Divine compassion - Luke 13:10-21

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 18th March 2007.

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In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls a touching incident which happened during his time in jail on Robben Island. This is what he writes:

“During this time I experienced another grievous loss. One cold morning in July of 1969, three months after I learned of Winnie’s incarceration, I was called to the main office on Robben Island and handed a telegram. It was from my youngest son, Makgatho, and it was only a sentence long. He informed me that his older brother, my first and oldest son, Madiba Thembekile, whom we called Thembi, had been killed in a motorcar accident in the Transkei. Thembi was then twenty-five years old, and the father of two small children.

What can I say about such a tragedy? I was overwrought about my wife, I was still grieving for my mother, and then to hear such news...I do not have words to express the sorrow or the loss I felt. It left a hole in my heart that can never be filled.

I returned to my cell and lay on my bed. I do not know how long I stayed there, but I did not emerge for dinner. Some of the men looked in, but said nothing. Finally, Walter came to me and knelt beside my bed, and I handed him the telegram. He said nothing, but only held my hand. I do not know how long he remained with me. There is nothing one man can say to another at such a time.”

During a time of personal suffering human beings need the support of other people. We live in a messed up world. Garden of Eden conditions no longer apply. Therefore, at some point in our lives it is very likely that each one of us will have to suffer pain. It may be physical pain or emotional pain or it may be both. Pain-free living is very rare. So we are faced with a question: How can we cope when suffering comes our way?

One of the options in the 1970s was for Christians to sing the following song:

“It isn’t any trouble just to s-m-i-l-e
No it isn’t any trouble just to s-m-i-l-e
If you pack up all your troubles
Then they’ll vanish like a bubble
If you only take the trouble
Just to s-m-i-l-e.”

It is a ridiculous song, isn’t it? Not only does it trivialize the pain we feel but it also encourages us to play “Let’s pretend”, which is no help to anyone when a person is going through the mill. We cannot simply smile the pain away.

So what can we do? Well, the first thing we need is the support of other people. We need people around us. We need them in the same room. We need to feel their touch. We need them to do what Walter did for Nelson Mandela. We need the support of the church family.

Think of the long-term sick on our church  prayer list. The names that get read again and again. Pray for God’s comfort and strength. How does he do this? Normal means is through Christian people. Not go on mass. But let’s thank the Lord for those who do visit and pray that the Lord will prompt others to sacrifice their time to comfort a brother or sister in pain. The first thing we need is the support of other people

The second thing we need is certainty that the future will be different. We need a guarantee that will sustain us through the present. A future vision of a time when things will be different. And that’s what we are given in Luke 13.

We’re told in verse 10 that “On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all.”

In the Bible suffering comes to people for a whole variety of reasons. It is a popular misconception to say that the suffering we experience is not connected with the sins we commit. But the reality isn’t quite as simple as this.

Wrong to say that all suffering is connected to particular sins we have committed in the past. Jesus makes this point very clear in John 9. Meets a man who was blind from birth and his disciples asked him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus says neither this man nor his parents sinned in such a way to make this blindness a feature in this man’s life. We live in a Genesis 3 world and not a Genesis 2 world. We do suffer the consequences of Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience. So much of the suffering we experience in our lives cannot be traced back to individual acts of rebellion against God. Very unlike the Hindu doctrine of Karma, which says the very opposite. That we are suffering the consequences of past sins – either in this life or in previous lives. The Bible says, “No, that is not true.” Much of the suffering is because the world is broken. But not as simple as saying that all suffering is caused by this general condition. Obvious when you think about it.

Some of you may know that on Thursday I reversed my car into a brick wall. I now realize it was a stupid thing to do. That was an accident. Just imagine that I had deliberately put my foot down on the motorway and had crashed sustaining massive injuries. Well, in this case there is a direct link between my suffering and my sin.

Sometimes there is a connection between suffering and sin

Now did you notice why the woman is suffering in Luke 13? Horrific picture isn’t it. She bent over and cannot straighten up at all. Why? Because, verse 11, she has been crippled by a spirit for 18 years. And we know from verse 16 that this must have been an evil spirit because this woman has been bound by Satan for 18 years.

