Rest in Peace
A sermon based on Mark 2:23-28
Sunday, June 3, 2018 – Pentecost 2B
So the Guenthers are getting closer and closer to what I'm pretty sure is going to be the longest road trip of our lives. And I'll admit that I'm a bit nervous. I hope we don't break down along the way. That would throw off my fastidious plan. I hope the boys don't fight in the back non-stop. That will drive me crazy. And I'm pretty sure that I'll be doing almost all of the driving on my own because, you see, my wife has this condition that I call, "Carcolepsy." It's like narcolepsy, but it only seems to hit her when she gets in the car. As soon as she hits that passenger seat she's out.
But I get it. A lot of us aren't getting as much sleep as we need. 26% of Americans average only 6 hours of sleep each night. Another 14% get 5 hours or less. That's a lot less than the 8 to 10 hours recommended. At least 40% of Americans are weary, tired, worn out. Is that you sometimes? Wouldn't it be nice to get some rest?
Of course, when it is Becky's turn to drive, I have a second problem. That's usually when the boys are wide awake. They're either talking and laughing or they're bickering and fighting and still can't get the sleep I need because I have no peace.
One of my college professors had a brilliant solution to the problem of not getting enough rest and peace. If he ever noticed anyone yawn or their eyelids start to droop in class he would loudly remind us, "Boys, wake up! There's plenty of time to sleep in the grave." And so you see on every iconic tombstone: R.I.P. Rest in peace.
I don't know about you, but I for one would like to rest in peace before I'm dead. And if you do too, then listen up because God has another solution for us. In the Old Testament he called it the Sabbath Day: a day off from work, a day to rest from your labor, a day to find peace in the Word of God and in the promises which it contains.
But not everyone understood that rest. Not everyone wanted that peace. This morning, we hear of an encounter between some Pharisees and Jesus. And as we hear Jesus' response to their challenge, we rejoice that through him we can rest in peace. Our lesson is from Mark 2:23-28…
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"
25 He answered, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."
27 Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
Ever feel like you just can't get enough rest? No matter how late you sleep in on Saturday, it just isn't enough to make up for the late nights or early mornings of the week? It seems to be a problem for me especially in summer in Alaska. There's lots of light to go play, but still plenty of work to be done. Especially now that we're packing.
In fact, the time spent playing makes more work: to prepare for the party, to pack for the trip, to shop for the camping trip, to process the fish, to clean up when it's all done. There may be rest in the summer for Floridans, but it doesn't seem there's ever a chance to rest in the summer for Alaskans. Wouldn't it be nice to rest in peace?
But there's a much worse restlessness than the tiredness we feel in our bodies. There's a restlessness of the soul that can leave one entirely worn out. The guilt of sin and the shame of regret can leave one feeling pretty exhausted. So what do we do about it?
The Pharisees taught a theology of works. Work hard. Clean up your act. Improve your life. Follow the rules. Change your behavior. Be a better person. Then, when you have become all you were meant to be, you can have rest in knowing what a great person you are.
But there's a problem with that theology: It doesn't work. Working hard to be the person God wants you to be can never give you rest because you can never be perfect! And make no mistake, that's not just God's desire, but his demand: Be perfect! And so, without perfection, you cannot be at peace with God. The best you can do is water down the law and lower the bar to something you can keep.
That's what the Pharisees did. If they couldn't keep their thoughts pure, well, then they'd ignore that command and make up a new one: Don't take too many steps on Saturday. The Pharisees even turned even rest into work! The Sabbath Day, the day of rest, became a day of rules. They added rule upon rule and insisted these rules must be kept or people would be sinning. Prepare your meals for Saturday on Friday night. For it would be work to cook. Eat light on Friday and Saturday morning because you can only walk outside the city to the latrine once. More than that would be too many steps and too much work. And it's still the same way today…
When I went to visit Israel in 2008, one Saturday (the Sabbath Day), I got on the wrong elevator. I thought someone was playing a joke on me because on my way up to my room, the doors opened and closed on every single floor on the way up to my room on the 15th floor. I was on the Sabbath elevator. It did that so orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath wouldn't have to work by hitting the button. No joke! When I learned that from my tour guide I asked him, what if a hotel doesn't have such an elevator, would they have to wait for a Gentile to push the button for them? Ironically, he was serious when he said, "Either that or take the stairs."
I once said to the rabbi down the street from the church I served in Raleigh, "I notice that when I come in on Saturday to run through the sermon or fold the bulletins, I'll often see you and your family walking to the synagogue. Why is that? I thought the Sabbath was a day of rest." His serious reply was, "We walk to give our cars a day of rest."
