Where is this world headed? This weekend we’ve seen the power of the natural world. Tectonic plates shift and millions are affected. Earthquakes, Fires, Tsunamis, Explosions, threatened nuclear melt-down. It all reminds us that planet earth is not a safe place to make your home.
If the earthquake doesn’t get you, maybe the tsunami will. If not the tsunami maybe radioactive contamination. Or further afield, maybe a cyclone or a bushfire or a drought or a volcano. Or something less spectacular – a car accident or a virus or cancer. One way or another this world will be the death of us. Whether in Japan or here, disaster and decay surround us.
So where is this world headed? Could it possibly be headed anywhere good if buildings can collapse in a heart-beat and walls of water can sweep away cities?
Will chaos have the last word? Will death have the last word? Whether quickly or slowly, won’t we all get swept away in the end?
When you watch a devastating tidal wave sweep buildings and cars and people into oblivion, how can we have any hope in a happy ending for this world? Aren’t those images just a picture of our own lives? Won’t chaos catch up with us all? Surely death will have the last word.
There’s a verse in Psalm 29 that says:
The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King for ever. (v10)
Surely this weekend disproved that. Surely the flood is king, not the LORD. Chaos rules. Not God. The highest power is not the LORD, it’s death.
Well if we say that, we cheapen the deaths of those who have perished this weekend. Because if this world is ultimately ruled by natural forces then nothing tragic has happened. One tectonic plate has grinded against another and one building has collapsed onto another and hundreds or thousands of hearts have stopped beating. If the LORD is not enthroned over the flood then impersonal forces are god. And all that’s happened is that one force has impacted on another. And the fact that a tidal wave crashed into a school is no different to it crashing into a rock.
No, see it won’t help to give up on God. Not only will it not solve the tragedy, it won’t allow you to call it a tragedy. Without God this is just “stuff that happens” while we all decay on the cosmic compost heap. No, giving up on God won’t help.
So what about listening to the One who is God. The One who came into this world, who knows our sufferings and who’s taken them for us. What does Jesus say about such tragedies?
In Mark 13, Jesus calls earth-quakes: “birth pains.” (v8) Not “death throes”. “Birth pains.” Oh they’re painful alright. They are beyond tragic. Our hearts go out and we pray and give towards the relief efforts. But they are not simply pains. They are birth pains.
See, Jesus doesn’t think the world is headed for the compost heap. He doesn’t think that earthquakes are death throes. He sees a joyful future for the world. New birth for creation. That’s not to minimize the pain of this tragedy. It’s to open our eyes to the colossal hope which Jesus Christ brings to the world.
Even in the face of earth-quakes, Jesus says this world is heading for rest, for perfection, for Sabbath.
Sabbath was the seventh day of creation. In the beginning, the LORD created the heavens and the earth. For six days He worked, He divided light from darkness, and waters from dry land. He laboured to make the world very good. And He finished His work on the sixth day so that He could rest on the seventh – the Sabbath.
He was setting up a profound pattern. God’s world is heading towards rest. It’s heading towards perfection – seven is a number of completeness.
And the week preaches to us God’s purposes for the world. God is working all things towards perfection. There will be labour pains, groaning and toil in this life, but then there’s rest. After all the disorder and chaos of the world, there is rest. The world is headed for a cosmic Sabbath.
And so in the Old Testament, God told His people to enter into the spirit of Sabbath. The Israelites were told to do all their work in six days and rest on the seventh. So written into their calendar would be this hope-filled pattern that preached to them. Every week they were reminded that toil and pain and labour will give way to perfect rest.
Sabbath is a beautiful thing. It preached that God would remake the world – God would bring rest.
But here’s what happened? People turned Sabbath on its head. It was supposed to be God showing them His goodness. They made it an occasion to show God their goodness.
The religious types among them were going to keep Sabbath. And I mean REALLY keep Sabbath. Over the years they developed more and more things they refused to do on Saturday. They weren’t in the bible, they were rules they made up to show God and the world just how obedient they were.
And over the next thousand years it got seriously twisted. How twisted? Just have a read of Luke 6. Verse 1:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and his disciples began to pick some ears of corn, rub them in their hands and eat the grain. 2 Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
So here are the Pharisees – these are the arch-religious do-gooders. And my question here is: Where did they come from? Were they lurking in the field? Hiding behind a hay-stack? It’s like that Monty Python sketch: “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
You can picture them can’t you, these moral policemen in their flowing robes. Binoculars. Clip-board and pen. Frowning madly:
“Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
Now they weren’t upset because the disciples were picking grain in someone else’s field. That’s not unlawful. In fact there’s a verse in Deuteronomy 23 that says, if you’re walking through a field, you can help yourself along the way. I’ll read it to you.
25 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.
That’s a good law isn’t it? You can grab a handful of grain or seeds or whatever. But if you take a sickle, you’re taking the mickle. That’s the law.
