Luke 13. 10 – 17
In Gateshead we lived right in the middle of one of the biggest orthodox Jewish communities in the country – around 8000 people, tucked away in a few streets in an area called Bensham.
Its best kept secret is the largest rabbinical school in Europe, and renowned in the orthodox world as the sort of Oxbridge of rabbinical schools.
The locals refer to this part of Bensham as ‘little Jerusalem’ – and it really feels like that, especially every Friday evening. The whole community turns out onto the streets, and walks to their prayers, as the Sabbath begins.
And of course, as a devout orthodox community, they take the command to rest on the Sabbath extremely strictly.
Some of the congregation at my church said that they used to be asked round by their Jewish neighbours to turn the lights on in the house – because you’re not allowed to kindle any sort of flame on the Sabbath.
Cooking isn’t allowed, and that includes just turning on the hot water tap; because the boiler heats the cold water up, and ‘cooks’ it.
Writing isn’t allowed, and that rules out smartphones and computers. You can’t thaw something that’s frozen, because you are ‘creating’ liquid. And it goes on.
Now it’s important to say that this is one very strict interpretation of the Sabbath, and a great many people don’t hold to it in this way.
But you can see just how far-reaching the law can be, permeating every aspect of life.
Our Gospel reading this morning centres on a discussion on the keeping of the Sabbath. Now we might look at it and think ‘thank goodness Jesus freed us from all that.’ And in a sense, he has. “I am the Lord of the Sabbath,” he says elsewhere; “the Sabbath was made for human beings, and not human beings for the Sabbath.”
But in another sense, he hasn’t. We still abide by laws, both in society, and in the Church. The Church requires us to meet together each week as we’re doing now. Jesus himself also said that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it.
So how do we make sense of this apparent contradiction?
There are two understandings of Sabbath presented in the Old Testament. We’ve heard a lot about the first one: because the Lord rested from the work of creation to bless and consecrate the Sabbath, so the people of Israel shall not work on the Sabbath.
This idea is embodied in the leader of the Synagogue in today’s story, whose focus is entirely legalistic; who sees the path to God in strict keeping of the law, no matter what.
But there’s a complementary understanding of the Sabbath, found in Deuteronomy. The people are again commanded to observe the day and keep it holy, but in celebration of the freedom that God has given them.
“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.”
This sense of freedom is key to understanding what’s going on in our reading today.
The crippled woman doesn’t ask to be healed. No one intercedes on her behalf. She was crippled for 18 years… surely waiting another day would’ve been ok?
But Jesus sees her, and he simply must heal her. He sees her bondage to pain and suffering, as itself a transgression of the Sabbath, the day of freedom. What better day than the Sabbath to free her, he says.
Not only this, but under the law her illness has made her unclean, and anyone who touched her would also be considered unclean. She’s an outcast, shunned by the community.
But Jesus touches her; and in healing her, he restores her relationships with those around her. He brings her back into the family of faith.
And this is a foreshadowing of all that he will do for us. In his dying and rising again, he will free us from our own bondage to sin and death, and restore our relationship with God.
And this encapsulates what we celebrate on our own Sabbath, every Sunday; the day of resurrection. Even in Lent, each Sunday is a mini-Easter Day.
Like the crowd in the Gospel, we gather together on our Sabbath in our place of worship, to hear God’s word; to learn, and to find room for it in our hearts.
We come in our brokenness, and in sin; but here, like the crippled woman, we find healing – the forgiveness of sins, and the restoration of our relationships with each other, and with God.
And like the woman, as we meet Jesus in word and sacrament, we are empowered to go out from this place praising God, and rejoicing in all the wonderful things that he does for us.
In keeping our Sabbath each Sunday, we enter afresh into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection; and we renew our commitment to living as his people in the world, and working for the kingdom that he comes to bring.
And that’s why the Church makes Sunday worship an obligation for Christians – not as just another strict rule to bind us and keep us in our place. But as a gift, to help us grow into the fullness of life that God desires for his people.
My prayer is that we may treasure this great gift, and delight in it always. Amen.