Faith, Love, and the Sabbath Day

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Sermon for Trinity 17

1 Samuel 2:1-10  +  Ephesians 4:1-6  +  Luke 14:1-11

The Third Commandment says: Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.  The Third Commandment, of the Ten Commandments, is unique.  All ten demand love—love for God and love for your neighbor.  St. Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.”  All ten commandments require this complete and total self-denial and outward-facing devotion, a devotion that comes from the heart and spreads to the hands and the lips and a person’s whole behavior, all day, every day, from birth till death.  You shall do certain things, and you shall not do other things.  The commandments are God’s unchanging description of how He defines love, and how He demands that His creatures behave on the outside, and think on the inside.

But the Third Commandment, unlike the others, has this ceremonial element to it, this requirement to keep a certain day of the week holy—the seventh day, Saturday, so holy that no work at all was to be done on the Sabbath Day.  It was a commandment that the people of Israel were to keep, not by working hard, but by not working at all.  The word Sabbath means rest.

Where’s the “love” in such a commandment?  How were the Israelites to be loving God or their neighbor by resting?  Well, first, the love for God was in devotion to His Word.  They were to deny themselves the ability to make money and dedicate the Sabbath Day to a sacred assembly, to hearing the Word of God and to remembering God’s acts of salvation for them.  The love for their neighbor was in their devotion to their neighbor’s need to rest and to hear God’s Word.  If no one was allowed to work on that day, then that means the servants and the slaves and the employees and even the animals also got a break on the Sabbath Day for some much needed rest.

Why all this talk about the Sabbath Day?  Because our Gospel today hinges on a proper understanding of the Third Commandment and the Sabbath Law.  The Pharisees and the lawyers in Israel at the time of Christ had lost the proper understanding of the Sabbath and had turned it into the most loveless day of the week, a day for showing off how religious you were, a day for making yourself look good by making up new rules for what counts as work and what doesn’t, and by putting others down for not following your made-up rules.

Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely.

If only they had been watching Jesus to learn from Him, to marvel at His goodness and mercy.  But no.  They watched Him to see if He would keep the Sabbath Law or break it.  Just one chapter before our Gospel, Luke records how a synagogue ruler condemned Jesus for healing a woman on the Sabbath.

So, again, in our Gospel, there was a certain man before Him who had dropsy. Here was this poor man suffering from this illness.  But that man had come to Jesus in faith, looking to Jesus for relief.  And Jesus would heal him, but first He puts this question to the lawyers and Pharisees, not to learn from them, but to teach them.   “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” They couldn’t answer yes, because then they would have nothing to criticize in Him.  They couldn’t answer no, because they knew that the Old Testament wouldn’t support such an answer, as Jesus had pointed out on other occasions.  The Old Testament recognized cases of necessity with the ceremonial laws, like with David and the show bread when the priest once gave him and his men the bread to eat that only priests were supposed to eat.  The perfect Law of love included such exceptions when love for the neighbor required the ceremonial law to be set aside.  But the Pharisees didn’t want to give Jesus the satisfaction of an answer.  So they kept silent.

And He took him and healed him, and let him go. Then He answered them, saying, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” And they could not answer Him regarding these things. Even the Pharisees and lawyers understood that it was OK to help a hurting animal on the Sabbath.  If it was OK to help a hurting animal on the Sabbath, surely it was OK to help a fellow human being and a son of Israel.  God’s intention with the Sabbath Day was not to ignore your neighbor in need, but to set aside your own work and your own needs in order help your neighbor.  The intent of the Sabbath Day was not hatred or indifference toward your neighbor, but love.

Why did the Pharisees have such a hard time understanding that? Because they didn’t know love.  And they didn’t know love, because they didn’t know themselves rightly, and they didn’t know Jesus rightly.  They thought highly of themselves and lowly of Jesus.  They saw themselves as good people and Jesus as unnecessary.  They saw themselves as law-keepers and Jesus as a law-breaker.  They exalted themselves to the highest place, not realizing how ugly their hearts really were in not wanting the sick to be helped by Jesus, how loveless and disobedient they really were, not realizing what fools they looked like as they pretended to be more righteous than the Son of God.

