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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Leaving Our Religion (Luke 6.1-11)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; March 6, 2016 
Text: Luke 6:1-11

:: Sermon Audio (link) ::
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:: Scripture and Music ::
Call to Worship: Piano Meditations, Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Praise: Arise, My Soul, Arise (Indelible Grace)
Hymn of Response: There is a Balm in Gilead (BALM IN GILEAD)
Offering of Music: Lamb of God (Paris; arr. Larson)
Communion Music: Rick Bean, jazz piano
Hymn of Sending: Wonderful, Merciful Savior (Wyse)
Postlude: Rick Bean, jazz piano 

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks  the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript.  Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Today we continue our series on following Jesus, called “The Things We Leave Behind.” And today’s sermon has the somewhat provocative title, “Leaving Our Religion.” By that I certainly won’t encourage you to give up church; but we will look at the tension between Jesus and the religious folks of his day. And we may find that there are aspects of our religious practice that are also at odds with Jesus’ teaching and who he revealed himself to be.

There are two separate, but related, stories in today’s text and we’ll look at each of them. The point of conflict in both was over Jesus “doing work” on the Sabbath.  We will look at the religious critique of his actions and at his response and explanation before considering where these texts may challenge us.

Picking Grain on the Sabbath (vv. 1-5)

So one Sabbath Jesus and his disciples were passing through some grain fields and the disciples were picking heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. And the Pharisees – the religious experts in the Jewish Law – came after Jesus for it: “Why do you do what is not lawful?” Now that’s a long way removed from us; it may not be clear what the problem was.  Was it stealing? Was it eating on the Sabbath? Or was picking the grain considered working?

The Pharisees represented one very influential branch of Judaism in Jesus’ day. They were known for their study of the Law, the Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy), and their strict and literal interpretation of that Law. For them, plucking grain was considered work and a violation of God’s Sabbath commandment and laws. And they blamed Jesus, though it was his disciples who did this thing, because as a teacher, a Rabbi was responsible for what his student-disciples did and said.

You probably figured that much out from the context. But where it gets really interesting for me is in Jesus’ response, in what he didn’t say and what he did say. He could have out-Lawed them. The Jewish Law actually says in Deuteronomy 23:25 that it is permitted to pick and eat grain by hand when passing through a neighbor’s field.

25 “When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.

It is only work and a violation of the Law if you use a sickle, that is, to harvest the grain (and perhaps also then be stealing). But interestingly, Jesus didn’t counter with that response. Instead, he referenced a story about King David actually breaking the Mosaic Law by eating the consecrated bread (1 Samuel 21:6), which is reserved for the priests (Leviticus 24:5-9). The Pharisees couldn’t really argue with King David in that instance. But Jesus went even further, making an explicit connection between himself and his actions and those of David. By doing this, he was claiming Messianic and Kingly authority, even over the Sabbath. And he does on to say that explicitly, in case anyone was missing the point: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 5)

Jesus “went big” in responding to the Pharisees. It is interesting that even their arguments and critiques were too small. He could have argued the finer points of Mosaic Law, but responded as if to say, “You think the problem is that I’ve broken the Law; the Law actually exists to point to me!”

If our religion causes us to take our eyes off of Christ, we’ve missed the point as well.

Doing Good on the Sabbath (vv. 6-11)

Let’s go on to the next Sabbath story, in verses 6-11. On another Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue to teach and saw a man with a withered right hand. “Withered” means that it was paralyzed or atrophied from not being able to use it. We are told explicitly that the scribes and Pharisees were “watching him closely to see if he healed on the Sabbath, so that they might find reason to accuse him.” (v. 7) Interestingly, they were prepared to see him heal… he had already been healing people, but it’s not like working or picking grain. You’d think that seeing someone healed might shut you up about the particular rules of a day or place, but apparently not.