Careful in what I say next because God sometimes allows Satan to harm his people so that God can refine their characters. So think of Job the innocent one who suffers greatly at the hands of Satan in the OT. But it seems that more than not people are responsible for opening themselves up to the activity of evil spirits. And we as clergy discover this from time to time. Perhaps every few months we get a phone call from a very distressed person. Strange things in the house. Go round and start asking a few questions: Any occult activity? No, not us. Then you define what you mean by this? Tarot cards, ouija boards, mediums. Oh yes I’ve been involved in that sort of things. Bible says stay clear of occult activity not because it is nonsense but because it is dangerous. Yes of course there are quacks out there but there is also dangerous reality out there. Potentially open yourself up to spiritual consequences.

Now we’re not sure how this woman became crippled by this spirit, it may be she opened herself up by a particular activity, but the reality was that now she was crippled and enslaved by this spirit. And this is when Jesus changed her world. Verse 12. “When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.”

Amazing isn’t it? For 18 years you have looked with pity at this woman. Perhaps you have been filled with compassion but had no power to do something about it. And then Jesus walks in and not only does he captivate your mind with a brilliant sermon – he then looks over at this tormented woman and releases her from her pain. He releases her from the influence of the evil spirit and helps her stand on her feet.
And you think “Wow” – here is a person with compassion and power.

Does the existence of suffering disprove the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God? Many people think it does. They tend to make two assumptions about God.

o Assumption 1: An all-powerful God would be able to end suffering
o Assumption 2: An all-loving God would desire to end suffering
o Fact: Suffering.
o Conclusion: An all-powerful, all-loving God does not exist.

When we look at the person of Jesus we see God with a human face. He reveals the character of our creator because he is one of the three persons of the divine Trinity. What does he reveal? He has divine compassion and divine power. So for Christians who believe the Bible we are forced to make the following conclusion:

o Assumption 1: An all-powerful God exists
o Assumption 2: An all-loving God exists
o Fact: Suffering exists
o Conclusion: God must have loving reasons for permitting suffering.

Bible gives us various reasons why this is the case. Not in this passage. But what is here is the certainty that God is powerful, compassionate and one day things will be different. Show you this in just a few moments but before that let me show you the various reactions to what Jesus has done for this woman.

The first is her reaction. Verse 13. She praised God. No wonder. Her condition for the last 18 years has been solved. No bitterness to God. In fact, she was in the synagogue. It is still possible to be a Christian and trust God through the pain.

Last week we sang “It is well with my soul” and one of the members of the congregation asked me if I knew the story behind it. I didn’t but a day or so later I discovered the background. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a successful Chicago lawyer. In 1873 the Spaffords’ family doctor recommended a holiday for Mrs Spafford, so the couple made plans to travel to Europe by ship. Just before leaving, Horatio Spafford had to change his plans and quickly arranged for his wife and four daughters to go ahead, promising to join them some days later. So his wife and the girls set sail without him. On 22 November, in a tragic, freak accident, the ship rammed and sank in less than half an hour. Mrs Spafford was rescued, but all four daughters were drowned. Later Mrs Spafford was able to cable her husband with the stark two-word message: ‘Saved alone.’ Horatio Spafford bought passage on the first ship he could find that was sailing to England. At sea, as the ship crossed the Atlantic where his daughters’ bodies lay, with tears in his eyes, he penned these words:

“When peace like a river attends my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say:
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Check out the reaction of the synagogue ruler. Verse 14. “Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” Extraordinary, isn’t it? Perhaps a woman in his congregation has been healed. But instead of rejoicing with her complains that these healings cannot take place on this day. Was he right? Sabbath literally means to cease or to rest so was this inappropriate? Wasn’t a 999 emergency so why couldn’t Jesus have opened a surgery on the Sunday morning? Well, there are two things to notice.

First of all, the hypocrisy of this religious leader. Listen to what Jesus said to him in verse 15. “The Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” Hypocrite means to wear a mask. Actors in those days played their part by placing a mask over their real identity. That’s what religious hypocrites do. All very officious. Love the traditions (although they are often more recent than they suspect) and put out a good outward show. Bow at the right places, pause when they should and know when to stand up and sit down. But outside the religious event their life is no different from everyone else. And that’s a disaster for the Christian faith. How often have you heard people complain about the behaviour of Christians? Sometimes a smokescreen question but sometimes it is a genuine issue.

