Sunday,August 22, 2004

Twelfth Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire.

At the beginning of summer, particularly in places with extreme weather, television and radio stations run public service announcements reminding people of the dangers of the heat. Unfortunately, a summer does not go by without a news report of a dead child or dog that had been left in a car in the heat of the day. The temperature in a sealed car can rise dangerously high in just minutes.

What would you do if you passed by a car and saw a child locked inside on a hot day? If you could not find the mother, would you break a window to get the child out? It is against the law to break into a car, but this indeed could be a matter of life and death. It would certainly be best to find a policeman, but those few minutes could be the difference between life and death.

Breaking into the car could also get the lifesaver in trouble. I recently took the Red Cross First Aid and CPR course. I was shocked when the instructors cautioned us to ask the patient if they want help. They told us that people who have stepped in to give aid have been sued by the patient. The court cases have been thrown out as ridiculous, but in today’s world it is still a risk.

So, would you take the chance to save a life? What if the situation did not appear to be life threatening at that moment? Would you wait, search for someone else to take care of the problem or just walk away?

Jesus was at the synagogue teaching when He saw a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years. He called her forward and said, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.” Then He touched her and she was immediately straightened up and praised God. Now, this story does not tell us why the woman was in the synagogue that day. Did she come because she wanted to see Jesus? It is just as likely that the woman was there because it was the Sabbath. She may not even have known Jesus would be there.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, on His way to the cross, teaching in the villages and towns He passed through. He probably did not spend very long in any one place, just long enough to preach the Good News and heal the sick. The woman may have been too shy to approach Jesus after the worship. The crowds may have made it impossible for Him to find her when the service was over. For Jesus, that moment was the moment to set that woman free.

After all, that’s what He did for her. She was crippled by a spirit – a demon of Satan. She had been in this condition for a long time. Certainly He could have waited just a few hours to heal her. After all, healing was work and it was the Sabbath. Yet, I have to wonder what sort of work Jesus really did. In this story, Jesus only spoke a word to the woman and touched her. Speaking and touching were not forbidden on the Sabbath. So, what did He do wrong?

The Jews had a list of 39 specific actions that were the basis of all work. The 39 melachot are the most basic actions of which all work is made. The first thirteen are involved in the baking of bread – planting wheat, plowing the field, reaping grown wheat stalks, binding sheaves of wheat, threshing, winnowing, sifting kernels, grinding, sifting flour, kneading dough, and baking. The next eleven are used for making clothing – shearing, bleaching, combing and dyeing wool; spinning and weaving thread/yarn, making two loops (as an anchor on which to base material); sewing two threads together, separating two threads, tying a knot, loosening a knot, sewing two stitches (to attach sections of material), and tearing (other threads or material) in order to sew two stitches. The next seven are part of hunting and leatherworking – trapping deer, slaughtering it; and flaying, salting, curing, scraping and cutting its hides. The final eight encompass all other types of labor – writing two letters, erasing (old text) in order to write two letters, building, demolishing, extinguishing a flame, igniting a flame, striking the final blow (finishing a project), and carrying (an object) from one domain to another.

As you look at this list, imagine what we couldn’t do if we were bound by the law. Even on our day of rest, most of the things we enjoy doing in our leisure time could be found unlawful. We could not take notes at bible study, because we couldn’t write two letters. We could not play badminton with our kids. We couldn’t do needlepoint – a favorite activity for the Lord’s Day in previous eras. We could not even carry our pets from one room to another without breaking the law.

Yet, as we look at this list it is still difficult to see what the synagogue ruler could have seen wrong with the thing which Jesus did. Where does God’s word say that one cannot heal, particularly the way Jesus did it? Now, of course, the work of doctors and nurses in this day would be considered work – hard work. But Jesus only spoke a word and touched her.

But, He set her free. Jesus answered the ruler’s reprimand with a comparison. “Ye hypocrites, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan had bound, lo, these eighteen years, to have been loosed from this bond on the day of the sabbath?” Those who opposed Jesus were humiliated. In the next chapter of Luke, Jesus gives the Pharisees and experts of the law the chance to show Him where it is unlawful to heal. “Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath, or not?” They could not answer.