Do you see how ridiculous it is? How they turn the Sabbath on its head?! What God intended to be a day for his people to rest from their work to focus on the Word, they turned into a day of rules to be kept to work your way into heaven by earning God's favor.
So while God commanded his people not to harvest on the Sabbath, but to take a day off to focus on his grace, the Pharisees turned it into a command not to pick a snack while you walked along the road. When they saw Jesus' disciples picking some heads of grain, they challenged Jesus: "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?"
But Jesus set them straight. "Have you never read what David did… when he and his companions were hungry and in need… he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions."
They were surely familiar with the account we just read. David ate the consecrated bread that the law said was only for priests. Yet he was not sinning. In the case of necessity, love is the fulfillment of the Law, and no one ever thought of censuring David for his action. Jesus' point was clear—if David wasn't guilty of sin when he ate the bread in the tabernacle when he was hungry, Jesus' disciples weren't guilty either for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath when they were hungry.
The Pharisees got it all wrong. And so they stripped the Sabbath of its rest. They stripped the symbol of its peace. They did it to water down the law to become something they could keep to feel like they deserved God's love. But it didn't work. They still weren't perfect. They had no peace with God.
Now I know it's easy to look down on those shameful Pharisees, but before we do, consider this: Don't we sometimes do the exact same thing? Don't we sometimes think that we earn God's favor by toeing the line, by following the rules, by keeping God's commands, even by being here in church? What makes you a good Christian? If you've ever answered, "Because I go to church every week," or "Because I am an active member," well, you've just done the same thing that the Pharisees did!
Being in church no more makes you a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car! And your presence here this morning earns you no brownie points before God. Sitting on the couch after worship (instead of working) doesn't always bring him glory. And it isn't a sin to mow your lawn on Sunday afternoon.
Keeping God's laws do not get us closer to God. They never have. They cannot get us rest for our souls. They cannot bring us peace because we cannot keep them perfectly, all of the time, as God demands that we do.
It's easy to make up rules about elevators and steps walked. But it's not easy to keep our hearts free from arrogance and pride, from lust and greed, from sinful thoughts that look down on others who aren't "as good" as us. And each one of these thoughts reveals the Pharisee in each of us and earns us God's condemnation. We deserve to rest in pieces, obliterated by God's wrath. We deserve damnation in hell.
But Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. And the Sabbath Day was never really about rules for people to follow in order to earn God's favor. No! It was all to point ahead to Jesus: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath."
The Sabbath was meant to serve people, not enslave them. Of course there's wisdom in taking a day off from work for the sake of one's physical and emotional health. But God had a more important purpose in mind for the Sabbath. He intended the Sabbath to be a special opportunity to worship, to study God's Word, and to better learn his plan of salvation—not through following legalistic requirements, but through faith in the Messiah to come, through faith in Jesus.
Remember what he said in Matthew 11(:28-29): "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
The Old Testament Sabbath Day pointed ahead to the rest that our Savior would bring—the rest that we have in the forgiveness of sins. "Therefore 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." (Colossians 2:16-17)
The requirements haven't changed. We still must be perfect to find peace with God. But that's what the Gospel is all about: how Jesus took our sin—our arrogance and pride, our lust and greed, our sinful thoughts that look down on others, all of it—on himself. He did live a perfect life, always keeping every one of God's commands. And he gave that perfection to us. Now, through Jesus, you and I are perfect; sinless in every way.
And we don't have to do a thing to be right with God. He's done it all. There's no work for us to do to earn God's favor. We already have it. And so we can rest and be at peace because we know we have peace with God. We don't need to count our steps or select the right elevator. We don't need to follow ceremonial laws or even keep the moral law to get into heaven. Jesus gives us rest from our sin and he gives us rest from the law. We really can rest in peace.
But, ironically, we no longer want to just rest. Having peace with God through Jesus and rest from struggling to earn his favor, all we want to do is get to work for him to show him how thankful we are. We're eager to share the message of his grace that lets us rest in peace. We're eager to work hard to support the work of the Church that we might share the Lord of the Sabbath, our Lord of Rest, with others, that they, like us, can rest in peace as together we rest in his grace.
And, finally, we work hard now in thanks to Jesus knowing that one day soon when our bodies and souls separate, we will forever rest in perfect peace as we join our Savior forever in heaven. And they can mark each one of our graves with a big R.I.P. For we will rest in peace until he comes to wake us from the grave. What a restful sleep that will be. In Jesus' name, dear friends, rest in peace. Amen.