Sermon for Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021
Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, carrying the stone tablets of the Commandments written by the finger of God, he found the people in worshiping an idol, and he was so furious he threw down the tablets and shattered them.
The Lord told Moses to put the shards in a wooden box, or “ark,” and cover it with gold. The lid of the ark was called the “Atonement Cover,” or “Mercy Seat,” and it’s here, above the broken tablets of the law, that Moses was commanded to sprinkle the blood of sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins – covering the evidence of sins with the blood of a pure and flawless animal. In fact, the Hebrew words for atonement and covering are the same.
The Lord told Moses to put this ark in a tent, or tabernacle. The ark and tabernacle traveled with the Hebrews for the whole forty years they wandered in the desert before they came into the Promised Land.
A thousand years before Christ was born, his ancestor King David ruled in Jerusalem. He had a beautiful house built for himself. But David said to himself, “Here I am, living in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a raggedy leather tent outside the city.” He resolved to build a house for the Lord. But the Lord said to David, “What would I do with a house? I’ve never lived in a house. Did I ask for a house?” Instead, the Lord says, “I will build a house for you: Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7, my paraphrase) There will be a Son of David on the throne for ever and ever.
And in time David's son Solomon was blessed to built a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem, and had the Ark of the Covenant moved from the Tabernacle and placed in the Temple.
The biblical books of Kings and Chronicles tell that, in the generations that followed, Judah and Israel had good and bad kings. They ruled, made war, took counsel with prophets or persecuted them. All the things kings get paid to do. But in nearly every case, the end of their life says that the king “did not remove the high places.” These were altars on the mountains and hilltops, used to worship demons. And though the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah were consecrated to the Lord God, in fact the worship of the Lord was at best a minority religion for much of Israel's history.
It was a little like America today. You’re born in a Christian country, you work for a living, you don't beat your wife… you’re a Christian. That's as religious as anybody needs to be, right?
By and large Israel and Judah never put away their idols and altars to demons on the hilltops, they didn’t care for the poor or the homeless or the strangers in their borders. Prophets warned and called them to practice mercy and righteousness but to no avail.
Finally, about four centuries after King David, judgment fell: The Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, took away its people, and brought in tribes and people from foreign regions to inhabit the land. This is why, 700 years later, the Jews of Christ’s time still despised the Samaritans: They were people of mixed race, foreigners living on holy ground, who had no part in the covenant people of God.
Though judgment had fallen on the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah remained – but the Babylonians were coming. Second Maccabees tells how, on the eve of the Babylonian invasion, the prophet Jeremiah led a group of men who took and hid the Ark of the Covenant in a cave in the mountains so the Babylonians could not take and defile it (2 Maccabees 2:4-8). That is the last we ever hear of the Ark in the scriptures, until Saint John sees it unveiled in the heavens at the end of time.
About 600 BC, the Babylonians carried off the people of Judah into captivity that lasted for seventy years.
There in Babylon a new custom was born. There had only ever been one temple of God, in Jerusalem, and now it was destroyed. The Ark of God’s presence was gone. The worship and sacrifice had ceased, and there was no place left to offer worship to the Lord. Worship, in the Old Testament, is sacrifice. If you’re not offering a sacrifice to God, then it’s praise, it’s singing and teaching and fellowship, and that’s good – but it is not worship.
The learned people among the Jews in Babylon began gathering together to read the Bible, to discuss it, to sing the Psalms, and to keep alive the memory of God These gatherings were called synagogues which is Greek for bringing-together. The synagogues were not commanded by God. This was a wise human response to being exiled away from the only place where the worship of the Lord could happen. Seventy years later, when the people returned to the Holy Land, they continued the custom of meeting in synagogues. They rebuilt the one Temple at Jerusalem, but everywhere where there were Jews, throughout the world, there were synagogues.
This was a crucial factor in the later development of the Christian Church: the realization that God is not only in his temple; God is where his people pray to him. In the Mishnah, the rabbis wrote, “Where two gather together, and their talk is of the Law, the Shekhinah [presence of God] is with them” (Mishnah Avot 3:2; cf. Matthew 18:19).
When Jews who believed in Christ began to be excluded from the synagogues (John 16:2; Acts 8:1; 9:2) they knew just what to do: They began gathering in groups explicitly dedicated to honoring Jesus Christ as Lord, and celebrating the Eucharist under the leadership of the local bishop. Incidentally that’s why we don’t have musical instruments. The temple sacrifices were accompanied with cymbals and trumpets, but the synagogue was a place for reading and simple psalmody. The Church inherited that tradition, and neither the eastern nor western Church ever had instrumental music until quite recently. in the eighteenth century John Wesley said, “I have no objection to instruments of music in our worship, provided they are neither seen nor heard.”
