Philip Casmer

Is It Free?

by Philip Casmer on June 2nd, 2024
Mark 2:23-3:6

Do you ever imagine back to creation? After the sixth day, about Adam, the first man? How he must have marveled running his hand over the lion’s mane and hearing its roar or how he observed that Mr. Marsupial and Mrs. Dinosaur would not produce a viable stegaroo? Have you pictured him sitting beneath a great tree – splendid, leafy green – resting in cool, soft grass on a hill that overlooked his garden-preserve – maybe on an evening, wondering up at the starry lights in all their vast array? You could suppose and imagine a lot, I’d guess. What I want you to imagine is seeing things through Adam’s eyes, specifically that moment where, in all the rest and security he owned with God, how he looked on the fruit of that one, forbidden tree as the source of even greater security, in fact, to reach equality with God. Picture that – a hand more perfect than any Michelangelo, reaching out toward a fruit of astounding appeal, ideal, to pluck it. And after – looking at that hand below, that bitten fruit falling away, realization and recognition and shame setting in – and that perfect hand, now shriveling, withering before your eyes, dry and black, cadaverous as death…

That is what God had promised, “In the day that you eat of that fruit, you will surely die…” (Gn 2:17) And Adam did – not die that day – but begin dying and passing on death and the deadly incapacity in children in his own image and not God’s. A withered, shriveled legacy… 

I ask you: What God-fearing person, knowing that status so perfect / so utterly lost, wouldn’t want to hold it again and work to keep it if they had it?

There were many people of God who understood that loss between Adam and Jesus; people like the Pharisee named Nicodemus. Imagine him next. You remember the Pharisee who came to speak to Jesus at night; the one who helped with burying Jesus’ body? It’s John’s gospel that mentions him, not Mark. But I often like to think of him being around when the Pharisees were. Because I naturally think of the Pharisees as men whose down-the-nose looks and holier-than-thou frowns would have worn Botox resistant wrinkles in… But they weren’t really. They were quite well-respected. They were godly people – in appearance and even in desire – if we assume the best. They were very concerned about their relationship with God – how to keep it…

So stand there with Nicodemus – godly man – and see it. If, as Pharisee, you lit no candle, you walked only so far, you kneaded no dough – in fact, you worked hard to make sure you didn’t even see work on God’s Sabbath day (when he’d commanded rest and no work be done)… if you who did that saw this? Disciples of this new rabbi, Jesus, walking along and harvesting on the Sabbath – for it could technically be called that kind of work… For even a well-meaning Pharisee like Nicodemus, that might be hard to see… And then the probing question that followed makes sense: “Aren’t God’s people not free to do such things like this?” 

Listen more with Nicodemus as his trusted brothers talk about Jesus – whose teaching had pricked Nicodemus’ heart, spoken a certain freedom into it – because this is where things take an ungodly turn – his brothers consider Jesus’ words a poison, his ways libertine – a turn from the traditions they knew. Listen, finally, as they plot (perhaps it was this way) to bring the man with the shriveled hand to synagogue because they knew Jesus… For you might save a life on the Sabbath – but only if one was really dying not just shriveled – perfect trap – even healing was work and unlawful – not free to do

Take it in with ears and eyes, then,  with Nicodemus and every other well-meaning, godly Jew from the shadows of the raised seats around as Jesus teaches in the middle of the synagogue. Standing at the head of the pool of light that pours in through the clerestory windows – on display… Look, as he calls forth that man, extends his shriveled, dead hand right into that bright light – so you could really see the problem. Listen as he turns the question back towards you – literally – “What is free to do on the Sabbath – is it good or evil; killing or saving life?” 

I hope you sense the shift. That question really gets down to the nub of the problem. Do you feel it? Jesus was saying they were worried about the wrong stuff. And, legally, that’s true. Jesus and the disciples weren’t breaking the Sabbath Law. You heard God in the first reading, “you shall not do any work” on the Sabbath day. But that Law didn’t prohibit hungry people from plucking some heads of grain – in fact, God even told his people to allow that very thing in their fields. (Dt. 23:25) You know what did prohibit Sabbath-plucking and Sabbath healing? Rules rabbis wrote over time – 12 Rules for Holy Life: #246 – “You shall not pluck!” “You shall not heal!” No, on the Sabbath, you gotta work hard not to work so that you can keep close to God. 

