Sermon - Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost (8/25/2019)
Is. 58:9b-14; Ps. 103:1-8; Heb. 12:18-29; Lk. 13:10-17
“Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the sabbath day?”
So one Saturday morning Jesus goes to the synagogue, where he sees a woman who is unable to stand up straight. She has come to the synagogue on the Sabbath, presumably, simply to worship, as she does every week. We are not told that she saw Jesus, or that she came looking for Jesus, or that she had ever even heard of Jesus. But Jesus notices her, calls to her, and says to her: Woman, you have been set free from this frailty. Then, after he says this, he lays hands on her, and then she stands upright and gives praise to God.
Now, apparently the pastor of this synagogue was a real sourpuss. Instead of rejoicing and praising God for the healing of a member of the congregation, he gives a speech telling the congregation, Don’t start coming to the synagogue on the Sabbath expecting healings. There are six days in the week for the doctor’s office to be open and for you to get medical services, the Sabbath service is neither the time nor the place for such things. What a grump! I hope you’ve never run across a pastor who would react that way, although unfortunately they still exist. And it’s not even clear that anyone did anything wrong. As Jesus points out, the rabbis have always taught that saving life takes priority over Sabbath observances. Indeed, the rabbis still teach this today.
But then Jesus says: In fact, why shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham, who had been bound by Satan for eighteen years, be freed precisely on the Sabbath? It’s not just that another day would have been inconvenient – when else might Jesus and this woman have met, if not at the synagogue on Saturday morning for worship? But somehow, Jesus seems to suggest that the Sabbath is the right day for what he has just done. And that’s when this story, to me, really starts to get interesting.
We all know that the Sabbath was one of the most important parts of the Old Testament law. It made it into the Ten Commandments, so it must really be important. Not only that, the text of the Ten Commandments tells us why keeping the Sabbath is important. In fact, if you have a Bible handy, I’d like to show you what the text says.
So, the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, in the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Here’s what it says, starting in verse 8: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
Two things to notice here. First, on the Sabbath no one is to work – not you, not your family, not anyone in your community, not foreigners who live in your community, not the people who work for you, nobody. Not even your livestock are allowed to work on the Sabbath. This is not a personal word for devout people to take one day a week and worship God and spend time with family, while nonreligious people can go to work. This is a way to structure a whole community where everyone gets a break. Even the animals get a day off a week.
And point two, why? Because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. So when we work six days and rest on the seventh day, we are simply following God’s example. Keeping the Sabbath means moving with the grain of the universe as God made it to be. When we all do what God does, then the world will be as God created it to be. So our whole community should be centered on following the example and the path that God gives us.
But then, Moses gave a speech at the end of his life, as the people were preparing to enter the Promised Land. And in that speech, Moses repeats the Ten Commandments, and there are some differences. Keep one finger on Exodus 20 and take a look the speech in Deuteronomy chapter 5. And here’s what it says, starting in verse 12: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”
Well, that’s not the same explanation. Yes, long ago, when God created the world, even God observed the sabbath. But now, very recently, you were slaves in Egypt. Your life did not belong to you, you didn’t have the option to take a rest on the Sabbath. But now God has set you free. So don’t become a slave all over again. The Promised Land is not going to be utopia, there will still be inequality (Moses assumes there will even be slaves there), and you will have to work hard six days a week. But the Lord set you free from bondage, and at least one day a week you will put into practice the freedom God has given you – and so on that day you must set everyone else free too. “So that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” On the Sabbath we are to remember that God has set us free from bondage, and on that day we are to release others from bondage too.
So, two versions of the Ten Commandments, two different explanations for the Sabbath, and they’re both in the Bible. So which one is right? If we accept the Lutheran confessions and claim that the Bible is “the Word of God and the norm of our faith and life,” then I think we have to say both are right. And you can’t have one without the other.
The killjoy pastor of the synagogue in today’s Gospel knows the Exodus interpretation of the Sabbath, but has forgotten the Deuteronomy interpretation. He knows that in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, before Adam and Eve and the unfortunate business with the apple, God and all of heaven kept the Sabbath. Pastor Grinch wants to make the Sabbath great again, to keep it spotless and pure as it was in the beginning, and he wants nothing that will disturb good order or the faithful and meticulous keeping of the Sabbath in accordance with God’s original design for the world.
But in the real world, where people have fallen into all kinds of bondage and servitude, and where God is acting to set people free – there the Deuteronomy explanation of the Sabbath is the one that we need. And this is what Jesus is drawing on, when he says, Why should not this daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept in bondage for eighteen years – why should she not be set free, on the Sabbath? Isn’t the Sabbath the best day for her to be set free? Isn’t the Sabbath the best day for a daughter of Abraham to stand up straight and praise God as a free person, someone who was once bound by a spirit of weakness but now has the Holy Spirit of strength from God? If only Pastor Grumpy would stop trying to bring back the perfect Sabbath from the week of Creation and would start paying attention to how God’s people are even now caught up in bondage and calling out to be set free? Isn’t that what the Sabbath is really for?
And so we come here this morning, on Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate act of God to free the world from the bondage even of death itself, a day that for Christians has come to take on much of the meaning of the old Jewish Sabbath. We come here each, in our own way, beaten down by spirits of weakness. We are captive to fears, to tiredness, to physical illnesses and age; we are captive to the pressures of work and financial need and the expectations of others; we are bound by our own participation in a sinful and unjust world and limited by the weakness of our imaginations from seeing how God is present and working here and now. We come to this church, much as, ages ago, a woman bowed down by decades of illness came to a synagogue on a Sabbath, to remember that God once heard the cries of his people and delivered them from bondage, and promised to do so again.
On that day, this woman was seen by Jesus – not as a patient in need of medical attention, there are six days in the week for that kind of work. No, on the Sabbath Jesus saw her as a child of Abraham who was bound and who was yearning to be set free. And Jesus told her, as he tells you today: You have been set free from your weakness. You, Christian, are a child of God, you have been claimed by God in baptism and God has set you free from everything that wants to bind you and hold you down. And then Jesus reached out his hands and touched her with his own flesh and blood, as he reaches out and invites you to allow him to touch you today with his body given for you, and his blood shed for you. May we, as that woman did long ago, believe the word we hear and accept the touch we receive, stand up with confidence in the gift we have been given, and go out to set others free as we have been set free, to the praise and the glory of God.