And it’s a good verse to have to hand next time you’re in Asda and want to sample the grapes isn’t it? Break out Deuteronomy 23 next time you’re in the fruit and veg section! “Read it and weep.” Or “Read it and reap” if you like.
So picking the grain was lawful. But what was unlawful, according to the Pharisees, was doing it on the Sabbath.
You see, according to these moral policemen. This is work. They were harvesting: first plucking is reaping, then rubbing it in their hands is threshing, and throwing away the husks is presumably winnowing! It’s work! Now the bible never outlaws this. It never even comes close to it. But the Pharisees are adamant: Jesus, you are presiding over Sabbath-breaking, how could you!?
How would you respond to these idiots? I love Jesus’ response
3 Jesus answered them, “Have you never read [the bible]
Isn’t that great? He’s dealing with men who think they’re spiritual heavy-weights and Jesus says “You might want to check out the bible some time. I’m guessing you’ve never read it because you seem to be completely biblically illiterate to me.”
I love that…
“Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
This is the incident that Ian read out to us from the Old Testament. It happened in 1 Samuel chapter 21. And it’s brilliantly illuminating actually. Let me give you the context:
King David had been anointed by God as the true King of Israel. But, King Saul was the one who sat on the throne and who everyone looked to. Now Saul and his men were hunting down and trying to kill David. So David is on the run along with his companions – guys called “mighty men.”
So there’s David, the true King of Israel, but people don’t acknowledge him and the authorities are trying to kill him. He and his companions are hungry and they go to the temple. The priest gives Jesus the holy bread that only priests are meant to eat.
It’s this acknowledgement that David is a very special guy. Not only is he kingly, he’s also priestly. David is very much like the Christ who would be descended from him. And so David has this special bread and gave it to his companions.
So this story is very appropriate. Because Jesus is exactly like David. He is the true King of the world, but not acknowledged to be so. He’s running around with these companions – the mighty men. And the Pharisees? Who are the Pharisees here? They are the enemy, they are like Saul’s men, hunting down God’s True Anointed King!
This is a devastating Scripture for Jesus to wheel out. And while they’re reeling from it, Jesus delivers the death blow. Verse 5:
5 Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
This is awesome. He might as well say “I AM the Law!” I don’t bow to the law, the law bows to me. Because I am LORD of the Sabbath. Now when was the Sabbath instituted? From the beginning! The Pharisees were treating Jesus like some Jonny-come-lately rule-breaker. Jesus is saying, “Don’t give me that. I was in on the ground-floor of Sabbath. I am the LORD who instituted the Sabbath. I am the Creator of Genesis chapter 1 – the Eternal Word of the Father, the Lord, the Son of Man.”
Which means Jesus is not just the author of this law. He’s the author of the universe.
The Pharisees have no answer to this. They are utterly silenced by Jesus. And they have to regroup for another assault on Him. So they wait for another Sabbath (because they’re obsessed).
So, verse 6:
6 On another Sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. 7 The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath.
So here are the Pharisees again and you might think there’s some hope for them because they’re in the synagogue. But they’re not there to worship God. They’re not there to listen to His word. They’re certainly not there to help this disabled man. Why are they there? To accuse Jesus! To catch out and accuse the LORD of the Sabbath.
They seem sure Jesus will heal a man. I wonder if even the disciples had that much faith. They seemed to know that Jesus would heal – they’d obviously seen His powers many times before. But instead of saying “Wow, Jesus calls Himself LORD and acts with all the power of the LORD, maybe He IS the LORD.” Instead of concluding, “Hmm, I wonder if Jesus is the LORD God!?” All they can think of is their precious rules. And whether the LORD might break them.
So there they are in the synagogue, just waiting to be infuriated by a miracle. Isn’t this ridiculous?
And of course you have to ask, How restful do they find their Sabbaths really!!? With their binoculars and clipboards, and their constant frowning – isn’t that the most exhausting work actually? It seems to me that all this moral policing is incredibly taxing, and yet they do it all in the name of Sabbath rest.
But friends, before we dismiss them, how are we like them? Because there are real temptations for us in this direction. Rules and rule keeping is tempting, because rules keep score. And they show everyone that I’m better, and you’re worse. They help you justify yourself.
Rules can make you feel better about yourself – at least when you keep them anyway. But if you buy into rules they will end up ruling you. You will find your identity in keeping them and suddenly they will become more important than anything.
Think of these Pharisees in that synagogue. They were surrounded by such important things that should have had priority. They were in a house of worship, they were listening to the word of God, there was a real hurting person in their midst and there was God in the flesh about to unleash the powers of heaven. But they completely failed to respond to the needs around them appropriately. All they could see was their little rules, and horror of horrors, they were about to be broken.
