The First Plot

Mark 2:23-3:6

 

There’s a phrase that’s thrown around every now and again.  I’ll hear it in meeting or on television shows, and perhaps I’ll read it in books or articles.

It goes like this:  “There’s no place for fill-in-the-blank in fill-in-the-blank.”  You can find any number of ways to fill in those blanks, ranging from minor to significant.

There’s no place for Aggie gear—or Sooner, or Longhorn, or Tiger, or you name it gear—in my household!  There’s no place for hats at the dinner table.

There’s no place for such language in this school.  There’s no place for such behavior in church.  We could go on and on with various examples.

The basic truth within those statements is this.  There are certain attitudes, behaviors, and words that are not deemed appropriate in certain circumstances.

 

Quite often, these sentiments are right on point, I believe.  I remember once catching two youth, who were dating, sneaking off during a youth event.

This was back when I was a youth minister.  Not that there’s ever really a good time for two hormonally-charged teens to sneak off together.

But during that particular event, one specifically at church, there was no place for such behavior.

In a household, there’s no place for children who disrespect and dishonor their parents.  Nor is there a place for parents who exasperate and frustrate children.

There’s no place for abuse, neglect, injustice, or oppression in our society—or any society, for that matter.

Clearly, this phrase can hit the nail squarely on the head, in many instances.

 

Problems arise, however, when we realize that everybody has a different view of what’s acceptable and where those things are acceptable.

Some folks become too flippant with customs and traditions, with rules and regulations.  “Who are you to say what I can and can’t do?” they might demand.

Others become far too rigid and dogmatic with what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

Personal opinions and interpretations of right and wrong are projected onto everyone else.  “If they don’t see it like I do, they’re wrong,” is their mantra.

 

Deep down, we’ll find that this sort of division is at the root of much that is wrong with our world.  There are billions of people with trillions of opinions, it seems.

These opinions range over a broad spectrum of topics, including morals, politics, education, parenting, and many, many others.

These debates rage on, even into the area of spirituality, religion, God, and how we are to live before Him.  And these debates are nothing new.

They have been bubbling under the surface and exploding everywhere, throughout the ages.  In fact, they were very present in Jesus’ day.

He faced these sorts of issues on a regular basis, and He faced them from both sides of the argument.

 

We’ll see this very clearly in our passage this morning, found at the end of the second chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and spilling into the third chapter.

You’re welcome to join me there.  There were many instances where folks told Jesus, essentially, “There’s no place for that sort of behavior or teaching here.”

Perhaps they were talking about church, or the Temple, or the synagogue.  Perhaps they were talking about society in general.

Perhaps, as is the case with our passage today, they were talking about a particular circumstance, namely, the Sabbath.

And, quite often, Jesus would retort with an even greater line of thinking.  “There’s no place for that sort of attitude in God’s kingdom.”

 

Today, we enter new territory in our journey through Jesus’ earthly ministry.  We’ve looked at His first miracle and His first sermon in His hometown.

Last week we explored His calling of His first disciples, including the calling that rests on each one of us to be one of His disciples as well.

Now we are going to see the shadow of the cross begin to loom heavily over His ministry, and we are still rather near the beginning.

Today we read about the first plot to get rid of Jesus, and it comes in the context of one of those “there’s no place for that” situations.

I’ll begin our reading with verse twenty-three of Mark, chapter two.  We’ll read two separate accounts, spilling over into chapter three.  (Read Mark 2:23-3:6.)

 

So the plot to kill Jesus finally rears its ugly head, and it all seems to be in response to apparent Sabbath violations.

In truth, it went deeper than that.  Our previous verses from Mark shed some more light on this subject.

Already, Jesus has endeavored to forgive sins, keep company with notorious sinners, and neglect the noble and revered practice of fasting.

But now, to stand up to the notion of Sabbath?  This would prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.  But why?

What was so significant about Sabbath?  You may know that it’s important.  You may know that it’s mentioned in the top-ten list of commandments.

But what you may not know is that our culture and our nation has a very different outlook on Sabbath—much more laid back and perhaps even apathetic.

 

Commentator James Edwards, whose work we’ll look at often this morning, puts it like this.

The Sabbath was to Jews what Mecca is to Muslims and the Ganges River is to Hindus.  Alongside circumcision, Sabbath made people distinctly Jewish.

The notion behind Sabbath is not so much that everybody should attend church on Sunday.  That’s a westernized and watered-down version of the concept.

The idea was that God’s people should abstain from labor on that particular day, because God rested on the seventh day of creation.

Jewish tradition held that God chose Israel from all the peoples of the earth and instituted the Sabbath as an eternal sign and blessing of their unique status.