The timing is interesting here as well. Jesus called to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and come forward!” (v. 8) And the man did. But Jesus then paused, before healing to ask the scribes and Pharisees a question. Knowing as we do that they react to the healing with rage, it is like Jesus took time to engage them before they reacted, though it did not seem to do any good. He asked them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to destroy it?” (v. 9) The Law did say that one could save another’s life on the Sabbath, but this was not that situation. And there is no record of a response from them to his question. We simply read that he looks around – he (and we) hear no answer to his question – then he tells the man to stretch out his hand and it was healed. The religious leaders are “filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.” (v. 11)

Again, Jesus jumped clear over arguing points of the Law. He asked the question, but then demonstrated the power of God to heal. Again, his power and authority exceeds that of the Law. He has demonstrated that that Law exists to point to him. As he taught on the Sermon on the Mount, he didn’t come to do away with it, but to complete it, to fulfill it. And so on the Sabbath, he does good, he brings life.

Rules Have a Place

Please hear me clearly: I am not advocating throwing out the rules, nor do I think Jesus was. Rules have a place, whether the rules of the road or the family or those found in the Bible. But they are not the point of scripture.

Let me try to illustrate:

It is very important that drivers learn the rules of the road as well as good safety practices. One of the most important is to buckle up. But if you’ve buckled up, checked your mirrors, adjusted your seat, and determined to only drive the speed limit, have you driven? And are there times and circumstances some people or authorities have to exceed the speed limit? I think about Megan driving for Medic. Or needing to drive even though you’ve left your license at home. There are good reasons for the rules, but driving is more than the rules and there are times when the rules must be set aside.

I have mentioned before that I grew up in a community where some Christians observed very strict rules about music, attire, and more. I understand that there were reasons for some of those rules, some derived and added onto scripture as a well-intentioned effort to live pure and holy lives. But again, one should not confuse the rules with the reason for the rules. Not listening to rock music doesn’t make one a Christian and listening to rock music can’t take away one’s salvation. Yet, I had friends who heard both things growing up. I believe that’s what the Pharisees had done with God’s Law.

God’s Law was given for blessing, to keep God’s people safe and remind them of God’s presence and blessing. But the Pharisees got so fixated on the rules and laws that they missed the power and presence of God even when it was in their very midst!

Now, to get to meddlin’… it’s easy to point fingers at Pharisees and legalistic fundamentalists. But I think we’ve all got this religion problem to some extent. It’s hard to keep our focus on a God who is Spirit, invisible to our eyes and beyond our understanding. It’s much easier to reduce faith to some rules. Like what, Robert?

Well, like what we wear in church or out of church. A good Christian girl wouldn’t wear THAT, right? Or tattoos or piercings or any number of other appearance-related judgments.

Or our politics. For good or ill, I have a wide swath of friends on Facebook. And AT LEAST once daily I read that real Christians can’t be Republicans… or Democrats… or vote for this one or that one. Really? Even a theologically-rich descriptor like “evangelical” is now used to describe a certain voting block and set of political views. Really? It means “bearer of the Good News of Jesus Christ” but we’ve turned into a certain list of rules.

Or let me flip it around… is it possible that any of us congratulate ourselves on our church attendance or giving or fancy Bible or niceness or ability to avoid public, visible ‘sins’ – and here’s the important thing – and MISS the power and presence of God in our midst?

Again, the various rules and behaviors and standards and expectations are mostly well-intentioned and mostly harmless, until we swap them for the power and presence of God among us. And THAT – God with us, Immanuel, Lord, King, Teacher, Friend, Savior – that is what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us a to-do list. God didn’t walk among us so that we’d get bogged down in rule-keeping. God came among us in Jesus Christ to call us after Himself, after a PERSON, in and after the power and presence of God on earth. So it may well be that there are parts of our “religion” getting in the way of following after Jesus. Leave them behind; set them aside. Or at the very least, put them in perspective.

God’s Word and God’s Laws point to Jesus. The miracles and teaching of Jesus point to what God is doing among us. Our worship is intended not to satisfy preferences or create an experience, but to point to Jesus. That’s what it’s about; it’s about a who, a person, Jesus Christ.

My prayer is that God will reset our vision, our priorities, our understanding so that we can lay aside every encumbrance, every entanglement, and run the race God has called us to in and through Jesus Christ. May God give us ears to hear and hearts to follow! Amen.

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