So Jesus told them the parable in the second part of our Gospel, about a wedding banquet, a parable that applies just as much to us as to them.

When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But 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. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Now, this is a parable.  It’s not about where you sit at a party.  It’s about your heart, toward God and man.  If, in your heart, you set yourself up above the people sitting next to you and imagine that you’re more important or a better person than they, then you show that you are loveless and you will be humbled.  Likewise, if in your heart, you set yourself up above the Son of God and imagine that you are good enough without Him—that you are anything without Him—, then you will be cast down and shamed before God and man.  So, don’t do that, Jesus says.

Instead, “go and sit down in the lowest place.”  What does that mean? It means recognize that all your labor is in vain.  All your work, all your obedience—it doesn’t measure up to the standard of love set by God.  All your comparing yourself with other people—it’s useless and vain.  And all your rebellion against God’s commandments is deadly.  So recognize your place as a poor sinner, as the poorest of sinners and as the lowliest of sinners, and don’t even think about raising yourself up out of that place.

Instead, know that Jesus is the Savior of sinners, not of righteous people.  Know that Jesus has humbled Himself to the lowest place, as the Son of Man who came, not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  Know that the blood Jesus shed on the cross was for you.  And now He goes out in the Gospel and searches for lowly sinners to lift up and exalt, even as He Himself has now been exalted from death to life and from humility to glory.  There is no way to climb the ladder into heaven.  In fact, all whom Jesus finds on the ladder will be cast down from it.  The only way into heaven is by sitting at the bottom of the pit, and trusting in Jesus to lift you up out of it all by Himself.

In other words, the only way into heaven and into God’s favor even now, is by resting.  Not climbing, but resting.  Not trying hard, but resting.  Not working, but resting.  Resting in repentance and faith in Christ.  You see!  It’s all about the Sabbath.

The Sabbath Day and the Sabbath commandment had another purpose besides showing Israel how to love God and their neighbor.  It was to teach sinners where salvation is, not in working, but in resting.  Not by works, but by faith in Christ.  It’s as God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah, For thus says the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel: “In returning and rest you shall be saved;  In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.” Christ’s work, not ours, is what counts before God.  Human works aren’t good enough, because we’re sinners.  But the work of Christ is perfect, and by faith in Christ—faith alone, with no working allowed on our part—His works are counted as ours.  So Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath Day and all the ceremonies associated with it, which is why, now, in the New Testament, the ceremony of keeping a certain day for resting has been removed by God, even as the command to love God and our neighbor remains.  We who rest in Christ are to love God, according to the Third Commandment, by regarding His Word as holy and gladly hearing it and learning it.  We are to love our neighbor by helping him to find rest, both physical and spiritual.

But that love for God and neighbor doesn’t save us.  Faith is Christ saves.  Love comes from faith, which is why the Pharisees in our Gospel didn’t know love; they had no faith.  And the sinful flesh that still lives in us is just like the Pharisees; it refuses to sit quietly and wait for God in the lowest place.

So Jesus’ Word to you today is urgent.  Recognize that in you, that is, in your sinful flesh, nothing good dwells. Stop trying to work and fight and claw and climb into God’s favor. Stop your working, and rest in the grace of God, in the wounds of Christ, in the righteousness that comes, not by doing, but by believing, by trusting in God for forgiveness, for the sake of Christ Jesus, the truly Righteous One.  You have been baptized into Christ, the Lowly One, which means that you have now been raised up and exalted with Him, too.  You will be fed again today at the Banquet of the Altar, with the body and blood that purchased your forgiveness and that make you right with God.  Here is your rest.  Here is your Sabbath.  Here is the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of your faith.  And where there is faith, there is also the beginning of love, love that shows itself in true humility before God and man, in true self-abasement, in self-sacrifice, and in seeking the good of others before yourself.  And why not put others before yourself?  You know the secret of the Sabbath Day, revealed by Christ.  God will humble the proud, but God will lift up the lowly and give eternal glory and rest to those rest in His promise of mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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