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Radical Rest



John Ortberg tells the story of Tattoo the basset hound….

Tattoo didn’t intend to go for an evening run, but when his owner shut his leash in the car door and took off with Tattoo still outside the vehicle, he had no choice.

A motorcycle officer named Terry Filbert noticed a passing vehicle with something that appeared to be dragging behind it. As he passed the vehicle, he saw the object was a basset hound on a leash.

“He was picking them up and putting them down as fast as he could,” said Filbert. He chased the car to a stop, and Tattoo was rescued, but not before the dog reached a speed of twenty to twenty-five miles per hour, and rolled over several times.

The dog was fine but asked not to go out for an evening walk for a long time.

There are too many of us whose days are marked by “picking them up and putting them down as fast as we can.” Into such a world of busyness, Jesus comes to offer radical rest. This rest takes at least three different forms that we can see in our passage for today from Mark 2:23-3:6. Listen for God’s word to you….

One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
As I said, I believe Jesus offers us three kinds of rest in this passage. First, he offers us rest from being Lord of our own lives.

Jesus says, “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” By calling himself the Son of Man and claiming to be Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus was essentially claiming to be and do what only YHWH gets to be and do in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was claiming to be Lord of all. However, before we examine that claim further, let us look at how Jesus arrived at it….

In this passage, we once again see Jesus acting contrary to the rules that the scribes and the Pharisees followed. In order to understand what is going on here, you need to know that in between the time of the Old Testament and the New, during that four-hundred year period, the Jewish rabbis developed a great deal of teaching to help the Jewish people apply the Torah, that is the law in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The rabbis wanted people to be able to apply this law in everyday life situations. These teachings were codified as Halakah and came to be known as the Mishnah. Regarding the Sabbath, the rabbis had drawn up a catalogue of 39 principle works, subsequently subdivided into six minor categories under each of the 39, all of which were forbidden on the Sabbath. According to the Halakah, Jesus’ disciples were breaking the Sabbath by reaping, picking the heads of grain and separating the wheat from the chaff. The disciples did not break the Torah by their actions but they did violate the tradition that the Pharisees followed very carefully.

The Pharisees were closely watching Jesus and his disciples to see if they would break any of their rules. On this occasion, the Pharisees were Johnny on the spot, ready to point out the disciples’ failing: “Look! Why are they doing what is not allowed on the Sabbath?”

Jesus has a very shrewd, but at the same time dangerous response to the Pharisees. Jesus does not argue with them. He does not say, “Look, in fact my disciples are not breaking any law in Scripture, just your petty rule.” Jesus does not say that. Instead, he reminds the Pharisees of a story from the Hebrew Scriptures.

The story is about David before he became king. At the time, David was hiding out in caves in fear for his life because King Saul was after him. Saul’s son Jonathan has just confirmed for David that his father is intent on killing him. David flees to Nob where he sees the priest, Ahimelech. Jesus calls the priest Abiathar, who is actually Ahimelech’s son. We do not know whether Jesus made a mistake, or Mark, or one of Mark’s sources. At any rate, the Tabernacle had not yet been brought to Jerusalem and was residing in a place called Nob with the priests attending it. David is hungry and asks for bread. The only bread on hand is the showbread that was set out in the Temple as an offering to the Lord. Only the priests were allowed to eat it, but on this occasion, Ahimelech gives the showbread to David.

Jesus is very clever in using Scripture to convince the Pharisees that what his disciples are doing is okay. However, at the same time, it is a dangerous argument, because by using this story in this way, Jesus is putting himself on an equal footing with the great King David. Jesus is also faintly suggesting his messianic claim as a descendant of David.

Then Jesus makes a very common-sense sort of statement: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, the Sabbath exists for our benefit. The important thing is not keeping a bunch of rules, but to benefit from the blessing of the Sabbath. Jesus hints at the fact that the Pharisees are more interested in rule keeping than they are in enjoying the Sabbath blessing.

As if this was not daring enough, Jesus makes his claim even more startling. He says, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” The title, Son of Man, appears in Daniel 7:13-14. There we read about Daniel’s vision….

I saw one like a son of man
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.

To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.

If Jesus is identifying himself as this “son of man” then it is quite a claim indeed. The strength of Jesus’ claim is made even clearer when he says that he is “lord of the Sabbath”. Who is Lord of the Sabbath except for YHWH?

If Jesus really is Lord of the Sabbath, then he also wants and deserves to be Lord of all. However, God has given to us one thing that can limit Jesus’ Lordship in one area. That one thing is free will and that one area is our own lives. You and I can choose whether we will allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives, to be in charge, to call the shots. And that is a decision we make every day. Are we allowing Jesus to be Lord of our lives today? When we do allow Jesus Lordship over our lives, it is actually a relief. We get to rest from being in charge. We can relax knowing that God understands we are not qualified to run a human life. Only Jesus is so qualified. And he will guide our lives if we let him. What a rest that can be!

The second major thing I see in this passage (that I have already hinted at) is that Jesus offers us rest from rule keeping.

Mark 3 opens with Jesus again in the synagogue. This time, a man is present with a withered hand. The Pharisees are watching to see if Jesus will cure this man on the Sabbath, so that they may accuse Jesus of violating their Sabbath rules.

