This sermon was delivered at Lufkin First United Methodist Church on August 25, 2013.
Common English Bible (CEB)
10 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 A woman was there who had been disabled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and couldn’t stand up straight. 12 When he saw her, Jesus called her to him and said, “Woman, you are set free from your sickness.” 13 He placed his hands on her and she straightened up at once and praised God.
14 The synagogue leader, incensed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, responded, “There are six days during which work is permitted. Come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath day.”
15 The Lord replied, “Hypocrites! Don’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from its stall and lead it out to get a drink? 16 Then isn’t it necessary that this woman, a daughter of Abraham, bound by Satan for eighteen long years, be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”17 When he said these things, all his opponents were put to shame, but all those in the crowd rejoiced at all the extraordinary things he was doing.
The woman was tired. Exhausted really. Well, that’s not necessarily new, though. She was always tired. Always in pain. Every day was just one more day of misery, of being confined, of being…chained. Not physically—there wasn’t any actual chain—but imprisoned in a different way, by her health. A sneer touched her lips at the reflection on her plight as she trudged on the way to the synagogue, eyes on the ground, always on the ground, because she could not raise herself up. Perpetually in pain, bent over, she walked on to the Shabbat service. Shabbat. What a joke. A day of rest? There was no rest for her, she thought. No relief. Shabbat was made for the people, not people for Shabbat, she had heard someone say, but there was never any real Shabbat for her.
As she neared the synagogue, she noticed that there was a great crowd there, so many people that they were almost out the door! The small sneer turned into a curious smirk as she walked closer. That’s the first time she’d ever seen that many people wanting to come to Shabbat, save for the high holy days! Either somebody brought in a talking goat, or someone famous was around. That’s about the only thing that would get people to go to synagogue in this town.
She managed to hobble to the door, slightly out of breath. She walked in, and heard a lively speaker, talking about the Torah. Though he wasn’t necessarily hopping up and down and shouting or anything like a street prophet, he was definitely intriguing in his speech. He spoke in parables, riddles, and talked about love and justice, fear and hope, and above all, faith. As she listened she began to feel just a little bit lighter, as if it all didn’t seem so bad…until a spasm hit her, hard. Back to reality. She winced in pain, and let out a small noise by accident.
The room fell silent. The teacher heard the noise and looked in her direction.
He saw her.
He smiled, and asked her to come forward.
She was mortified. How on earth could things go so badly? Now she has to come forward to speak with this man, a man who she by all rights and laws had no business approaching? This was a holy man, a rabbi! And now she would be scolded. Curse this demon of hers, she thought. Curse this chain. She slowly walked to the front, fearful of the wrath that would brought upon her because she interrupted his teaching.
She could not even meet his gaze, she was so embarrassed. Had she been able to, though, she wouldn’t have even dreamed of the look she was getting. Fear, hatred, all pity and no mercy—these things she had come to expect. She expected the scolding of a lifetime.
Instead, she felt a hand on her back, and a few words. “You are set free.”
She stood up, for the first time in 18 years, looked at him with wide eyes. All sneers, all smirks, faded away, and were replaced with a smile from ear to ear. “Praise God.”
There are a great many things in this world that can bind us, imprison us, chain us down. It’s one of those things about life that people don’t often realize, let alone understand. Sometimes, the chain is health; a chronic illness, while sometimes manageable, is never a walk in the park. Sometimes, the chain is addiction; drugs, alcohol, prescription meds, or any unhealthy activity is but a distraction from the pain that they attempt to conceal, and that pain only tightens the chain that holds you down. A secret could be a chain. Hatred could be a chain. Fear. Regret. Abuse. The list goes on and on. Everyone has something they wish they could be free of, but that freedom does not come easily, if it even comes at all. Sometimes, it certainly feels like freedom won’t come.
When we feel chained, restricted, imprisoned, it affects us deeply. It exhausts us. It occupies our minds on a regular basis, and it’s hard to shake it off. It can make unable to focus on tasks at hand, and distracts from people, our families, and even God. There is no rest for people who are chained, at least not without help. Which is why rest is so important to those who believe in God, and why it is so controversial.
