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The Power to Restore
The lengthening shadows of Friday's setting sun closed upon the quiet village. The sound of a trumpet blast from the roof of the synagogue ruler's house marked the advent of Sabbath, the day of rest. Once more, it echoed over the village to hasten the villagers in laying aside all their work. After the horn sounded its third call, the ruler of the synagogue set it to rest by his side, he would not pick it up until next week to avoid violating the Sabbath regulations. Only the lighting of the festive lamp would be permitted. The day of rest had commenced.
When Sabbath morn had dawned, the people would gather for worship in the synagogue. On this Sabbath day, village sensed an air of expectation. Some had heard him preach. A few had been witnesses to a healing or a demonic deliverance but everyone had heard the stories. People had been arriving early the day before Sabboth. They traveled from the surrounding countryside. They had abandoned their flocks and herds, their vineyards and their fields, their trade shops and their fishing boats. All of that could wait. They wanted to see and hear the man from Nazareth.
One woman in the village rose early that morning and started her tedious walk to the synagogue. A relative or a friend usually would help her but this morning she did not want to trouble anyone. She wanted to arrive early. She wanted to make sure she located a seat that would allow her to see him. The walk was always difficult in her crippled condition but after eighteen years, she had gotten use to it. She did not understand why God allowed her to suffer but she seldom questioned it. Maybe it was a sin she had committed, maybe it was a sin her mother had committed. Those questions that would have to wait until the day when her suffering would come to a final end.
As she approached the door of the synagogue, she raised her hand to touch the ornamentations that hung on the doorframes. Perhaps on this synagogue, hung a set of vine-leaves with bunches of grapes overlaid on Aaron's rod. The grapes would have served as a reminder that she was the fruit of God's vineyard. Aaron's rod would have stirred her memory to recall the stories of her ancestor's deliverance from Egypt by Yahweh. She was not able to raise her head to see the symbols for many years, but their shape on her fingertips reminded her that she served a God who provided.
She slowly made her way along the eastern side of the room and walked toward the women's gallery in the back. The stairs were always difficult but she managed. Once in the balcony, she found a place where she could sit and by turning her head to the side see him. The synagogue quickly filled that morning. People were crammed in. Some sat in the aisles. Others stood along the sides. Women lined the stairway leading to the balcony. Still others stood outside and listened through the doorway.
The service began that morning just like every other service except that the Rabbi from Nazareth led the liturgy. He spoke the opening prayers and then recited the Shema,
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.(NIV)This prayer finished he delivered a portion of the 18 Eulogies and conclude with a blessing upon the people. Then the man from Nazareth sat down while seven men of the synagogue read portions of the law followed by a reading from the prophets. She listened to the words that she had heard so many times before. 1
The words may have reminded her that God had indeed done so many wonderful things, in times past. He had fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah. He delivered his people from the bondage of Pharaoh. He led them through the wilderness to a land flowing with milk and honey. He had raised up a righteous King and blessed the land. But the people rebelled and he punished them by the hand of Babylon and Rome. When would he stretch out his hand again? When would God send the promised Messiah? When would God draw near and restore the fortunes of Israel?
Finally, Jesus walked to the platform and sat down to teach. His words opened her heart to ways of understanding God that she had never considered. His message brought a conviction to live in obedience that she had never felt before. Then he shocked her. Looking her in the eye, he called to her and asked her to come down. She panicked. She did not know what to do. She did not want to stand in front of everyone. She did not want to be put on public display but he would not release her from his gaze. Hesitantly she walked forward, down the stairs, up the aisle, past her friends and family. People could barely move to let her pass so she had to push her way through the crowd. For the first time in 18 years, she was thankful that she could not look anyone in the eye. She was too embarrassed. What did he want with her? Why did he insist on making a public spectacle of her?
When she approached him, he stepped down off the platform and offered her his hand. She felt a flow of energy in his touch. He lifted her to the platform. Everyone in the room could now see her. Then she heard his voice say, "Woman you are set free from your infirmities!" She was stunned. What did it mean? Who was he to release her from the burden that she had carried for 18 years? How could he know, how could he understand? By what authority did he speak these words? But when he touched her something happened, something changed! She felt a release. A burden had been lifted. The stiffness in her back lessened. She did not feel the pain. She started to lift her head, then her upper body. She was surprised, her back felt relaxed for the first time. Suddenly she could stand erect. Her shoulders were held high. She lifted her hands to praise God and danced with delight.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COMMUNITY
In today's Gospel lesson, Luke gives us another stirring account of an unexpected healing. The author reveals his physician's concern. Luke includes more healing stories than any of the other gospel writer. He records 12 specific stories. He also gives special attention to mentioning that when Jesus sent the 12 disciples and the 72 disciples throughout the countryside he commissioned both of them with the ministry of healing. In addition, out of those 12 specific stories, 5 of them concerned women. Luke more than any other gospel writer highlighted Jesus compassionate relationship with women. But in this particular story, Luke also highlights for us the importance of community.
