Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday 25 August 2013 Ordinary 21

Possible theme(s): Salvation is wholeness // God's holy love // Terrifying God

Sentence: If you offer your food to the hungry then your light shall rise in the darkness (Isaiah 58:10 adapted).


Almighty God,
for the joy that was set before him
your Son endured the cross
and by his resurrection turned our sorrow into joy;
help us to rejoice in his power
that we may walk in his way with glad obedience;
in the power of the Spirit,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

     Isaiah 58:9b-14

     Psalm 103:1-8

     Hebrews 12:18-29

     Luke 13:10-17

Isaiah 58:9b-14

The key to this passage is to identify who the 'you' is. The instructions to 'you' are pretty clear. And 'you' should do them. So, who is 'you'? For Isaiah it is the people whom God calls 'my people' (58:1). Those people are still around - you and me, for instance - so the reading here is directed to us. What will we do? What is required is straightforwardly just, generous, kind and fair, with great reward following.

There is a twist in the passage, one which connects it as a 'related' reading to the gospel. Verses 13-14 make special mention of the sabbath, of not trampling on it, not pursuing one's own interests, instead honouring it and taking delight in it. Why is observance of the sabbath singled out? Because it is 'the holy day of the Lord' (v.13). To observe this means special care is being taken by God's people to fulfill all aspects of God's will. Seven days a week, God's people do God's will.

In respect of the gospel below, the challenge Jesus brings is to a perception that the observance of the sabbath has been narrowed in such a way that the interests of other people are being ignored.

Psalm 103:1-8

These verses are among the most wonderful words written down in all Scripture. We should sing them rather than preach about them!

Hebrews 12:18-29

Fire begins and ends this passage.Why? The writer is at pains to emphasise who God is, the God to whom he is both encouraging his readers to draw nearer too, in confidence because of what Christ has done, and challenging his readers to not fall away from, lest they fall to a point of no return to God. Who is God? 'Our God is a consuming fire' (v. 29), a terrifying God (vss. 18-24), the judge of all (v. 23), a God who has sent Jesus to mediate a new covenant at the cost of his own blood (v. 24; and, effectively, chapters 1-10). In biblical and theological language, God is holy.

What are we to do with this passage? It is tempting to ignore it, to set it aside in favour of other 'nicer' passages, in which God is not terrifying, in fact he is our best friend forever, and offers comforting love of a touchy, feely kind. That would be a mistake. God is love is as true as God is holy. The trick is to keep them both together in our understanding of God. We could say that God is holy love. God loves us and the God who loves us is not like us (in our sin) but holy.

How then can we even think of approaching God? The long answer to that question is in Hebrews 1-10 (and Romans, Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, 1 John) but the short answer, in terms of this passage, is 'the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel' (v. 24). That is, the holy love of God has found a way to 'make' (see v. 23) imperfect humanity perfectly righteous and righteously perfect: the blood of Jesus cleanses us from every sin.

There is more to be said (about the importance of 'not refusing the one who is speaking', v. 25) but I will close with two short observations. First, to take up God's invitation is to receive a 'kingdom that cannot be shaken'. That is worth having. Secondly, a proper response is that we 'give thanks'. Jesus dying on the cross is the one, perfect, final sacrifice. Only required now is to give thanks for what has been done for us. This is now the acceptable sacrifice we offer to God (v. 28).

Luke 13:10-17

Jesus had quite a few things to say on that sabbath day in that synagogue.

First, he was teaching (v. 10). Then, he spoke to the crippled woman (v.11-12). Thirdly, he rebuked the leader of the synagogue, telling him off for criticising this action on the sabbath. Along the way he made some explicit and implicit points about theological matters: what kind of deeds can and should be done on the sabbath; what is the ultimate nature of illness and disability (it is a bondage of Satan when compared with the salvation (wholeness) intended and now available by God); that teaching (words) can be illustrated and evidence by deeds.

But what is Jesus saying to the church today, when we do not have the difficulty about healing on the sabbath that the synagogue leader had?

We could note (and should not rush past) the possibility that there is 'hypocrisy' which Jesus would challenge us about. Just because we would be pleased to see a healing take place at church this Sunday does not get us out of jail on possible hypocrisy! Is there some other way in which we apply rules of church life to restrict Jesus from freeing people from things which 'cripple' them?

There is also a 'deep' lesson to consider about the nature of illness and disability. When Jesus speaks about the woman's condition in terms of '... whom Satan bound for eighteen long years ... this bondage ...' (v. 16) was he saying something we can receive in our day (when we generally use other explanations for why illness and disability occurs)? I suggest we can, especially if we pause to reflect on the great message of Luke's gospel, that Jesus came to save people in the sense of making people whole, in body, soul, mind and spirit. If the great purpose of God in Christ is to take a fallen, broken, frail creation and restore it (the kingdom of God), then the 'big picture' explanation of the situation is that the chief ringleader of opposition to God's plan for the world, Satan has bound people into fallen, broken, frail states. But Jesus doesn't make grand, general claims about the situation of the world: this woman is a victim of Satan's opposition: she has been bound these eighteen long years. Jesus can do no other than check the advance of Satan into God's realm. She has been set free from Satan's bondage which is the same thing as being straightened from her crippled state. Luke's description that the woman 'began praising God' tells his readers that the woman's transformation was not solely physical.

Then, we could move from 'depth' to 'width'. What is the nature of salvation of the saving work which Jesus comes to the world to do? Here Jesus begins with 'teaching' and moves to 'action.' A bound person is freed and a disabled person is made able. Salvation comes to the woman as a whole of life transformation. When we work for God in the continuation of that work, we are invited to work for transformation of the whole person, to work on change on many and varied aspects of the life of the world. Some people are 'bound' into poverty, for example, and we could work to free them through socio-economic transformation. Others are 'trapped' in oppression of some kind, perhaps in harsh working conditions. We could work to lift the oppression and set them free from the trap.

One clue to the direction of our participation in the work of salvation is whether it leads to the outcome described in this reading: God is praised!

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