Mark 2:23–28   23Once on a Sabbath day, Jesus was passing through the grain fields, and his disciples began to pick heads of grain as they walked along. 24The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath day?”

25He replied to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry (he and his companions)? 26He entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the Bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for anyone to eat, except for the priests. He also gave some to his companions.”

27Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28So the Son of Man is the Lord even of the Sabbath.”

When I was blessed to take a tour of the Holy Land in 2010, our group spent a few days in Jerusalem. We stayed in a large, twelve story hotel. There is nothing unique about that.

What was unique was Friday evening to Saturday evening – the Sabbath. There were two elevators in the hotel. One was a regular elevator. I pushed the button and it took me from the lobby to the tenth floor, where my room was.

The other elevator became a Shabbat elevator over the Sabbath. Shabbat means “Sabbath” or “rest.” An Orthodox Jew will often stay in a hotel over the Sabbath – Saturday – to not do any work. The staff does all the work – cooking, cleaning, etc. An Orthodox Jew cannot do any of that work over the Sabbath. The Orthodox Jew cannot even push an elevator button, because a spark is created to open or close the door. That’s forbidden.

So, the Shabbat elevator automatically stops at every floor, opens the doors, allows time for people to get off or on, closes the door and goes to the next floor. It goes from the lobby to the first floor, to the second floor … all the way up to the twelfth floor. Then, it comes down – twelve, eleven, ten …

It took only one time being on the Shabbat elevator for me to use the stairs or to use the other elevator for the remainder of the Sabbath.

That is not what God intended for Shabbat or Sabbath rest when He gave His Third Commandment.  “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work … For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).

The reason for the Sabbath goes back to the creative week. God made everything in six days, and then He rested. He didn’t rest because He was tired. He rested to make that seventh day “holy,” set apart, consecrated. He was giving us a lesson to keep our Sabbath Day holy, set apart, consecrated. The Sabbath is to be a day of physical rest. But, even more than that, it is to be a day of spiritual rest with our Lord, in His Word, and for His worship.

The Orthodox Jews of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, added all kinds of laws to God’s Commandments and ceremonial laws. The Orthodox Jews of today forbid making an electrical spark by pushing an elevator button on the Sabbath. The Orthodox Jews of Jesus’ day forbid walking through a farmer’s field, picking some grain, rubbing it in the hands to separate the chaff from the grain, and eating it on the Sabbath. Technically, according to them, that would be reaping and threshing. Work.

That’s why the Pharisees were so upset with Jesus when they saw His disciples “picking heads of grain as they walked along” (Mark 2:23). The Pharisees challenged Jesus, saying, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath day” (Mark 2:24)?

Says who? Man or God? God simply said “rest, no work.” It was the Pharisees with their endless bookkeeping and their sharp-penciled tradition that turned a handful of grain on a Sabbath stroll into work. Jesus is right there with the comeback. “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and hungry? He entered the house of God in the time of the high priest and ate the Bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for anyone to eat, except for the priests. He also gave some to his companions” (Mark 2:25,26).

In the holy place of the tabernacle there were twelve loaves of consecrated bread, one for each of the tribes of Israel. Each Sabbath, twelve fresh loaves were offered to God and the old eaten by the priests, but only the priests. David, fleeing from King Saul, appealed to the high priest for rations for himself and his men.

God did not condemn either David for asking or the priest for giving the bread. He ate and lived to tell about it.

Jesus’ conclusion: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

The Sabbath was God’s gift to Israel. No other nation had a god who said, “Take a day off once a week.” In fact, other nations thought the Israelites were a bunch of slackers – working only six days a week. The Sabbath was God’s special gift to His people. God’s free, chosen people had divine permission to rest, to enjoy a sample of God’s eternal rest at the end of each week.

God gave His people Sabbath rest to remind them that once they were slaves, but now they were His free people. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

The Pharisees had tried to make people slaves to the Sabbath. The Lord made us free to worship on the Sabbath. And, what have we done with this freedom?

Made ourselves slaves. Slaves to our schedules. Slaves to the schedules of others.

