‘Have you always been religious?’ I get this quite a lot. People look at my dog collar or have politely asked me what I do….and, reeling from the answer ‘I am vicar, will say something like: ‘Have you always been religious…?’
I tend to interpret it as a question as to how I became a follower of Christ which gives me an opportunity to tell my testimony, how the penny dropped that the gospel is true, which is not necessarily what they were expecting when they asked the question.
But I have been thinking recently that perhaps I should respond: ‘no, and I am not particularly religious now….and I hope that I never will be’.
Of course, it all depends on what you mean by ‘religious’. The OED describes religious as ‘Action indicating belief in a god, or the performance of religious rites or observances’ and I suppose its that word ‘action’ which I feel uncomfortable about. It’s the suggestion that I am interested in doing churchy things, doing the actions, rather than seeking God.
You see the danger with religion in the context of Christianity is that we can end up worshipping the outer core…..not the inner truth. We can end up worshipping the wrapping not the gift….
We may, for example, love the ritual, but not necessarily the person that the ritual is designed to draw us close to; we may love the building in which we worship, but not necessarily the God that that building has been built for; we may love the hymns, or worship music, that we sing, but not necessarily the One whom the lyrics describe; we may love the festival of Christmas, but not necessarily the baby in the crib.
So it also was for the Jews of Jesus’ time. They loved the Sabbath but had missed the point of what the Sabbath was for.
Have you ever wondered why there are so many examples of Jesus healing on the Sabbath? What point was he trying to make?
We should first say something about the background to the Sabbath. In the first book of the Bible, in Genesis 2:1-3, we see God creating the world in six days and then he rested. in Exodus 20, we see that the fourth of the 10 commandments is that the people of Israel should remember the Sabbath day, the seventh day of the week and keep it holy, as God had rested on that day, so his people should rest, no work should be done.
Later on in the Bible, the prophets explain that the Jews exile to Babylon (Ezekiel 20:10-26) had happened because the Israelites had not kept the Lord’s Sabbath. So, the Jews were jolly well going to make sure that they never made that same mistake again. So the Sabbath was sacrosanct.
Coming back to the story In the passage. The leader of the Synagogue had got a bit of a point….it seems pretty clear, Jesus was breaking the Lord’s Sabbath. He was a healer, healing on the Sabbath, wasn’t that exactly what the prophets had said caused the exile in the first place? Wasn’t Jesus letting the whole nation down by breaking this commandment?
But, in Matthew 5:17, Jesus tells us that he has not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. He had come not to abolish ritual, custom, practice and worship, but to restore it. To restore it to what it was intended to do. But how could he be fulfilling the law by apparently ignoring it?
Deuteronomy and Leviticus, books of the Old Testament, give us the answer. In Deuteronomy 5 Moses says, when re-stating the fourth commandment about the Sabbath, verse 15 ‘remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there…..therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe a Sabbath day’.
So the first six days of the week are like the Hebrews slaving in Egypt and the seventh day represents Israel’s freedom from slavery. The seventh day was to remind the Israelites of their freedom from slavery, resting in the blessings that God had given them. The blessing of freedom. The blessing of the Promised Land given to them by God.
But the principle of Sabbath didn’t end there: every seventh year, according to Leviticus 25, was to be a sabbath year, when the land was to have a rest from cultivation. Furthermore, after the seventh Sabbath year, the 49th year, there was to be a jubilee year, a year of freedom when the slaves were to be released….
Sabbath meant rest; remembering God’s provision; remembering what God had done, to free the Israelites from slavery.
But you cannot rest in freedom, with a clear conscience, when everywhere there are people in chains, where there are slaves all around you; when your Sabbath, when your worship, does not motivate you to work towards freedom of slaves the rest of the time.
Otherwise the rigorous enforcement of the Sabbath itself becomes a slavery, because the focus becomes the empty event: the wrapping, not what the event was designed to celebrate, the gift of freedom….the opposite of what God intended.
