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Sermon: Remember the Big Picture!

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA August 21, 2016.
14 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Jeremiah 1:4-10; Ps. 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17    
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

          In the dark of night December 16, 1773, a small group of men banded together, boarded three merchant ships in Boston Harbor, and dumped 342 chests of tea into the bay.  This group of men, calling themselves the Sons of Liberty, took this action because of the taxation policies of the English Government.  The British called them _____ thugs.  Yet, only when we look at this act in Bost Harbor against the backdrop of the big picture will we see its true significance.  The 'Boston Tea Party' was not just an isolated incident; rather, it was one of the first acts of what became known as the American War for Independence.        
          We need also to see the story of today's Gospel in that same light. What is this Gospel telling us?  What’s the Big Picture here?

        If we consider the smaller picture, we see an act of love and grace in which Jesus healed a woman.  A woman who had suffered for eighteen years from some form of curvature of the spine.  This healing is certainly wonderful enough.  But Luke invites us to also see this event for the big picture.  This is not just an isolated act of healing; rather, it is one of many victories in Jesus' war of liberation against the forces of evil.  Jesus invites us to see this woman's illness against the backdrop of a larger picture; that of Satan working to bind up humanity.
        Luke asks us to see the healing of this woman as a sign of how the Kingdom of God works.  A work to transform the world.  A work to set people free from bondage.  As we remember this story, keep this bigger picture in mind.
        Let’s picture the whole thing now.  While Jesus teaches in the synagogue, he would sit toward the front.  Near him would be the leader of the synagogue, an elder entrusted for seeing that the teaching was sound, true, and informed.  As Jesus teaches, a woman appears; she is bent over and unable to straighten up.  Her infirmity makes it hard for her both to be seen and for her to see.         We might presume this is a small community and that this woman is known to the people of the village.  They likely would have known that she struggled with this ailment for a long time.  Some eighteen years.
        Seeing her, Jesus interrupts his message and calls her forward.  He speaks words of freedom to her, lays hands on her, and immediately, for the first time in eighteen years, she is able to straighten up and look straight into another's face.
        Now the leader of the synagogue immediately protests, firmly chastising Jesus and the woman, stating, ‘There are six days on which you can heal people, come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath!’ (Luke 13:14)  Jesus recognizes in the leader’s words, alluding to the book of Deuteronomy, which states 'For six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work -- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey...' (Deut 5:13-14)
        So in his reply to the synagogue leader, Jesus uses these very words to point out that the text does NOT just forbid work by humans; oxen and donkeys are also forbidden to work on the Sabbath!  However, there is not a man in the synagogue who would think twice about setting his ox or his donkey free from bondage on the Sabbath!  So why then should he, Jesus, not set this woman free from Satan's bondage?  That is the close up view.
        Customs originated from people’s ideas about how to obey the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.”  From the time this commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honor the Sabbath and how we keep it holy.
        The Sabbath was meant to be a gift, a time of rest and restoration, a time to worship God.  Quickly that gift turned into Law, and all sorts of rules grew up about what was work and what wasn’t, what it was permissible to do on the Sabbath and what was not.  Keeping the Sabbath holy also meant reserving that day for worship of God, and, as you might guess, people had various ideas about what constituted worship and, therefore, exactly what kept the Sabbath holy.
        Let’s get back to the big picture.
        Now Luke, who is said to have been a physician, describes her symptoms for us in some detail.  Yet he also attributes the ailment to a deeper cause; Luke states she was a woman with “a spirit that had crippled her” (Luke 13:11).  What kind of spirit?  Is he saying an evil spirit had caused this illness?  At first sight, it certainly seems that way.  But let’s pull back and look at the bigger picture.
        This story doesn’t read like other stories Luke has told us in which Jesus sets people free from the power of evil spirits.  Jesus doesn’t speak a word of rebuke to a spirit here.  There is no sign that the evil spirit convulsed the woman before coming out.  Most telling of all, Jesus lays hands on this woman, which he never does in the other instances of deliverance from demons.
        Because of these details, I believe Luke isn’t writing that this illness is specifically caused by demons, or evil spirits.  Instead, I think he invites us to see this woman’s illness as a sign of the devil's activity in this fallen world.
        Disease and Illness can be ways that Satan binds up the human race.  Humans fear disease and can focus too much on it.  We can lose touch with God.  Of course there are other ways Satan can bend us out of shape: war, violence, compulsive habits, fear, injustice, oppression, and on and on and on.  These are not just isolated incidents; they point to the power of evil.  The power of sin at work in the world.  Evil and Satan have a strange fascination for some people.