Are you convicted by this? Maybe the Holy Spirit is convicting you of moralistic rule-keeping. Our rule-keeping ways usually go unnoticed but occasionally we’ll get caught out when we encounter someone in need, like this man with a withered hand. Perhaps we’ve failed to meet someone’s need. We’ll think “Gosh, I should have gone to visit that person, or I should have been a lot more compassionate when they told me their problems.” That’s usually a good sign that there’s some rule-keeping going on there that’s keeping us from the real needs.
These Pharisees are just extreme examples of what can happen to anyone if you try to prove yourself through rule-keeping. Rules become rulers and you get closed down to the real needs around you. But Jesus stands opposed to that kind of living. Verse 8:
8 But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?”
Don’t you love that Jesus asks this as a question? If He just said “It’s more lawful to do good.” It wouldn’t have the same power to expose their hearts. No He puts the ball firmly in their court and He wants an answer. So verse 10
10 He looked round at them all,
Whoah. How long did that take? Let’s say there were the same number as are here this morning – there were probably more. But how long would it take for Jesus to look at each and every worshipper in the synagogue. What do you think? Is it lawful to do good or evil? What a moment!
There’s just no answering Jesus. So Jesus turns to the man
and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.”
Isn’t that a strange thing to say to a man with a withered hand? He can’t stretch out his hand Jesus – that’s the problem. Ah, but the word of Jesus is very different to the word of the Pharisees.
Think about the commands of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had hundreds of little commands that mapped out what you should and shouldn’t do. They had all sorts of rules for rest.
But their commands didn’t bring rest. They just told you how you should go about getting rest.
Jesus’ word is different. His word actually brings restoration. He doesn’t give us a 12-step plan for life. He gives us life. He doesn’t communicate rules for rest. He communicates rest itself. There is a divine, creative power to the word of Jesus. So He says “Stretch out your hand”
he did so, and his hand was completely restored.
Here is the LORD of the Sabbath in action. Here’s what Sabbath is all about. Here we see the work of RESTORATION. That day it was a hand. One day it’ll be all creation. COMPLETELY RESTORED. Here in the synagogue is a token of His cosmic powers of restoration. A miracle. A completely appropriate Sabbath miracle. Surely this miracle will change the hearts and minds of the Pharisees. Wouldn’t you think?
I’m always hearing people say, “I’d believe if only I saw a miracle.”
Let’s see how they reacted in verse 11:
11 But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.
How chilling. These are church-going people (if you like). Synagogue worshippers. They are religious, very religious. Moral, very moral. Bible-students who knew about the power of God. But when they SEE the power of God up close and personal they are FILLED with FURY.
Jesus must die. Why? He healed someone. On the Sabbath. He broke our rules. He’ll have to pay.
And by the end of Luke these Pharisees get their way. Jesus dies not at the hands of an angry pagan rabble. Jesus dies not at the hands of mobsters. He dies at the hands of moralists. He dies at the hands of these guys with the clip-boards and the binoculars. The most religious, ethical and upstanding members of society killed the Lord of Glory.
What a reception for Jesus! He comes to bring life and peace and restoration to the world, and what does He get for His efforts? Death.
But here’s the irony. Through that death He would bring life. Through His work on the cross, He would bring rest.
You see Jesus would be killed on a Friday – the sixth day. And He got His work done before nightfall. With evening coming and the Sabbath closing in, He cried out from the cross, “It is finished.” (John 19:30). You see Jesus was taking all that is broken and cursed in this world and summed it up Himself. The LORD of this world, took its pain and suffering and sin to Himself to put it all to death.
You know the earthquake and tsunami – they disprove a lot of gods. Suffering disproves a lot of gods. But not this God. Not the true God – the One who suffers. He enters in. He knows it from the inside. And He suffers Hell to brings us through to perfection. He’s not just enthroned over the flood. He knows what it is to get swept away too.
But it’s by entering INTO that chaos and death that Jesus will bring us ultimately to perfection. And He accomplishes this cross-work on the sixth day. Therefore He rested on that holy Saturday. He took the ultimate Sabbath rest in the grave.
And then wonderfully, on the next day, He rose up into a whole new week – a whole new world!
And He offers His new life to all. Now we can know spiritual rebirth today. And when He comes again He will RESTORE the whole world. Just as this man’s hand was restored, just as Christ Himself was restored from death, one day heaven and earth will be restored.
Where is this world heading? Not the rubbish dump. We are heading for perfection. For COMPLETE RESTORATION. We’re heading for Sabbath when Jesus gives the whole world new birth.
But how do we come in on this perfect future? Not like the Pharisees. Not through our efforts. Not through our stupid little rules. Not through our rituals. Not through our obedience. Not through our work. Through His work. Through His obedience. Through His efforts. Through His cross and resurrection.
We get life through His death and rest through His work.
So Jesus is calling us out from the Pharisees, just like the man in this story. He calls us out of our self-righteous rule-keeping, and to stand with Jesus instead. We don’t work towards life and peace. It’s a gift, purchased by HIS work. So now hear the words of Jesus:
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)