Looking up

Isaiah 58:9b-14
Luke 13:10-17

There was some controversy when the Natural History Museum in London announced that they were moving the diplodocus from the main entrance hall, to be replaced with the blue whale. It turns out the diplodocus had only been there 35 years, despite the claims of changing what had been since time immemorial. However, if you look up from all that, you see the lofty ceiling, with richly coloured and gilded ceiling panels, depicting plants from every corner of the globe. Most visitors don’t look high enough, and therefore miss a treat. But imagine that you can’t look up; that you can never see the ceiling of any room, never see starlit heavens, snow-capped mountains, a soaring eagle; or even look into the eyes of someone you love.

The first of the three characters in today’s Gospel can’t look up because she is permanently bent in two. Her view of the world has been at floor level for eighteen years, probably half her lifetime; and the discomfort and restriction on what she can see and do feels like a prison sentence. Yet she has struggled to get to worship, where Jesus, the second person in the drama, sees her, feels for her plight, and calls out to her, ‘woman, you are set free’. Laying his hands upon her, the prison’s locks and bolts and gates are suddenly open, and she stands erect, looks around, and bursts into praising God.

The leader of the synagogue, the third person in the account, though having all his faculties, seems to have a more restricted view than the woman ever had because, in the face of this amazing event, the woman’s straight back and her song of praise, he can only think sourly that the Sabbath rules have been broken. There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, not on the Sabbath day.

Thinking a little more about each stage of the story, I think it tells us profound truths about our human condition, God’s response to it, and our responsibility within it. The bent woman, like all the people Jesus heals, is a representative and a symbol of human suffering. Her condition restricts and confines her. She’s lost status and dignity, influence and freedom, as a result. When stroke victims say, ‘I can’t do things. Will I always be like this?’ they echo the thoughts and fears of wounded soldiers, victims of car crashes, and those who suffer from MS or motor neuron disease. But the bent woman’s suffering also reminds us of other forms of being trapped: her 18 years of suffering might reflect eighteen centuries of oppression for many women; or the shackles worn by those who live in poverty or ignorance; or the restrictive pains caused by prejudice and racism.

But Jesus notices; Jesus feels compassion; Jesus calls out and touches and heals. How Jesus worked his miracles remains a mystery, though we can say that just as modern science, discovering how things work, can harness nature to do all sorts of wonders, God can use the way nature works for his own gracious purposes. Miracle is the occasion when the supreme artist, whose command of brush and medium is complete, does with an easy turn of the wrist, what the apprentice vainly tries to do with knotted brow and straining fingers.

We may not understand how Jesus healed, but we know that in healing the bent woman Jesus is telling every future generation that the ultimate purpose of God is to overcome evil, to save us from sin, and to establish a new order of grace; through what the bible through God’s promises to us. God promises understanding, compassion, love, and justice, not merely as some future hope in the next world, but as a present reality. Christian Aid described it as believing in life before death. This healing is a sign of that reality, and a token of the promise that God stands with us through each and every assault on human personality and freedom; through every attack or oppression; and is with us in every experience of pain and loss. A hymn by Timothy Rees describes the total self-offering of God alongside us in our human suffering like this:
The groaning of creation, wrung out by pain and care,
The anguish of a million hearts that break in dumb despair;
O crucified Redeemer, these are your cries of pain;
O may they break our selfish hearts and love come in to reign.

That last line is a prayer that such love from God, as we see in the cross and resurrection, will break our selfish hearts, so that love may reign. It’s a call to take sides. And that brings us back to the third person in the Gospel drama, the leader of the synagogue. Jesus’ words of rebuke to his hard line rule keeping mustn’t be understood as anti-Jewish. Jesus was a Jew who believed in the Sabbath, the need to give adequate time in life to honour God and to seek to be obedient to God’s will. But his argument was about the right and appropriate way of keeping the Sabbath. The fourth commandment was given for the sake of people, to ensure they were not over-exploited, that they had sufficient rest, and that there was time for the worship of God. The rule designed to protect people had become an instrument of control; the letter of the law had obscured its spirit. The same thing has happened in our Christian history. Many older people still remember strict Sunday rules that were so controlling that far from attracting a growing generation to faith, they probably turned people away from a God who seemed severe and judgemental. Jesus responded to the criticism of the synagogue leader by reminding him that if animals could be untethered on the Sabbath – technically work – then it was surely equally legitimate for him to untether this poor woman who had been tied up for eighteen years. Jesus is pleading for an understanding of faith that wants to take religious observance and social action with equal seriousness. Such an approach is in line with traditional Jewish practice. Our Old Testament passage from Isaiah 58 spells it out. God’s covenant with the people is a two way relationship. God will turn gloom into noonday, and satisfy the people’s needs so that they shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail. But in turn they mustn’t trample on the Sabbath through total self-interest; and instead of speaking evil they should offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

So, I think this story has something to say to us holding our faith in a rounded way: take religious observance very seriously, so that out of a growing relationship with God, and a deepening understanding of God’s love and purpose, there arises a deep commitment to care about other people and the life of the world. This story reminds us that faith is about relationships: God with us; us with God; and us with our brothers and sisters, and the entire creation. Looking upwards and seeing the glory and grace of God we’re more likely to see the true wonders of the world; the painted panels on the ceiling, the stars at night, the snow-capped mountains, the flight of the eagle, the eyes of the ones we love. But even more than that, in worship we should ask that we become steadily more in love with God and the needs of our neighbours, so that through our work, recreation, family and church, we might help others to be released from whatever imprisons them, to stand straight, and to see what we can see.

We, Christ’s apprentices, may not be able to work the miracles of the master, but we can still bring faith, hope and love to people in need. There’s a hospice has as its slogan, ‘we aim to add life to days, even when we cannot add days to life’. That’s not a bad slogan for the entire Christian Church.

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