* * *
In today’s Gospel, the Lord attends a local synagogue on the sabbath, as is his habit.
Now, we live in Walla Walla, Adventist country, so you’d think we know something about the sabbath! Long story short: In six days God made the world, on the seventh he rested, and among the first Ten Commandments he gave to Israel, it was of enormous importance that they keep the seventh day, Saturday, holy and do no ordinary work that day. Not even lighting a lamp, starting a fire, or cooking a meal. All that had to be prepared beforehand, on Friday, and that’s why to this day, in Greek, Friday is called Paraskevē, the Day of Preparation. And of course in Greek Saturday is called Sabbatōn, the seventh day, as in nearly every Christian language: sábado, samedi, السبت [al-sabt].
In the Philippines we sometimes used to meet Adventist missionaries. They had a terribly difficult time in our language, because they kept saying, “Emperor Constantine changed Saturday into Sunday but Saturday is really on Saturday.” Well… yes?
Since no candles could be lit on the day of rest (and observant Jews still do not turn on an electric light on Saturday) any light you needed had to be from a lamp you lit before the sun set on Friday. And then on Saturday at sunset, the sabbath day was done and the first day of the week had begun, so with prayers now you’d light your new candle. We inherited this custom from the Jewish Christians of the earliest Church. Last night, we prayed the evening prayers called Vespers, but the old name for that service is lucernare: lamp-lighting. In some monasteries the first part of Vespers is served in the dark – the people place candles but don’t light them. Then, at the entrance with the Gospel, we sing the hymn “Joyful Light,” celebrating the coming of Christ the Joyful Light into the world – and all the lamps and candles are lit up as we sing. The Day of Resurrection has begun!
You can see this practice in Acts 20: In Troas, Saint Paul meets the Christians on Saturday night. They will celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow, in the early hours of the First Day of the Week, but now it’s Saturday night, the sun has set, and they’ve gathered in a house to hear the apostle Paul. He preaches late, late into the evening, there’s a miraculous healing, and then Paul breaks bread, serving the Eucharist in the early hours of Sunday morning (Acts 20:7-12).
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The first thing we probably ought to notice in today’s Gospel is that neither the synagogue, nor attending the synagogue on the seventh day, are commanded anywhere in scripture.
What is commanded, in fact, is to stay home. In Exodus, “Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you manna for two days. Everyone is to stay put on the seventh day; no one is to go out” (16:29).
Now During the Hebrews’ wandering in the desert, their tents were to be set up 2000 cubits away from the tabernacle (Joshua 3:4). So 2000 cubits, about three-quarters of a mile, became known as a “sabbath-day’s journey,” and they established that walking up to three-quarters of a mile on a Saturday was no violation of their law (Mishneh Torah, Shabbat, 27).
As we read in the oldest histories, Christians often gathered to serve the Eucharist secretly, by night, on the relics or gravestones of the martyrs. Late on Saturday night, after the sabbath and toward the first day of the week, they met on what began to be called the Lord’s Day. This word, the Lord’s Day or Kyriakē, is to this day the Greek word for Sunday, the day following Sabbaton. By 150 AD, Saint Justin Martyr wrote that Christians worshiped on the first day of the week (First Apology ch 67). By the mid-second century, in all Christian writings, the first day of the week is no longer called the day of the sun but the Day of the Lord.
In the lifetime of the apostles, it was a matter of some controversy in the Church whether Christians were subject to the Jewish law. So in Acts 15 we see what was really the very first Ecumenical Council. The apostles met, heard the facts, prayed, and then wrote to the whole Church: “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit” that Christians must abstain from food sacrificed to idols or strangled, from eating blood, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:1-29). This was the absolute minimum they needed to require, or else the Jewish Christians who still observed the Jewish law would not be able to sit down at the same table with their gentile brothers and sisters in Christ. These are not arbitrary commands but a wise prevention of schism in the Church.
The Jewish law still exists, of course: Anyone who wants to, may go be circumcised and undertake to fulfill all 613 commandments in the law. But it won’t save their soul. The law can’t do that; that was never its purpose. “By the works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16; Romans 3:20).
For the righteous, the law of God is simple: Love God, love everyone else. Especially your enemy. “Whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25).
I love that paradox: The Law – of Liberty. It’s not a law that limits and binds and takes away freedom: It’s the Lord’s own law of life and liberty and the power to bear fruit.
