We need to recover a profound sense of the awe and wonder of God.
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 25th August 2019 at 11.15 AM
One of the points of contention between Jesus and the Jewish authorities of his day was about work on the Sabbath day. Jesus seems to have been entirely happy to heal people on the Sabbath day, even though the strict interpretation of Jewish law commanded that people rest on the Sabbath day and keep it holy, doing no work even of a humanitarian kind.
In today’s reading from St Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath and healing a woman who has been bent over with a crippling disease for eighteen years. Jesus lays his hands on her and tells her she is free of her ailment and she immediately stands up straight and is well.
But as we heard, the leader of the synagogue was unhappy about Jesus healing the crippled woman and told the assembly that there were six days when people could work and the Sabbath day was not one of those days.
We heard an explanation from the prophet Isaiah in our first lesson about how the Sabbath should be kept. And we found in that lesson a generous and compassionate approach to the care and help of those suffering a disadvantage. Isaiah spoke of removing the yoke from those bearing heavy burdens, offering food to the hungry, helping the afflicted: all these actions would bring blessings from God and a restoration of the strength and well-being of the people of Israel. Even so, the Sabbath itself should not be trampled; people should not pursue their own interests on the Sabbath, or go their own way. The Sabbath should be thought of as a delight, as holy and honourable.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, we hear in the book of Exodus. ‘For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work - you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.’
Jesus must know perfectly well this instruction, part of the fundamental authority of God for the people of Israel, the Ten Commandments, handed down by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. And yet, he argues to the people in the synagogue that there is a higher authority, that of compassion and kindness, which overrides even the detail of the Ten Commandments. Keep the Sabbath holy, yes; but do not withhold healing from the sufferer.
When Jesus makes this point with authority in the synagogue, based on the perfectly obvious fact that people would generally untie their ox or donkey and lead it to give it water, even on the Sabbath day, everyone seems entirely content. All his opponents are put to shame and the entire crowd, presumably including the leader of the synagogue, rejoices at the great things he is doing.
This time, the confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish authorities passes off quietly. It is not always so. The scribes and the Pharisees, as we know, are anxious about what he is doing and it becomes a point of real contention between them. We must see it as one of the reasons why the authorities begin to oppose Jesus and to criticise him and why they seek to alienate him and condemn him.
Jesus, Son of God as well as Son of Mary, has authority which stands above the authority of the Jewish tradition and practice. He is able to over-rule the authority of the Jewish leaders. In the earliest part of St Mark’s Gospel, we hear the people say of Jesus, when he has healed on the Sabbath day, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’
The argument about working on the Sabbath day was a vital part of the clash between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. But it means little to us in our own day. In this country, as in many Western countries, there is lip service to the Sunday rest. Most people do all kinds of work for themselves and their families at the weekend, cleaning the house, maintaining the garden, shopping, cooking, and all the rest of the duties that befall individuals and families. There is much to do.
The important point we can take from these two readings is the duty on all of us to act with compassion for the disadvantaged, and for ourselves and our societies to care for the poor and the outcaste, the sick and the dying. We take it for granted that the people of our own day are more decent, more compassionate, than people were of old. Indeed, since the whole of our civilisation is founded upon the Christian gospel and the teaching of Jesus, these duties of care have become pervasive, accepted by all as a sign of our civilisation. The example of Jesus imposes on those of us who seek to follow him a particular duty to be generous and to be compassionate.
The second reading we heard from the letter to the Hebrews takes us into a quite different mode of thinking. Suddenly here we are confronted with a reality that puts our duty of care and compassion against a background of terrifying divine power and authority.
Now we cannot stand meekly before the Lord God almighty and say, well, I thought my little was doing the best I could; now we see God as terrifying authority, as judge, as a blazing fire, a tempest, the sound of a trumpet. ‘You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.’
Here God is surrounded by innumerable angels, by the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and by Jesus himself, whose sprinkled blood heals and renews and transforms us from our own weak and feeble selves into the people he calls us to be.
It would be, is, so easy for us to domesticate our idea of God, to bring him down to our own level. You may remember that the German romantic poet two hundred years ago, Heinrich Heine, said of God, ‘Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.’ ‘God will forgive me; that’s his job.’
God is not our friendly genius, our little local spirit who comforts us, who easily forgives us whenever we have let God down. We need to recover a profound sense of the awe and wonder of God. It would be a severe mistake to underestimate the terrifying power and authority of God. It would equally be a severe mistake to ignore the profound truth that God is love. But love is inevitably demanding; it commands a response of love. And today we are reminded that God is not to be mocked or belittled. Our God is a consuming fire.