Ale & Teviot United Church

Stalked in the cornfield – liberty triumphs over legalism

21 November 2010 : Matthew 12 : 1-14

A recurrent theme of the gospels is the ever-increasing tension between Jesus, and the Pharisees and their cronies – the Temple establishment, if you like. It simmers and festers all through Jesus’ ministry before erupting in such an ugly and violent fashion at Easter. This morning we find an almost comical encounter in a cornfield.

The first question we must ask is – what on earth were these respectable religious men doing in a cornfield on the Sabbath anyway? What a sight they must have presented, in their flowing robes and their big fancy hats [which always make me think, irreverently of 1960’s lampshades] up to their knees in cereal, batting off the corn lice, faces as sour as fortnight-old milk, mustering about as much dignity as a BMW in a ditch.

Had they not somewhere else they needed to be, something else they needed to do, on a Sabbath day? Was this the most productive use of their valuable time, stalking Jesus … stalking? Cornfield? Get it? Well, it’s the best you’re going to get today!

Here we find these august gentlemen, hopping up and down with excitement like so many train-spotters who’ve just seen a new engine for the first time – wonder how I know about that? Look! Look! Gotcha, Jesus! Your disciples have broken the Sabbath! Out with the blackberry, press a few buttons, scroll down the appropriate paragraph and sub-section of the Torah, jab the screen with their index fingers in agitation, take a few shots with the digital camera as incriminating evidence for the Sanhedrin.

All right, slight anachronism, but hey, you get the idea. I suspect Jesus was having real difficulty keeping his face straight during this little contretemps. Cast your mind back to the verses we read two weeks ago at the end of Matthew 11. Jesus has just spoken of the unresponsiveness of the people of Galilee. He has proclaimed that glorious and unique intimacy He enjoys with the Father, which He is longing to extend to anyone who is just willing to forget all their pathetic little hang-ups and receive from Him.

You remember how The Message translation brought to life those closing verses of Matthew 11 : This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son intimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen. Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.

I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Wonderful, liberating, life-giving words. A tremendous opportunity to cast off the shackles of dead empty past-its-sell-by-date tradition and ritual, and enjoy the reality of faith, of a personal relationship with the author of all life and Saviour of all nations.
But what was the principled spiritual response from these pillars of Hebrew society? Ill-natured narrow-minded nitpicking. And I have a nasty suspicion they were actually quite proud of themselves for doing it. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be hilarious.

How did Jesus deal with this crass behaviour? Let me say, if it had been me, and I had the power Jesus had, I think I would have turned the lot of them into frogs on the spot! That’s why I’m so glad He’s Lord and Saviour and I’m not! What Jesus did was the same He always did in the face of opposition. He didn’t abuse them. He didn’t get into an argument. He turned to the Word of God to expose their – er – misunderstanding.

Just the same way as He dealt with the devil in the desert, so He dealt with the devil’s mouthpieces in the cornfield. He refers to 1 Samuel 21:1-6, where the young David is on the run from King Saul, who has gone totally off his trolley. David turns up before Ahimelelch the priest to ask for food. The priest points out there’s nothing in the larder except some consecrated bread. David says : that will do nicely, and off he goes with it

Then Jesus reminds his critics of Numbers 28.9-10, which specifically authorises the priests at the temple to override the Sabbath legislation to fulfil God’s command. Now these 2 scriptures should have been, and probably were, well-known to the Pharisees, as was the clincher. Matthew 12.7 : I desire mercy, not sacrifice is a straight lift from Hosea 6.6. Again, The Message offers an arresting translation of these verses.

There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—’I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge.

And this is the real point at stake. The Old Testament law was a type and shadow of what was to come. You will see this when we come to look at the Transfiguration, in Matthew 17, at some point in the future, if the Rapture hasn’t happened first! The Old Testament was only a temporary measure till the New Testament came. The Law was never meant as an end in itself. It was but a shadow. Jesus is the substance, the reality, of God’s unfolding plan of salvation, not just for Israel but for the whole world.

Here’s the ironic thing. The Sabbath was given for man’s benefit, time off from the hard grind of working for a living just to relax, draw breath, and enjoy God’s presence. But these characters had turned it into a chore. They had lists of things you could not do on the Sabbath, a list long enough to wallpaper a decent-sized room. Believe it or not, in some ultra-zealous groups, going to the loo was breaking the Sabbath.

And you could be stoned to death for it! Breaking the Sabbath was a capital offence! How perverse can you get? A gift from God, to be enjoyed by His children, turned into a stick to beat people over the head with! Jesus, who came to release people from the curse of the Law, was having none of it. What a ludicrous situation that the teachers of the Law dared try to stand in judgement over the giver of the Law. Bad move.

Incidentally, since we are no longer under Law but grace [Romans 6.14], Christians are under no obligation whatsoever to observe the Sabbath. As a matter of fact, we don’t anyway. The Sabbath is the last day of the Jewish week, running from nightfall on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The practice adopted by the early Christian church was to honour God with the first day of the week, what we call Sunday, but for them it was a normal working day. They attended worship early in the morning before work.

