August 25, 2013
An updated version of this sermon can be found here.
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)
It was extraordinary, really. I mean, I didn’t even know Jesus was going to be teaching at the synagogue that week. I only wanted to come in from the heat, and hear the Word of the Lord. I waited until all the others were in their usual places before I slipped in at the back. I knew that some of the women would look down their noses at me, but I was past caring about what others thought of me. I knew that some people were convinced I had committed some terrible sin, to have suffered for as long as I had.
Eighteen years. My back had been bent for eighteen long, painful years. At first, it was just a little hunching over, poor posture you would probably have called it. But the fact was I couldn’t straighten my back, no matter how hard I tried. And over the years, it had grown worse, until I was completely bent over, completely crippled. Oh, I could walk with a stick to lean on. But I could never stand up straight. I couldn’t look you in the eye, or see the stars at night. I couldn’t watch a hawk soar through the sky or admire a rainbow. Mostly, the only direction I could see was down. If I craned my neck, I could see what lay ahead of me in the street, but that took a lot of effort, and the pain was just unbearable. It was easier to stick to pathways I knew well, stay out of the way, and get by as best I could. I had resigned myself to being bent. I managed.
So on that Sabbath, when I slipped into the back of the synagogue, behind all the other women, I wasn’t expecting much more than rest in a cool place while I listened to the readings from the Law and the Prophets. When I heard a strange voice speaking, I tried to look up to see who was teaching. I knew it wasn’t one of our regular rabbis. It was some visiting teacher – someone who spoke with authority, but also with kindness in his voice. It was good teaching, too. I actually understood most of what he was saying, as he explained the scriptures in words that were simple, yet somehow profound at the same time. As this new teacher spoke, I felt – I don’t know how to describe it – peaceful isn’t really the right word, but there was peace in it. I know what it was.
I felt … loved.
The other women were whispering about him. I caught a name – Jesus of Nazareth – and I remembered hearing about this man. He was the one who had nearly started a riot when he taught in his own hometown synagogue a couple of years before. Everything had started out well, as he read the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When he had rolled up the scroll to teach, he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But when the people asked him to give them some sign, he reminded them of the way God’s own people had rejected him, and how God had been merciful to people who were not even children of Abraham. This made the crowd angry, and they even tried to throw him off a cliff! Somehow, he got away. And now, here he was, teaching in our synagogue.
Suddenly, everything got quiet. Jesus had stood and was walking into the room, past all the men in front, through the women, and …. right to me. I was so embarrassed! Here I had tried so hard to slip in quietly so no one would notice me, and this stranger, this Jesus fellow, was calling out to me, making everyone look right at me.
“Woman,” he said, “You are released from your sickness.” All at once, I felt the pain go away and my back loosen up. When I looked up, he was reaching out toward me, and the look on his face was so kind, so full of compassion. He wasn’t trying to embarrass me. He actually cared about me! Then he put his hands on my shoulders, and it was like a lightning bolt had struck. Such power in those hands! Such warmth and tenderness, too! My back straightened up for the first time in eighteen years, and I stood up! I stood straight up!
What else could I do? “Hallelujah!” I shouted. “Praise God! I have been set free by the power of the Almighty God! Praise the Lord!” The other women around me were astounded. A couple of them hurried over to help me, but I didn’t need any help! The room buzzed as we all began to realize what had just happened. This teacher, this Jesus, had healed me.
I didn’t ask him to do it. I wasn’t even hoping for healing. But he came to me, right where I was, and put his hands on me, and I stood up straight. He touched me – something no one had ever done. They were all afraid that touching me would make them unclean, so – for eighteen years – people had been careful to stay away from me. No one wanted to risk being made unclean. But when Jesus touched me, it was as if he welcomed me back into life. He made it okay for others to touch me, too. He made me clean again, after eighteen years.
Of course, the ruler of the synagogue wasn’t too happy. He started yelling at the crowd, “There are six days in the week for work, come get healed on those days!” He didn’t yell at Jesus – that would have been rude, since he was probably the one who had invited Jesus to teach that day. But it seemed so silly for him to be ranting about when it was okay to be healed, as if such a miracle could be bothered with checking to see what day it was!
To be fair, it’s his job to make sure the Sabbath is kept holy. He’s the one responsible for making sure we all follow the rules, and if you start making exceptions for miracles, pretty soon you find yourself making exceptions for other things, and before you know it, the Sabbath isn’t set apart for rest anymore. But still…. no one had asked Jesus to work a miracle. He just did it.
I wonder if the synagogue ruler was more worried about losing his own position of importance. I mean, no one had ever seen him heal anyone! If this visiting rabbi Jesus was going to be a better teacher and go around healing people, it stood to reason people would start following him instead of the local rabbi, right? I wonder if he was a little jealous of Jesus. But he had to be careful not to show it, for that would be breaking the tenth commandment. So he lashed out at the crowd about the fourth commandment, instead of facing Jesus directly.
But Jesus knew his heart.
Even though the rabbi would not talk directly to Jesus, Jesus spoke directly to him. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Don’t each of you untie your donkey and lead it to water on the sabbath? Isn’t this woman worth more than a donkey? Shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?
When Jesus called the rabbi a hypocrite, or “actor,” the crowd gasped. But, as I thought about it later, I began to see what he meant. The rabbi was worried about sticking to the letter of the law, but he really wasn’t concerned with fulfilling the spirit of the law. Sabbath rest is supposed to give us rest and refreshment, to renew life after a hard week of work. Healing a poor old woman’s bent back certainly does that.
Some people think my story is strange. Some people think I made it up. But I know what happened that day in the synagogue, and I’m standing here in front of you as living proof that my back is straight, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. I don’t know why Jesus decided to walk into a huddle of unimportant women and put his hands on my back, but I do know that I cannot stop giving thanks to God that he did. I will praise the Lord my whole life long, for he came to me and touched me. He released me from the pain and humiliation of my poor, stooped back, and set me free. Praise God! Hallelujah!
So, if you don’t mind my asking, what is Jesus calling out to you to do? How is Jesus calling you to stand up straight, to be released from your bound up spirit?
And what is your response to such grace?
You don’t even need to ask him – Jesus is already working among you. Jesus is calling out to you, inviting you into his presence, inviting you into his grace. Jesus is reaching out to touch each one here, to heal you and to include you in his love.
How will you respond? Will you keep acting out your traditions and rules, like the synagogue leader? Or will you stand up and join me in heartfelt praise?
Are you willing to applaud the One who made you? Will you sing and pray and give thanks with joyful abandon? Will you bow the knees of your heart and humbly adore the God who reigns over heaven and earth? Will you live a life that oozes joy out of every pore of your being, a life that makes others turn and say, “That one is a child of God!”
For Jesus is walking toward you, reaching out to touch you, ready to heal you of your brokenness, to restore you to wholeness, to claim you as his own.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!