The Seventeenth Sunday after Holy Trinity – Luke 14:1-11
Jesus is the sum and substance of the Sabbath.
But what does that look like nowadays?
I struggled this week on what to preach about. There’s so much in our Gospel reading, it’s hard to narrow down. One of Luther’s main points in his sermon on this same text was that love drives the law. That is, love determines how we serve our neighbor in love. Not love as we define it, or as the perverts define it, but as God defines it in His Word and actions. Since we’re going to hear about the Law and love next Sunday, I decided on a different course. A simpler course.
What is the Sabbath?
We first hear about the Sabbath at the beginning of Genesis 2. “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all His work that He had done in creation.” (2:3)
In Exodus, God commanded the Israelites not to gather manna on the seventh day. He then formally commands a Sabbath rest in the Ten Commandments:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)
In Numbers, God shows that He takes this commandment seriously.
“While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses.” (Numbers 15:32-36)
Did God really have someone stoned who was gathering sticks? That seems harsh. But the justice of God always seems harsh to sinful hearts. And God teaches us in this particular case that the Sabbath is a big deal!
I can tell you what it looked like in the Old Testament. It started on Friday at sundown and continued through Saturday until sundown. They would prepare all the food for Sabbath the day before. All the animals and workers would have physical rest. They would hear God’s Word. The priests didn’t just do sacrifices but were expected to teach the people of God the Word of God.
God instituted the Sabbath for the good of men. He didn’t make it just to have a rule to follow. Which is where the Pharisees fail. They inflated the letter of the Law and ignored the spirit of the Law. We’ll talk more about that next week.
Jesus asks the question, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” (v. 3) This should be an obvious question. The reason Jesus says, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” is He’s showing them their own hypocrisy. (v. 5) He desires that they repent of their hard hearts and receive Him as their Messiah. Yet they will not repent. They’re so hard-hearted in their hypocrisy, that this incident serves as a motivation for them to crucify Jesus!
The Sabbath is indeed a big deal! And the Pharisees understood that it was a big deal, but didn’t see why. The Sabbath was always meant to point to Jesus. It still is, but more on that later.
You’ll remember when Jesus’ disciples were eating heads of grain on the Sabbath and the Pharisees accosted them. Jesus there identified Himself as “Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8) In a very real way, He is identifying Himself as God who was present at creation and rested on the seventh day. Right before that text in Matthew, Jesus says His famous words, “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (11:28) Here Jesus does something further. He identifies Himself as our Sabbath rest. The Sabbath was meant to point forward to Christ.
The Old Testament Sabbath has an element of physical rest in it. In fact, this is one of the reasons we have a “weekend” now. But the purpose of the physical rest wasn’t physical rest. Even pagans can see that physical rest is required in life. But the Sabbath rest was really about giving you time to rest in God’s Word. You were supposed to have God’s Word in your heart and on your mind and lips. You need time to do this.
I’m rereading “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. I’ve been struck with how the so-called world designers do all they can to keep the masses consuming goods or experiences or escaping reality with a drug called soma. They’ve effectively outlawed books and don’t want anyone to take time to read and reflect. All over the Psalms, we’re basically given the command to read and reflect on God’s Word. I would even go so far to say that if you don’t take time to read and reflect, you won’t stay a Christian. The state of our country’s consumerism and diversion driven entertainment industries, including sports, should alarm all of us. “Brave New World” is a lot closer to reality than Orwell’s “1984.”
We’re not to find our fulfillment in consumerism or diversion. We’re meant to find it in Christ. That’s the reason for the Sabbath. And that’s still the reason for the Sabbath. But it looks different today than it did in Old Testament times.
There are Christians who insist that we must observe the Sabbath like in the Old Testament. Jesus says that He came to fulfill the law. This includes the whole Law. The Third Commandment is interesting because it contains both ceremonial law and moral law. The ceremonial law, like the political law in Israel, is done away with. The moral law remains.
Luther points out that the Third Commandment is all about the Word of God, especially the Divine Service. The ceremonial part, the outward obedience to physical rest, is done away with. The remaining part is devoted to the Word of God and especially the Divine Service.
Now it is true you should be devoted to the Word of God daily. It needs to be on your heart, mind, and lips daily. But times need to be set aside to assemble with God’s people to receive God’s gifts. That’s where God established the practice of Baptism to bring people into His kingdom. That’s where God established the practice of the preached word to edify His people. That’s where God established the practice of the Lord’s Supper to feed His people Himself.
