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Thanksgiving and Sabbath: On Being Set Free

November 18, 2007

Luke 13:10-17

I was at a local establishment Friday morning, eating breakfast, and overheard a conversation between two men.
One of them said, “I am glad it has finally turned cold.”
The other asked, “Why are you so glad it has turned cold?”
“Well, now I can go rabbit hunting. You have to have good cold weather to go rabbit hunting. This means I will be able to have a rabbit for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Are you planning to have rabbit for your Thanksgiving dinner?
I asked this question in the early service, and a man said, “We always went rabbit hunting on Thanksgiving Day. That was the beginning of rabbit season.”
I asked him, “Did you eat rabbit for Thanksgiving dinner?”
He answered, “Rabbit and turkey.”
At our house, we are just going to have turkey. I do not think Miss Clare would stand for a rabbit, not even for Easter. We will have turkey at our house.
What do you associate with Thanksgiving? Parades? Football? Going “over the river and through the woods” to Grandma’s house? Maybe you associate rabbit hunting.
Yesterday, I was in a couple of retail stores, and it is as if they have skipped from Halloween to Christmas. I saw no sign at all that we are getting ready to have Thanksgiving. Retail stores do not think much of Thanksgiving Day. If you will check your newspaper on Thursday, you will see all types of advertisements, opportunities to shop long before daylight on Friday morning, the single busiest retail day of the year. I have heard that some stores this year are actually going to open at midnight on Friday morning.
My daughter, Betsy, suggested a Scripture passage to me. She just said, “Dad, I wish you would preach a sermon on this topic.” I thought, I will preach a sermon on this sometime.
After I read the passage, I thought, This could be the Thanksgiving message.
I want to read Luke 13:10-17 for your hearing. Hear now the Word of God.

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. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from you infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
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.”
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?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

This is a remarkable story of a remarkable healing. A woman, we are told, had a spirit of weakness. That can mean just an ailment, perhaps demon possession. That certainly must have been the way they thought about it in the first century. We would be inclined to think this woman’s malady is some sort of degenerative skeletal condition, maybe something like scoliosis or an arthritic deformity. What we know is that for eighteen years, she had been unable to stand upright. Jesus heals her in this story; but more than that, Jesus confers upon her dignity. A woman previously treated with little respect now is treated with dignity. Jesus refers to her as “a daughter of Abraham.”
The story is remarkable; but taken in context, it is even more astounding. You remember that according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus started his ministry in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth after he came out of his wilderness temptation. Luke tells us that he went straight to the synagogue, opened the scroll of Isaiah, and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