But that’s the problem isn’t it? The Pharisees were upstanding, godly people, but they’d gotten so consumed by their own rules – how to appear and be okay with God – that they’d lost sight of normal, godly things like care and answering need and help. They were so blinded by their own doing that they couldn’t see Jesus. They assumed Jesus would miraculously heal (but couldn’t grasp what that said about him), and  on that very Sabbath they themselves plotted to kill him… Maybe that’s not work, but it’s definitely not right…

Their question is a helpful question to ask for us: what we’re free to do. Even though you heard St. Paul in Colossians 3 – you’re free from rules that pointed ahead to Jesus – he came. Still, we’re tempted to turn the freedom into a prison – a space where life’s insecurities have less room to be themselves – like those Pharisees. 

Because, like them, you’re concerned with being God’s people – and can get caught up in doing what God’s people do… I mean things like: God’s people worship with an organ… Well, some do… God’s people go to 8:00am church… There are a few… God’s people dress up for worship… Fine, they can… But any time any of those that you cannot find written in the Word of God become what you consider the way of God – well, that’s silly; and not silly because it’s dangerous. Our own little pharisaical fence – keep these and we’ll be really holy – won’t even have to think about God’s law. And on those kinds of things, especially at those who should know better, Jesus looks with anger…

Honestly, I don’t think those are the most dangerous. Most dangerous, most difficult are the the bigger concepts those are connected to – where God’s people begin to feel that their relationship is made by what they do…or don’t…or unmade by what they’ve done. Most dangerous is when your hearts and lives know no kind of rest at all because they are running after how to make God love them, or running away from him because they’re afraid he couldn’t ever love people like them or because circumstances tell you he doesn’t. Which distresses Jesus deeply, because that’s exactly what that sabbath idea is for…

It’s exactly why Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” You were not made to follow rules to earn God’s favor. Sabbath was made to serve the needs of those who are already God’s people. And Jesus can say so, because “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He is ruler of it – maker of its laws – God himself. Fix your eyes on him – in the same way he always does – Jesus reigns even on the Sabbath. You heard how he works in our 2nd reading. You were dead – in that way of sin inherited from Adam’s day and acted out in your own – a cadaverous, shriveled death. “But God made you in alive with Christ” – he forgave all your sins – he canceled what was written on your record / deleted it – whatever condemns you, guilts you, burdens you – “he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross” – himself, where he died. Then Paul says that there is no judgment with you; your daily reality is in Christ – actually, very much like Adam’s, long ago…

Think back to Adam once more… Did you ever consider this? In that week of creation, Adam – born on the sixth day, his first full day was the seventh – a sabbath. He was able to relish God’s rest, with God himself, completely free… Every day is such a sabbath for you. Jesus is the risen Lord and, by his work, he has taken the shriveled and withered death that we are and made us new – a new creation – created in Christ Jesus to do God’s works, in the image of God, free to walk about in Christ’s perfect creation.

That is you – and your sabbath too – it is free… You, my friends, are free to enjoy the work of Jesus Christ. You are free to relish the rest he gives (the like of which you’ll find nowhere else) – this spiritual kind. You are free from the burdens of this life (always, but especially here). You are free to gather around his Word and hear his story and know that he is Lord and to be at peace. You are free – you’ve come at his invitation, to eat the feast he’s set before you, to be satisfied with the forgiveness he gives and his presence that he promises, to be made full – further to freely be his holy people. You are free to share the company of the guests and give encouragements from this rest – to care, to help, to answer needs. You are free to be 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8th day people, baptized into a whole new Sabbath rest awash in the freedom of forgiveness and new life. You’re free…

In fact, so free are you, that the New Testament never actually asks the Pharisees’ question of us – is it lawful / is it free? Rather, it says things like, “Everything is already yours as a gift!” (1 Cr 3:22, MSG) and “head out to discover all the things that please the Lord.” (Ep 5:10, Casmer) Well, of course, you are already pleasing to God in Christ. Why wouldn’t he set you free to explore it? There’s no better place to begin than a sabbath: As you go from here, God grant that we keep each day holy by receiving his Word of comfort so that we ever find our rest in him, and him alone. Amen.

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