“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: on the seventh day, God created rest. “And on the seventh day God finished His work that He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.” He did not rest for His own sake, for God needs no rest, even after creating all there is. He rested for our sake. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” Rest on the seventh day, the Sabbath day—called the ‘Sabbath’ from the Hebrew word for ‘rest’—was God’s gift to His people, and it was to be zealously guarded. “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.” Pharisees are the kind of people tailor-made to guard the statutes of God; they delight in following what God commands to the letter, they rejoice to show the world how they keep His Law.
“One Sabbath, when [Jesus] went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching Him carefully.” Pharisees build great hedges around the law, pages and pages of legal codes that keep anyone from getting anywhere close to violating the commandment. Pharisees watch others carefully, for rules and regulations are what make the Sabbath for them; they demonstrate how to keep the Sabbath properly and condemn those who don’t measure up. For Pharisees, the Sabbath is about the show, it is about watching yourself carefully, it is about showing others that you are obedient, so that your life is a rebuke to those who are not so scrupulous. The Sabbath is a day for doing what is expected, for keeping up appearances, for making sure others see just how obedient a Pharisee can be, and calling out those who are not so careful.
Pharisees like us come to worship, we go through the motions, we do what is required. Pharisees like us keep up appearances, we make sure that others see us in the pew, but our hearts and our minds are far away. Pharisees like us despise God’s Word, we ignore it, we criticize it, we don’t hear it gladly. Pharisees like us are bored with God’s Word, we can’t wait until we’ve left this place to do something, anything else. Pharisees like us don’t concern ourselves with what is taught, what is proclaimed, only with what is expected. Pharisees like us gladly listen to false doctrine, we drink in false teaching, because it tickles our itching ears, it tells us what we want to hear. Pharisees like us haven’t bothered to learn enough to identify and flee from false teaching, and so we follow every whim and fancy of the culture or popular Christian literature.
Pharisees like us leave worship unchanged, silent; instead of praising God for what He has given there, we thank God that it is over. Pharisees like us pass ourselves off as zealous, devout, and faithful Christians on Sunday morning, but the rest of the week we live like the pagans around us. Pharisees like us are unchanged by the Word, but we still think we have done our duty, our work for God. Pharisees like us gain no knowledge of God’s Word; we leave each year with as little understanding of God’s holy Word as we did when we entered it. Pharisees like us don’t take the Word of God into our home; we fulfill our expectations, we get ourselves and our families into the pew or into the classroom, but we don’t pray, we don’t read the Scriptures, we don’t have devotions. Then Pharisees like us wonder why our young people leave the church.
Pharisees like us are not here to listen to the Word of God, we are here to keep up appearances, to fulfill our external duties. For first century Pharisees, it was refraining from work, scrupulously avoiding labor of any kind. For twenty-first century Pharisees, we have long ago given up the concept of keeping the Sabbath by avoiding work. Instead of a day without work, it is a couple hours ‘resting’ in a pew. If you have done that, then you have done your Sabbath duty. Pharisees like us certainly have kept the outward forms of the Sabbath, we come to church (usually), but our hearts are still hardened.
Jesus knows Pharisees like us; He knows us better than we know ourselves. And so He comes into our legalistic, outward-focused Sabbath in order to teach us how it truly is kept. “And behold, there was a man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus responded to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’” He responds to those who watch, even though no one has said anything. He knows the hearts of Pharisees like us, Pharisees focused on externals, intent on simply making sure the appropriate strictures are followed, and then the Sabbath is fulfilled. But the Sabbath is not fulfilled by following Pharisaical rules. “He took him and healed him and sent him away. And He said to them, ‘Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?’”
Jesus holds the Sabbath day sacred by making it a day for healing. He holds the Sabbath day sacred by making it a day for mercy. Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Yes! The Sabbath is a day for healing, a day for mercy, a day for Jesus to show love to His afflicted people. Jesus makes the Sabbath day a day for Him to give release to the prisoners, sight to the blind. He holds the Sabbath day sacred because it is the day on which He will heal the wounds of His people. The Sabbath is not about avoiding work, but being healed by Jesus. The Pharisees cannot see it, for they think they are well. But this man with dropsy leaves their midst restored, while they remain sick with sin. Outwardly, Pharisees like us are healthy; inwardly, we are deathly sick. Repent dear friends, repent of your misuse of the Sabbath, admit your sickness, your desperate need for restoration, for Jesus came precisely to heal us.
“Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” Jesus came upon us in our sin and iniquity, trapped in a well, with no way out; only death could be our share. And on the eve of the Sabbath, on Good Friday, He rescued us, He did not hesitate. Most people rescue a trapped person or animal by tossing down a rope and remaining safely on the surface. Jesus refused to save His own life, but jumped into the well with us and then heaved us out, leaving Himself behind in our place. There in that well, our tomb, He observed the Sabbath rest, spending the Sabbath beneath the ground. But on the third day He pulled Himself out of the well, rising victoriously from the grave, triumphant over death, having delivered us from every bond that held us. Jesus fulfills the Sabbath by resting fully and completely, the rest of salvation, sanctifying our own rest in the tomb. And when He rose from that rest, the Sabbath was fulfilled in salvation, and Jesus sanctified every day since as a day to hear of His salvation, a day to receive His gifts, the eighth day that will last forever, until it is fulfilled in our own resurrection day. Our Sabbath, our rest, is now every day, every day since Easter is a holy day, a Sabbath, and most especially those days that the congregation gathers around the gifts of Christ, assembled before altar, pulpit, and font. There Christ gives His healing, He gives true rest to forgiven Pharisees like us.
That is the gift of the Sabbath; Jesus has fulfilled its promise, He has finally made it complete. The rest of the Sabbath day was never meant to be an end in itself but it, was meant to be a taste of the rest that is yet to come, the rest that Christ won for us by His three-day rest in the tomb. That is what your eternity will be: an eternal Sabbath day, a never-ending day of rest, set aside for fellowship with your God, set aside to dwell in His presence. And so now, every Sabbath day, that is, every day since Easter, is a time for Jesus to heal us, to call us to repentance and cleanse us of our sin by His blood-bought gifts. That is what the Sabbath is all about—Jesus healing sinners, Pharisees like you and me.
So the Sabbath is not about avoiding work; it isn’t about following Pharisaical rules, keeping up appearances. Pharisees major in the minors; they observe what is incidental on the Sabbath while neglecting what is vital. What does Luther teach us about the Sabbath day? “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.” The Sabbath is not kept simply by doing no work, or by simply being in the pew, although you certainly are violating the Sabbath command if you avoid the pew. The Sabbath is kept by gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. That is what the rest is for, that is why you are in the pew: to hear God’s Word. The rest of the Sabbath is meant to serve the Word.
How do we keep the Sabbath day? By gladly hearing and learning God’s Word, wherever and whenever it is read or proclaimed. By letting the Word fill your home, sanctifying each day with prayer and the Scriptures. The Sabbath rest of every day flows from the Sabbath rest of the Divine Service. Your pastors are here to help you in that task. We know that a prayer and devotional life is not easy, that it isn’t easy to raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, and so we are here as your resources, to help you in this great task. How do we keep the Sabbath day? Not by doing or not doing, but by receiving. By taking time for rest during your week, coming to this place to receive all that Christ has to give: healing of our sin-sick souls, victory over death, His very Word which is the bread of life, and His Body and His Blood under bread and wine, the manna of heaven, the food of immortality. Here He gives you rest, the rest that you need, the rest that will never end, for here Jesus takes you, heals you, and sends you away, to dwell in perfect rest, forever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.