God looks out for us

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Mark 2:21-28
October 24, 2021

Sermon recorded during worship at Bluemont Presbyterian Church on Sunday, October 24, 2021.

At the Beginning of the Service

The Sabbath has been called the first labor law.[1] God graciously realizes we need to rest, just as God rested on the seventh day. But we humans, in our fallen state, have a way of taking a good thing too far and screwing it up. We do that with drink and become drunks, with food and become gluttons, with sex and become promiscuous, with rest and become lazy. God created this world good, but our sinfulness has a way of messing things up. This can even be true when we are trying to be good or godly, as we’re going to see this morning. Think about it. Ever had a time in your life when you seriously wanted to do good, and it went the other way. Thankfully, our misguided efforts are covered by a blanket of grace. The good news reminds us there is nothing the redeemed can do to move beyond God’s grace. Our assurance is in God’s hands not in our own.[2]

Before the reading of Scripture

Today we’ll look at a passage in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel. Early in his gospel, Mark sharpens the distinction and conflict between Jesus and other religious groups like the Pharisees.[3] Jesus is doing a new thing, as we learn in the opening parable of the wineskins. Then we see an example of this new thing with a reinterpretation of what the Sabbath means. 

Read Mark 2: 21-28 

What’s going on?

Do you think the Pharisees might have been picking on Jesus for the wrong reason? They get all over him for harvesting grain on the Sabbath, but don’t say anything about the fact Jesus and his disciples are in someone else’s grain field?  Nor do they get on to him for traveling on the Sabbath. After all, the rabbis limited travel on the Sabbath to less than 2000 steps, around 800 meters.[4] Think about this for a moment as I go off on a tangent.

My Great Grandpa Learns a Lesson

I inherited my Presbyterianism from my great-granddaddy McKenzie. He was a strong church leader who served as an elder at Culdee Presbyterian Church for over 40 years. It was the church his father and grandfather help establish in those dark days following the War Between the States. Like most churches in the day, it emphasized the fear of God, and the preacher regularly reminded the congregation about God’s judgment.

My great granddaddy often told stories about his life when he was a boy. Sadly, because I was just a boy, I never wrote them down. I wish I remembered them all, but a couple I do recall. One had to do with him goofing off one summer day when he happened by a neighbor’s watermelon patch. It was hot and those watermelons were tempting. My great granddaddy took out his knife and cut one open. With his hands, he dug out the heart—that sweet center of the melon—and ate it. It was good, so good he decided to go for another. Soon, melon juice was running down his chin and staining his shirt. But boy, they were good. The few joys of a hot summer, in my opinion, are good tomatoes and watermelon. 

Now, as my grandfather stuffed himself, something strange occurred. The air cooled as the sky darkened. As there were no clouds in the sky, this seemed odd. Then the birds started singing as if it was evening. My young great granddaddy looked up and to his horror saw the sun, high overhead, disappearing. He dropped the melon in his hand and ran, as fast as he could in his bare feet, home. “I didn’t want to be caught in another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day,” he told me. At the time, he didn’t know it was an eclipse, which was perhaps good since it instilled in him a healthy awe of the Creator

The Era before Fast Food

This brings me back to the subject of Jesus and the disciples munching in some farmer’s field on the Sabbath. The reason the Pharisees didn’t get on Jesus for his disciples harvesting food that didn’t belong to them was that Jewish law allowed one to pluck grain with their hands from their neighbor’s field. According to Deuteronomy, we’re told:  

If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain.[5]

In other words, you could take what you needed to quench your hunger, but you are not allowed to drive a combine through your neighbor’s fields. (I’m not sure this applies to watermelons). This loophole in the law was necessary in the days before roadside restaurants. Those traveling needed a way to obtain food. So, the Pharisees don’t get onto Jesus for theft. 

Travelling on the Sabbath

They also don’t get on to him for travelling on the Sabbath. That’s probably because if they’d seen this behavior, they would have also been guilty of having traveled so far. Part of our sinfulness is that we tend overlook the sinful acts with which we struggle. 

Laboring on the Sabbath

So, they accuse Jesus of laboring on the Sabbath. This labor involved harvesting (plucking the grain) and threshing (rubbing the grain in their hands to remove the chaff). Kind of picky, don’t you think? Jesus defends himself by recalling that David once ate holy bread when he was hungry. Ask yourself: “What’s going on here?”

Something New

Jesus is doing something knew. Our passage begins with an illustration about patching coats and wineskins. This is probably not something few of us have experienced. We either replace our clothes or take them to a tailor. Today, we age wine in barrels, Then, it goes into bottles to be served. But back in the first century, you had to patch your coat, along with skins used to hold wine. So, you made sure the cloth you used to patch something was preshrunk and that your wineskins were new so that it would stretch and not bust open during the fermenting process.

This illustration is followed by the story of Jesus and the disciples eating from a field on the Sabbath. Again, he’s doing something new, and it doesn’t go over well with the establishment. People don’t like change. That was as true in the first century as today. But in Jesus Christ, God does something new. God reaches out for us. 