I know a clergyman whose father would go on business trips with men who would go to church and then the brothel. He said he would not go the brothel with them and would also not go to church.

Our lifestyle matters. People are watching the sermon of your life.

That’s why we need to be born-again. Spirit-filled Christian. Only type. We can’t live the Christian life without an internal change.

When you crush something what is inside comes out, Same in life. The pressures of daily life show what we are truly like.

When we are living as hypocrites we need the Lord to point it out. Why again we need to engage with the Bible. Our own feelings will not show us our duplicity. But the Bible always makes the link between doctrine and behaviour. Between what we confess with our lips and what we practice with our lives. That’s what Jesus pointed out to this religious leader. He claimed to be a key observer of the Sabbath. He confessed it with his lips. But look at his life. He watered his animals. They were of more worth than this woman was to him. Jesus says to us – be careful of hypocrisy!

Second thing for us to notice is that the Sabbath was actually the best day for this type of event to occur. We realize this when we understand the true significance of the Sabbath day.

A few questions to think about.

o Do you know where the Sabbath day is first mentioned in the Bible?
o Many will say Genesis 2:1-4. Not the Sabbath Day but the Seventh Day. Connection between them but the Seventh Day is not called the first Sabbath Day.
o The first reference is actually in Exodus 16:21-30. God is providing for his people in the desert. Only gather for 6 days not 7.
o Two key passages are Exodus 20 and Deu 5. Given reasons for the Sabbath Day. Two different but connected reasons.
o Exodus 20:8, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” Why” “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Creation reason.
o Deuteronomy 5:12, “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you.” Why? “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Redemption reason.

At first sight we might not see the connection but in reality they are both very similar reasons. Both given to a people who are living in a sin distorted world who suffer pain and get tired. Creation reason – reminding the people that this was not God’s original intention. Conditions of the Seventh day were to be enjoyed forever. Where work was not painful and tiring.

Would a day off have been required before the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3?

Required now. People get tired. But also to point the people to God’s original intention and also his future plans.

Redemption reason is similar. Not only were the people to look back with thankfulness to their rescue but look forward in anticipation to their future rest. The Seventh day conditions would once more be enjoyed.

Back to Luke 13 and consider whether the Sabbath was a good day to heal? Well, of course. Not only a day or rest and refreshment but also a day that made the people look back to the conditions of Genesis 2 and look forward to when those conditions would once more be enjoyed.

What does Jesus do? He gives us a sample of what this will be like. How does the bible end? No more pain and suffering. The Lord renewing his universe. Dealing once and for all with the broken world and making a new place for us to dwell. Genesis 2 conditions again apply. Which is why the NT, in Hebrews 4:9, speaks about a Sabbath rest which remains for the people of God. Not that Sunday is our Sabbath day. This link is never made in the NT. But we have a future to look forward to and Jesus shows us in part what this will be like.

Paint samples. Before you paint the whole wall you can see what it is like.

Same with Jesus. He is showing he has the power and the compassion to bring back the conditions of the Seventh Day.

Gives us real hope in the face of suffering. People around us yes but here is certainty that once day things will be different.

But why not now? Why doesn’t God not intervene to bring this plan into effect now? The answer is in verses 18-21, where Jesus tells two short parables to explain. So he says in verse 18, “What is the kingdom of God like? [in-breaking rule of God] What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.” Then he tells a similar parable in verses 20-21. Basic point is that the rule of God will spread slowly. It will not be a dramatic intervention at the moment. It will have an inevitable end. God is not powerless. But until the return of Jesus is will grow less dramatically.

Why doesn’t God intervene to stop every tragedy and suffering? He has decided this will not be the way. We trust him on this.

But there will be a day when the world will be transformed. Jesus has given us a picture of this. Live now with this future hope in sight. So gather round but let’s get our expectations right. God sometimes does intervene and brings healing of incurable diseases but the big day we are to live for is not now in this decaying body but a new universe with a resurrection body. Now God graciously delays this day so that more rebels can embrace his rule and enjoy this new world so we must respond when we still have time. But for those of us who have committed our lives to Jesus let’s know with certainly that the pain and suffering will not continue forevermore. Let’s pray together.

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