Let’s back up the truck a little, and talk about why rest is so important, or rather, why Sabbath is so important. Jesus was preaching on the Sabbath in the synagogue, and it’s central to the importance of this story, and why it matters to us. The Sabbath, for those who don’t know, is the seventh day of the week, originally set aside in Jewish scripture as a day of rest. In Hebrew, it is referred to as Shabbat, and the tradition of Shabbat is such an important practice in Judaism, it holds prominence in most of the major books of the scripture. Exodus 20:8: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. Not only is it a day of rest, but it’s a day of worship as well. Leviticus 23:3: Work can be done for six days, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of special rest, a holy occasion. You must not do any work on it; wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to the Lord. So important is the Shabbat that it’s even in Genesis, in the very story of creation. b Even from the very beginning, Sabbath has been important to God, and should be for God’s good creation.
Sabbath comes with its own special greeting. Go to any Shabbat service at any Jewish synagogue, and you will be greeted with a great big smile and the words “Shabbat Shalom!”* Now, I’ve talked about the Shabbat, but what about that second word, Shalom? The most common translation of the word Shalom is “Peace,” and that’s… not incorrect, but the peace that it describes isn’t necessarily the peace that we usually think of. When we think of peace, we associate it with war, and we think that peace is simply a cessation of hostilities. In the Jewish context, it means something much more. Shalom has a verb form, shalam, and it means “to make whole, or complete.” Say someone has caused you to lose some livestock for some reason. It would be incumbent on them to pay you back—to restore what was lost. Shalom is a state of restoration, or wholeness. So let’s go back to the greeting. Shabbat Shalom literally means “May your day of rest bring you wholeness.”
Suddenly, things start to become clearer for us. The day of rest is not simply an arbitrary idea, something with no reason behind it other than because God told us to do it. Practicing the Sabbath is a means to restore wholeness to our lives, and to invite God to make us whole again through worship and rest. We are called to make space in our lives for God. It’s so important that God commanded us to do it from the very beginning of time. The day of rest is so that we can be made whole. No work. No exhaustion. Just rest, and freedom from work. The story of God’s people hinges upon our freedom from slavery. God freed the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. God freed us from exile in Babylon and Persia. God brought us to the promised land, and set us free. God gave us the Son so that we might be set free from Sin and Death, and God sent the Spirit so that the truth would always be there to remind us that we are free. We are made whole. On Sabbath, we take time to remember that. Shabbat Shalom.
A day of rest is central to faith in God, which is why the synagogue priests were so upset with Jesus when he did what they considered work on the Sabbath—but the only reason they did so was because they forgot what the Sabbath was made for. Jesus reminded them in a not-so-gentle way. He called them hypocrites. He scolded them in front of the crowds for completely missing the point of what he just did for the woman whose back was bent for 18 years. How is setting this woman free of her illness any different from you setting your animals from work? How is setting this woman free any different from being set free from slavery? How is making this woman whole a violation of Sabbath law, when the Sabbath was made for wholeness? When you greet people with the words Shabbat Shalom, week in, week out? Do those words mean nothing to you? Or are they the most important words you could say to someone who is chained, shackled, wounded, and in need of being set free? The point was received; the priests were put to shame. The crowds rejoiced. God had done something amazing that day. God had reminded them what the Sabbath was.
For us, we have quite a bit of challenge ahead of us when we are called to keep the Sabbath. When was the last time you took a whole day to do nothing but rest and praise God? The world does not make it easy on us to do this. Many of us have jobs that occupy our minds, even on our days off. A great many people aren’t even given Sunday off, and must come into work on the day that most people would consider the Sabbath—and I’m not even talking about pastors. The world has become a place where Sunday is no longer a time to rest, and many Christians pay the penalty for it, one way or another. It contributes to us being exhausted, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I know, I can speak from personal experience. Making a strong enough boundary on your week to keep a Sabbath free from work is incredibly hard to do. My Sundays aren’t my Sabbath—that’s what Friday is for. Even then, work can creep into that day if I don’t watch out for it.
All of this makes keeping the Sabbath even more important, because when we work in time to keep a day holy, we become more whole. When we take a day to free ourselves from our work, our worries, our busy-ness, we set ourselves free to be the people called us to be. Yes, it’s difficult to keep the Sabbath. That makes it all the more necessary. God gave us the Sabbath to remind us who we are: we are a people set free from slavery, free from pain, free from oppression, free from sin, free from death. We are set free, and we are made whole. Our chains no longer keep us down. Shabbat Shalom.
*Helpful information compiled by http://jewsandjoes.com/what-is-the-meaning-of-shabbat-shalom.html. Thanks!