Readings: Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 13:10-17
We pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.
We have a phrase in our language – we talk about conversations or encounters where whatever is said just ‘passes us by’’ – conversational ships in the night – where we both think we are talking about the same thing but actually are on completely different subjects, at cross purposes. The people that Isaiah are talking to are somewhat like that in their relationship with God. If we look at the verses preceding the Old Testament reading we heard today, we find a genuinely bewildered people –‘why O God will you not draw near us when we do everything you ask of us?’ and a frustrated God – ‘you say you do this but in fact……’
The dialogue goes something like this:
God: day after day they seek me as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.
People: Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves but you do not notice?
God: look, for a start, you serve your own interests on fast day – you quarrel and fight, this will not make your voice heard on high, why don’t you get it? This is not what I ask of you…this is what you are to do if I am to hear you – stop pointing the finger, doing evil, trampling on the Sabbath, pursuing your own interests.
The people are genuinely bewildered at this charge of hypocrisy. They do not see what they are doing wrong.
From the Hebrew scriptures, we learn that there are two type of emphasis on how it is that God’s people are to approach the Sabbath, the day of the sacred when all eyes are turned to God. From Genesis and Exodus we have the ordinance to bless and consecrate the Sabbath as a day of rest – the Lord rests from the work of creation therefore we too are to rest –refraining from working so we can contemplate and reflect and praise God.
From Deuteronomy we hear that we are to observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God
This complementary understanding, set in the light of deliverance from Egypt, commands the people to observe the day and keep it holy – in other words undertake a holy work
Relinquishing work for self and active holiness for God.
Keeping the Sabbath holy did not mean only resting but also doing the work of the kingdom – active holy practice on the Sabbath.
And that practice was around justice and service and caring for each other – doing the Lord’s work. Through Isaiah, God told the people that by not living in active holiness, their worship and rituals were worse than nothing. God and the people were talking past each other, neither in the same conversation.
In our Gospel reading the Pharisees too had bound up the Sabbath with rules for refraining from work and had lost sight of the Deuteronomy teaching – that of holy practice.
Hypocrisy was rife, rules were rigid, consequences were immediate. How, Jesus asks them somewhat angrily, does your unwillingness to condone the healing of one of God’s chosen on the Sabbath fit with your remembrance and honouring of the liberation of God’s people from Egypt, of your understanding of active holiness? Not at all. More than that, you have made even these days of rest a place of bondage, where people’s wholeness and strength is constrained, diminished by your finicky rules, your lack of flexibility and compassion
Yet again the conversation that the people are having with God, where they think they have got it right, is missing the mark completely.
Jesus here is pointing out their hypocrisy. He is upset that they do not see suffering that this woman is under and are willing to place rules of rest above the need for healing and restoration. This is not living in a meaningful and engaging relationship with God – this is witness gone wrong, he says. And they themselves are living in bondage to the rules, unable to see that they have lost sight of a meaningful dynamic living out of God’s love.
How many of you have read C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce? I have – a long time ago. In it a busload of people leave hell on a holiday to heaven. One of them, in her earthly life, was a washerwoman in Golder’s Green, wringing her livelihood from the soil of the clothing of those who hire her for a pittance. In her life in the kingdom of God, she is herself clothed in a white gown and a tiara, with ladies holding her train and laughing in the bright sheen of God’s new day. Most of the people who board the bus for their holiday in heaven, away from hell, instead of staying, choose to return to the lower world. Bent on going back to hell, the return trip is difficult, because the journey requires them to find what is a very small crack in the expansive green pastures of the kingdom, and to travel back in a shrinking coach that crushes passengers into insufferably cramped quarters until they themselves grow small enough to have wide spaces between them. The washerwoman, the crippled woman in Luke, however, chooses to stay on holiday, in the kingdom.
It is a sobering premise. The smallness of self containment, blindness against the expansive freedom that is wholeness and healing in God.
There are two parts to the Gospel story – the healing of the woman, a healing that leads immediately into praise and witness and the smallness and rigidity of the rule keepers, unable to see their own hypocrisy and their need for living in a vibrant full relationship with God.
And it seems that the question to us is equally pointed. Do we live in well meaning but unfaithful hypocrisy, turning people away, comfort our priority, immersed in our ownness, overwhelmed by our business and captured by our regulations?
Or are we aware of our need to be on the same page as Jesus, to have our conversations with God focussed on that which brings the kingdom to pass, that which allows us to witness to the love of God in active holiness as well as Sabbath rest?
What might this look like?
Well when we listen for and hear the voice of God, a voice strong enough to tell us when we are getting it wrong, as we inevitably do, we are constantly assessing our witness against the teachings of Jesus, not so much slipping into that place of hypocrisy, where our living does not reflect the teaching we purport to follow.
We are better able to see how to live into and beyond our limits. To neither attempt to do that which is not asked of us nor to be held back from that which God asks us to be in faith.
We are open to and aware of the many rhythms of community and conversation, moving always to the drums of justice and compassion, service and holy action in our obedience to the love of God.
We welcome nurturing and prodding rather than contentment and smallness. We find our gifts and abilities and be encouraged to live them to the full in Jesus name, knowing when it is time for sacred rest and sacred activity.
We place substance above form, compassion above unfeeling rules, people above empty ritual and God above all.
And when we do this – allowing our conversations, our relationships with God and each other to connect and flourish in the one understanding of obedient love, that is where we would be with the crowd, rejoicing at all the wonderful things that Jesus was doing in the world and our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.