2 images 1 picture
Isa 58: 9b-end, Luke 13: 10-17
While we were on holiday this week I was introduced to the latest fancy iphone feature. You may well all know this, but I had no idea. The latest iphone doesn’t have one camera - it has two. Or at least, it has two lenses. And the point of having two lenses is that you can focus on two different things at the same time, taking one of those clever photos in which one person or object is crisply and clearly in focus, and another is there, but in the background, subtly out of focus. It means, in effect, you can take two photos of the same thing, and bring them together to make a single image which is both full of detail and full of depth.
Ok. iPhone advert finished.
When we read the bible, we also need to read with two lenses, each focussed on a slightly different point, so that we get the specific detail of the story that’s being told, and the full depth of the bigger picture that is there in the background.
Like today’s gospel story. Which is telling at least two stories at the same time.
One story - the one in focus - is about a woman who had been suffering for many years from a spinal condition that kept her stooped over, and what happens when she meets Jesus.
The other story - the one in the background - is about God’s purposes for creation, Israel’s part in God’s plan and specifically, the place of the Sabbath in bringing it about.
This story is two stories. It is two pictures in one. And at the end, we’re going to be left asking ourselves some questions about our response. Where are we in these pictures? And, ‘what’s our part in the next stage of the story?’
So, let’s start by looking at the specific ‘in focus’ story about the woman that Jesus sets free.
Jesus is in a Synagogue and he’s teaching. It’s the Sabbath, and a woman appears. The translation we read says she was ‘unable to stand up straight’; a literal translation would say she was ‘unable to stand up into all-fulness’. It’s a powerful phrase. ‘All-fullness’.
That's what Jesus came to bring isn’t it - life in all its fulness. It’s what we all long for isn’t it? A life that is full in all its ways. Fully ourselves, fully present, fully available, fully filled. Fulfilled.
And this woman could not stand up into her all-fulness.
And Jesus ‘sees’ her. Hidden away in a crowd, difficult to see because of her stoop, still he notices her and declares her freedom, enabling her to stand up straight for the first time in 18 years. She can step into fulness of life again.
But the leader of the Synagogue is not so impressed. We have to be careful here. His argument seems so petty, doesn’t it. In response to this beautiful moment, he invokes rules and regulations, suggesting that the woman could easily have waited another day before seeking Jesus. It’s easy to turn him into some stereotypical a religious killjoy. But let’s not caricature him. Maybe he could see others in the crowd who needed healing and feared that they would all come forward and the time of teaching - which was important - would be lost. And we all know how easy it is for the urgent to trump the important, so that key priorities, like having proper Sabbath time, are lost in a world of constant distraction.
And actually, he’s right about the Sabbath - it does matter. After all keeping the Sabbath was the fourth of the 10 commandments - coming before don’t murder, don’t steal and don’t commit adultery. It really mattered.
But nonetheless, clearly, he was wrong, and Jesus tells him why. And since we’re looking at the detail of the story at the moment, notice in detail what Jesus says - ‘Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham’ (ie a Jewish woman, one of God’s own people) ‘whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from bondage on the Sabbath day?’
The issue that he was dealing with wasn’t simply a healing of someone who was unwell, it was a matter of freedom from being bound.
In order to step into the fulness of life, she had to be set free from what had bound her. We don’t know what that was, except that it was the work of Satan - the accuser, the one who seeks to hold us back from fulness of life, to keep us from the life we are called into, to prevent us stepping into our true calling, our God given destiny.
And so, this detailed story, a very human story, asks each one of us - what are you bound by? How is Satan, that murky but powerful force that keeps us from a full life, holding you back from a fuller life? What is that habit that you cannot shake, that thing you think about yourself, which just isn’t true, but which keeps on coming back to your mind? What is the fulness of life you long to step into, but which you just can’t reach?
Jesus says to you, on this Sabbath day - just as he did to the woman all those years ago - ‘you are set free’.
So as you come forward to communion and open your hands or bow your head, know that truth; ‘you are set free’. Or maybe you need to talk and pray with someone after the service, asking for that same freedom. Or perhaps you need to open your mouth and sing God’s praise to claim the freedom that God has given you. Whatever you need to do, know that it is for freedom that you have been set free.
That’s the story that’s in focus. But there are other things going on in the background as well. And they are part of a much bigger story.
It’s the story of God’s constant plan to restore His glorious, broken creation to its original destiny; as a world, filled with good things, fully alive in His presence and constantly seeking his will. As a world of justice and peace and generous living. As a world in which humans steward creation for the benefit of all living things.
And Israel are called to be the people who will model this kind of living, and they are given tools to use. And amongst those tools are ten commandments, commandments which are to limit the human potential for evil, and to guide God’s chosen community into His presence.And one of those commandments is about a ‘Sabbath’ day - one day of the week which is different from the others. A day when nobody works - partly for straightforward rest, partly to remind them that God is their creator and that everything is gift, partly to remind people that it is God’s grace on which they depend, not how hard they work, partly so that society is reminded of everyone’s absolute equality before God, for the Sabbath is for all people, poor and rich, worker and boss.
But there are times when Israel fails to live up to its great calling and their God-given tools become a focus for dispute and injustice, rather than a means for living in God’s freedom.
And the prophets say so often. And Jesus says the same. God is calling creation to freedom. He has called Israel to model and to lead creation towards its restoration. But it just isn’t working.
And perhaps, to a bystander at that Synagogue, on that Sabbath, watching on as Jesus noticed the daughter of Abraham, freed her from her bondage by Satan, and as he or she listened to the unfolding dispute between Jesus and the Synagogue leader, that much bigger problem might have been very apparent. God had called Israel to lead creation into freedom, but they had been bound and enslaved by satan too.
And perhaps that bystander, intrigued and inspired by Jesus, might have gone on to follow him when he left the Synagogue, on to the next town and the next, on eventually to Jerusalem, and a cross, and an empty tomb. And perhaps, maybe, such a bystander might have stuck around and become part of a new community, gifted with the Holy Spirit, who were called again to model and to lead creation into God’s freedom. A community that came to be called ‘a church’. A community called to be an experiment in kingdom living, a community of people who know about being bound by Satan, but know more about being set free in Jesus, free to work for justice, mercy and grace. Free to step into life in all its fulness.
Put those two pictures together then; the focussed story of a woman who was invited to step into the fulness of life, and the much bigger story of a world gone wrong and a community called to live in the power of the spirit, and perhaps we get a second invitation. The first to step into our individual freedom and the second, to do so as part of a community, a community of people who are learning to live like Jesus, learning to support each other, learning to be gracious and grace-filled, forgiven and forgiving - a community that knows itself free, so it can work for the freedom of all people.
A community a bit like this.
So today, know that Jesus has seen you too, and that he wants to set you free, so you can step into the fullness of life that awaits you. And know that he wants to set you free into a community and as part of a community; a community that, together, is learning how to use our freedom for the sake of the world.