The Sabbath was not given to the people to bind them, but to bring them healing and peace. There is no better time to heal people and unbind them from Satan than on the Sabbath. That woman on that day was free to enter into a new kind of rest, rest from her dis-ease in praise and thanksgiving to God.

In the Old Testament lesson for today, we are shown what the world could look like if all people were set free. “If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking wickedly; and if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul: then shall thy light rise in darkness, and thine obscurity be as the noonday; and Jehovah will guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in dry places, and make strong thy bones; and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” Where justice and mercy prevail, God’s light shines and blessings abound.

Later in that same passage, God speaks about the Sabbath. He tells His people that if they keep the Sabbath holy, if they call it a delight and keep it honorable, then they will find joy in the Lord and He will bless them. How does one keep the Sabbath holy and honorable? In the time of Jesus, it was expected that all people would keep the Law perfectly. They could not work – they could not do anything that might have its basis in those 39 actions.

Would you be honorable by leaving a dying child in a hot car for the sake of the vehicle you’re your reputation? Would Jesus have honored God’s day by ignoring the crippled woman? Isaiah writes, “…and [if you] shalt honor it, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words…” We honor God and keep His day holy by doing His will and living in His purposes. He has come to bring healing and joy, to rebuild and reconcile.

The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first, there is fear. The people stand at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome – not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to listen for them and speak it to them. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear. In Christ we have something much different.

“But ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable hosts of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaketh better than that of Abel.”

The sprinkled blood, of course, is the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given on the cross for our sake. Abel’s blood screamed out for vengeance, but Jesus’ blood reaches out for reconciliation and restoration. Through the name of Jesus people are healed and relationships are rebuilt. Moses sprinkled the people at the foot of Mount Zion with the blood of an old covenant, a covenant dependent on their obedience to the Law. We are also sprinkled with blood through baptism, but it is the blood of a new covenant, a covenant of grace.

The people who stood with Moses at the foot of that mountain never made it to the Promised Land. The generation that came out of Egypt were not faithful to God and so He sent them to wander in the wilderness until the last one passed through life into death. Only then could the next generation enter the land which God had promised. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape who turn away from him that warneth from heaven.”

Moses was human. He died. Jesus was a man, but He was also the incarnation of the Lord God Almighty and to this day He speaks to us from heaven above. He speaks the truth. He changes the way we see things. He makes all things new. Those who do not listen or refuse to believe will not escape the wrath to come, a fate worse than that which was suffered by the unfaithful of Israel who perished in the desert. This promise is not land or treasures on earth, but the Kingdom of God. The stakes are higher and the gift more generous. “Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire.”

This is where the synagogue rulers, the Pharisees and other leaders had gone wrong. They thought God was awed by their self-righteousness, by the ability to live within this strict set of rules. They thought their obedience would give them power and authority. They had forgotten that God seeks justice and compassion, that He blesses mercy. They were living for themselves, pursuing their own interests, not that of God.

The woman knew she had been given the gift of a new beginning. After Jesus touched her, she straightened and began praising God. This is what it means to keep the Sabbath holy, to honor and delight in it. She was set free to live in thanksgiving and praise. If Jesus had ignored the woman’s need, this divine appointment might never have happened. She may have walked out the door of the synagogue, never to hear the words of Jesus or know the joy of His salvation.

The psalmist understood that type of joy. “Bless Jehovah, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless Jehovah, O my soul, And forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases; Who redeemeth thy life from destruction; Who crowneth thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies; Who satisfieth thy desire with good things, So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle. Jehovah executeth righteous acts, And judgments for all that are oppressed. He made known his ways unto Moses, His doings unto the children of Israel. Jehovah is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness.”

We don’t know when we might face a divine appointment that stretches the limits of the rules of our own laws. Could we pursue God’s interests, showing compassion and mercy, even when we might risk everything to do so? Let us never forget that Jesus has set us free from all that binds us – sin, dis-ease, death – free to live as an heir to the Kingdom. His Kingdom is not like that which existed under the Law. We live in grace, restored to our Father by the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood. We are now called to be witnesses of the Gospel that others might be set free to live in thanksgiving and praise. Thanks be to God.

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