Hebrews 12:18-29 & Luke 13:10-17
I would like to tell you a story this morning about two ways of living.
One way of living is one in which people are bent over, infirm, bound up, afraid, under law, in fear of punishment, surrounded by darkness.
The other way of living is one in which there is freedom, release, healing, life, joy, assurance that we are loved.
I wonder which way you would prefer to live?
Our two readings this morning tell the story of these two ways of life and their relation to each other, and leave us with this choice: which way will you live?
The first reading that we heard was from the book of Hebrews, and the writer of that book begins this section of the book with a description of something that had happened many years ago to the people of God. They had been led out of slavery in Egypt, had crossed the Red Sea and had travelled across the desert to a mountain, a mountain that was holy to them, a mountain called Mount Sinai. When they got there they discovered that it was a place of darkness and fire. God came and spoke to Moses in the clouds of the mountain, but the people were afraid that they would die, so they drew back from hearing God’s voice and instead kept at a distance.
It was at Sinai that God gave the law to the people, through Moses. This law was to be life giving and life enhancing. It was given to allow the people to live in harmony with each other and with God. However, it was powerless to do this because the people continued to keep their distance from God. At first this meant that they were disobedient and unfaithful. While Moses was on this very mountain, being given the law by God, only months after the rescue from slavery in Egypt, they make an idol to worship, a golden calf.
The remainder of the Old Testament tells the story of the people of God keeping their distance from God, of them being wooed back by God, and of them going off again and again. Eventually their land is over run and they are scattered into exile. They insisted on keeping their distance from God, and in the end God allowed them to have what they wanted.
I say in the end, but of course that’s not true, because it wasn’t the end. God is faithful and so God brought the people back to Jerusalem. But now a different problem reared its ugly head. The people seemed to have got the message that they must keep God’s law, but it still wasn’t a desire for intimacy for God that inspired this, but a fear of punishment, of being sent into exile again. So what was meant to be the means became the ends. The thing that was intended to provide a way for humans to live in close relationship with God became a whole thing in its own right. It became more important to keep the law than it was to know the God who gave the law.
It became more important to keep the law than it was to know the God who gave the law.
At Sinai fear led the people to keep God at a distance. Keeping God at a distance meant the people were unfaithful. Being unfaithful led to the people moving further away from God. Despite being brought back home, the people focussed on the law rather than the law giver, and so fear continued to lead people to keep God at a distance.
It is into this world that Jesus is born. God coming close. God coming so close that He lives with us, is one of us. Something is going to have to give. The old way of life is being challenged, Jesus has come to bring the dawn of a new way of living, a new Kingdom, His Kingdom. One Sabbath, in a little synagogue, he does something that provides an example of this. He challenges the understanding of the law. Jesus is teaching and sees someone who is in physical distress, who is bent over and bound. He is obedient to the great laws of God, the laws of love and compassion, the laws of freedom and healing, the laws of wholeness and life giving, the laws that are known and understood when God is close at hand. However, Jesus’ obedience to these laws challenges the accepted understanding of another law, the law of the Sabbath.
The law of the Sabbath is also an important law of God. It safeguards people from abuse and oppression, from slavery and busyness. It reinforces the necessity for time for the human spirit to rest and to be in the company of God. I believe that is one of the laws of God that this current age needs to rediscover if it is to become healthy and balanced. However, there is a real problem with this law. Throughout history it is one of the laws of God that has attracted all kinds of extra little bits of law. People who like making rules and like exercising power over other people have used the Sabbath law as a way of doing that. They have added extra definitions to what it means to keep the day holy, or to rest from work. I wonder if this is because it’s an easy one to police. It’s difficult to tell if someone is lusting in their heart, but it’s easy to see if they are doing something they’re not meant to be doing on a certain day.
It seems to me that Jesus does not break the Sabbath law, but he does challenge the religious leader’s understanding of it. His new kingdom is one in which God is not at a distance, but is up close and personal, breaking through to change lives. No longer is fear of punishment able to lead us to keep our distance because we know that there is no punishment, Jesus has taken that away on the cross. Unlike the blood of Abel, which called out from the ground for revenge, the blood of Jesus calls out a better message, a message of forgiveness and peace with God.
We have seen in Hebrews a description of the old kingdom. We have seen in this example from Jesus’ life the dawn of the new kingdom. We return to Hebrews for a glimpse of the fulfilment of this new kingdom.
In God’s heavenly Kingdom, we will see all the heavenly creatures in unfettered joy. We will meet together with all God’s people who have ever lived in one great community of love and worship. We will stand before God, our judge and know that thanks to Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit we are entirely acceptable to God. We will be perfect. No more habitual sins that defeat us again and again. No more sneaking suspicions that we’re not good enough for God. No more fear that God can’t love me. I know that we don’t see all this yet, but I am convinced that we have been promised it, and that as we follow Jesus in the way of life that dawned with his birth, we are headed in the direction that will take us there.
And so, in the end we are faced with a choice. It is the same choice that faced the women in the synagogue. Jesus called her to come near. Was she going to obey that call? She could have stayed where she was, kept God at a distance, bound by the fear of the breaking of the Sabbath law, bound by the fear of what others might think of her, bound by the fear of what this travelling rabbi might say or do. But she didn’t, she went near to Jesus, so that he could touch her. How are we going to respond to God’s call to come near in faith to be released from the things that bind us, that cause us to go through life bent over? Are we willing to respond, to come close to God, or are we going to keep God at a distance? Getting close to God can be scary, as Hebrews says, “our God is a consuming fire” but it is my experience that although that fire is hot and does feel like it is burning us at times, all that is destroyed is dross that I didn’t want in my life anyway, and what is left feels cleansed and bright shining gold.
It seems to me that if we want to experience deeper and more intimate worship here at St Mark’s then one of things we have to do is to respond positively to God’s invitation to come closer. As we do, God will heal us and release us so that we can straighten up and praise God, offering an acceptable worship in reverence and awe. What I find really exciting about this is that it won’t just affect our experience in church on a Sunday morning, it can change the way that we walk through life. People around us will see that change and be delighted at the wonderful works of God, and so be drawn to worship as well. And so it can continue, more and more people being drawn closer and closer to God and the worshipping life of this congregation exploding.
We’re going to have a few moments of quiet now for us to reflect on what I’ve said. It may be that as you come forward to receive communion in a few moments that you will want to draw near to God in your heart in a new way. It may be that you want someone to pray with you for a new freedom from something that you feel is binding you, and there will be people ready to pray with you during our communion time. Jesus is calling us all to come closer, see that you do not refuse him.