        C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer and theologian, admitted that as a young man he had a fascination with the occult.  However, in his twenties he had an experience with a close relative deeply involved with the occult whose mind was destroyed by it, eventually dying in an asylum.  The experience opened Lewis' eyes to the big picture, to the true nature of what is going on in the world, and in the spiritual realm.
        In the same way, Jesus opens our eyes in this Gospel passage.  It is as if Jesus is saying ‘You see this woman?’  You see how she is bound by this illness?  This is what happens in a fallen world.  This is what the power of evil does to human beings: it binds, it cripples, and it seeks to destroy.
        My friends, the Scriptures are clear.  Our war is not against flesh and blood, but against forces of wickedness in the earthly and heavenly places.  Of course, there is another part of that big picture that God wants us to see: the Big Picture concerning Jesus' work.
        Remember that illustration I opened with of the Boston Tea Party in 1773; its true significance was not just as an isolated event, but one of many acts leading up to the Revolutionary War.  It was a part of many acts which led to the founding of the United States of America.
        In much the same way, the healing story of this ‘bent out of shape’ woman is not just about her life.  Rather, it is part of the story of how the kingdom of God triumphs over the power of evil.  That is why Jesus adds this explanation at the end of this story, in verses 18-21 which we didn’t hear today:   
        “[Jesus] said therefore,"What is the kingdom of God like?  And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."  And again he said, "To what should I compare the kingdom of God?  It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened".” 
        Jesus saw the kingdom of God working in a gradual way to transform the world.  It starts with a small seed, which gradually grows until it is a tree big enough for birds to nest in. 
        It starts with a handful of yeast, which works gradually in the flour until the whole lump has been leavened.
        In this gradual process, every healing is evidence that the power of evil is being broken as it comes face to face with the power of the Son of God.
        This gradual growth does not mean that God is powerless.  Far from it!  The day of complete deliverance will certainly come when we all will be straightened out, free from crippling spirits, the day when the tree will be fully grown, the day when the flour is fully leavened.  On that day the world, and the humans in it, will be completely free from all that binds, and we will experience life as God created it in the beginning.
        Now, how does this story apply to our lives today?  This woman was bound by a spirit, or in our way of speaking, by a disease.  This woman was obviously in bondage.  There are other forms of bondage, which are not so obvious.
        What binds you? What binds me?  What prevents us from standing up straight in a spiritual sense?  What is holding us back from being transformed into the image of Christ?  What holds us back from being able to enjoy life fully as God has planned it?
        Jesus said much about the need for forgiveness, about loving our enemies, about turning the other cheek.  I have known people, and I imagine you have known some as well, who just do not seem to be able to let go of a particular resentment.  Someone has done something to them, which, in their eyes, is so bad that they just refuse to forgive.  As I watch, it is very clear that the one who refuses to forgive is the one who ends up suffering the most.  It consumes their spirit, slowly turning them into a cold, angry, resentful human being.  It is binding them up.  It is bending them out of shape.  It is hindering them from becoming all that God wants them to be; from being transformed into the image of Christ.  This is a fairly common form of spiritual 'curvature of the spine.'  For some, it has lingered for far more than eighteen years.  If you feel this might be you, then listen carefully.  Jesus is saying, ‘It is time to be set free.’
        Are any of us really free from what can cripple us?  Are you ready to be free?  Do we actively seek liberation from all those things that ail us?
        Part of us may not want to let go of this bondage.  We might find our burdens familiar, even comfortable.  Satan certainly doesn’t want us to let go of this bondage.  But take heart, that as assuredly as God's power was able to set this woman free, so God’s power can set each of us free also.  It might not happen in an instant, as it did with this woman.  It may be more like a seed growing into a tree, or a bit of yeast gradually leavening a handful of flour.  Whether it happens gradually or suddenly, it can and will happen.
        Today at 10:30 a.m., Alina Marie Anderson and Mason Barnett Woodward will be presented by their parents, godparents, and grandparents to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  As part of the opening renunciations, the sponsors are asked to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and to renounce all sinful desires that draw us from the love of God.  The Baptismal Promises that we all make or reaffirm includes persevering in resisting evil, and, whenever, NOT IF, but whenever we fall into sin, repenting and returning to the Lord.
        Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Jesus invites us all into a life of faith in him, to trust that The Son of Man truly loves us, and that God wants the very best for all of us.  When the day to day snapshots blind us, make us ill, crippling us, remember the bigger picture.  Our Lord wants us to be free from all bondage and liberated from sin, and Dearly Beloved, when our Lord Jesus Christ sets you free, you will be free indeed!
        In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.