Re-creation, restoration and joy
Stephen Adam, 21 August 2016
Hebrews 12: 18–29; Luke 13: 10–17
You’ll encounter them on many of the high streets and shopping malls of our towns and cities; if you go up to London you’ll be bound to pass one of them as you leave the concourse of Waterloo Station. Perhaps many of us will pass by, consciously oblivious of their presence. Mentally we’ll make our excuses – ‘I’m late for my lunch appointment’, ‘I’ve got the shopping to do’ or ‘I’ll miss my bus’ – and we console ourselves by promising that next time we will stop. And as we retreat into the distance we pretend not to hear the cheery cry, ‘And a very good day to you too, sir’, addressed to our backs. They are, of course, the sellers of The Big Issue, the magazine that has the magical power to make you invisible. There was someone rather like a seller of The Big Issue hovering on the fringe of the crowds the day an itinerant teacher from Galilee came to town.
You see, I was there that day, among everyone clustered around the temple – the cathedral of the time – as the teacher began to expound our scriptures, putting a fresh and exciting interpretation on the familiar words. I can tell you that the religious leaders – the senior clergy, if you like – were not happy; indeed, they were seriously discomfited at the man’s brashness, but we in the crowds lapped it up.
And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw this woman on the fringe of the crowd. She wasn’t very old but I thought she must have done something really sinful to deserve her misfortune, for she was bent double and in great pain. I can tell you, we all kept well away from this outcast.
And then something remarkable happened, for the teacher stops in mid-sentence. He takes the initiative and calls her over, and we all fall back to make a path for her. The teacher – I discovered his name was Jesus – puts his hands on her and heals her of her infirmity. I was amazed – the untouchable person had been touched by this teacher! The top religious people were really angry about this breach of protocol on the Sabbath, but we all cheered to the rafters.
And then Jesus says two astonishing things: he calls this woman a ‘daughter of Abraham’ – no longer set apart or isolated and excluded, but fully integrated and restored as one of our community – and he speaks of his action as indicating his power over Satan.
Back to the present! In Luke’s account of this healing on the Sabbath, there are two separate interests in the story. At one level, of course, there’s the challenge to the religious hypocrisy of the day – the narrowness and limited perspective of the ecclesiastics concerned with protecting their rules, the obscure bits of canon law, if you like; and maybe there’s a challenge to us today, too, if we ring-fence or constrain the inclusive message of the gospel.
This warning about perspective is particularly timely for our church today, where (as Peter spoke so profoundly last week) no one is unaffected by the turmoil around issues of relationships and marriage, gender and sexuality – I think, Peter, you used the word ‘wobbliness’. I suggest there is a great danger that, like the religious leaders challenging Jesus over the Sabbath, the church can be perceived as having far more to say about what cannot be, and little about what we can affirm as good and beautiful in human relationships.
At a deeper level, our gospel story demonstrates nothing less than the in-breaking of God’s rule on human life. Luke gives us a big clue when in verse 15 he suddenly calls Jesus ‘the Lord’. ‘The Lord’ is Yahweh, Israel’s God who revealed himself to Moses, who led his people out of captivity in Egypt – the foundational salvation story of Israel. The woman – this ‘daughter of Abraham’ – stands as a symbol of the whole people of God, whom Jesus has come to rescue from bondage.
The ministry of Jesus heralded the breaking in of a new kingdom, a new relationship between God and his people. Jesus healed, he gave people back their dignity, he reached out to those on the margins and he created community.
Jesus healed, he gave people back their dignity, he reached out to those on the margins and he created community.
You’ll remember how when John the Baptist was in prison he sent his disciples to ask Jesus whether he was the Messiah; and Jesus summed up his message in these words:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11: 5)
So there’s a very clear kingdom message behind this story of the woman being healed. At its deepest level the gospel story is about re-creation and restoration, God in Christ making all things new.
We can only understand that kingdom story through the prism of both cross and resurrection, the place where God was wounded and love was named. And through that prism of cross and resurrection Jesus brings about the ultimate Sabbath, summoning those within his orbit not just to the peace of the seventh day, but rather to the eighth day – to the new creation when God’s purposes will be perfectly fulfilled in Christ.
Our first reading this morning from Hebrews, dense and difficult as the language sounds, points to that new creation in which, through our baptism and signing with the cross, we are already partakers. This is not just a vision of the future, but also an experience of the present reality.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem … [You have come] to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews12: 22–24)
Abel’s spilt blood in the Old Testament cried out for vengeance; the blood of Jesus speaks instead of forgiveness. There’s an 18th-century hymn that we sometimes sing at Passiontide, ‘Glory be to Jesus’, and one of the verses puts it like this:
Abel’s blood for vengeance
pleaded to the skies;
But the blood of Jesus
for our pardon cries.
My grandfather was a distinguished silversmith imbued with a deep faith, reflected in much of his work. Most of it was on a commission basis, so our family has only a few pieces. But one of them is this chalice, around which are engraved the words, ‘Drink this wine with joy’. Joy lies at the heart of our faith – simply delighting in the Lord. The very word Eucharist means ‘thanksgiving’, the place where we remember what Jesus has done and we are, in turn, literally re-membered. In the Eucharist we encounter the presence of the crucified Jesus, and as we participate in that shared sacrament so we make his presence real by constantly living in response to it.
Perhaps sometimes as Christians we’re a bit too earnest, a bit too serious about our faith, and we don’t allow ourselves to sit back to enjoy God – to enjoy his presence through our liturgy, through the common life we share together, and to see that his commandments are there for our flourishing and for our full humanity.
There’s a verse in Nehemiah (8: 10) that ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’. We’re told that the crippled woman healed on the Sabbath went away praising God. Were the words of Mary’s Magnificat ringing in her ears? ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
May our prayer this morning be that we might recapture some of the joy of that nameless woman in her encounter with the Lord and allow it to overspill into our lives, our homes and the community around us. Amen.