When Jesus finished reading this Scripture, which we can find in Isaiah 61:1-2, he sat down, the position of authority for a rabbi. He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). That appearance in the synagogue in Nazareth is one of several that we find in the Gospels.
We have in Luke’s Gospel, five accounts of Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath. There are seven accounts in the Gospels as a whole. Luke records five of them, which should not surprise us. Luke was, after all, a physician. He would have been especially impressed by these healings.
The first was a man who was a demoniac. Jesus cast out his evil spirit in a synagogue (Luke 4:31-37). The second was Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus did this healing in Capernaum at the home of Simon Peter (Luke 4:38-39). The third was a man with a withered hand. We read that account, and it is as if the Jewish leaders are trying to entrap Jesus. They may have even brought this man to the synagogue to see what Jesus would do on the Sabbath day (Luke 6:6-11). Another man, who has been paralyzed for thirty-eight years, is by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus heals him on the Sabbath, too (John 5:1-18). Then there is this woman, eighteen years bent and stooped, looking down at the ground. Jesus heals her on the Sabbath, as well (Luke 13:10-17). In the very next chapter in Luke’s Gospel, there is an account of a man who had what is called dropsy, edema, swelling. Jesus heals him on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-5). Finally, there is a man who was born blind (John 9:1-41).
It is interesting that this account of the bent woman before us is the last time, according to the Gospels, that Jesus went into a synagogue. He did heal, but not in a synagogue because he was no longer welcomed. He did go to the temple in Jerusalem, but this was the last time he went to a synagogue.
Jesus was Lord of the Sabbath. He did not come to destroy the Sabbath. If anything, Jesus kept the Sabbath. From the time he was a child, he went to the synagogue every Sabbath observance. He does not want to destroy that. Instead, he wants to reinterpret the meaning of the Sabbath. He says that man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man (Mark 2:27). This was God’s plan, according to Jesus. He has established his authority with that first appearance in the synagogue in Nazareth. He says, “Today, the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:1). Perhaps he means, “This very day, this Sabbath day….” Certainly, that is the pattern that follows in these seven healings.
There is a rich background for Sabbath observance in Judaism. It was a day of freedom. It was a day of rest. It was a day of thanksgiving. Richard Foster says that you cannot have spiritual renewal unless you are also renewed physically. So the Sabbath rest was intended to allow people to experience a physical renewal so that they could be spiritually renewed.
Perhaps the Jewish custom of starting the Sabbath at sundown on Friday night, leading to worship, then, on Saturday morning, is a wise tradition. Imagine if we did that. Imagine if we said, “At sundown on Saturday night, there will be no more activity. Go home and get some rest so that when you come to church on Sunday morning, you will be able to worship, having had a good night’s sleep.” It might be that if we did that, fewer of us would nod off in deep prayer in the middle of worship. Getting the rest is important to being renewed spiritually.
The Sabbath as thanksgiving is an important concept. The very name Jew comes from the word Judah, which means, “those who are grateful.” You see that thanksgiving itself is right at the heart of Sabbath observance. I wanted to check myself, so I called my friend, Yossi Liebowitz, our local rabbi, on Friday afternoon. We began our conversation with the words Shabbat Shalom, which mean “Peaceful Sabbath.” When I asked him about this concept, he said,

To say Shabbat Shalom means not only that we have an external sense of peace, but that there is also a deep abiding internal peace. The Sabbath is supposed to be a little taste of heaven, different from every other day. In our liturgy, it is different. We have in our liturgy, for the other six days, times of petition, times when we ask God for special blessings. In our Sabbath liturgy, those petitions are excluded. Everything that we do in our Sabbath liturgy is oriented to the praise of God and giving thanks to God.

