Texts: Isaiah 58:[1-8], 9-14; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
It was while we were taking this class that we decided that at the wedding reception, since everybody was going to be watching us dance anyway, we might as well do something that would be fun to watch. So, we decided to foxtrot to “The Best is Yet to Come,” but with my timing problem, we had to really rehearse to get it to work out. Over several weeks of dance lessons and even some private sessions with our instructors, we slowly got better and better at the foxtrot, and we got more and more accustomed to the song, knowing when the music would swell and fade, and how to time our steps.
In a sense, this is what Jewish and Christian worship is: rehearsal. When we worship, we gather together as a community, we listen to God’s word and seek to understand it, we pray for the needs of the world around us, and we pool our gifts together to do God’s work: all things that help us prepare for life in the coming reign of God. For this reason, what we do in worship is important; and yet how we do it is open to a great deal of interpretation. These two aspects of our worship—its importance and its flexibility—mean that for a long time, we have been debating how best to worship.
Our gospel text today is one example of this debate. The synagogue leader represents one side. He may appear cruel or overly strict or even ignorant, but he is simply trying to be obedient to God’s own law as best he can. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” scripture says, “Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the LORD throughout your settlements.” (Lev. 23.3) He sees what Jesus doing work on a day commanded by God to be a day of rest.
Jesus, however, sees things differently. Scripture also says, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (Ex. 23.12) He sees his healing of the woman as a way of letting her, too, experience the rest the LORD commands for the sabbath. His words to the synagogue leader might seem harsh, but his rebuke helps us to see both how obvious Jesus’ interpretation seems to be as well as its importance.
This story helps underscore for us just what it is our worship is helping us rehearse. To the synagogue leader, worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God. This is important, but Jesus intentionally pushes the boundaries here to help us see a deeper truth: worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God by practicing justice.
The 58th chapter of Isaiah digs into this truth. The people of Israel are keeping the sabbath, but they are missing the point. While they piously fast, they also mistreat their workers and ignore the oppressed. They wonder why God does not seem to respond to their right religious conduct, and God responds by saying, “is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isa 58.6)
We hear in our reading that when God’s people refrain from trampling the sabbath by “pursuing their own interests on my holy day,” that is by keeping the religious traditions while still acting unjustly to benefit themselves, then—and only then—will they finally “take delight in the LORD.” The nuance here is subtle: fearing and loving God is not about keeping the letter of the law, but the spirit of it.
This is what the synagogue leader is missing—what we sometimes miss—and what Jesus is so eager to explain to both him and us. God gives us laws and establishes traditions for us to follow, but the end purpose of these things is not to test our blind obedience, but to prepare us in body, mind and soul for the reign of God.
Immediately after this story of healing, Jesus begins teaching the crowd in the synagogue about “What is the kingdom of God like?” comparing it to a mustard seed, a woman baking bread, a narrow door. One thing we know about what God’s reign is like, it is that it will be just; there will be no more oppression of the weak by the strong, no more exploitation of the poor by the rich, no longer will the many be silenced by the few.
Jesus shows us this today by healing this woman. She is bent over—a posture of submission and humiliation—when Jesus releases her from her bondage (which he calls satanic), he allows her to stand up straight, to regain her honor and dignity as a daughter of Abraham. No longer will people pity her or (literally) look down on her, but will look her squarely in the eye when they speak to her and treat her as they would any other Jewish woman. This is not just a story of Jesus healing a woman; it is a story of Jesus bringing justice to someone who has been oppressed, whether by spiritual forces or cultural ones.
In order to truly be worship, our sabbath observance must point us to this reality. People worship in many different ways: we may sing old hymns or modern songs, we may worship with charismatic energy and waving hands or with reverent solemnity or even silence. Some even worship by not worshiping: there are many who find God’s presence in nature, in the joy of family, in the beauty of art, or in many other places. Any of these things can be worship--as long as they help prepare us for the impending reality of God’s coming reign of justice and peace.
This is why we worship the way we do here, because we, like centuries of Christians before us, have found that the liturgy we follow does just that. We worship by gathering in community: we cannot come together without building relationship with and empathy for the people with whom we gather, even when we are embroiled in personal conflicts. We worship by hearing the word of God and plumbing that word for wisdom and understanding to guide our daily life. We worship by praying for one another and the world, which at once makes us mindful of the needs around us and also moves us to try to meet those needs. We worship by bringing our gifts of time and resources and of bread and wine together, so that God might use those gifts to serve both us and the community around us.
One of the most dramatic ways we rehearse for God’s kingdom is through the Eucharist. In the meal, we see Christ’s body broken for us, knowing that this gathered community is also the Body of Christ. As we see Christ’s body shared among us to nourish us, we are seeing how we ourselves are to be broken and shared to nourish the world in Christ’s name when we are sent from worship with the words “Go in peace, share the good news.”
This may seem like a daunting task, to go out and bring the good news of God’s justice to the oppressed; but this is why we worship. We have been preparing for this every week as we gather here. Each time we worship, we are rehearsing the justice of God’s kingdom: removing the pointing of the finger, giving food to the hungry, satisfying the needs of the afflicted. God is rehearsing us for the kingdom to come during this worship.
Even though I’m not a great dancer, rehearsing with Stephanie prepared me for our first dance at our wedding reception. It wasn’t perfect; we made some mistakes and my timing was a little off at parts, but we made it through and, what’s more, we had fun doing it. That’s why we put this work in now, why we rehearse for God’s reign in anticipation of its arrival: so that when it is here, even if we aren’t perfect, we will continue to practice God’s justice and have fun doing it.