The Healing Spirit of God

Aug 25, 2019 by

Isaiah 58:9b – 14          Psalm 103:1-8             Hebrews 12:18-29          Luke 13:10-17

Sermon by Paula Papky

I brought along some pottery today because I’ve been thinking about shaping things, re-forming things.  Everyone in my family except me has some experience in shaping pots, even sculpting.  Last week my three youngest grandsons were doing pottery classes at the Dundas Valley School of Art.  One made a tea cup shaped like a boat with marine creatures around the rim.  My daughter, Heather made these vases for me in pottery class last spring.  Bruce has done pottery.  Our son did these dinosaur creatures some 30 years ago.

I’ve never been a big fan of squishing stuff with my fingers, unless the stuff is bread dough.  But I am interested in the idea of shaping things, of pulling forms out of shapeless lumps.

So there’s shaping.  Being out of shape – a familiar phrase.  We describe  anger as “being bent out of shape”, perhaps after watching the nightly news.  And then there’s this woman who comes to Jesus.  She’s bent over, cannot stand straight.  The shape of her life is tragic.  Will Jesus be able to make her life’s shape pleasing again?

So, what’s the big deal with a bent over woman coming to the synagogue to see Jesus?  Why do even we feel uncomfortable with that picture?  She does seem out of place.  She doesn’t fit in—even we sense that.  In her own time and place it would have been immediately obvious how inappropriate it was for her to be there.  The worshippers would have been aghast.  It was the Sabbath, after all.  The community was gathered for prayer and she turns up all of a sudden, interrupting the Sabbath service.

My mother – born in 1929 – had a Presbyterian grandmother who was strict about Sabbath – well, Sunday – occupations.  Church was mandatory, of course.  Twice if possible.  Reading was permitted.  But sewing, along with playing cards, was against the rules.  One Sunday afternoon my mother was secretly working on a small piece of embroidery.  She had it hidden in the folds of her skirt and presumably she had fastened an innocent look on her face.  Maybe she had a book in her lap as well.  In any case, when she went to stand up a while later, she found she had sewn the piece of cloth right on to her skirt.

Well, really, there were only a few rules in my mother’s community regarding the Sabbath.  But in Jesus’ day, the Ten Commandments of Moses had swelled to 613 laws to be obeyed.  A great many of them had to do with what one could or could not do on the Sabbath:  make a long journey; pull your calf out of the well; carry anything heavier than a handkerchief.  You couldn’t plough or harvest.  You couldn’t work.

It isn’t clear when the rule about healing on the Sabbath came to be considered work but the religious leaders were always looking to confront and shame this upstart, Jesus, for his apparent disregard for Sabbath rules.  It was the oldest game in the book, this shaming of someone who was trying to protect his honour.  It was a game played by men every day.  They were dedicated to getting others to confirm their honour or status and they were keen to avoid being shamed in the daily thrust and parry, insult and retort.  So the ancient Mediterranean preoccupation with honour and shame is always bubbling away in the background of the Jesus stories.  We’ll just leave it there on the back burner, along with the issue of Sabbath restrictions.  And we’ll turn our attention to the woman.

I wonder how many of us listened to the description of this woman, snapped our fingers and came up with a diagnosis of osteoporosis.  We based our diagnosis on some small medical knowledge, perhaps, and on our experience:  my mother/aunt/friend has that.  She’s bent right over; can’t stand up straight.

That’s the first obstacle we have to get over if we want to know the meaning of the story:  jumping to the conclusion that this is a medical story.  It is not a medical story in our sense of that word.  Still, it is a story of healing.

It’s clear from all the healing stories of earlier chapters in Luke that Jesus is a healer.  He describes himself as a particular kind of healer right in chapter 4 when he quotes Isaiah and applies it to himself.  You may know the one:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

And look how many he has healed in the first half of the Gospel!  He heals a man with an unclean spirit; Simon’s mother-in-law who is in bed with a high fever; a crowd of people in thrall to unclean spirits or demons.  He heals a leper; a paralytic lowered down through the roof; a man with a withered hand; a centurion’s servant.  He raises from death the only son of the widow at Nain; heals the Gerasene demoniac – that’s the one where Jesus casts the demons out of the man and into a herd of swine who then rush off a cliff and drown.  He heals a woman with a menstrual problem and restores Jairus’s daughter to life.  All of these healings he does with no access to a diagnostic manual; no way to Google the Mayo Clinic.  He doesn’t know about macular degeneration or cataracts or coma or PTSD or cancer.  He knows demons.  So did everyone.

