Remember the sabbath and keep it holy.
First Reading Isaiah 58:9b-14
Psalm Psalm 103:1-8
Second Reading Hebrews 12:18-29
Gospel Luke 13:10-17
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness...” The Word of God offered by the prophet Isaiah sounds like gospel. Should we be surprised? All of scripture interpreted through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ is gospel. Not picking and choosing or isolating one phrase, but the sweeping salvation message of God’s word, drawing us together and drawing us to God.
Isaiah urges us to keep the sabbath, the holy day of the Lord. We are to honor it, not going our own ways, serving our own interests, or pursuing our own affairs. Sabbath is our time to reconnect with our Creator, and take delight in the Lord.
Somehow, God’s people got bogged down in the letter of the Law, especially around keeping the sabbath. The Law became a burdensome list of rigid rules and regulations, instead of what it was intended to be, a guide to God’s grace. Our lesson today is to interpret God’s living Word carefully. If at any time the Law is not reconciling us to God and one another, leading us to love God and others, and inspiring us to delight in the Lord, it is time to reassess.
Jesus offers us such an example of proper interpretation of the Law. Jesus is observing the sabbath and teaching in the synagogue. A woman appears, bent over, oppressed and suffering from an eighteen year illness believed to be caused by an evil spirit. She does not seem to be rejected, but not particularly welcomed either. The community surely knows her, and have likely watched her shuffle into the synagogue for eighteen years or more. Jesus notices her, and calls her over. She is not seeking Jesus out for healing, but simply struggling to do her duty to worship.
With a few words and a simple action, which hardly seems like work for the Son of God, Jesus heals her. “Woman, you are set free.” Jesus lays hands upon her, and she is immediately made whole. More than a cure of her ailment, she is free. God has set her free to be who God intends her to be, and she begins praising God.
The leader of the synagogue is indignant over Jesus’ apparent slight of the Law. His objections are warranted. Exodus and Deuteronomy are clear about the sabbath ... “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy ... the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord ... you shall not do any work.”
Here lies the problem with such rigid, narrow interpretation. Should sabbath be a demonstration of how well we can do nothing all day? How does this honor God? What does it mean to offer time to God? And how do we define work? I work every sabbath. Am I breaking God’s commandments? Our organist, choir, worship leaders, ushers all work on the sabbath. Are we all committing great sin?
Jesus expands the definition of sabbath, of offering time set aside to God, of expressing our worship in action. Jesus honors sabbath, not as a duty but as a delight, not only for rest but for all that honors God. He argues from the lesser needs of animals, pointed out in the Law and agreed upon by the Rabbis, to the greater needs of humanity, in this case, an afflicted woman. The woman is not in mortal danger. She has endured her affliction for eighteen years. What is one more day? Divine compassion and mercy cannot wait one more day. This woman, a ‘daughter of Abraham’, a fellow Jew, has been held in bondage for eighteen years by an evil spirit, even Satan himself. Her healing is a conquest over evil powers, and God is given the glory. Is this not appropriate sabbath worship?
The leader of the synagogue does not confront Jesus himself, but attempts to rile up the crowd with his accusations. He has chosen the Law over care for a fellow human. I wonder if he really hears what he is saying. The crowd knows what they have seen and whose side they are on. They have experienced the presence of God, and “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
In our fast paced, busy, often tiring lives, we all need rest from time to time. Friends of a young mother with three young children were surprised to receive the following thank you note: “Many thanks for the play pen. It is being used every day. From 2 to 3pm each afternoon I get in it to read and the children can’t get near me.” Rest is good to refresh the body, mind, and spirit. We all need a vacation now and then, though I am coming to believe vacation is simply that time between frantically getting ready to be away, and struggling to catch up when you return. No matter how we recharge our batteries, rest from our labors is a healthy, necessary thing.
Perhaps our challenge is to determine whether sabbath is passive or active. Our gathering on the sabbath is the basis of our lives together, and it has led us to the love and fellowship and care of this community. The power of sabbath time with God and each other goes further. At this very moment, some of our brothers and sisters are working on the sabbath to feed the hungry and homeless in downtown Macon. From spending sabbath together, many years ago, our community was led to create affordable housing just down the hill, and embarked on that good work. Based on our sabbath time, we were inspired to share our resources and relationship by housing college students next door, mentoring elementary school children, and opening our space to three 12 step groups, doing a small part to help set them free from addiction. This afternoon, Haitian Hope volunteers will gather to dedicate sabbath time to the gospel work of supporting children in Haiti.
Shall we use the sabbath to show the world how well we can rest, when there is so much unrest in the world? Or, shall we give the sabbath to God to lead us to the next faithful step in building the kingdom? Perhaps sabbath is a community marinating in the presence of God, listening and discerning together, poking and prodding one other, and encouraging each other to live into the life of the God we praise.
Sabbath is time devoted to God. If we go along day after day only worrying about ourselves, we might begin to believe that only ourselves are important. Sabbath is a time to remember who we are, whose we are, and to what we are called. Sabbath is an opportunity to refresh, refuel, and reunite with God’s will, and act. The presence of God was freely offered to an utterly unimportant, broken woman. Perhaps there is hope for all of us. Perhaps some of us have shuffled into St. Paul’s today, metaphorically stooped over, oppressed with our burdens and worries, faithfully doing our duty, and seeking to grow in the knowledge and love of God. Jesus is calling out to us, to heal us, to empower us, and to set us free. Let us go out into the world, on the day of sabbath and every day, and in worship and in action, praise God. Amen.