Sermon delivered at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church
A woman is bent over and bound up for 18 years—a woman who can’t see straight, can’t work, can’t sleep, certainly can’t rest. And Jesus heals her horrible ailment.
In the words of Luke, anything that goes contrary to God’s plans for us, get’s ascribed to Satan. “Satan” is a peculiar Hebrew concept. It means the accuser, the tester, the cross-examiner—it’s all those things that bind us, and break us. It’s not some guy in red pajamas, but it’s the forces of sin that we cannot resist.
Isaiah pinpoints the forces of sin too when he talks about the tendency for humanity to “trample the Sabbath,” to deface something so dear to God, like Sabbath rest. As individuals, as a culture, these forces still make us crooked and unable to stand up straight. To use the exact words of Isaiah: Don’t we still point the finger and speak evil? Do we offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted? Or do we pursue our own interests and our own affairs on God’s holy day?
Sabbath is about a deep concept called rest. Not about rules and regulations, per se. Biblical “rest” is about restoring justice and wholeness to God’s creation. So, obviously, our Old Testament reading from Isaiah and our Gospel from Luke are pretty clearly about the Sabbath. But I have a sneaking suspicion this morning that our reading, both this Sunday and last Sunday, from the Book of Hebrews hasn’t made too much sense at all. With images of blazing fire and the blood of Abel—what is this book Hebrews talking about?
Well, first, I can say that the Book of Hebrews is itself a kind of sermon, that was directed toward Christians with deep roots in the religion of Jesus’ time in 1st century Judea. Hence the title of the book: to the Hebrews.
The other letters in the New Testament, often written by Paul or his followers, were usually written to communities full of Gentiles or Greeks: people who converted to this new faith, not yet even called Christianity at the time. A religion that was and still is joined at the hip with the culture and practices of the people of Judea.
So, the book of Hebrews uniquely is talking about Jesus, of course, and is directed towards those more at home in all the wonderful images and concepts from the Old Testament. Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what WE do too! Our worship services always include readings from the Hebrew Bible. So, there’s no getting rid of the Old Testament. Without it there’s no Jesus, no faith, no church, no hope, no nothing.
So, to give you the lay of the land of the book of Hebrews, let me read to you the first few verses:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom God appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and Christ sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…Hebrews 1:1-3
This is our Christian faith in a nutshell. It reflects the beginning of the Gospel of John, “in the beginning was the Word,” as well as the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus we find in all the Gospels.
Jesus is God’s Word, how God chooses to communicate and reveal who God is. All worlds have been created through Jesus. Jesus is the blueprint of all the universe. The author of Hebrews goes even further: Jesus, a human person, was the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. So, Jesus, being human of course, experienced rejection, pain, and death. And this selflessness is God’s very own image and reflection.
The author of Hebrew’s goes on:
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children [that’s us] to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.Heb 2:10-11
In Jesus’ suffering we see the concrete proof that he is our sibling. And if he is our sibling then we are intimately related to God through him. And God is our parent, together.
You can see, this book of Hebrews is a very complicated sermon! In fact, some folks say the style of the Greek this letter was written in is the fanciest of all the books in the New Testament.
So, what’s the point? Well, Jesus is God’s perfect self-portrait. God’s perfect Word that encapsulates all that God is and wants. But in order for that Word or that Portrait to make sense, in order for us to have any idea what we’re looking at or hearing, we need the Hebrew Bible.
So, in our section of Hebrews for today it starts this way: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest…” Here, the author is talking about Mount Sinai—the big, momentous occasion that is the symbol for when God gave laws to live by to a newly liberated Hebrew people. But now, the author of Hebrews argues, there is no more scary stuff. Instead, we have come to the amazing, symbolic, hopeful, and yet very human, pinnacle of the whole universe in Christ.
The author of Hebrews, with some crazy flourishes, talks about the climax of God’s work in Jesus by writing this:
[We] have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.Heb 12:22-24
Now, this is completely saturated in the religious imagery of the Hebrew people. Especially the idea of Abel. Abel of course was brother to Cain and they were together the primordial first children. Abel was killed by Cain out of jealousy, and his blood, Genesis says, cried out to God from the earth. Just so: Jesus was killed by us, his siblings. The author of Hebrews goes on, if humanity didn’t listen to Moses and the law and got into trouble, how much more trouble are we going to get into if we do not listen to Jesus: God’s Word straight from God’s mouth?
You would be right if you are saying to yourselves, “This sounds really cool, but what’s it got to do with sabbath in the Gospel of Luke and the Prophet Isaiah?” Well, it has everything to do with it, of course!!
If you know any contemporary Jewish folks, whether conservative or reform, you know that Sabbath, or Shabbat, is still extremely important to Judaism. And it’s extremely important because if you know your Bible you know that in Genesis—that poem of creation—God acts in a primordial week of seven days, but only is working on six of those days…
The Eternal God—source of all life, goodness and energy—does not need to take a break, does not “get tired” or need rest, and yet, on the seventh day, God looked at what God had done, and stopped, and said, “Dang, that looks good.”
You know that feeling. After you’ve finished painting a room, or after you’ve finished painting your nails, or after you’ve finished fixing your car, you take a step back, and look, and admire what you’ve done… That is the Biblical idea of rest. That is exactly what Sabbath is about. Take a step back, and admire—be full of joy and satisfaction.
That was God’s final act of creation. This is the key law given to the people through Moses on the Mountain. God made a radical rule about work-stoppage. God says to a group of people who have only known how to be slaves in Egypt: “Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord…”
So, the author of Hebrews talks about this “rest” as well! It’s still a part of God’s “Word” in Jesus, too! In a little bit of fancy foot-work and scriptural quotation, the Book of Hebrews argues that the rest that God has modeled and promised us in creation, was never fully realized in us, humanity. It wasn’t perfectly lived out, not until Jesus came. And you can tell because of the words of Isaiah about how God’s people are “trampling” the Sabbath.
Hebrews argues cleverly like this:
For if Joshua had given them rest [when they got the promised land], God would not speak later about another day [of rest]. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.Heb 4:8-11
So what does it look like to “enter” or “exit” this Biblical idea of rest? Well, don’t you know it, both Isaiah and Luke have already shown us.
Jesus shows us it’s not about mere rules, mere ceasing of labor, as the leader of the Synagogue argues in the story, but instead we need to take part in admiring God’s creation. And doing that means making all things good and right, and helping them to be how they were meant to be.
We too are children of Abraham, the blessed ancestor of God’s people, and we too are often bound and bent over with pain and stress and affliction. Isaiah shows this is the sickness that creeps in when we do not honor Sabbath rest. The hungry are meant to be fed. Justice is meant to be restored. We are called to repair the breach, says Isaiah, to fix the streets and repair the ancient ruins.
There is one more important thing in our selection from the Book of Hebrews. The author writes, “now God has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.” As a human being Jesus has known all afflictions, all pain—but these things, according to God, are shakeable.
But do you know what it is, according to Hebrews, that can never be shaken? The thing in this world and all worlds to come, that can never be moved because it is so perfectly part of God?
It is rest. Rest is what God desires for all humanity, and for each one of you.
And this rest looks like this:
When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.