Yet we find in ourselves deeply-rooted passions that keep the life and virtues of Christ from bearing fruit. In today’s Gospel, first and foremost is the passion of hypocrisy.
The president of the synagogue sees Christ’s miracle, and says, “There are six days to work; come be healed on those days, not on the sabbath!” He’s certainly not angry because Christ worked on the day of rest: All the Lord did was touch this woman and say, “You are loosed.” But in that moment the focus was not on the well-educated, respected religious leader; it was on this visiting rabbi Jesus. The president of the synagogue’s words are, “Stop! This is work and today’s the day of rest!” but what he is really saying is, “Enough about Jesus. Everybody get back to respecting me!”
Saint Cyril of Alexandria comments here that God had commanded men to rest on the Sabbath; therefore, when Jesus gave rest to the crippled woman in freeing her from infirmity, it was the synagogue leader and not Christ who was breaking the law of the sabbath.
And the Lord takes him to task right there in front of everyone. “You hypocrite!” Christ doesn’t bluntly rebuke many people in the Gospels, but when he does, we need to take note and learn what not to do.
Hypocrite comes from the Greek word for a stage actor – it’s someone who pretends to have virtues. Hypocrisy is the sin of pretending to be upright and good, while inside we are full of spite, pride, and self-seeking – like a fine marble gravestone, polished and shining, that hides rotten bones.
In a conversation yesterday with a friend, we talked about Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “these people, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise!” (2 Corinthians 10:12). Orthodox people have been criticized for overdoing the business about being Chief Of Sinners. Oh, I’m the worst. So lowly. Right? But we’re not wise to compare ourselves to one another; the only meaningful comparison is to Christ. I could be a king of every virtue, and stand before the Lord, the source of all good and purity, and still see how I fall short of the glory of God.
The next time I’m tempted to look at somebody with judgment and superiority and say,“Really!?” I hope I’ll remember I’m an unprofitable servant standing in the face of God, judging another, with dirty hands. We can agree with the scripture that an action is sin without having to take up a gavel and become an accuser of the brethren. That job’s already taken (Revelation 12:10). Noah’s sons heard that he was drunk and naked in his tent – and they looked away and covered his nakedness. Unless you’re taking action to defend someone who’s being harmed, you can be like Shem and Japheth, and let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Let the perfect Law of Liberty set you free from the passion of judging and hypocrisy.
* * *
And now, after history and theology, we need to come to the person we’ve almost forgotten: The woman who came to the synagogue, bent and bound. She didn’t come to receive healing, but to hear the scripture and pray with the people of God.
Christ sees her, touches her, and says, “You are freed from your infirmity.”
Eighteen years she’s been bent over. Is the “spirit of infirmity” here an actual demon? Or has she simply been bent over with osteoporosis for all this time? It doesn’t matter: “You’re free.”
If you’ve been to a Russian monastery you may have seen the men standing on this side, the women on that side. In synagogues at that time, the women stood in the back, separately from the men. (Incidentally, with this in mind, Paul’s words might make more sense: “Let women keep silent in the church; if they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35). Rather than asking from way in the back of the room, “Honey, what’s an ebeneezer?”)
So here’s our woman, in the back, in the corner, bent double so she’s unseen behind everyone else. But Christ sees her. Every wound, manifest and secret, is known to him.
Standing in the back corner of the synagogue, she was praying for the mercy of God. Was she praying for her own healing? We don’t know. But God prepared her to accept the action of Grace. After the Lord preached his sermon, he saw her bent body, and her soul bowed down in deep repentance. He saw her, body and soul. He saw her in spirit and in truth.
Millennia earlier, when Hagar was mistreated and ran away, alone and pregnant in the desert, the Lord sent an angel and made promises to her. She named the Lord “The God who sees me” (Genesis 16:1-14).
Now, that God sees this woman, and knows her every part. “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And because the words of God are in themselves divine acts, the woman was instantly healed.
* * *
Now here we are, in the middle of a fast. Not the very strictest one; we get fish, and wine, and all kinds of good things. But it’s a fast. Whether the season of the fast will find us likewise bowed in humility and ready to receive grace is up to us.
Or the fast might find us hypocrites, doing our best to look and act like saints but full of accusation and complaint.
Or the fast could find us standing here today, comparing ourselves to no one, confessing to the Lord that our infirmities have not made us humble or holy or ready for grace, but asking for it just the same.
The Psalmist asks, “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24LXX). You and I may have come in here neither holy nor humble. But let’s ask the Lord to grant us today that we might be able to offer him clean hands and a pure heart. If that is your prayer this morning, then know that God sees you, and is ready to touch you and pronounce freedom for you.
To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.