 

Interestingly enough, the Jewish leaders and teachers went through an extraordinary amount of labor in order to maintain this day of rest.

Rabbis attempted to find an answer for every conceivable Sabbath question, predicament, and possibility.

This naturally led to some curious and questionable rulings.  Would you like to hear about some of the specific decisions Jewish teachers made regarding Sabbath?

Whether or not you want to, we’re doing it anyway.  Major work was forbidden.  That includes what you might expect—farming, hunting, and other typical jobs.

But get this.  Tying and loosening knots was forbidden. Sewing more than one stitch was forbidden.  The same is true of writing more than one letter.

 

Tough stuff, wouldn’t you say?  And we could look at this one of two ways.  First, we could commend these people for how seriously they take their commitment.

To be sure, there are people who don’t take things with regard to the Christian faith anywhere near this seriously.

God gave us commands, and many of us would prefer to play fast and loose with them, finding it easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

And yet, there’s something about these meticulous regulations that seem a bit out of whack to us.  They seem burdensome.  They seem a bit too much.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, the way they quantified everything just doesn’t seem right.  I’ll be the first to admit, I love numbers, mathematics, and statistics.

But I struggle with trying to calculate my obedience to God.  I think I struggle, mostly, because doing so would also require calculating my disobedience.

And, quite honestly, I’m not sure my obedience stands a chance in that contest.

 

Any way you want to look at it, the Jews took the Sabbath seriously.  And this Jesus fellow was appearing to trifle with it—or at the very least change it.

Let’s examine the two instances in question.  In the first, we have Jesus’ disciples plucking grains of wheat.  This isn’t exactly large-scale harvesting.

But, nonetheless, scriptures in Exodus and in Deuteronomy make reference to “reaping” as a forbidden task on the Sabbath.

The Pharisees—the religious leaders of the day—call them to the carpet.  “That’s unlawful!” they cry out.  You see, Jesus is a threat to them.

His teaching is different than theirs.  What’s more, His teaching has authority and captivates the people.  They need to discredit Him.

Already, He has flaunted their rules about forgiving sins, consorting with sinners, and fasting.  But Sabbath?  This could be the one that ruins Him.

 

So how would Jesus respond?  By now we have learned enough about Him to know that He will not back down from anything God has called Him to do.

But, to analyze the words of the Pharisees according to old-timey movie terms:  “Them’s fightin’ words.”

Jesus’ response will be important, both in content and delivery.  And what does He do?  He references King David, which is never a bad idea in Jewish circles.

David, in his days on the run from King Saul, ate bread in the house of God—bread that was designated only for the priests to eat.

So what is Jesus doing here?  We might be inclined to follow this line of thinking.

David’s men were starving.  They were in a bad spot, and life or death was hanging in the balance.  Therefore, an exception to the rule was acceptable.

Perhaps, by recounting this story of David, Jesus is asking for a similar exception to the rule—this rule being the laws pertaining to the Sabbath.

But this doesn’t seem to jive with what we know about Jesus.  He didn’t need exceptions to the rules.  In fact, scripture tells us He came to fulfill the Law.

Beyond that, He created the Law.  He thought it out and wrote it down.  God’s Law was not created to have mastery over us, or to enslave us.

Instead, the Law is there to give us life.  It’s there for our own good and our own protection.  But sin, according to Paul, infected the Law and used it for wrong.

People began seeing the Law as a means to salvation, when really its purpose was to point people to their need for the only means of salvation, Jesus Christ.

 

Jesus makes a long story short in verses twenty-seven and twenty-eight.  Man was not made for the Sabbath.  Rather, the Sabbath was made to bless humanity.

It’s a good thing and a holy thing.  It connects us to God on a deeper, spiritual level.

Jesus then states that He is Lord of the Sabbath.  He instituted it.  He is greater than that law.  Think about it like this.

You may give your children lots of rules and guidelines, by which they are to abide.

But, deep down, what matters most?  Is it not that they follow you, rather than your rules?  Is it not that they know you, rather than a list of do’s and don’ts?

Jesus is putting Himself at the forefront here.  It is not fasting and only hanging out with your Christian friends and Sabbath observance that saves you.

It is not church attendance or tithing or good deeds or being a nice person or voting Republican that saves you.  It is Christ alone.  He is Lord over all of it.

 

Our second instance of Sabbath controversy happens in the third chapter of Mark, and it happens in a synagogue service—or church service, if you prefer.

Let’s talk about this man who was at the service.  We don’t know much about Him, except this.  He had a shriveled hand. He had a deformity—a handicap.

Our passage says that some folks there at the service were watching this man closely, waiting to see if Jesus would heal him.