God does not command us to worship Him on Saturday, Sunday or any particular day. What do we do with that freedom? Most choose not to worship Him on any day.

God grants us Shabbat rest. What do we do with that rest? We fill it up with soccer tournaments, golf, shopping, parties, vacations, work, sleep – anything but Sabbat rest.

God says, “Rest.” What do we do? We work. We work at our place of employment. We work on our home and yard. We work at having fun. We work on our TVs, computers, and phones. 

Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you Shabbat – rest” (Matthew 11:28). We say, “No thanks.”

God gives us heaven coming down to earth in our worship. Communion with God. We get to worship with the saints and angels. We are gathered together around the throne of God. We sit and eat together at the banquet feast of the Lamb. We enjoy the fruits of Christ’s labors. We rest with God. Who could say no? … Us.

Martin Luther nailed it in his Small Catechism when he saw the gift of the Sabbath day as the Word of God. He never mentions a “sabbath day” in the Catechism. Instead, he says, “You shall keep the holy day holy.” This means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred, gladly hear and learn it.” That’s why you didn’t work on the seventh day. You had a nice meal in the evening, toasted the God who created and redeemed you with undiluted wine, slept, and then you gathered to hear the Word – the Torah. You celebrated your freedom from slavery.

That’s what we do, too. We gather on the first day of the week to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood. We celebrate the freedom Christ won for us from the slavery of sin, death, and the devil. That’s what God calls “rest.” Shabbat. Sabbath’s rest.

The Word is what makes a holiday a holy day. Without the Word, it’s just a holiday. A day off, a chance to go to the beach, throw a steak on the grill, catch up on the home improvement. But with the Word, any day is a holy day – sanctified, made holy, by the Word of God and prayer. The Word is the spirit of the Sabbath. But, we need to set aside that day to spend in worship and the Word. Saying and doing are two different things.

Unfortunately, many Christians, including, sadly, many who call themselves “Lutherans,” have become “ABC” Christians – Anything But Church. Sports, recreation, hobbies, family; not to mention work schedules, family schedules, busy calendars, busy lives running around from one thing to the next, one activity to the next. Out of the 10,080 minutes God gives us each week, we struggle to set aside 90 minutes to hear the Word, receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and pray, praise and give thanks. We do that to the peril of our faith. Faith is born of the Word and lives on the Word and without the Word, faith in Christ will wither and die.

Martin Luther wrote: Man was especially created for the knowledge and worship of God; for the Sabbath was not ordained for sheep and cows but for men, that in them the knowledge of God might be developed and might increase” (AE 1:80). That’s what Jesus means when He says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

Jesus adds, “The Son of Man is the Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Jesus did something wonderful for you. He healed hurting people on the Sabbath. He allowed His hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. But, His most wonderful work of love was when Jesus laid in the tomb for His Sabbath rest. He rested on the seventh day in the grave, making your grave a Sabbath’s rest. He bought your freedom from Satan, sin, and death. He fulfilled the regulations of the Sabbath so that you can worship Him on whatever day the Church gathers for Word and Sacrament. Through His death and resurrection, He grants you a perfect Sabbath rest from your sins.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and weighed down, and I will give you rest.” True, eternal rest – Shabbat – is found in Jesus. St. Augustine once said, “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in God.” Rest from the Law. Rest from your sins. Rest from all the burdens of your busyness. Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. He is your rest.

What does that mean for you going to church?

You don’t have to go to church. You get to go to church. This is how you get to heaven. It is here in the Word that you hear the voice of God speaking to you. It is here at the font that you have your sins washed away and you are clothed in the white robe of a saint. It is here at the communion rail where you kneel at the banquet table of the Lamb of God. It is here in these pews where you join with the saints on earth and the hosts of heaven to praise God’s holy name and join in the glorious song of the angels. It is here in worship where you are taken up to heaven, while at the same time, heaven is brought down to you. Worship is how you get to heaven.

Here you have rest from every burden that weighs you down. Here is a rest no pill can provide, no self-help book can broker, no religion can offer.

There is no substitute for Shabbat. Amen.