So now it makes complete sense, when we look back to Luke 13 and we see what Jesus did.
Verse 10: On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues and just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years…When Jesus saw her he called her over and said, ‘Woman you are set free from your ailment’.
She had not asked Jesus to heal her. This was a sermon illustration, a sign, like all Jesus’ healings, a sign that the Kingdom of God had drawn near.
So what happens next?
Verse 14, the leader of the synagogue is indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath; he had worked on the Sabbath and not rested. But, verse 15, the Lord answered him ‘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? And ought not this woman….whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’
The sabbath is about resting in the freedom of God’s presence and thus it is about freeing the slaves and that freeing of the slaves is what God wants to do because its who he is; as he describes himself at the beginning of the ten commandments ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of Slavery’
So what does that mean for us today in the Itchen Valley?
What have we got to do with slavery? We are free aren’t we? We are freer than we have ever been: we can choose to live anyway we like; we can do whatever we want!
But to say that is to misunderstand freedom; is to misunderstand slavery.
In John 8:31 Jesus says ‘if you hold to my teaching you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’.
Freedom in Christ does not mean:hedonism; living anyway we feel the urge. Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean: living without self discipline; living without standards.
When Jesus sets us free, he sets us free to enable us to hold to his teaching so that we want to do so; so that we go from won’t to want.
When I was at school, I used to love running on the Malvern Hills and would think nothing of running up there regularly – three times a week; it was a pleasure.
But, when I joined the Army, I positively hated early morning gym being shouted at by a Physical Training Instructor (PTI); it was a pain.
Although both involved running, my heart was in one, but not in the other.
Is following Jesus’ teaching a pleasure or a pain?
If we are slaves, slaves to often secret addictions which others don’t know about: for example: alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling, eating disorders; or if we are slaves to secret idolatries: worshipping things other than God, which are a higher priority for us than seeking God, money, status, or material things like houses and cars; or if we are slaves to patterns of behaviour like anger and snobbery which separate us from others……or indeed if we are slaves to world views such as Marxism or scientific materialism which deny the saving power of the gospel; even if we do not recognise these things as slaveries…following Jesus teaching is a pain….not a pleasure. ‘Do this, do that’ is all we hear; when all we want to do is have another drink….or whatever. ‘Who are you to tell me what to do anyway?’ we might say.
How can following Jesus’ teaching become a pleasure, a joy, as was running in the hills for me at school; something that we are desperately seeking to do; something that our whole life is about seeking? How can our hearts be changed to free us from the slaveries of addiction and idolatry?
It’s only by encountering Jesus Christ, by being reborn (John 3:1-21) that this can happen….like the crippled woman, released from her slavery, who immediately praises God. And that is what the whole objective of our worship, of our ritual, of our buildings, should be about, motivating us to free the slaves. It’s our job as followers of Christ to reflect our Creator’ character and to set the slaves free.
Indeed, what is the point of our worship, whether traditional or modern music; what is the point of our ritual, whether 1662, Common Worship or informal; what is the point of our Christian community; whats the point of our buildings; whats the point of our religion, unless we are motivated to free the slaves, unless we are servants of the God who brought Israel out of Egypt, working out his character?
But how do we bring people into an encounter with Jesus Christ?
One way is by inviting them on Alpha, which starts on 17th September 2019 in St John’s Itchen Abbas; where their prejudices can be put to one side; where their idolatries, world views and even addictions can be defused and set aside and they will have an opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ, so that they can go from won’t to want.
So I say to you all please pray for your friends, your relations, your neighbours, maybe those you prayed for between Ascension and Pentecost and invite them on Alpha, whatever you think their reaction will be, you may be surprised if you have been praying for them.
Let’s make our religion something which transforms people’s lives; something which frees the slaves in this wonderful community.
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 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. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 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.” 15 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? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Lk 13:10–17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.