Once again, they were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.  Healing on the Sabbath was only permissible in life-or-death situations.

Clearly, with a shriveled hand, life or death did not hang in the balance.  If Jesus healed Him, this would be another demerit against Jesus.

 

You know what this means, don’t you?  It’s quite sad, really, but this man is nothing more than a pawn in these Pharisees’ sick and twisted game.

They are using this man.  They are the religious leaders of the day.  They are the instructors in the ways of God.  They are supposed to be an example.

And they are using a handicapped man to advance their own wishes and wants.

We would do well to take care that, in our efforts to supposedly please God and further our cause, we aren’t taking advantage of people.

 

So this man is in a most unenviable position.  Not only is he, perhaps unknowingly, being used by his local religious leaders.

But now he’s probably involved in something he dreads most as he sits in the synagogue on this particular day.

I’ve never had to live with such a condition, but I’m familiar enough with some who have to know this.  They typically don’t like attention being drawn to them.

And now Jesus is asking him to stand before the congregation.  Before we accuse Jesus of making a spectacle of someone, let’s remember this.

This man is likely in this position because of his calloused and self-serving ministers, not because of Jesus.

 

As Jesus and this man stand up front, together, Jesus asks a significant question.  It’s a question that comes in two parts.

“Speaking of the Sabbath, you misguided hypocrites, which is the right thing to do on that day?” Jesus asks.  I might have paraphrased that a little bit.

“To do good or to do evil?”  That’s the first part of His question, and let’s hang out there for a moment before jumping into the next part.

The Sabbath is a day for creation to experience restoration.  The Sabbath is a day to keep holy—which means it is set apart for the Lord.

The root of Jesus’ question, in reality, is this.  Sabbath doesn’t mean we take a break from serving God or from looking out for the interests of others.

How can doing good to a person be considered an offense to God, just because it’s a certain day on the calendar?

 

The second part of Jesus’ question, though related to the first part, actually has a different object.  The first question referred to the man with the deformed hand.

This second question—that of “to save life or kill”—is in reference to something else, really someone else.  The man, as we’ve mentioned, is not in that sort of danger.

His life is not at risk.  But, after reading the rest of this account, we see that Jesus’ life suddenly is.  The plot to remove Jesus from the picture gets its inception right here.

Ironic, isn’t it?  These people were furious over Jesus healing a hurting man on the Sabbath, yet they had no qualms about plotting a murder on that same day.

 

Look, we are very early on in the gospel of Mark in this passage.  Jesus still has almost the entirety of His earthly ministry ahead of Him.

So the impending Cross looms large.  Jesus taught and healed and feasted for months and months, and all the while folks were plotting His death.

Eventually, these leaders would get their wish.  Though they could never make any of their charges stick, they got their desired execution.

Amid trumped up charges of blasphemy, treason, and immorality—all of which were serious offenses—Jesus was condemned to die on the Cross.

 

I shake my head at that.  You might as well.  I know that He had to die.  I know that it was the only way.  But somewhere within me, I want to condemn these frauds.

But, before condemning, should we not take a good look within?  Think about it.

 

How often do we get caught up in traditions and rules?  How often do we get caught up in the numbers game?

How often do we confuse the issue, putting priority on the things God created, rather than on the God who made them?

How often do we use people for our own personal gain, all the while masking it as “serving the Lord”?

These Jewish people gathered for a worship service every week, but did they ever really worship?  Did they even know the only God worthy of worship?

How often have we been more concerned with what a person is wearing in this service than the God who meets with us in this service?

How often have we been more concerned over the people who aren’t holding up their end of the bargain here at church, rather than our own plight before God?

If ever there were a case of not holding up one’s end of the bargain, it’s found in each of every one of us and our standing before God.

 

Jesus, as He looked at this pitiful congregation, was stirred deep within.  Translations differ as to the gravity of Jesus’ emotion here.

Some say He was “angry”.  Some say “deeply distressed”.  The NASB, which I find often to be the most accurate, says He was “grieved at the hardness of their hearts”.

Any way you want to slice it, this is so captivating and so frightening.  Jesus was angered, distressed, and grieved over sin.

And it wasn’t the sin of morally bankrupt individuals located in a back alley, a bar, or a brothel.  It was the sin of stubbornness—stubbornness from the church folks.

He was grieved at a group of people—people from the nation of Israel—who could not see God in their midst and confess, “Maybe I’ve been looking at things all wrong.”

 

Have you been looking at things all wrong?  Have you missed the God in your midst?

Are you one of those countless thousands throughout history who have been found “in church”, but not “in Christ”?

You ponder as I pray.  (Pray.)

 

We’re going to do things a little differently this morning.