Your faith is something that needs fed just like a car needs to continue to get fuel. It cannot be sustained on its own. But there’s more to it. Christ instituted a body and not individuals. Now it is true the Body of Christ is composed of individuals, but by themselves they are not the body of Christ. Here’s how St. Cyprian, who lived in the third century, said it: “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.”
The Sabbath day has now become all about the Divine Service. Yes. God commands you to go to church. In Hebrews God explicitly says to “not neglect to meet together.” (10:25) Before I was Lutheran, I understood going to church as a “good work” for God. Since you can do all manner of good works for God, I never minded missing. After I was Lutheran, I came to the understanding, from God’s Word, that the Divine Service was instituted to be served the grace of God by God Himself. Ever since then, I never struggled with whether to go to church or not. Although, you might say it’s mandatory for me now.
How are we to conduct the Divine Service? Do you think that the God who had someone stoned for picking up sticks on the Sabbath doesn’t care how we conduct the Divine Service?
Now, it is true, we have some Christian liberty in how we conduct the service. The church, very quickly, chose to have the Divine Service on Sundays instead of Saturday, the traditional Sabbath. They were free to do this. This is why St. Paul says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17) We balance the freedom to meet any day we want to with good order. Most church’s typically meet on Sundays because the church has mostly done that through history.
Some in Lutheran circles insist that we have freedom to conduct the service as we like. They argue for a so-called “Evangelical style with Lutheran substance.” By Evangelical, they mean the Baptist or Non-Denomination church service with no to little liturgy. This is extremely dangerous for many reasons. Let’s look at a primary example of this. Churches who practice open communion do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. If the Lord’s Supper isn’t the Lord’s Body and Blood, you don’t worry much about who receives mere bread and wine. If the Lutheran church adopts open communion, which many sadly have, they will come to understand the Lord’s Supper in a different way. In an Evangelical way. They may pay lip service to the real presence, but deep down they will begin to doubt. Practice and what you believe affect each other.
In the Old Testament, there was a definite order to the Divine Service. God explicitly laid out how everything was to be done. He didn’t do that with the New Testament Divine Service. God gave us an outline, but no real details. We know from acts that we’re supposed to assemble around preaching, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. (Acts 2:42) You might add that we’re supposed to sing. All throughout the Bible, God’s people are admonished to sing God’s praises. And thanks to the Corinthians, we know the Divine Service is supposed to be a service of decency and good order. (1 Corinthians 14:40) Since the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest, and king were done away with, God established the pastoral office to administer the forgiveness of sins and sacraments. And pastors must be men. Outside of that, we have a lot of freedom in how we order the service. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Jesus is the sum and substance of the Divine Service.
The beauty of the Divine Service is that it points to Christ and even more, delivers Christ and His gifts to His people. If the Divine Service is so beautiful, why are so many abandoning it? Why is it that so many people who have it don’t even care about it?
I believe part of the problem is that we haven’t passed down the “why” to our kids. It’s interesting that Luther spent so much time on how to fix the divine service. He took out those things that obscured Christ but left in a lot more than most people would be comfortable with. He spent so much time on it because it is so important for our faith. God feeds our faith by feeding us His preached Word and by feeding us His own Body and Blood. The good news that Jesus gives us forgiveness of sins and eternal life through faith by the means of His Word and Sacrament seems too good to be true. Especially when the world we live in stresses a works-based righteousness. We need to hear and receive again and again the wonderful grace of God to actually believe that it’s true! And God delights to feed His children. And the Divine Service is a wonderful vehicle to provide that feeding. It connects us across time with those who have come before us and across generation who come to receive the gifts of God.
The Millennials are an interesting bunch. For the most part, they aren’t religious. And for the most part, they are fed up with our consumer driven culture. When they do seek out a church, guess what they want? It’s not the consumer driven model of the big box church with no liturgy. It’s primarily liturgical churches. The Millennials that flock to the church are flocking to the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches. They don’t appear to know about Lutherans. And to be fair, many Lutheran churches don’t look Lutheran. They look more like the non-denominational churches. It’s kind of depressing how hard it is to find a confessional, liturgical LCMS church anymore. But if you look at the LCMS’s national youth gathering, you would never guess that the LCMS is confessional or liturgical. May God grant our beloved LCMS a return to the confessional and liturgical church that it confesses to be in its confessions.
So let us strive to be confessional to our confessional and liturgical roots that deliver Christ to us so well. And we know that Christ will continue to be faithful to us. He will continue to feed us His Word and Sacraments that deliver to us salvation and life.
 Cyprian, “On the Unity of the Church”