Sabbath and God’s Concern for Us

The Sabbath demonstrates God’s concerned for our well-being. To paraphrase Jesus’ remarks to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.” The Jewish faith, at the time of Jesus, emphasized the Sabbath so much that it was seen as a mark of faith. However, Jesus challenges this idea and reminds people the Sabbath is made for them, not the other way around.[6] But the legalists have nothing to do with that.

As the Sabbath is made for us, we should consider how it was understood in the early church. Paul tells the Romans that some think one day is better than another while others think all days are equal, and in Colossians he says we shouldn’t let ourselves be judged over the Sabbath.[7] From the writings of Paul, the early church felt it had the right to shift the Sabbath from the last day of the week to the first, in honor of Jesus’ resurrection. That said, Paul does not suggest we forget about the Sabbath. We still need rest. Only it’s not rigidly required that our rest occur on a particular day of the week. On the one hand this, this is good. God grants us freedom. Unfortunately, this freedom has led many to forget the Sabbath altogether.  

Jesus is concerned for our well-being. Legalism upsets him. One must eat, but the religious leaders of the day made that difficult. Jesus teaches us here something about the gracious nature of God. There is a dangerous tendency to see the law and things like the 10 Commandments as restrictions on our freedom. That’s not why they were given. God didn’t give the commandments as a test we have to pass to enter paradise. Instead, the commandments are rough guidelines within which we can enjoy life, starting now. 

Our Limits

The Sabbath Command reminds us of our limits. We can’t run ragged 24/7. We need rest, both daily (which is why night was created), and for an extended period at least once a week. The Sabbath is a day we can put our employment concerns, and the concerns of the world, aside. We’re to enjoy the creation God has given us. It’s a day we can enjoy the families God has given us. It’s a day we can catch our breath and look around and give thanks. 

Another Great Grandpa Story

When I was a small child, we lived on a parcel next to my great-grandparents farm. On occasion, we ate Sunday dinner with them. First thing my great grandma did when she got home from church was make biscuits. Much of the dinner was already prepared the day before, but the biscuits had to be fresh. First, she’d take some kindling and light a fire in her wood burning stove. 

Don’t get the idea that we were hillbillies because my great grandma had a perfectly good gas range sitting in her kitchen. It’s just that she preferred the wood burning stove for most of her cooking. After her death in the summer of ’64, the wood burning range was taken out, but before then I have good memories, as a five- or six-year-old, gathering chucks of stove wood my great-granddaddy had split. 

As the oven heated up, my great grandma mixed some flour, salt, and baking soda, cut in some lard, then added buttermilk. She’d knead the gluey glob till it was smooth, rolled it out, and cut out the biscuits. Soon a heavenly scent filled the room. 

When the meal was over, if it was meal without pie, my great granddaddy would get up and go to the pantry and come back with a jar of molasses or honey. He’d drop a big plop of butter in his plate, pour on the sweetener, and mix it up good with his folk. Then, throwing away all manners, he’d sop it up with the left-over biscuits. Talk about good. Afterwards, we kids would run out and play while the adults retired to either the back porch or, if in winter, around the heater in the parlor. When we’d come back in an hour or so later, they’d all be napping. That’s the Sabbath!

Summary

Jesus in this story doesn’t negate the Sabbath. He just encourages us to use it as it was created, for our benefit. Take a deep breath. Receive the Sabbath as a gift from a gracious God. And, above all, be thankful we’re in God’s hands. Amen. 

I’m being held by my great grandpa. (from left to right: my great grandma, my father, my uncle, me, my great granddad, and my grandma). This photo was taken in 1957.

[1] I heard the idea of the Sabbath as the first labor law in a lecture by Dr. Dale Bruner.

[2] This concept is found in the Reformed Tradition’s doctrine of sin and grace. 

[3] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 86-87.

[4] Edwards, 94. 

[5] Deuteronomy 23:25.

[6] In a commentary on Exodus written around 180 AD, Rabbi Simeon ben Mensasy refers to an older saying, “The Sabbath is given to you but you are not surrendered to the Sabbath.” See William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark  (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 119.

[7] Romans 14:5, Colossians 2:16.

16 thoughts on “God looks out for us”

  1. Lovely family photo and stories, Jeff. As a child, I loved to dip warm buttery biscuits in molasses. I have not done well at resting on the Sabbath or any other day. I’m guilty of going 24/7 too often. Your sermon was comforting and reassuring. Thanks!

    • Butter and molasses and biscuits is a rare treat… maybe once a year. I hope you find a way to rest and not run 24/7. I’ve done that too much in my life.

  2. Thanks for sharing all of your wonderful words of wisdom, Jeff.Reading about your great grandma and her cooking took me back to those amazing meals that my grandma would make from scratch. Take care.

  3. Left to our own devices, we do seem to make a lot of messes of ourselves as well as others.
    I was great to find out that you’re of the McKenzie clan! Now that was interesting.

  4. I always enjoy reading your posts, and this one caught my eye immediately. Growing up in Michigan I attended the Presbyterian church in town until we moved to Lansing. Fond memories. I checked twitter again to see a photo of your pup! Thanks for stopping by my blog I always enjoy reading your comments.

    • Having served a Presbyterian Church in Michigan for nearly 11 years, I probably know your childhood church. Those churches south of Lansing were all in the same presbytery as I was in.

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