Monday, October 1, 2007

Being Set Free - Luke 13:10-19 - back sermon from 8/26

Being Set Free - Luke 13:10-19

(Read the text first.)

Jesus was teaching in a synagogue. A synagogue is kind of like a Jewish church, a place for the reading of scripture, teaching, and community events. One day when he was teaching, he saw something that made him stop speaking. Maybe she had come in late. Maybe she was sitting in the back in a corner. Wherever she was, and however she got there, Jesus saw her, and he stopped speaking. He could see Satan’s chains wrapped around her. He could see the weight of depression and darkness pressing down on her back.

Many Jewish men prayed every day, “Blessed be God that he did not make me a Gentile outsider. Blessed be God that he did not make me an ignorant slave. Blessed be God that he did not make me a woman.”[1] She was doubly cursed. She was a woman, and she was crippled, on the same level as a slave or an outsider. Most people only knew her as “the bent woman.” She was an outcast, an unworthy, a defective, an error, or maybe even a living curse.

But Jesus saw her. Jesus saw her, and he called her to him. He called out of the shadows, out of the outside edges of the community, into the center, into the heart of the community. He healed her, and he gave her a new name: “Dear woman, daughter of Abraham.”

Abraham was the great-great-great...great-grandfather of the nation of Israel. He was the one to whom God gave the double promise: “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you … and you will be a blessing to others. … All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3).

This woman, this bent over, outcast woman was a “daughter of Abraham.” She was a Child of Promise, a child of the double promise. She will be blessed, and she will be a blessing to others. Jesus set her free.

Everybody celebrated, right?!

Not exactly. See there was one little problem with this miracle. It was on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was deeply important to Jews. “Keeping the Sabbath” was one of the 10 Commandments: “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God. On that day no one in your household may do any work” (Exodus 20:8-10).

Keeping the Sabbath was so important to the Jews of Jesus’ time that they had a wide range of prohibited (not allowed) activities on the Sabbath. For a good Jew on the Sabbath there could be no planting, no plowing, no cooking, no washing, no weaving, no tying, no untying, no starting fires, no putting out fires, no writing more than two letters, no erasing more than two letters, and no healing people unless their lives were in danger.[2]

Now, this all sounds a little funny to us. It’s easy for us to look at all of those old rules and say, “Oh, man you’ve got to be kidding me. Those are so silly. Those are so legalistic. That is so meaningless.”

But the Sabbath was a deeply important spiritual practice for the Jews. Sabbath became part of their identity. Sabbath became a key part of their experience of God. The point of all of these rules was to protect the spiritual meaning of the Sabbath: resting from our labor, remembering God’s saving activity in our lives, and being restored by God’s grace.

The intent of the rules was good, very good. Unfortunately, the rules began to function in a way opposite of their intent. Basically, Jesus says, “These religious rules are binding you up, chaining you down, holding you back from God’s life. God wants to set you free, not chain you down.”

In fact, “binding” and “freeing” are very important ideas for this story. The woman was held in bondage by Satan through sickness, so much so that she seems to wear her chains. Jesus says to her, “Woman, you are set free!” Then Jesus says to the people, “Every day you set free your animal that is bound in the barn, so it can drink. Satan has bound this woman for 18 long years. Shouldn’t she be set free, too?”

Jesus came to set us free. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he said he fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come” (Isaiah 61:1-2; Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus came to set us free. Satan and this world can bind us up in chains, too. Like Matt was talking about last week, the world gives out labels: geek, fatty, nerd, jock, pretty girl, alcoholic, poor, failure, hopeless sinner, doubter, crippled, depressed. We can get caught up and chained up in those labels, those addictions, those thought processes, so that we can’t be free. We can even get all caught up in our religious stuff. We can try to define freedom so much that our rules and guidelines take away freedom for us and for others.

Jesus came to set us free. Jesus has a new name for us: “Child of Promise.” Jesus says to us, “You are a child of the double promise. I will bless you, and you will be a blessing to the world. You are a Child of Promise. Be free.”

Fred Craddock is one of America’s most famous preachers. One day he was sitting a restaurant, and an older man came up to his table and said, “You a preacher?”

Fred was a little embarrassed. He didn’t quite know what to say to this stranger. “Uh, yes.”

The man pulled up a chair and sat down at Fred’s table. Fred said, “Uh, why don’t you join us?”

“Preacher, I’m going to tell you a story. There was once a little boy who grew up sad. Life was tough because my mama had me but she had never been married. Do you know how a small Tennessee town treats people like that? Do you know the words they use to name kids that don’t have no father? They call them all kinds of bad names! Every where he went, people would ask him “Who’s your daddy?” But he didn’t have no answer. The question kind of weighed on him, so he just started avoiding people, at recess, at lunch time, at school, in stores. The question just bent him over with shame. You could see it weighing on his back like a thousand pound weight.

“Well, we never went to church; nobody asked us. But for some reason or other, we went to church one night when they was having a revival. They had a big, tall preacher, visiting to do to the revival, and he was all dressed in black. He had a thunderous voice that shook the little church.

“We sat toward the back, Mama and me. Well, that preacher got to preaching, about what I don’t know, stalking up and down the aisle of that little church preaching. It was something.

“After the service, we were slipping out the back door when I felt that big preacher’s hand on my shoulder. I was scared. He looked way down at me, looked me in the eye and says, ‘Boy, who’s your Daddy?’

“I didn’t have no Daddy. That’s what I told him in trembling voice, ‘I ain’t got no Daddy.’

“‘Oh yes you do,’ boomed that big preacher. ‘You’re a child of the Kingdom. You have been bought with a price. You are a child of the King!’

Then, this old, interrupting stranger looked Fred Craddock in the eyes, and he said, “I was never the same after that. Preacher, for God’s sake, preach that.”

