The God we know in Jesus Christ loves to set captives free. God loves to free people from the prisons that the devil, the world, and our sinful selves can impose upon us.
In His hometown synagogue back when He began His public ministry, Jesus read words from the Old Testament prophet’s book of Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me… to proclaim liberty to the captives…” Then, the Bible tells us, Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
On this Sabbath day today, Jesus wants you to know that whatever sins or temptations bedevil you, whatever regrets you carry on your shoulders, whatever doubts you may harbor about God’s goodness or God’s Word, whatever feuds may mar your personal relationships, whatever failures you may rue, you can be set free.
Don’t let Satan rob you of the joy, and the peace, and the hope that Jesus Christ wants to give to you, even in the midst of life’s difficulties, pains, and challenges. Let Jesus set you free! You simply need to come to Him when He calls, as we’ll see in today’s Gospel lesson.
It tells us about something that happened in another synagogue in an unnamed town during Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and the cross, where He underscores His desire to set captives free, as well as His authority to do just that.
I’d like to ask you to once more this morning pull out the Celebrate insert and turn to today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 13:10-17 and this time, if you have a pencil or pen handy, pull that out as well. (Don’t worry; you’re not going to have to write any essays!)
Read the first verse along with me silently. “Now he [that is, Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.” Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, we’re told that it was Jesus’ custom to always go to worship on the Sabbath day. The Bible also tells us that all of Jesus’ early followers and the apostle Paul were in the habit of honoring the Sabbath by worshiping God every week.
This habit may seem contradictory to us. We know that the Ten Commandments commanded God’s people, the Jews, to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” But, good Lutherans that we are, we also know that (a) we human beings, having been born in sin, are incapable of keeping God’s commands perfectly and (b) keeping the law cannot save us from sin, death, and pointless lives anyway. Only Christ’s cross and empty tomb and our repentant faith in Christ can accomplish that.
So, why did Jesus and the first Christians make such a big deal of keeping the Sabbath? Because the Sabbath is a gift from God, an oasis on our weekly calendars where we can be met by the living God in His Word and in the strengthening fellowship of those who, just like us, are people of God’s Word. It can play this role as much in our lives today as it did in the lives of the ancient Jews. The New Testament book of Hebrews tells us:
...a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God's rest also cease from their labors as God did from His. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through...disobedience...[as was true of God's people in their wilderness journey between Egypt and the promised land](It's interesting to me that the text says "make every effort to enter that rest." Sometimes, it requires a lot of hard work and effort to set aside time to rest, especially in these busy days.)
Further on in Hebrews, we're reminded of the part that Sabbath rest plays in the lives of believers, beyond just giving them time to recharge their batteries:
...let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of Christ's return to the world] approaching.On the Sabbath, God cleans the clutter from our lives so that we can hear the clear, unambiguous message of the Bible together. This is what Martin Luther talked about in his explanation of the Third Commandment, to remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not neglect His Word and the preaching of it, but regard it as holy and gladly hear and learn it.Remember that Jesus came not to abolish God's law--including the commandment to keep the Sabbath, but to fulfill it. Though we will never keep the Sabbath with the same perfection and holy intentions that Jesus did, weekly worship was part of Jesus’ way of life and because the Sabbath is God’s gift to us, He wants it to be part of our lives, too.
The Gospel lesson continues: “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
You might want to circle the word “eighteen,” then draw an arrow over to the margin and jot this down there: Luke 13:4. In Luke 13:4, Jesus mentions “eighteen who were killed.” You might want to look that verse up in your Bible when you go home today. You see, there are no accidents in Scripture and so, when you see “eighteen” appearing in two passages just a few lines apart, you know that they share an important theme.
Luke 13:4 is part of the section of Luke’s gospel that comes right before our lesson for today. In it, Jesus encounters a group of people who are jabbering about the latest news headlines in the very same way you and I do that sort of thing today. Among the headlines that group was discussing was the then-recent tragic death of eighteen people killed when a tower crashed at a place called Siloam.
Jesus picks up on the tenor of the crowds' comments and asks them if any of them think that those who died were worse offenders of God’s will than they were.
This is a pointed question that relates to what happens in today’s Gospel lesson. People can be quick to attribute the hardships of others to their sins. You’ve heard people say things like that. But Jesus dismisses such notions. We do bring some bad things onto ourselves, of course. We also all can probably name times when we have eluded bad consequences for our bad choices. But usually, when we have bad things happen in our lives, it isn’t because we’ve violated God’s will; it’s because we live in a fallen and imperfect world where bad things happen. It’s the risk that all the living endure. That's because this is isn’t heaven.
Now, back in our Gospel lesson, notice that “a spirit” crippled the woman. “Medically,” one prominent New Testament scholar writes, “the illness has been diagnosed as spondylitis ankylopoietica (a fusion of spinal bones) or as skoliasis hysterica…, a hysterical rather than an organic paralysis.” Whatever the diagnosis, Jesus will soon make clear that this woman who came for Sabbath worship in spite of the bitterness toward God she could have felt because of her crippling condition, is being afflicted through no fault of her own. Her condition is caused by Satan, the prince of all the spirits--demons--in rebellion against God.
Keep that in mind as you read along silently with the next part of our Gospel lesson. “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.“
If you will, please underline the words “set free.” Behind those two words in our translation is a single verb in the original Greek of the New Testament: luo. It can mean not only set free, but also unloosed, untied, or unshackled. As a sign of His power to set all people free from the more lasting scourges of sin, death, and futility, Jesus set this woman free from her crippling condition.
Read on with me, please. “But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’”
The synagogue leader seems more concerned that his tidy little worship service has been disrupted, than He is amazed that God’s mercy and love has come to the place or that a woman once doubled over in agony was standing straight and praising God!
One of the biggest problems in the contemporary Church is caused by theologians, bishops, pastors, and laypeople who think that no matter what God’s Word tells us about God’s will, grace, and power, they know better. Instead of “standing under” the Bible, which is what the word “understand” means, they presume to stand over the Scripture, claiming to understand things that God, Who inspired the words of the Bible, didn’t know. The synagogue leader had this same kind of presumptuousness. Fortunately, Jesus corrected this misled leader right away.
Take a look at what happens next: “But the Lord answered him and said, ‘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?’”
The use of the term, “the Lord” is no accident. The word in the original Greek of the New Testament is kurios. It’s the usual Greek rendering of the Name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: Yahweh, I AM. In Jesus, Yahweh, God, was speaking to this presumptuous synagogue leader, setting him straight, along with any in the synagogue who might agree with him.
Underline the word "untie" in verse 15. In the Greek, it's luo again. “How dare you, you hypocrites!” Jesus is saying. “You would do a little work by setting an ox or donkey free to get water on a Sabbath day, treating animals better than human beings! But, you want to keep me from freeing this woman, who has been bound by Satan all these years!"
A denominational leader once told the true story of a brilliant pastor who, by use of a formula he had created, was able to project at what times of year his suburban congregation would grow numerically.* This went on for years. The young pastor later confessed that he felt no real need to pray. He had church growth all figured out. One Sunday, two elderly members of the congregation asked if he would mind if they used the church basement one afternoon a week to pray for the congregation. The pastor couldn’t see the harm, told them it would be OK, and thought no more about it.
Some months later, the congregation had a phenomenal growth spurt--including incredible spiritual growth--that the pastor’s calculations couldn’t explain. It actually bothered him! A thought crossed his mind. “No, it couldn’t be!” he told himself. But he decided to check the church basement on the day of the week that those two women had set aside for regular prayer for the congregation. To his absolute shock, he saw that there were now sixty people praying with those two women. (I would love for something like that to happen at Saint Matthew, by the way!)
It’s hypocrisy for us to say that we believe in the God of the Bible and then expect Him to stay within the orderly parameters we try to impose on Him. As our second lesson for today reminds us, our God is a consuming fire. God's power is beyond our control, no matter how wise, upstanding, or clever we may think we are!
Just as an aside, there’s a phrase I’d like you to put in brackets in verse 16. It’s “daughter of Abraham.” This is the only place in all of Scripture where that phrase is used, though there are many places that speak of the “son of Abraham.” Jesus and the early Christians may have been surrounded by a male-dominated culture. But they were no part of it. Men and women, both created in the image of God, are equal in the sight of God. No wonder that Paul writes in Galatians that in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek…slave or free…male and female…If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
Our lesson ends with Jesus’ opponents put to shame and the crowd rejoicing at the wonderful things Jesus was doing.
Whatever it is that may be afflicting you or people you care about today, turn to Christ, expect Him to do the unexpected, expect Him to set you free to live for Him, in this life, whatever it may bring, and in the life to come.
This morning, may God set you free in all the ways you need God’s freeing action…and may you praise God for it. Amen!
*I heard Paul Cedar, then president of the Evangelical Free Church, tell this story at a Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Wheaton College back in 1993.