August 25, 2013, Pentecost 14 – Acceptable Worship
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C.S. Lewis once wrote a set of science fiction books. The hero of the books is a man named Ransom, and in the first book, he is kidnapped by some very nasty men and carried off to Mars, where he gets to know the inhabitants of Mars, who (as you might expect) are very different from the people of earth. The thing that is special about Ransom is that he is very good at languages, and so he is able to learn to communicate with these creatures. One of the concepts that he has to communicate is that of evil, because he has to warn the creatures of Mars about these bad men that have invaded their planet. The words sin and evil don’t mean anything to them, so the word that he comes up with to communicate the idea of evil is bent.
It’s a very good word for evil, because evil and sin have no real existence in and of themselves. Evil and sin are not God’s creations at all. If you pay much attention to television and movies, you might get the idea that the fate of this world hangs in the balance between the two opposing forces of good and evil, There’s God and all that is good, over against Satan or whatever name you want to give to evil and to all that is evil. But nothing in this creation exists that was not created by God, and God never created evil. Pain and sickness and cruelty and war, as real and as terrible as they are, are not creations of God. All those sad and terrible things that we see every day, and that we understand to be a result of sin, and the Fall, are God’s good creation broken and spoiled, God’s perfect creation deformed, creation bent like the woman that Jesus met in the synagogue where he was teaching one Sabbath day.
Luke tells us that this woman had suffered from some crippling disease for 18 years – she must have had what we now know as arthritis or some other condition like that. Luke calls it a disabling spirit, and that seems like a good way to describe it – so that she was unable ever to stand up straight, and she had had to live day after day and year after year in pain, unable to perform even the simplest routines of life without terrible effort. She suffered for 18 long years – that would be as if she had been struck with her illness in the year 1995, and had been bent double and racked with pain to this day. She suffered until the day that Jesus came to teach in the synagogue. And when he saw her he called her to come to him. And he laid his hands on her and spoke to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And immediately she stood up straight, straight and tall and pain-free, – for the first time in 18 years. She stood up, and she gave glory to God, and all the people rejoiced along with her.
But to the leaders of the synagogue what Jesus had done was entirely inappropriate. The Sabbath was the time and the synagogue was the place for holy things, for the things of God: prayer, and the reading of the Scriptures, for piety and devotion. Dealing with illness and deformity and suffering defiled the purity of worship that belonged to the Sabbath day. Didn’t God give us six other days to worry about our pathetic worldly troubles; they scolded the people, and don’t we owe him this one day of holiness? Isn’t that what Moses commanded us?
And Jesus was furious. You hypocrites! he said, You think nothing of breaking the Sabbath to care for the needs of the animals you own, but you have no concern for this woman who is your own kindred – a child of Abraham as you are yourselves? What better day could there possibly be for loosing the bonds of her pain and illness than the Sabbath Day? And Luke tells us that at these words all of Jesus’ adversaries, all those pious and learned men, were put to shame.
The problem was that God’s people had always had trouble understanding the purpose of the Sabbath Day. From the time of Moses, God gave the Sabbath as a gift to his people, the pledge that he was fulfilling his promise to them. Week after week, that day of rest was the sign that he was surely going to bring all his work to completion, just as it had been written in the story of creation that God rested on the seventh day from all the works that he had done. But what God’s people failed to understand, again and again and again, was what God’s work was. God’s people understood religion, and rules, and rituals; they understood piety and power and possessions; but they never seemed to grasp that God’s real work was mercy and justice. And yet it was only those things, it was only mercy and justice, that could bring about God’s ultimate promise to his creation, which was to heal and restore it. Because ever since the Fall, when man chose to rebel against God instead of trusting him, the creation, which was formed by God in perfect goodness and beauty, has been bent like that poor crippled woman in the synagogue, twisted and deformed and in pain.
And then Jesus came, and poured his Spirit out into the world. That’s what the writer to the Hebrews means when he said that we have come into a new kingdom. This is the time that was promised long ago, the time that God’s people waited for for ages and ages. With the coming of Jesus we received at last the new covenant of grace. And so we read this morning, Therefore let us be grateful, and let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.
Let us offer to God acceptable worship. If we really hear the words of Jesus that we read today, “Ought not this woman be loosed from her bond on the Sabbath Day?” And if we really hear the words that we read from the prophet Isaiah, “Isn’t this the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house?” If we hear those words today, then we begin to know what it means to give God acceptable worship: not to be respectable or impressive or pious, not to follow all the rules, but to care as deeply as our Father cares about justice and mercy, to look at his creation, the people and the world around us, to see it honestly in all its brokenness and spoiled-ness, and to love it all enough to seek its healing instead of giving up on it, or condemning it in disgust or despair.
We look forward to the day when all things will be healed and restored. We long for the day when every tear will be wiped away. We believe that there will absolutely be a day when all suffering will be at an end. But today, as long as it is called today, we worship God by sharing in his work, because Jesus told us, My father has been working to this day, and I am working. And now we, his children, are also called to do his work. We are called to offer our hands and our time and our goods, our prayers and our affections and our strength. This is the Sabbath that God chooses, a Sabbath of justice and mercy. This is our acceptable worship to the Father.
Jesus was not angry at the synagogue leaders for caring about beautiful worship and prayer and holiness. Those things belong to God and to his people, and they are an essential part of our relationship with him. When we gather together to pray our hearts are joined to the Father’s, and when we receive the sacraments, especially the sacrament of communion, we are fed and strengthened. But it has very little meaning if we care only about our own holiness and fail to allow God to grow us and give us his mind and his heart for his bent creation. As a church we are often divided among extremes these days. On the one hand are those who care deeply for devotion to God, for obedience of life and purity of teaching, but who are afraid or unwilling to become involved in the suffering of the world. And on the other hand are those who are passionate about pursuing justice and mercy, but who are willing to give up holiness and truth in the pursuit of worldly justice.
But we are called to follow Jesus, who lived in all holiness and all compassion. In Jesus the words of Psalm 85 have been fulfilled: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” We are called to seek the kingdom of God first in our lives, to love him and to share his love for all of creation. We are only his children, and the little that we are able to do seems so pitifully small and useless sometimes. But we are children of the King, and we can trust in his promise that even now his strength will be made perfect in our weakness, and that at the last he will restore and heal all that is bent and broken, in our lives and in our world.