I was speaking recently with a dear friend who’s been diagnosed with cancer, a man who has consistently denied the existence of God. We are, apparently, an accident of the universe, a co-incidental coming together of atoms to make this our current lives and when we die, we’re gone.
My heart and my faith tell me otherwise. I stand here most weeks with you, and on a daily basis with God, speaking about our God of love, who’s love is so vast and complete, you and I can only say, ‘God is love’. How we show this with each other and with God, is simply a small example of the love of the living God.
My friend’s life is now at a crossroads and the big questions are now emerging for him and he is unable to stop the questions, why, how, what is the purpose of his life, the reason for all that has been and is about to happen?
And this brings me to this week’s story in Luke’s Gospel 13:10-17 about healing on the Sabbath. If you were raised in a Christian family like me, you will remember Sundays as our Sabbath. The boarding school I attended had three services on a Sunday and we were not allowed to do very much, we wore Sunday best school uniform, had enforced afternoon rest where we sneaked in the forbidden radios and listened under the blankets to illicit music. Playing cards were forbidden as was television. Sunday was boring, a time of resentment and the constant fear of being caught. Sabbath was about rules and punishment.
Over time our culture has changed, and Sabbath and its meaning has almost disappeared from our lives and communities. People don’t remember the stories or reasons for the Sabbath. However, we commit as Christians to honouring the Sabbath day and keeping it holy. So apart from coming to church, does God enter much into the considerations of the rest of the day’s activities at all?
And what did Jesus do on his Sabbath? Jesus was doing what he did regularly on the Sabbath, he was preaching in one of the local synagogues. He gathered for fellowship, prayer and scripture study and we can read from the start of his ministry, he taught and preached in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
More provocatively Jesus announced his Spirit-anointed mission to work mighty acts of liberation and healing – release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He performed such works on the spot, releasing a demon-possessed man (4:31-35), restoring a man’s withered hand (6:6-8); and healing a woman who suffered from a physical and financially draining bleeding disorder for 12 years (8:43), to name but a few of the stories.
The bent-over woman’s 18-year affliction is a physical reminder of such oppression and exclusion. She is so bent over she could not see people clearly nor stand upright.
Her story becomes a symbol of political, religious and gender oppression. Jesus moves to lift and straighten, to free her and not simply to cure. His actions free her from the slavery of her condition and acknowledges her exclusion from society and many of the daily expectations and demands of life.
All such healing reflected Jesus’ fresh reminder on this occasion to those in authority that to restrict God’s liberating healing and love is more about humans seeking to control and it is not about God’s message
Jesus fulfils his mother Mary’s ‘magnificent’ vision of God ‘lifting up the lowly’ (1:52) and Jesus’ messianic mission ‘to proclaim release to the captives…to let the oppressed go free’ (4:18). And while most around him and the woman herself praise God and rejoice at this jubilee moment of freedom, (vv13,17), not everyone is delighted or pleased at Jesus’ Sabbath activity.
Like the Sabbath experiences of my childhood, the rules for some of us as with the Synagogue leader, have become more important than the spirit of the intent.
Jeremiah is reminded by God:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…’ (Jer .1:5)
Given such reassurance of God’s love for each of us, in spite of our fears, our denials, our hatreds and dislikes, our pretence God does not exist, or that God only loves those we love and follows the rules we put in place, is simply hollow, unkind and simply not true.
It is worth spending a little time today, thinking about the things and people that you despise and believe are wrong; and imagining what you would feel like if Jesus stood before you and gave them freedom and liberation and offered his love, while you were watching, as the synagogue leader was doing. He was protecting his sacred precinct, preserving the rules from crass countrymen who did not have the dignity or respect for law, tradition and authority. What might you experience as you sit and reflect on those whom you exclude?
The Bible specifies no exemptions for special types of Sabbath work, except for required priestly offering of sacrifices (Num. 28:9-10; Matt.12:5). Accordingly, it was commonly assumed no medial treatment should be offered on the Sabbath except in life-threatening circumstances. The disabled woman had suffered for 18 years, one more day wouldn’t kill her.
This justification started me thinking about who we deny today and seek to put off justice and freedom from oppression and healing because it doesn’t fit the rules.
I thought about the gays who have been excluded and the arguments about why we shouldn’t yet change our rules; women who have been considered chattels, the property of men, male headship and the authority of men to rule with violence which has worked so well for men, why does this need to be changed now; or the rules as they apply to our First Nations peoples which work for us and not for them – and the list is long my friends.
Jesus firmly rejects this logic, moral or otherwise, biblically based or not. Not because he repudiates the Sabbath law, but because of how he interprets it. If animals can be given food and water on the Sabbath in a life affirming way, ought not, must not then, this poor daughter of Abraham, who so has so long suffered, be set free from her oppression at once, without further delay. What better day than the life and freedom affirming Sabbath to release her burden and restore her to health?
In each of my examples, what better day to challenge our beliefs and to open our hearts to the extraordinary love of God and of God’s salvation than on the Sabbath. And I wanted to ask you, imagine Jesus standing here before us and saying ‘enough.’
No more judgement or delays! Now is the time to make this or that change to free and heal and enable people to stand upright without the burden of exclusion based on disability, colour, sexuality, or gender or poverty.
How might we respond as we sit in church on the Sabbath and watch our world being turned upside down? What is Jesus inviting us to do today with him and the woman whom he touches, heals and sets free without conditions or requests or petitions. A simple life-changing gift given out of love.
The letter to the Hebrews reminds us:
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them (Heb.12:18-19)
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God and acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. (Heb.12:28-29)
For indeed our God is a God of love, consuming all and encouraging all and leaving nothing in its way. As I pray for my friend who faces his next challenge, God knew him before he was formed in the womb, before he was born. God loves and cherishes him in spite of his rejection and fear. Nothing stands in the way of that fact. God will care and hold him safe whatever the outcome.
Together my friends, on this Sabbath day, let us celebrate and rejoice in God’s love, which triumphs over all our resistances and welcomes and magnifies the love we have for one another and which God has for us.
The Lord be with you.