In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
When we hear today’s Gospel reading, it’s pretty easy for us to mock the silliness of the Pharisees. None of us would think for a minute that it would be bad for someone to be healed on the Sabbath. God was obviously not forbidding that when He told us to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Why would it be OK for someone to get a trapped animal out of a pit but not OK to help someone trapped and afflicted with some disease? To us that just seems ridiculous. It’s easy for us to justify ourselves and think that we certainly would have done better than the Pharisees.
But why is it that the Pharisees were thinking that way? What did they wrongly believe that led them astray? They were thinking that the way they would be counted as righteous in God’s sight was by how well they kept His commandments. And keeping the Sabbath was an important one. Every seven days they were to stop their work, just like God did on the seventh day of creation. In their mind, it was an offense against the Creator’s righteousness to do any work, even something good like a healing; there were six other days for that. Especially someone who was a teacher like Jesus should know better, they thought. If He was a true prophet of God, He would be setting an example which showed that righteousness comes through obedience to God’s Law.
Now as Lutherans, we think we’re pretty well defended against the Pharisees’ false teaching. We’ve rightly had it drilled into us that we’re not saved by our own works, but by Christ alone and what He has done for us. However, we sometimes then fall into the opposite error of the Pharisees. I mean, why is it that so many Christians are tempted to just disregard the 3rd commandment? Why are so many gone from church for weeks and months at a time and are not remembering the Sabbath day? Is it possible that we actually have the same root problem as the Pharisees? Think about it: If people believe they can do without the preaching of Christ and the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, there’s only two possible reasons for that: either they don’t think they have any real sins that need to be forgiven, or they think that their own private praying and therapies and efforts at good living are enough to merit God’s forgiveness and favor. And so Jesus’ words and sacraments become basically non-essential. Do you see? It’s the flip side of the same sin, thinking that righteousness comes by what we do, apart from Christ’s divine service to us. Those who purposely skip church are trusting in their own works instead of Christ’s works.
Now of course, there will be times here and there when you simply can’t make it to divine service because of sickness or an unexpected work obligation and the like. We don’t want to descend into legalism here. But imagine if people treated the other commandments the way they do the 3rd. “I only commit murder a couple months out of the year when the weather is warmer; most of the time I respect human life.” Or “I refrain from adultery, except when the kids have sports or when I’m working (or when there’s a Sunday morning Packer game). Otherwise, I’m a faithful spouse.” And yet, that’s the way too many talk about remembering the Sabbath day, as it if it were merely a suggestion that was adjustable to our plans and desires. Even if we thought we didn’t have any need for church at all, still we should be eager–simply because God has commanded it–to hold preaching and His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
It truly is a glad thing to remember the Sabbath day, because it’s not about trying to merit God’s favor by your good church attendance; it’s about receiving God’s favor dished out to you as a free gift in Christ’s preaching and supper. The Sabbath day is all about us stopping our work so that we can focus on God’s work and receive His work for us in Christ. That’s where real Sabbath rest and peace is to be found. This commandment, like all the commandments, is given for our good, not primarily as a burden but as a blessing.
When Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, He was showing precisely what the day is all about. We gather around the Great Physician to receive His healing mercy and forgiveness. What the Pharisees failed to see was that in Christ God was the One doing the work here. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. And the Sabbath work that He does saves us and redeems us in both body and soul. Again, remembering the Sabbath day means that we stop our work and all the activities and busyness of our life to dwell upon on God’s work and receive His divine service to us in Christ. We focus not on our performance but on what He performs and does for us through His words and water and bread and wine. And we respond then with glad thanksgiving and praise that confesses what He has done.
Now it is true that this commandment applies to us in the New Testament differently than it did in the Old Testament. Back then, the day of rest had to be the 7th day of the week, Saturday. But with Christ’s coming the Law was fulfilled so that the requirement to worship on a particular day no longer applies. Colossians 2 says, “Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The Old Testament day of rest pointed us forward to Him who is Himself our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus. Why focus on all the Old Testament shadows when the One who is casting the shadow has come!
Just consider how wonderfully Jesus fulfilled the 3rd commandment for us. Not only was it his custom to be in the synagogue each Sabbath where the Word of God was preached and taught. Not only did He love being in His Father’s house, meditating on and talking about the Scriptures. But He redeemed and renewed the days of creation, including especially the seventh. On the first day, Palm Sunday, He entered into Jerusalem to do His Father’s business and carry out the work and the mission He had been given. He taught and labored throughout that week. On the sixth day He suffered and died to pay for our sins, triumphantly declaring of His work, “It is finished!” And then what did He do on the seventh day? He rested in the tomb, sanctifying our graves and making them a holy place of rest from which we shall rise again on the Last Day. He then brought into being an eternal 8th day, an unending Easter by conquering death for us. His bodily resurrection has ushered in a new creation, free from the curse of sin, rich with mercy and divine life. That is why Sunday is called “the Lord’s Day” in Scripture and is the church’s primary day of worship. Divine Service can happen on any day of the week, of course, but at its center is always the Word of the risen Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Since the Sabbath is all about God’s work, what Jesus is doing, it is necessary that we come before Him with an attitude of humility. It’s not about us and our works. This is His show, His teaching, His meal. Our place at the table is not something for us to take but for Him to give. We all come before God as beggars, without any right to exalt ourselves in His presence. No one here is greater or lesser than another. Whatever we are is a gift of His grace.
So instead of jockeying for the places of honor at the table and in this world, Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you.” So humble yourself before God. Acknowledge your sin in true repentance, trusting in His mercy. Do not come to assert your spiritual rights, but come recognizing that it is the Lord’s place to bestow honor and glory, and it your place simply to receive what His good and gracious will gives. Those who love and honor the Lord in humble faith will be exalted by Him and brought to everlasting glory in the presence of the whole creation.
Jesus put Himself in the lowest place, the place of death, in order to save you. He bore your shame on the cross to restore your honor. And now Jesus is exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father. And the good news is that He has raised you up with Himself. By your baptismal faith you are united with Him in such a way that you share in His exaltation as members of His body. Remember, this is a wedding feast that Jesus speaks of. It is the celebration of His holy union with the Church, His bride. And if He is honored, then she also is honored with Him.
It is written in Ephesians that you who believe are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. That heavenly place is here for you today. Jesus is here among us at the head of the table. To every penitent heart He says, “Friend, go up higher.” “Come, ascend these steps to this holy place. Share in My honor by receiving My own body and blood. Be filled with My forgiveness and My life. Here is your Sabbath rest and healing. Here is the foretaste of the Last Day when in the resurrection you will go up higher forever.”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit