One popular understanding of Jesus out there is that he was a rule-breaker, some kind of rebel-figure who liked to go around flippantly thumbing his nose at restrictions and regulations. This imagines Jesus as somewhat of a maverick who doesn’t really follow anyone’s laws, who does his own thing and blazes his own path often just for the sake of being contrary, or for the sake of showing people that rules are stupid. I think that the story Luke tells us this morning contributes to that understanding of rule-breaker Jesus. He really sticks it to the religious authorities, doesn’t he? Good! Someone needs to. It is the Sabbath day, the day reserved for refraining from labor, and they have very particular rules about what constitutes as “work.” Instead of playing into their concept of Sabbath rest that the priests and the rabbis have obviously created, it appears that Jesus ignores it all and does his own thing, healing when he’s not supposed to.
To some degree, this image of rule-breaker Jesus fits. He does often cross boundaries and commit taboos, but in this particular scene that might not be the case. Rather than ignoring the Sabbath rules, Jesus actually applies them more robustly and wholesomely than the religious leaders do. The Sabbath, you see, was not the brainchild of humans but one of the commandments of God. And when Jesus decides to heal a crippled woman on the Sabbath day, he is not breaking rules of the Sabbath, but following the intent of God’s holy day more precisely. He is not throwing out a time-worn system that seems arbitrary, but lifting it up and renewing its meaning.
The Sabbath day was, by the time of Jesus, still one of the defining marks of the Jewish faith. No other culture or religious group in the near East before Jesus’ time and during it had anything like the Sabbath, a weekly day of rest. It appears other societies and civilizations had calendars with special days, but all of them followed lunar or solar events and they seemed to have different purposes. The Hebrews’ holy day, by contrast, came every seventh day, regardless of what the sun or moon were doing, and it was set aside purely for delight and rejoicing. It was a time when people were to refrain from the toil and tedium that consumed their lives to open up a day they might reflect on all that God does for them behind-the-scenes. The commandment to rest for one whole day at the end of the week came directly from their understanding of how God brought creation into being and how creation functions with God as its sovereign. Intentional time for pause was built into its very system; even the planet and its creatures are given to a rhythm of work and relaxation, expansion and contraction. Humans, too, were designed to take a step back on occasion, and this step back was so important that it was a law, a mandatory weekly event.
The issue that we glimpse in this account this morning is that by the time of Jesus the Jewish religion had developed all sorts of formal ideas about what constituted an appropriate “step back.” There were all sorts of rules to help people figure out just when they’d crossed a line from rest to work. For those in power in the synagogue, healing someone, no matter how dire the case, qualified as work. Because, could you imagine the crowd of sick people that might show up if that rule wasn’t followed? For Jesus, however, this bent-over woman’s condition becomes a perfect situation for displaying what the Sabbath was intended for.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Sabbath was not to give humans a break from the mundane and tedious existence of life but in order to re-establish their identity. Its purpose was to remind Israel who and whose they really were, about grounding their everyday comings and goings not in their work or in what the world would say about them but in God’s grace.
Over the course of just one day people accumulate all kinds of labels and roles. It’s unavoidable. It happens to us when we’re going through life. One study conducted about ten years ago—and that was before social media had the influence it does now—suggested that the average American is bombarded with around 3000 messages a day. And if you couple that with the content of many of those messages, whether they come through news or advertising media or elsewhere telling us to buy or to be something in particular, it’s easy to see how a person can come to any number of conclusions about the worth or meaning of their life.
In confirmation class when we study the Sabbath, we liken it to wearing headphones all the time. Going about life is often like listening to any number of definitions of what it means to be us even ones we give to ourselves. And the problem is these labels and messages and these things give us a false perception of our humanity. They can puff us up, make us narcissistic, give us an inflated importance to our work and our influence on the world. Or, alternatively, the cumulative effect of all these labels, all our daily tasks and requirements, is to bend us over, to bend us right into ourselves, like this woman who comes into the synagogue that morning. We feel broken and beat down by life and by others expectations. In both cases, honoring the Sabbath, that is, gathering to worship with our community, reading Scripture intentionally, singing hymns, has the effect of removing those headphones so we can hear what God says about us.
Martin Luther, in his explanation to the third commandment in the Small Catechism, says we are to “so fear and love God that we do not neglect his Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Hearing God’s Word does a lot for us but perhaps the greatest thing it does, like that Sabbath, is to remind us who and whose we really are. We are not our own. We do not belong to any other person or idea or program or platform. Just as the Sabbath day would periodically break up the Israelites’ monotonous and often back-breaking existence to give them a chance to praise God and rest, so does our repeated hearing of God’s Word remind us that we are God’s. We are not the sum total of our days and what we do with them. We are the sum of what the Lord did with this day. Our life is not ultimately decided by how we use or spend our days, but how Jesus spent that day.
When this woman comes into the synagogue that day she ends up encountering the Word of God, the very person who, more than anyone else, can remind her of what her life really is. Jesus takes the headphones off of her, and she stands upright for the first time in almost twenty years. If the Sabbath Day was originally designed for praising God and relaxing, there can perhaps be no clearer image of that for all those religious leaders to see than a woman who literally hasn’t been able to lift her face to the Lord for eighteen years suddenly have the ability to do so. Notice that the first thing she does is to praise God.
In Jesus’ challenge to the religious leaders is a challenge for us as the people of God who have occasionally had our headphones removed. How can we continue to find ways to lift up those in our midst who’ve been bent over by life’s struggles? How can we help remind others who and whose they really are, that they’ve been loved with a death-defying love? How can we make sure that making others well, that re-establishing someone’s relationship with their Creator, will never be considered “work, but rather our new life of freedom in the Spirit? How can our life as a congregation embody Jesus’ compassion, that the act of freeing people from bondage to sin is not something from which even God rests, even on the Sabbath. In fact, it is the reason for the Sabbath. A religion with restrictions and guidelines surrounding these things, even in our hearts, needs Jesus to show up on Sunday and bust through.
This is one of the reasons that “Worship the Christ” lies at the middle of our proposed Mission Statement for the congregation. On the journey of faith, worshipping the Lord of the Sabbath is central. We come to have the headphones removed, to have our curves and bends straightened out, to have our sin forgiven. And yet time is so rushed these days for so many people. Even these summer weeks, which are originally designed as a break from the rat-race of the rest of the year, become hectic and over-scheduled. Worship can even seem like just another thing to cram into the calendar. And for others, worship can seem boring or uneventful. In some ways, your worship planners welcome this. We need time for boredom, for reflection, time to unplug and just sit. It’s one reason why I do not take issue with people falling asleep during the sermon. This is called a day of rest, and if people need to take five or ten minutes while I’m talking, then let it happen!
But whether we’re bored or invigorated by our time together here, or challenged and made uncomfortable by the ways God’s Word is embodied in our ministry, one thing is sure: here we can encounter the One who gives us our best name, our most valuable self. We come face to face in the bread and the wine with the One who does break the dumb rules and shows us the heart of the good ones. We receive in the Word the One who does a new thing and blazes his own path…a path right to the cross where he empties himself.
It’s the One who cuts through the 3000 messages to say again, “You…you’re worth something. I’ve died for you. I’ve given you a kingdom that can’t be shaken. Stand up straight. Look the world in the eye.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.