As he was leaving, the man’s name finally registered in Fred’s mind. That man was Ben Hooper, the former governor of Tennessee.[3]

Jesus came to set us free.

But that’s not the end of this story. After Jesus heals the woman and talks about the Sabbath, he tells a little story of his own. “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19). This short, little, one sentence story is packed with meaning. It seems to me that it tells us several different things about the Kingdom of God.

1. The Kingdom of God starts small. A mustard seed is teeny, tiny. (You might have seen it in some fancy Dijon mustard like Grey Poupon. Those little black specks are the whole seed.) The Kingdom of God comes near and gets started with every individual, no matter how small, who is set free from Satan’s bondage.

2. The Kingdom of God grows. No one really knows how a mustard seed or any other seed grows, yet it does. We plant it and water it, and it grows. That is how it works with Kingdom acts. We can’t control the outcome. We don’t really understand how it all works. But we live the Kingdom way. We do Kingdom things, like Isaiah talked about: “Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help” (Isaiah 58:6-7). We live this way, and the Kingdom grows. We can’t always see how it grows, but it grows.

3. The Kingdom of God becomes a shelter for the needy. The tiny mustard seed grows into a tree, and the birds find shelter and food in that tree. One of my favorite songs is, “Make Us a City of Refuge.” It goes like this:

Make us a city of refuge
A place where the wounded are healed
Make us a place of compassion
A home where the hungry are filled

Make us a people of mercy

Who give what we’ve freely received
Make us a city of refuge
A people of faith who believe

Let us bind the broken-hearted

And heal the wounded soul

Let us bring them close to Jesus
So He can make them whole
Let us liberate the captives
Who are bound and chained by sin

Let us be the hands of Jesus

To bring new life again

What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny community planted in Cheonan. It grows and becomes a faithful church, and people in need come and make their homes in its branches. We become a place where the wounded are healed, where the hungry are fed, where the captives are set free. We become a place where we all together are set free. That is the Kingdom of God!

I need to tell one more story. When I was in Houston this summer, I visited a church called “Mercy Street.” This church blew me away! I was amazed. It was like I had this dream of the best that church could possibly be, and then I saw it in real life, right before my eyes. Mercy Street’s mission is “to create a safe harbor for the hurt, the lost, the seeking so that they might experience the radical grace of God.” On their website they say they are full of people who are “recovering from addictions or bad church experiences.” They meet on Saturday nights, and every Saturday night they have a celebration time, when people can stand up and share something they want to celebrate. That was the coolest part of the night. I sat their in awe, almost with tears in my eyes, as one person after another stood and told how God is radically changing their lives.

“I’ve been free from alcohol for 90 days today.”

“I’ve been free from crack cocaine for 10 years this week.”

“I’ve been clean and sober for 17 days.”

“I haven’t taken drugs for 1 year.”

“Today is my wife’s birthday. Last year on this day, I almost killed myself. Today, thanks to God and Mercy Street, I’m free from drugs, and I’m still here.”

They were real. They were honest. They were set free. And more and more people are coming there to find refuge and to be set free.

Having a church full of drunks, crack addicts, church dropouts, and people who are committed to the church but not committed to Christ creates some problems for all of our nice church rules though. Transformation is happening. People are being set free, but there are still the rules.

One of the rules that Mercy Street had to deal with was church membership. For several years, this wasn’t such a big deal until Jerry wanted to become a member. Jerry was a recovering alcoholic. He had been sober for 15 years. He was a congregant that any pastor would love to have – consistent, eager to serve, gave money and brought a slew of friends with him each week. He participated in a small group and even drove a van to pick up people from halfway houses to come to church. And Jerry wanted to become a member.

There was just one problem. Jerry was Jewish. He joyfully and faithfully went to a local synagogue every Sabbath. Jerry planned to stay Jewish, but he wanted to join this Christian church.

When Jerry told Matt, the pastor, that he wanted to become a member, Matt not so politely said, “But Jerry, you’re a Jew!”

Jerry laughed a big belly laugh: “Nice observation preacher-boy, but I want to join this place. I’ve … never been a part of a community that brings my spirit alive like this one, and I want to join.”

In the conversation that followed, Matt explained that when people join the church they are committing to follow Jesus as the Messiah, the savior of the world. And Jerry said, “Matt, I’ve got a lot of questions about Jesus – but I’m open and committed to working those out at Mercy Street.”

Jerry became a catalyst, a change agent, for Mercy Street. They changed their membership process. Mercy Street decided not to let the traditional rules of the Methodist Church become one more chain that binds people up instead of helping Jesus set people free. Now at Mercy Street anyone can become a member as long as they commit their prayers, presence, gifts and service to the church in the process of seeking Christ. They become members, and then they become Christians. They commit themselves to this community that is seeking Christ together. Becoming a member of this seeking community is part of their journey toward becoming a Christ follower.[4] Radical! Beautiful!

Jesus came to set us free.

We need to ask ourselves some questions. Take a few minutes of silence and think about these questions.

How are you bound?

What kind of chains or burdens or labels are holding you down?

Are you ready for Christ to set you free?

And what about our church? How can we become a place where God sets people free?

How can we become a place of refuge where the wounded are healed?

Are we ready for Christ to set us free?

[1] C. Jeanne Serrao, “No Other Gospel: Galatians,” Adult Faith Connections, Leader’s Guide, June, July, August, 2007. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill), 96.

[2] “Shabbat,”, downloaded 8.23.07.

[3] William Willimon, “What’s in a Name?”, August 23, 1998. Sermon at Duke Chapel., downloaded on 8.23.07.

[4] Matt Russel, “How a Drunk Jew Changed My Idea of the Church,” an unpublished article as of 2007.

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