Luke's teaching is so subtle we have a tendency to miss it. We are so immersed in a cultural mindset that reveres individual autonomy that we fail to grasp the obvious. We have become so accustomed to walking in the garden alone that we have forgotten that in baptism we are untied together in the body of Christ. We would prefer that religion would be a private affair with our personal Savior. Then we can hide behind the shroud of religious activities and conceal our weakness, our inner insecurities, and the disease of sin that lurks within our heart. While this provides us with a certain level of emotional comfort and offers a great deal of security, it prevents us from experiencing the healing, life transforming power of God.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus seldom performs a private healing service. The most notable exceptions are Jairus' daughter, the Centurion's servant, and the widow of Nain but all three had special circumstances. Most often Jesus performed his healing in public. Either he would call the person forward or the person would solicit his help. In today's passage the location of the story is quite significant-the synagogue.
To say that the synagogue was the center of Jewish religion would be equivalent to saying that Joe Louis Arena is just a hockey rink for the citizens of Detroit. The synagogue was much more than that. It was the house of God. It was the sanctuary of worship. It was the dwelling place of the Divine. To enter the synagogue, was to enter God's presence. Pray would only be offered in the house of the Lord. A good Jew would have never considered that a divine-human encounter could be occur outside of the synagogue. The Jewish mind could not imagine experiencing God alone in the wilderness. Only within the context of the community of faith would God reveal his transforming power to restore.
To further highlight the importance of the community in healing, Jesus calls the woman forward. He wants the event to be public. He could have visited her home. He could have said a quaint prayer while they sat in the privacy of her living room. He could have spoke the words in a soft voice that no one but he, himself, would have heard, but he chose to call her front and center. He wanted every eye to be upon what God was about to do.
This is quite a contrast to the pastoral prayers in most Presbyterian worship services. We do not want anyone else to know that we have a need so we do not even write our real concerns on a prayer card. We claim we do not want to be the center of attention but it is really a form of pride and ego. We want to project an image of self-sufficiency. We would prefer to have others view us as strong, stalwarts of the faith. We are too embarrassed to step forward in a public worship service because it exposes our weaknesses. There are many reasons why prayers are not answered but I wonder how often God waits to move simply because we want to keep our problems private.
Jesus called the woman to come forward before he would heal her to show the people that the power to restore is released through their community.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TOUCH
Several years ago, I did a study of the healing stories in the gospels. It was not exhaustive, other considerations sidetracked me before I was able to complete it but I did enough work to notice a pattern. Jesus seldom healed two people the same way. In one story, he spit on the ground. In another, he simply commanded the person to be healed. In another, he took the person by the hand and raised them to new life. From that study, I concluded that there was not a single method of healing; the faith healers who claim you must do this or that simply are ignoring the evidence. Jesus even healed some who did not have any faith. However, I believe that Luke is highlighting the importance two component to healing-community and touch.
The touch of another person is very powerful. It can convey both love and hate. For the man whose parents withheld physical touch, the loving, gentle touch of his wife may serve to breakdown the barriers of isolation. For the woman, who suffered abuse, the gentle touch of another may one day bring healing to her scarred soul. For the person suffering from cancer, congestive heart failure, kidney disease, or some other ailment, the touch of another person may remind them that they are not alone. That God still cares.
Four months before my bone marrow transplant, I attended a presbytery meeting. It would be the last time that I worshiped with those ministers and elders prior to the transplant, so the moderator of the presbytery asked if he could invite the presbytery to pray for me with the laying on of hands. The touch of nearly 75 brothers and sisters in Christ was a deeply moving experience. Several times, I thought about that time of prayer while I lay recovering on a hospital bed. It served as a source of comfort and hope.
FAITH HEALING AND THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH
Community and touch, they have often been the forbidden taboos in Presbyterian churches. The practice of laying-on of hands and anointing with oil have been treated with the same condemnation in our day as healing on Sabbath in Jesus'. In our individualistic, self-sufficient Victorian-based form of religion, we have protected privacy to preserve pride but have produced a lonely, lifeless, powerless organization that we glibly call the "Church." What wonders could God do in our presence if we would just be willing to step forward in faith and come before the gathered community to hear his voice of comfort and receive his touch of healing?
Sometime during the next year, I would like to begin a series of healing services. They will not be a third worship service as some of you are thinking. More time will be spent in praying than singing. We will gather around the Table and celebrate communion. We will pray for one another with the laying-on of hands and the anointing of oil. Before I present the specific proposal to Session for approval, I am waiting for God's timing. We have much to do between now and then. I hope that you will join with me in pray as we seek God's guidance. However, until then I would to urge you to consider your own attitudes toward sharing your concerns with others. Consider, how comfortable you are to have someone sit with you and hold you hand to prayer for healing? How do you feel when someone reaches out and touches you during their prayer to convey their concern and the presence of God?
Community and touch, we may have never done it that way before, but
the people of God have been doing it that way since the first century!
1 Narration adopted from Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, (Grand Rapids MI:William B. Eerdmans, i:430-435.
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