Sermon for Trinity 17
1 Samuel 2:1-10 + Ephesians 4:1-6 + Luke 14:1-11
Today is the Sabbath. But not because it’s Sunday. Today is the Sabbath, even for us New Testament Christians. Time to rest. Time to take a much-needed break. But a break from what? Rest from what? Rest for what? What was the purpose of the Old Testament Sabbath? What is the New Testament Sabbath? Our Gospel provides some answers to those questions.
Our Gospel took place on a Sabbath Day, possibly on a Friday evening after sunset, or, more likely, on a Saturday before sunset. Remember what the Old Testament Sabbath requirements were. First, it was not for all people on earth to observe. God said through Moses, “The Sabbath Day is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever.” Not a sign between God and all flesh or all people, but between God and Israel. Why? Because He had special things to teach Israel about the coming of Christ, until the coming of Christ. The Sabbath Day was from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, and the people of Israel were to do no work. They were to take the day completely off. Not to go out and play games. Not to go on a trip or a journey or to get some chores done around the house. But to rest. To let their servants and workers and animals also rest, and to gather with other Israelites in sacred assembly around the Word of God.
There was nothing wrong with having a meal together with friends and guests on the Sabbath Day, as we see in our Gospel, as long as the preparations for the meal were done ahead of time. But at this particular meal, the Pharisees who were there had an agenda. They were watching Jesus closely. What would He do on the Sabbath, this man who claims to be a teacher sent by God? Would He slip up? Would He break God’s commandment? Could they catch Him in some kind of sin and so try to prove to the people that He hadn’t come from God?
As we heard in the Gospel, there was a man present at that Pharisee’s house who had dropsy, a disease that causes pain and swelling. He must have heard that Jesus was kind and merciful and had the power to heal and to help, so he went to where Jesus was.
Jesus knew they were watching Him. So He put the ball in their court. He put the question to them, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? They didn’t answer. So Jesus gave them the answer by healing the man. The Sabbath Law was never intended to prevent the Israelites from doing good for one another. It was intended to force them to rest, not from service, but from self-service. In other words, it was about faith and love.
It was especially about faith. Faith in God means resting from doing work to earn God’s favor. It’s a Sabbath rest. You’re not allowed to do any work, because your works—even your best works—are sinful and not good enough to satisfy the strict requirements of God’s holy Law. As Jeremiah says in Lamentations, It is good that one should hope and wait quietly For the salvation of the LORD. As the Psalmist says, Be still, and know that I am God. Or as God says through Isaiah the Prophet, In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.
Faith is confidence in God to save you without your works, but solely by His grace, for the sake of Christ Jesus and His works. In fact, if you try to work for your salvation, if you try to merit God’s favor, you’ll never get it, because that’s not faith in God. It’s faith in you. And, no matter what anyone tells you, you should never believe in yourself, because you’re not God. Believe in God, who tells you in His Word that He wants to save you through rest, through faith, and not through any merit or worthiness on your part. The Sabbath Day was to be a weekly object lesson in faith that rests in God’s grace and mercy.
It was also about love. The Israelites were to be thinking about their neighbor and his need to rest, too. It was a day for the Israelites to stop working to earn money for themselves, to stop working to take care of their own property, their own family, their own needs, so that they could look up from their self-service and see how they might serve their neighbor, to have a chance to love their neighbor without worrying about themselves, especially in times of emergency or great need. The Sabbath Law was not there to be a burden to Israel, and it certainly wasn’t intended to give them an excuse to sit back and watch their neighbor go hungry or die, because they were so busy resting that they couldn’t lend a hand to help.
Jesus made that point to the guests at the Sabbath meal. 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? Of course they would pull their animal out of the pit! As well they should! How much more should they help their neighbor on the Sabbath, if he needed their help. And, of course, the greatest Helper of all helpers was present on that day. The Pharisees should have been overjoyed that Jesus was there to help the man with dropsy on that Sabbath—not to mention that He was also there to help them, to be their Savior from sin and death.
So the Sabbath was always about faith and love—faith toward God that rests and offers Him nothing to earn His favor, and love toward the neighbor that seeks to serve the neighbor and not the self.
The rest of the Gospel is an illustration of this very thing. There the guests were at this dinner, on the Sabbath, serving themselves, choosing the best seats at the dinner for themselves, the seats of honor, because at that time it was the custom to arrange the seating at such events to show whom the host of the banquet held in greater or lesser esteem. So choosing your own seat of honor, as if you could determine how highly the host should think of you, was an act of great arrogance toward the host, and of great disdain for your fellow guests.
That’s not the thing to do, Jesus says. It’s precisely the opposite of what the Sabbath teaches. But it’s not the seating at a wedding banquet that matters. It’s the attitude of your heart toward God and toward your fellow man. It’s your position in the kingdom of God that truly matters. And if you seek to serve yourself in God’s kingdom, if you seek to grab a position of honor in God’s kingdom, if you think of yourself as being better or more worthy than your fellow guests in God’s kingdom, then God will not be happy with you. He will come and shame you publicly on the Last Day and cast you down.
Instead of choosing the highest place for yourself, Jesus says, choose the lowest place for yourself. Consider your own sinfulness before God and recognize that you deserve no honor from Him whatsoever, only wrath and punishment. And, as Paul writes to the Philippians, in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. In your heart, choose the lowest place, the lowest seat, and then sit there and wait. Sit there and trust. Sit there and rest. 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.
The truth is, you were invited into God’s great wedding feast by grace, not because of your worthiness. God honored you, not because you were honorable, but because He intends to make you honorable. You weren’t chosen above other people because you’re better than other people, but only because of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. By faith in Him, God counts you as honorable in His sight, and you can be sure that He will honor you on the Last Day. There’s no need to serve yourself or to work for yourself. God has come to serve you and to work for you. The Son of God came and shed His blood for you, that you may be told on the Last Day to “go up higher,” higher than you deserve, higher than you think you deserve, to sit at the table with Christ Jesus Himself, and with all those who, by faith, have received their worthiness from Him.
He invites the humble to the Table even now, to go up higher, to kneel in the presence of Jesus and to share in this communion with the Most High. Here is your honor! Here is your worthiness! This is what makes today a Sabbath Day for us New Testament Christians. Not the fact that it’s Sunday, but the fact that the Word of God is preached to you and the Sacrament of Christ is administered to you. It’s time to rest. It’s time to take a break from self-service. Let God serve you with His forgiveness. Let Christ honor you as a guest at His Holy Supper. And look around at your fellow guests, not to think of ways in which they may serve you, but for ways in which you may serve them, until all believers enter that eternal, heavenly Sabbath rest in the glorious kingdom of God. Amen.