Listen. It is good stewardship of the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, that God gave us, to ensure that we take time out for re-creation, to worship God, to spend quality time with family and friends, to enjoy leisure pursuits. It is foolish to be a workaholic, and a person who does not take time off is liable to reap the nasty harvest of that decision. Also, it is even more foolish not to spend time in the presence of God to give Him the honour He is due and to receive the blessings He longs to pour out.

But I wonder how many people were put off God for life by some of the repressive traditions that – with no New Testament justification whatsoever – became attached to the old-fashioned Scottish Presbyterian Sunday? Because of which, I think the baby of Bethlehem may well have been thrown out with the religious bathwater as far as many people of my generation are concerned, which cascades to the following generations.

That’s the problem when limiting legalism gets in the way of liberating grace, when the petrified practices of past generations interfere with the fresh revelation of God’s love for today, when the traditions of men make the Word of God ineffective [Mark 7.13]. You end up with what Paul calls a form of religion with no power [2 Timothy 3.5], an empty shell, incapable of drawing others to Jesus the way we’re supposed to.

The Church of Scotland is presently having to ask itself some searching questions as to its future, but I believe we would help ourselves considerably if we would all agree to take a firm stand on the things that are clearly taught in God’s Word, and be very easygoing about what is purely a matter of personal preference. For example, styles of worship can be an emotive issue. The older I get, the more comfortable I am with our middle-of-the road Radio 2 style here, rather than a Radio 1 or a Radio 3 format.

In other words, if I were to walk into a church where the worship was gangsta rap style led by someone in a back-to-front baseball cap, my carnal flesh would be screaming : I’m a Presbyterian, get me out of here. Likewise, if it was very high church, all bells, smells and fancy robes, not my cup of tea either. I might be inclined to genuflect my way quietly to the exit! I’m reminded of the wee boy from the tenements of Glasgow whose parents took him to a cathedral one Sunday for a wee dose of culyur!

As the clergy were processing in all the finery, incense burner swinging solemnly, a lone treble voice piped up : Haw Missus, your handbag’s on fire! Moving swiftly on! Who am I to take the hump at these outward things? High church, low church, happy-clappy church, doesn’t matter 2p so long as the true gospel is being preached of God’s free and unconditional grace, ministered through Christ alone, received by faith alone.
We need to be passionate about ensuring that the true Word of grace and mercy and forgiveness and fullness of life with health and prosperity is being taught faithfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of Jesus Christ, but at the same time be very relaxed about different forms of church government, different styles of praise, and so on. The Bible has nothing to say about any of that, so let us not be dogmatic about it.

If God’s not that bothered, why should we be? There’s more than enough for us to get our teeth into as we seek to fulfil the Great Commission, proclaiming Jesus as the one and only Lord and Saviour who brings life in all its glorious fullness forever, teaching Scotland to trust in Jesus and do the things He did in the same spirit of love as He did.

Our attitude needs to be like Jesus in this passage. Given a hard time by the Pharisees, He didn’t argue, He just quoted Scripture and got on with the job – as Acts 10.38 says, and as we see illustrated in vs.9-13 : He went about doing good and healing the sick. Jesus did not let Himself be distracted by the opposition of people who, ignorantly or wilfully, took it upon themselves to judge, criticise or condemn Him.

Make no mistake, as long as the church is content to do its own thing behind closed doors among consenting adults, keeping the show on the road at all costs, scurrying to move the scriptural goalposts so as not to offend or exclude anyone, even those whose way of thinking and way of living is way off-message, we won’t encounter much opposition because we won’t be treading on the devil’s toes.

But faithful, joyful, radical, Bible-based, Spirit-filled obedience to Jesus is a whole new ball game. It will put us on the devil’s radar. It will bring attacks from people, even church members, who feel threatened by the new life they see in us, and are secretly envious of, but who don’t want to pay the price of total submission to Jesus that we have had to pay to get there – the price of putting our selfish flesh in its place.

To be effective witnesses for Jesus may be costly and painful for us. No surprise there. It was costly and painful for Him. But the rewards are out of this world. If you and I want to hear : Well done, my good and faithful servant – let’s focus all our attention on what Jesus says and what Jesus wants, and be prepared to sit very lightly to all our man-made rules and regulations, rituals and traditions, personal opinions and tastes.

Those are the things the Pharisees used to get hot and bothered about. As Jesus noted, with delicious irony, they would hyper-ventilate over a procedural gnat whilst gulping down a scriptural camel without noticing. The day of the Pharisee, a day of legalistic bondage and frustration, is over, praise God. Now is the time for the glorious liberty of the children and heirs of God – through Jesus, that’s us. Let’s enjoy it, and as we step out in that freedom, we’ll encourage others to experience the fullness of Christ as well.

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