(sermon note: 01-31 sermon note)
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the cornfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, ‘Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ Jesus answered, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?’ Then he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’
On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man who was sentenced to life imprisonment. After so many years, he finally decided to dig a tunnel to escape. He worked for many months on this tunnel until he finally finished it. He decided to break out during the day, figuring the guards wouldn’t suspect this. As he broke through the ground to the surface, he found himself in a preschool playground. He was surprised but he rejoiced anyway, shouting, “I’m free, I’m free!” At this a little girl approached him, put her hand on her hip, and said, “Big deal! I’m four!”
That’s exactly what that poor man needed after so many years of dealing with a cold, unforgiving reality…a little more hard truth! Well, I’m sure it was refreshing coming from the mouth of a child. Children often say the coldest, hardest truths and yet they’re somehow more easily digested. Why is that? Maybe because they don’t have the power to judge or condemn us for the truths they speak. They simply utter truths and leave us to handle them however way we’d like to. “You’re not really smart”…”You don’t smell too good”…”That isn’t right”…take it or leave it. Of course, that little girl had simply misheard the man, thinking he had said, “I’m three, I’m three!” so her truth-telling didn’t really apply. But boy, she said it with such conviction, such sass!
Not that her sassy truth-telling has any relevance to our reading for today. No, I like that image of a man rejoicing for his freedom after a long, hard imprisonment…“I’m free, I’m free!” It’s the same rejoicing that those in our reading must have felt when they were freed from their own imprisonments. The hungry and deformed are just as imprisoned as those behind bars except their own bodies have constrained them, not bars or shackles. Their hunger and deformities have, in one way or another, limited their abilities and opportunities. They can’t do what they need to do, what they want to do. They’re restricted just much as the person sitting behind bars. They, too, are prisoners and at the mercy of those around them. And all came Jesus who set them free from their prisons. He fed them and healed them. Naturally his feeding and healing shouldn’t have been a problem except there were more prisoners in the story who were for whatever reason angry about their freedom. The Pharisees were also imprisoned yet they didn’t realize it. They were imprisoned by their religious fervor and dogma. They thought that only they knew God and how to understand God–through strict adherence to the laws. The laws were ultimately what revealed God, or so they believed. Well, we know differently thanks to the help of Luther who taught us that laws only provide order and help to reveal our sinfulness. They tell us when we’ve done something wrong. They don’t tell us when we’ve done something right nor do they give us praise and encouragement when we do something right. There are no rewards with laws, only punishments. That’s why it’s so important to have the gospel along with the law! The good news…God loves us…God loved us so much that He sent the Son to die for us so that we might have eternal life! Love is what encourages us to do what’s right, not fear! Yes, I realize there are leaders in this world who like to claim otherwise but their leadership is built on shifting sands. Fear can only be sustained for so long. Only love is long-lasting and always encourages right behavior. We need both law and gospel if we’re to live orderly and lovingly and righteously in this world. But getting back to our reading…
Jesus was and is all about loving us, loving the hungry, loving the deformed. And his love for us is best shown to us in his setting us free. That is his primary mission–not necessarily to love us but rather to set us free. Recall how he fulfilled the words spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” (61:1) This is what Jesus is all about–setting people free, not necessarily loving them. Yes, in setting them free he IS loving them but that isn’t Jesus’ primary objective. No, he wants to free us first and foremost. Why? Because he loves us, not “to love us.” Jesus loves us already, he doesn’t need to love us, he already does…with all our warts and all! Jesus loves us and wants nothing more than to free us–from this world, from the evil in this world, from ourselves, from our sinfulness, from our fears and doubts, whatever it is that enslaves us. THAT is his primary objective, to free us.
And those poor Pharisees just didn’t want to be freed. They were comfortable in their enslavement to religious dogma that said they couldn’t feed or heal on the Sabbath. They didn’t realize that the Sabbath is meant to free us, not enslave us. It is meant to release us from our work and our anxieties. It is meant to give us rest and bring us closer to God, nothing more and nothing less. Those poor Pharisees had it all wrong, they couldn’t and wouldn’t be set free. They were slaves to the law and didn’t realize it. Freedom just passed them by…
But don’t let it pass you by! Welcome Jesus into your life not necessarily as an encourager or guide or lover. Jesus wants to set us free. He is the “Lord of the Sabbath,” the master of freedom, the source of rest. Paul writes in first letter to the Corinthians, “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.” (10:23) There’s a lot in that statement but take away this: in all things, look to what is beneficial and will build up. The Pharisees looked to tear down Jesus, tear down those who went against the law. But that is built on a misguided understanding of the law. The law doesn’t tear down, it only gives reasons to tear down. The law is indifferent, it simply provides structure and boundaries and order. Build each other up with love and the gospel.
Jesus feeding and healing on the Sabbath shows us how much he wants to set us free and build us up. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “for freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (5:1) What a beautiful statement to make! Christ sets us free. Why? So that we might simply enjoy freedom–freedom from fear, doubt, pain, sorrow, worry. What more could we ask for from our Lord and Savior? What more would we want?! This season of Epiphany is a season of revelation. Let us rejoice in the revelation that Jesus only wants to set us free and will go to great lengths to free us. Let us rejoice in what he himself said, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Let us rejoice, “I’m free, I’m free!” Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.