowed to turn on the TV and watch my favourite shows.

There are lots of people who think that this is how Christianity works: you do what you have to do by obeying a lot of rules, and if you get them all done and do them well enough, you might be able to get to heaven. If you don’t do them well enough, or fail to do them at all, then, a lot of people think, you don’t make it in.

Jesus was born into a religious system that believed this way. For the Jews of Jesus’ time, people needed to keep the Law of Moses, written in the first five books of the Bible, if they wanted to be God’s people. Among these laws, in Leviticus 12:3, Jewish parents were commanded to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after they were born to signify that they were a part of the covenant that God had established with Abraham. Circumcision identified Jewish males that they were one of God’s holy people.

It is easy to skip over Luke 2:21 when we read this part of the Bible. However, this verse is very significant in the story of Jesus saving the world. By being circumcised, Jesus began to fulfil the Law of Moses in order to free us from the demands it makes on us. In Galatians 4:4,5 Paul writes,

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. (NLT)

Jesus became subject to the Law of Moses in order to free us from its rules so we can live in freedom as God’s children. It is like Jesus turning up at my house when I was a child to do all the things I needed to do before I could watch TV, so that I could skip over the difficult things and enjoy the good stuff. What is different is that instead of having a few chores to do around the house, the Law of Moses dictated every aspect of life, and the goal is not just watching TV, but a life spent as God’s children, now and for eternity. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish what God’s law demands of us, but to fulfil its demands. Jesus’ circumcision was his first step in fulfilling the demands of God’s law in order to free us from the law. As some commentators have said, in his circumcision, Jesus shed his first blood for the redemption of the world.

Jesus fulfilling the law for us is important for us in a couple of ways. Firstly, if a relationship with God and eternal life was up to me keeping God’s law, then I could never know if I have done enough or done it well enough. When I fail at loving God and loving others, there will always be doubts about whether I have done what I need to do to be good enough in God’s sight. Jesus fulfilling God’s law, beginning with his circumcision, means that we can find rest and peace in the faith that Jesus has done everything for us. This is grace: that Jesus has done for us what we can’t do ourselves by keeping God’s Law perfectly, and then he gives us the benefit – a new relationship with God as his children and a life that is even stronger than death.

Jesus keeping God’s Law for us also means that we don’t have to spend our lives trying to be good enough for God. Jesus makes us good by giving his perfect life to us as a gift. We can then give our lives to others as an act of grace to them. The big difference between Christianity and other religions is that their whole focus is on trying to be good enough so they can reach their spiritual goal for themselves. This is essentially self-serving. When we live a life of faith, trusting that we are already good because of Jesus’ obedience to the Law, then we can spend our time and efforts loving other people and extending grace to them. We can focus on others because Jesus has already taken care of what we need. Living a life that pleases God is still important because our actions and the way we treat others are the most effective ways of giving witness to our faith. People look for evidence of what we believe in what we do much more than what we say. When we trust that Jesus has done everything for us, then we are free as his followers and disciples to forget about ourselves and live in love for others.

For Christians, New Year’s Day is about a lot more than beginning another calendar year. The eighth day after Jesus’ birth is about him beginning to obey God’s law as he is circumcised. As Paul tells us, Jesus did this to free us from rules and laws and expectations. Because of Jesus’ obedience, and the blood he shed in his circumcision and on the cross, he gives us his goodness so we can be called children of God and live in the freedom that comes with that faith. Today is not just about making resolutions which we may or may not keep. It is about finding freedom through faith in Jesus’ obedience for us, so we can serve each other in love.

More to think about:

  • Did you make any New Year resolutions this year? If you did, what are they? If you didn’t, why not?
  • If you have ever made New Year’s resolutions, have you been successful in keeping them? If people find it difficult to live up to the expectations we place on ourselves, why do we think we are able to live up to God’s expectation of us?
  • Read through the book of Leviticus. What do you think it would be like to live in a culture that expected people to obey every thing it commands?
  • As Christians, we can easily take our freedom for granted, but Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4,5 explain that we only have our freedom because Jesus obeyed God’s law for us, beginning with his circumcision. How can that freedom also help to free us from the expectations other people might have on us, and even we might have on ourselves?
  • Instead of using our freedom selfishly, Jesus teaches us to use our freedom to love others (see Galatians 5:13,14). If there is someone in your life who has expectations of you, how can you use your freedom to love that person this week?