Jesus lived in a time when the presence of good and evil spirits was taken for granted.  It was just life.  Illness meant that an evil spirit or a demon had been meddling in human life.  And its tragic consequence for the sufferer was that he/she was excluded from community life, including religious life.  An ugly oozing skin rash (mislabeled leprosy) got you banished.  Convulsing, foaming at the mouth?  Limping?  High fever?  Raving and scaring people?  Get out.  Go away from this holy people for clearly you are not holy.  You’re possessed by an evil spirit.  That was the message.

And so it’s the Sabbath day, and Jesus, as is his custom, is attending Jewish community worship.  The Scriptures have been read and he has been chosen to preach on the day’s text.  He’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of a woman.  It would seem that Jesus knows her or knows of her, for he knows she’s been crippled over like this for 18 years.  To us, she appears to be elderly.  Considering the short life-span of ancient peoples, though, she might be in her thirties.  I wonder if she became ill when she was quite young by our standards, maybe even young wife or mother.  She’s there alone, though, with no one to speak on her behalf, apparently.  So, one assumes she’s estranged from her people.  She doesn’t even seem able to speak.

Her infirmity has robbed her of connection with others.  It has made her small in many ways, unable to look into the eyes of other adults.  Her posture is one of humility, or even humiliation.  She’s to be pitied, perhaps, but from a distance.  No one wants to mess with evil spirits that have deformed her life.

No one except Jesus, that is.  In the early days, after his baptism, Jesus contended with evil spirits in the wilderness.  You know the story.  They tested him, tempted him.  But he did not give in.  And so they left him alone.  And Luke says Jesus returned to Galilee filled with the power of the spirit.  There’s the clue to Jesus’ success in healing:  he heals in the power of the Spirit of God.

Jesus identifies what ails this woman right away and he speaks powerful, spirit-filled words:  “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  There it is, one of the best descriptions of the nature of Jesus’ healing.  His healings set people free.  They are no longer imprisoned in the estrangement from family and community.  They aren’t confined to bed or dependent on others to carry them or do their work.  They are free to resume their place as valued members of their community.  They are free to experience once more their connection to the Holy One.  How can she do other than praise God?  The spirit of infirmity is defeated by the Spirit of God.

You’d think it would be a thrilling moment for all.  Well, not so fast.  The leader of the synagogue is right there with a challenge to Jesus’ honour.  No work is to be done on the Sabbath—that’s the law.  Jesus is playing fast and loose with the law that said, “Honour the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  Clearly this Jesus doesn’t know the first thing about God and God’s laws.  Healing is work and therefore unlawful on the Sabbath.

There’s a lovely irony here even before Jesus responds to the challenge.  Surely none but the Spirit of God could have freed this from her 18-year bondage to Satan.  So, is God at the work of healing even on the Sabbath?  Apparently so.  But Jesus doesn’t point out this subtlety.  Instead he comes right back with, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

At this point it’s two to one for Jesus in the honour/shame game.  Then he drives the insult home, implying they have a very impoverished understanding of the Sabbath, for surely it is the right time to set this woman free from the bondage of Satan.  Luke says that at this moment of truth the religious leaders are put to shame.  I daresay they were pretty bent out of shape about it all.  But he crowd looking on cheered.  Luke says, “They rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing.”

In healing this bent-over, humiliated woman Jesus restores her life.  She can take back her role as a woman in family and community, the role that gives her pride or honour.  She once more is part of the community of women, with their role of nurturing and teaching children, even speaking publically about the grace of God.  Jesus in the power of the Spirit has reshaped her life; he has restored this woman to a valued state (Malina, p.315).  In doing so he has restored the community to a valued shape as well, one that includes and honours people; that gives all members a place and a role to play.

A theologian I read this week (John Pilch:  Healing in the New Testament, p. xii) uses the phrase, “…learning how to heal as Jesus heals.”  He’s speaking of the church, of course; of us as a healing community.  The Gospel of Luke shows Jesus not only healing but also teaching his disciples how to heal, how to use the spirit of God to reach out and draw in those who suffer.  In Luke’s companion book of Acts, the disciples are given that healing power.  Paul and his companions have it too.  First they recognize their own need for healing.  Then they turn and touch and help reshape the lives of others, bring them into the family, you might say; give them a place of dignity in this new family Jesus is gathering.  Teach them the importance of loyalty.  Offer prayers for them when they are troubled or grieving.  Teach them the story of Jesus, the one whose suffering continues to heal us all, showing us that suffering and even death are not the end of everything.  Love lives on. It heals our faith communities for we are always in need of reshaping as we encounter new challenges.  To heal as Jesus healed is to acknowledge our need for reshaping and  our willingness to be healed.  And it is to offer that healing to others.

There is a hymn I would invite you to share with me as an ending to this sermon.  We can read it together as a prayer, inviting the healing Spirit of God to shape us.  It’s #400 – “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.”  Let us pray.

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