For a Daughter of Abraham, Freedom on the Sabbath

When I was stationed in Korea in the early 90’s, it was common to see short, elderly Korean women bent at the waist, walking down the street with large burdens on their backs. They were carrying merchandise to market or produce from their fields and I wondered how such a small, frail person could bear such a load.

And often you would see them without their burdens as well. Many of them were still bent at the waist, unable to stand erect, suffering from decades of hard labor, poverty and the nutritional deficits they had suffered in the early post-war years. The Korean War and the years that followed were extremely hard on the Korean people. I’m sure that if I listened to these bent-over ladies describe their lives, I would hear stories of both great strength and great suffering.

In our reading from the gospel, Luke tells us about a woman who suffered from a similar ailment.

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 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. Luke 13:10-11

Jesus has two ways of describing her condition. In verse 12, Jesus spoke about her weakness – which might also be translated as her illness or her disability. In verse 16, he described her as being in Satan’s bondage. And to complicate matters a little more, in verse 11, Luke says that she had a spirit of weakness.

What is the relationship here between her physical ailment and her spiritual condition?  Is Luke telling us that physical ailments are caused by demonic attacks?  Or is he telling us that Satan uses physical suffering as an opportunity to cause spiritual suffering?

I think the simplest way to untangle this is to remember that Luke is telling us about the breaking in of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ basic message was this: The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel. Jesus came to defeat every power of this age that stands in the way of God’s kingdom, and that includes human sin, social oppression, the threats of the physical world, human illness and demonic power.

Whatever the source of this woman’s ailment, suffering has a way of eating away at one’s soul. The human body and the human spirit are inseparably connected. What affects one affects the other.

Suffering and Growth

You have heard the phrase, I’m sure, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” There’s more than a grain of truth to that cliché.

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, flight surgeon Major Rhonda Cornum was shot down over enemy lines, taken prisoner and sexually abused. At the end of that brief conflict, Cornum was freed and she remained in the Army for another two decades, rising to the rank of Brigadier General. When the Army began to wrestle with the problem of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cornum suggested to her medical colleagues that they also talk about the possibility of post traumatic growth. She looked back on her own story of crashing in the desert and being taken prisoner by the enemy and she believed that the experience had made her stronger.

The commandant of the chaplain school I attended at the beginning of my career was a veteran of the Vietnam war. According to his wife, when he returned from his first year-long combat tour, both of them agreed that the experience had made their marriage stronger. But then he received orders to return to Vietnam for another year. When he returned home the second time, his wife said, “You know, I’m sure this experience made our marriage stronger, too, but I think it’s strong enough now. I don’t think we don’t need to do this again.”

What doesn’t kill you can make you stronger in some ways, but that’s not not the whole truth. At the very least, tragedies and human suffering can be a terrible burden burden to bear.

Last Saturday, as I was preparing this sermon, an internet headline caught my eye. “Survivor of State Fair Tragedy Stronger than Ever.”

So I read the article. On August 13, 2011, Andrea Vellinga was attending a concert at the Indiana State Fair when a sudden storm caused the stage to collapse. Andrea’s skull was crushed in the accident. She spent six weeks in a coma and required multiple surgeries to repair the damage. She spent years in physical therapy, relearning how to do things as simple as walking, eating and talking. She has continuing weakness on her left side, recurring speech problems and ongoing cognitive deficits. She no longer has the use of her left arm at all. The accident also left her with long-term effects on her personality and emotions. Eventually, her marriage ended. Still, her medical recovery was astonishing given the extent of her injuries. With the support of her friends and family, returned to some of the things she loves and now she’s training to run a marathon. This is an incredible story of physical and emotional resilience, but I’m not sure that “stronger than ever” accurately describes her situation.

You should know that some of those who suffer greatly don’t bounce back at all. The suicide rate is highest, not among young, healthy people, but among older men with chronic, incurable, debilitating diseases.

A woman, bent over at the waist, unable to stand for 18 years, came to the synagogue while Jesus was teaching. She had been suffering from this condition for 18 years. That’s a long time. What does that do to a person? What does that do to your faith in God? Do you think she prayed for healing? Where was God? What was he doing for these last two decades?

I wish I could say that suffering always makes you stronger spiritually, but unfortunately that is not always true. Suffering can ennoble the soul, give you perspective, make you more compassionate, and deepen your sense of the holy. Or it can distort your thinking, make you bitter, and turn your heart in on itself.

Freedom for Body and Spirit

Despite her 18 years of suffering, there she was, this bent woman, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, to listen to the Torah being read and expounded. She was faithful to God with her presence in the assembly despite the pain that was wracking her body.

As Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, he sees her. He calls her to his side, lays his hands on her and heals her. To quote the King James version, Jesus declared to her, “Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.” Thou art loosed – set free – unbound. The shackles have fallen off. The ropes are untied.

And immediately she is straightened up. Notice that the verb is a passive. She didn’t straighten herself; God did it. And of course it’s not just her body that gets straightened up. “To straighten up” is one of those words that is used throughout the Bible to describe God’s work of making things right. God straightens up a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. In the course of freeing her from her illness Jesus also set her free from the inward suffering that went with it, an oppressive spirit that our Lord attributed to Satan himself.

Luke 4:18-19 records a speech that Jesus gave in a synagogue in Nazareth. The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Here in Luke 13, in another synagogue, Jesus’ words are fulfilled as a poor woman is set free from her physical and spiritual bondage.

The Sabbath and God’s Mighty Works

After the woman was healed, the synagogue leader reminded the people that it’s necessary to observe the Sabbath. Come be healed on another day. Jesus responded by saying that it’s even more necessary for God to set his people free on the Sabbath.  The particular construction Luke uses speaks of divine necessity. God is working out his plan.

Exodus 20:11 commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath in remembrance of God’s work in creation. The Sabbath is the seventh day, the day on which the Lord rested after creating the heavens and the earth. It is a reminder of the goodness of God’s creation, and a sign of the great Sabbath that is coming when all of God’s creation will be as God intended from the beginning.

Deuteronomy 5:15 commanded Israel to keep the Sabbath in remembrance that God had set them free from their slavery in Egypt, working by his mighty hand and his outstretched arm. The Sabbath is a sign of God’s liberating power, and a promise of a new day of freedom to come.

The Sabbath exists because of God’s creating and liberating work.  What better time could there be to set God’s people free from the things that oppress them?

Is it not just absolutely right and proper and appropriate and a fulfillment of everything that the Sabbath was created to be that this woman, this precious daughter of Abraham, whom Satan kept bound for 18 long years, be set free on the Sabbath?

It’s just not OK to heal people on the Sabbath, it’s necessary! That’s what the Sabbath is for. The Sabbath is a time of re-creation. It is an oasis of heaven in the desert of despair.

Heirs of God’s Covenant with Abraham

Jesus calls this woman a “Daughter of Abraham.” That’s an unusual phrase, with contemporary relevance to the relationship between the sexes. More to Luke’s point, however, is the fact that Jesus’ work is connected with God’s covenant with Abraham.

In the Magnificat, Mary proclaimed: He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. Luke 1:54-55

God delivers his people, and a taste of this deliverance came to a daughter of Abraham on the Sabbath, in a synagogue, when Jesus was present.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are children of Abraham by faith in Jesus. You and I are part of the family God called into being when he made promises to Abraham and Sarah. We are a part of that family because of what Jesus did for us. On the cross, he opened the way of life to all who put their faith in him, and rising from the dead he poured out the Holy Spirit on all who believe. Because of Jesus Christ, you and I have become heirs of God’s promises.

We are sons and daughters of Abraham and like our Jewish forebears we assemble every week as a family to honor our Redeemer and remember the story of our redemption.

The Lord’s Day is God’s Means of Grace

Within my tradition, John Wesley was an Anglican priest who in the eighteenth century founded what would come to be known as the Methodist movement. Wesley described Christian worship and the Lord’s supper as “means of grace.” God instituted them, he said, at least in part, as the means by which God’s people would faithfully watch and wait for him to bring his work to greater fruition in their lives.

As Christians, our principle assembly comes on the Lord’s day – the day of Jesus’ resurrection. Some have called it the eighth day of creation. Our worship opens the veils of heaven, so that we see we are worshiping with angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven.

As the author of our reading from Hebrews says about Christian worship:

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24

This is the Lord’s Day – the day of our Lord’s resurrection – the day of our redemption from sin and death. Is there any better or more appropriate day for God to deliver his people from their bondage or to give them a foretaste of the age to come?

Miracles of healing take place here where our Lord is present in word and sacrament. Sometimes, I am sure, they are miracles of the body. Sometimes, however, they are miracles of the soul. Freedom from sin and guilt. Freedom from anxiety and anger. Freedom from bitterness and resentment. Freedom from hopelessness and despair.

When you, dear sons and daughters of Abraham, assembled here today, what were you expecting to happen?

Two thousand years ago, a woman went to synagogue on the Sabbath. As she hobbled her way down the street, she might have been wondering what the guest teacher was going to talk about and if he would be any good? She had no idea that on this Sabbath day, she would have an encounter in the synagogue that would change her life forever.

May the Lord Jesus Christ raise you up in mind, body and spirit, and set you free from every snare of the devil. May the kingdom of God be manifest in your life.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.