The Surprising Thing about Sabbaths

2016-08-21 Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

All of our readings today talk about the Sabbath. What do you think of when you hear “Sabbath”? I think of Sunday rest. I also think of how I’m a failure at keeping God’s third commandment – keep the Sabbath holy. I’ve always got something I’ve got to do. So much for rest. Shouldn’t this be the easiest commandment to keep? Rest. But it’s not. The world never stops moving. Some of us actually have jobs with Sunday shifts. Heck, pastors even get paid for what they do on Sunday, right? Now, we can get creative and say that Sabbath doesn’t have to mean Sunday. Pick a day. After all, God creates for 6 days and rests on the 7th, but that doesn’t mean Sunday. So, then you have to consider what the word “Sabbath” actually means. It’s a Hebrew word – SHABBAT. It means rest, but it also means to cease, to stop, to come to an end. We don’t get to pick which definition makes more sense. So this doesn’t mean taking things easy for a day. This means completely stop everything. If you want to take the letter of the law at face value, then we’ve got a pretty big problem. And I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that when we try to qualify laws, we always make a mess of things.

This is the mess that Jesus walks into in today’s gospel. He’s teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (for free), and in comes this crippled woman. 18 years she’s been suffering. But she’s not just crippled. This isn’t just physical. She has a spirit that’s literally crushing her. It’s not a metaphor. It’s real. And evil. Now, what we normally think of as suffering is never just physical. It’s emotional. It’s spiritual. It’s psychological. It’s this massive force that wears us down day by day until we’re unrecognizable. But to think that there’s something evil behind it, well, that’s just frightening. You might think demons. Jesus says “Satan”. That means profound evil, and it’s never stops with the one who’s being crippled. What does Satan always do? Act against God, and that always means attacking everyone around, even though we don’t always recognize it when it’s happening. We see this all the time. Addiction. Crime and poverty. Injustice. And we get all swallowed up in arguing about who’s at fault, but what’s the difference between that and blaming victims? So, what’s the point here? First of all, this woman absolutely deserves our compassion – she didn’t cause any of this. She’s clearly a victim, and we all know other victims like her, don’t we? Second, we don’t know that she’s suffering in silence. It’s more than likely that the whole community is suffering because of her suffering. Third, 18 years this has been going on. By this point it’s like a fact of life, and that’s actually a long time to get used to the way things are. Can we relate to this situation? I think we can.

So, what Jesus does seems like a no-brainer. Heal the woman. Today. Right now. Sabbath be damned. So, why should the temple priests be so offended? Well, maybe it’s because this is like a miracle cure. How many times have we seen faith healers in action? Can profound evil be stopped in a single moment? Let’s be real – does that ever actually happen, or just in movies? Maybe they think this is all just an act – like some kind of attention-seeking spectacle. The woman begins praising God, but when that catches us off-guard, we don’t trust it, or we think someone’s being a hypocrite, if the track record doesn’t match. This woman is no criminal, but when a criminal repents, do we believe it? Basically, these are all just different sides of the same problem for the temple priests, and for us if we’re honest. It all boils down to mistrust of Jesus and this woman.

But, there’s another deeper problem here. For this Jewish community, identity is a major issue. Standing for God means standing against the Roman empire, because it opposes God. If you’re a Roman citizen, you worship pagan gods, and the emperor is chief God. So to be Jewish means to set yourself apart from everything that’s Roman. Think about the scribes testing Jesus about paying taxes. So it’s not just that the commandments are God’s commandments, but that this is what makes you different from everyone else. Unique. It’s what defines you as God’s people, and when you’ve been fighting for identity for generations, and fighting against constant persecution, you’re going to be a zealot for these laws, so that you can defend God’s honor, regardless how others around you might suffer.

What about us? Don’t we actually want the same thing? That others will know that we’re real Christians? That we keep Sabbath, because no one else does? And the more guilty we feel about it, the more we want to do it. But ultimately, why we can’t keep Sabbath is because it’s not just about rest. SHABBAT doesn’t just mean resting or stopping. SHABBAT also means to die. Dying to ourselves. Putting to death our struggle to look and act like good Christians. Putting to death our judging and blaming that robs others of dignity. God’s true SHABBAT takes everything away from us – our power, our discipline, our strength – precisely to show us just how powerless we really are. To show us that without God, we cease to exist. In other words, the Sabbath reduces us to nothingness, because to remain in the world means to remain in sin. It’s the truth that we just can’t face.

But brothers and sisters, the good news is that we don’t have to face it. Jesus faces it for us, even without our asking. The woman certainly didn’t ask to be healed. She didn’t have to, because Jesus will have his way – with her, with the temple priests, and with us. This is why Jesus goes to the cross, for our sake. Jesus takes all of our sin upon himself, without our permission, and dies our death. But after three days, he rises from the grave, so that we might live his life. His resurrected life. That doesn’t mean being better people. That means new creation. That means liberation and freedom from death and sin. By Jesus’ unconditional forgiveness, we are finally reconciled to God. Jesus tells us we are set free from our ailment, and he means it. And we will stand upright once again. We have been claimed by God and made free by God’s grace and mercy, marked and sealed with the water of our baptism.

Once, sabbath was yet another commandment that called us out. But now we finally realize an even deeper truth about God’s grace. God surrounds us with generosity and abundance in spite of anything we do or don’t do. Whether we perceive it or not, God sustains and cares for all people, believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, and we are both. This and only this is our true rest. We don’t rest in ourselves. We rest in God. THAT’S what Sabbath is all about! Hearing God’s promises FOR YOU. Receiving Jesus’ forgiveness. Being restored and renewed in God’s Word, to KNOW that this gracious God blesses us in spite of ourselves, so that we might carry that truth with us throughout our week of work and service. That it would shape the infinite ways that we connect with our neighbors, so that we don’t have to judge them anymore. We don’t have to assign blame anymore. We can finally just reach out to them with the same grace and mercy that God has given to us.

So what happens now, in this new reality that God has brought us into? Hear again what God promised us in Hebrews – “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven” Our shoulds and oughts and have tos, our own creations, other people’s creations, all shaken away, leaving us with God’s unshakable grace and mercy and forgiveness. Freeing us once and for all from our worries and fears. Freeing us from the fear that others might not think we’re Christians. Freeing us to love others. Freeing us from wondering whether we’re keeping sabbath, for we already are. Amen.

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