Jesus invites the man to come to him, then he addresses a question to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

The scribal law, as Jesus knew, allowed work to be done if it was necessary to save a life. In this case, the man’s life is not at stake. Thus, Jesus is clearly going beyond rabbinic law by suggesting that it is acceptable to do anything good on the Sabbath, anything that promotes life and health.

The Pharisees refuse to answer Jesus’ question. They remain silent. But Mark tells us that Jesus looks around at the Pharisees in anger; Jesus was grieved at their hardness of heart, heart-broken at the thought that these religious leaders cared more for following petty rules than they did for healing.

By asking the man to stretch out his hand, Jesus was not commanding the man to work. However, Jesus’ action was clearly provocative. Jesus was demonstrating in action to the Pharisees that he was indeed Lord of the Sabbath and therefore could do what he wished on that day.

The story concludes with the man’s hand healed and the Pharisees going out to conspire with the Herodians how they might destroy Jesus.

Now, the Pharisees normally would have nothing to do with the followers of Herod Antipas because the Herodians were all in league with Rome. However, the Pharisees knew that in the end they would need permission from Rome to have Jesus legally executed. Thus, we see how anger, resentment, revenge, and hunger for power, leads people to make strange bedfellows.

Why are the Pharisees so angry at this point? Apparently, their anger stems from the fact that Jesus has claimed to be Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus was claiming to be and do what only YHWH gets to be and do in the Hebrew Scriptures. From the Pharisees’ perspective, Jesus was committing blasphemy pure and simple, and for that, according to Jewish law, the penalty was death.

The Pharisees were in the wrong in at least two ways. First, they failed to see Jesus’ claim to Lordship of the Sabbath as a legitimate claim. Second, the Pharisees cared more about rule keeping than they did about people.

The question is: do we make the same two mistakes as the Pharisees? Do we fail to surrender to Jesus’ Lordship and do we care more about rule keeping than we do about people?

Jesus offers us rest from a religion of rule keeping. He invites us to do something that is at the same time more relaxing, but also more adventurous. Jesus invites us to follow him personally, to allow his Holy Spirit to work his love in and through us: love for God and love for people. Choosing what is the most loving thing to do in any given situation is both harder and easier than rule keeping. It is easier because one does not need to memorize hundreds of rules and then try to figure out what the application is to any given situation. However, love is also harder because it forces one to have to think and act creatively. Love requires being quiet, attentive, and obedient to the Holy Spirit.

This leads to the third kind of rest Jesus offers; it is a rest both physical and spiritual.

Jesus can help us find the right balance between work and physical rest because he has already done it for us. Jesus can also help us find spiritual rest, if we will simply spend time alone with him.

We need both, don’t we? Every human being needs physical and spiritual rest. Tim Hansel once wrote,

Most of us fail to realize that we have built into our calendars fifty-two miniature vacations every year. With a little planning and creativity, these can be meaningful and joyful times.

The principle of one day out of every seven for worship and rest has been true since creation, but I know of very few people who take that commandment seriously. I still struggle with it. Again and again William McNamara’s comments about learning how to “waste” that time for God’s sake come back to haunt me. “There is only one way to truly celebrate the Sabbath—and that is to waste it prodigiously. Until I can waste time prodigiously, I do not take God seriously. If Christ is real, he must be able to hold me and captivate me.” It is my acknowledgment of his sovereignty.

There must be a reason why rest was included in Creation, in the Ten Commandments, and why Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man. There must be a reason why the Sabbath is fifty-two times more important than any other “holy-day.”

Truly, if we are going to take the Sabbath seriously, not in a Pharisaic way, but in a Jesus way, then we have to learn how to “waste” time on God, because that is what it seems like from a human perspective.
John Killinger tells about a time when he visited Sacre-Coeur—the church built on top of Montmartre, the hill overlooking Paris. Killinger writes,

There I watched a little peasant woman, dressed all in black, having her meditations in the middle of the day. Her head was bowed at prayer. She was totally oblivious to all the people rushing about the cathedral.

By midday in any of the big tourist cathedrals, groups have made their way inside. Busloads of people from all the countries of the world stumble against one another, trying to see in the semi-darkness after they’ve come in from the bright outdoors. These people strain to hear what their guides are saying, pushing and shoving to get closer to this or that site. The crowds are trying to understand and see everything in as brief a time as possible so they can be off to the next place.

In all that hustle and bustle, this little woman sat stolidly with her head bowed, paying no attention to any of the confusion. As I watched, I thought of the text, “Be still, and know that I am God.” She was being still, almost to a fault, in the midst of the hubbub.

We are all so much like those tourists, are we not? We want to get in touch with something or someone beyond ourselves, but we want to do it quickly and efficiently. Frankly, I don’t think we can remain like those tourists and still get in touch with God; pre-packaged tours of the infinite, seldom work.


The good news is: God wants to give us rest from being the tour guides of our own lives; he wants to give us rest from rule keeping. God wants to give us rest, both physical and spiritual. The question is: will we receive the radical rest God wants to give us through Jesus?

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