We need to think about what that interpretation means for this woman. Why did she come to the synagogue on this day? Of course, it was tradition. That is what a good Jew did. She probably came because she really enjoyed this community. This woman came to worship because she wanted to express her gratitude to God. Imagine how difficult it was for her to walk to the synagogue, bent double, looking down at the ground. Yet she came. Maybe she heard that Jesus was going to be there. Maybe she thought she could be healed. My supposition is that she came to worship to express her gratitude to God, even in the difficult circumstances of her life. It was there that she encountered Jesus. It was there that he healed her.
The same is true of these other six Sabbath healings. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, symbolizing that we need to be renewed physically in order to be renewed spiritually. Perhaps this also demonstrates that the bondage in which we find ourselves is bondage from which we can be freed in worship.
Jesus said to this woman, “You are set free from your infirmity.” When he put his hands on her, she was healed immediately. The Scripture says that she stood up straight. Imagine after eighteen years being able to strand up straight. What did she do next? She praised God. She came to give thanksgiving; but of course, she praised God. Her heart overflowed with gratitude.
In fact, that was the experience of everyone in the synagogue that day except for one person. The ruler of the synagogue did not like what had happened at all. If this healing had happened on a Monday on a mountainside, it would have been remarkable. If it had happened on a Tuesday by the Sea of Galilee, the miracle would have been no less astounding. If it had happened on a Wednesday in a private home, this miraculous event would still be worthy of a place in the Scripture. This healing happened on the Sabbath in a synagogue. A woman with an infirmity for eighteen years was healed. Her healing reinterprets the Sabbath. The synagogue ruler, perhaps the president, did not like this. Of course, there were many Jewish restrictions about what could happen on the Sabbath day. Rather than celebrate the release of this woman from her bondage, he is more concerned with the legalism.
I can remember a different kind of legalism regarding Sundays. We were not supposed to read the paper, especially the funny paper, before we went to church. Even after I was in seminary, Clare had a phone call from her mother one Sunday afternoon. When her mother asked what she was doing, Clare said, “I have washed my hair. Now I am ironing clothes.” Her mother just about came through the phone line, saying, “Clare, you are not supposed to iron clothes on Sunday! You are supposed to do that the other days of the week.”
The very first revival I ever preached was in the mountains of Kentucky. After the first service, a man came to me. He had a big wad of Kentucky burley in his cheek.
He said, “Preacher, do you know what’s wrong with this country?”
I said, “Tell me what is wrong with the country.”
He said, “Sunday baseball!”
I can remember when nothing was open on Sunday. All the stores – grocery stores, restaurants, and nearly everything else – were closed. There is a kind of legalism that is bondage.
It is true that now there is another kind of bondage, the bondage to commercialism. It is as if Sunday or the Sabbath, whatever day you observe the Sabbath, is no longer a day of rest. It is not a day of freedom. It is not even a day of thanksgiving. As surely as this woman needed to be free, so do we all. One of the places we can find our freedom is in the Sabbath.
When confronted by this leader, Jesus talked about animals – donkeys and oxen. I do not have donkeys and oxen at my house. I do have two little granddaughters. We have a grand dog, a beagle named Jersey that comes to see us sometimes all the way from Nashville, Tennessee. When the door of the automobile opens and the door of Jersey’s crate opens, you can see the exuberance of an animal that has been freed. Jersey runs around our yard in big circles. If Jersey were there, we could have a rabbit for Thanksgiving. She does not care if there is a rabbit or not. A regular old soccer ball will do. I look at the freedom she enjoys, and I understand that this is what God intends for all of us.
I have a suggestion. Thursday of this week, Thanksgiving Day, we have the opportunity to have a bonus Sabbath. Think of it as a day of grace. It can be a day of rest. It can be a day of freedom. It can certainly be a day of thanksgiving.
People in this church remind me every year that the first Thanksgiving was not the one the Pilgrims at Plymouth observed. They insist that the first Thanksgiving was in Virginia. I think it no coincidence that they are from Virginia.
That was not the first Thanksgiving either. Read the book of Leviticus, Chapter 23. The first thanksgiving that we have recorded in Scripture occurred in the wilderness. People who had no homes were living hand-to-mouth, yet they gave thanks. Their thanksgiving was not one day. It was eight days. It began with a Sabbath, and it concluded with a Sabbath. This thanksgiving tradition was renewed when they were in exile in Babylon. My experience is that people give thanks sometimes when life is most difficult.
President Abraham Lincoln gave a Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1863, right at the center of the Civil War. Lincoln said,

The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God…
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole America People…

The president included those in the North and South. The last Thursday of November became a national Day of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is possible even in difficult circumstances, as our family knows all too well.
You see, Thursday was the seventh anniversary of the death of our son Erik.
Let me tell you something. Thanksgiving is a possibility, even when things are not going well.
Betsy is preaching this morning. She said, “I need to talk to you about my sermon. What can I preach on?”
I said, “How about that little verse in Thessalonians: ‘In every thing give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you’” (I Thessalonians 5:18). The Scripture does not say to give thanks for every thing. It says to give thanks in all circumstances.
The Thanksgiving after Erik died, people said to us, “I am so sorry your Thanksgiving is ruined.” It was not ruined at all. We still had a lot of reason to be grateful. It was different, and I know that Thanksgiving is going to be that way for some of you this year. You have had an experience that is really hard. You have some sort of loss, some difficulty. Thanksgiving is going to be different. Do not miss the opportunity to express your gratitude to God.
I have a conviction that Thanksgiving Day ought to be a Sabbath and that every Sabbath ought to be a day of thanksgiving. I believe that every day should be that way. You know the Scripture that reads, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). If we believe that, then every day is Thanksgiving Day.

Additional Reference Materials

Foster, Richard J., ed. Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, NRSV. San Francisco: Harper
Collins, 2005.

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973,
1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission and Trademark
office by International Bible Society.

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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