He couldn't be happy for her. He couldn't marvel at the miracle that he had just witnessed. He couldn't even say, "Praise God," that a daughter of Abraham had finally been set free. Instead, all he could do was growl at the people for wanting to be healed on the Sabbath when there were six other acceptable days of the week to be healed. Isn't it interesting that it is the woman whom we remember as having been twisted up for so long? We don't know why the synagogue leader was so angry that day. But, there was something about Jesus' healing this woman on the Sabbath that just set him off. Maybe he was jealous. No doubt, when this woman first started becoming crippled, he probably prayed for her, just like the rest of the community. Maybe when he became synagogue leader he had hoped that his position would afford him a little more clout with God. And, yet, here she was eighteen years later, still suffering. Jesus comes in and just like that, eighteen years of suffering were gone. The synagogue leader was so mad that he could not rejoice with this woman. He might have been mad simply because somebody was breaking the rules, and they were doing it on his watch. "Rules are rules," he would have told them. "They are not made to be broken; they are made to be followed. What would happen if everyone started breaking the rules? On top of that," he would have insisted, "following the rules is what God wants us to do. Following the rules supersedes everything." Perhaps the synagogue leader didn't remember that the writer of Proverbs wrote that, "To do what is right and just, is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." He probably forgot what God said through the prophet Isaiah, "These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." Or, that when God spoke through the prophet Hosea, God said, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." When Jesus focused his attention on compassion rather than rules, the synagogue leader got mad. He was so mad that he could not find it in his heart to rejoice with this woman over this gracious act of kindness that God had bestowed upon her. His heart, his soul was so twisted up, that compassion and grace has simply been squeezed out. I would like to say that what happened to the synagogue leader could never happen to us today, but the temptation is still there for our hearts to get so twisted that compassion and grace simply gets squeezed out. Have we not at times, when we have seen God bless someone else, thought to ourselves, "Why hasn't God blessed me like that, especially since I am so much more deserving?" And, if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that it gets under our skin a little when it seems as though God is answering other people's prayers more than our prayers. In those moments, the heart gets a little twisted. Of course, there are those times when we allow ourselves to get bound up by our own prejudices, our own thoughts on how things are supposed to be done. When we lived in North Carolina, we lived in a welfare county and we discovered that there were many unwritten rules about how to associate with the poor, the African Americans, the uneducated. Along with all of those unwritten rules were a lot hearts that were void of compassion and grace. They had simply been squeezed out. Such temptation also finds its way inside the walls of the church. We write down rules of course, so that we can conduct ourselves decently and in order, but there are also the unwritten rules that we have to contend with, those commonly held, or not so commonly held assumptions about how things are supposed to be done in the church. Those who write about such things call these unwritten rules, our sacred cows, those aspects of church ministry that we are so desperate to cling to that we are willing to sacrifice our relationships with others in the church, just to preserve them. The problem is that preserving our sacred cows causes our hearts to get twisted up, squeezing out compassion and grace. That is why Jesus' interaction with the woman that day in the synagogue is so important for us, because it demonstrates more than just Jesus ability to heal, but goes to the heart of what Jesus wants to do in all of our lives. Think about this moment. Here was this woman who came to the synagogue that day, as she had done faithfully for so many other Sabbath days. She came to worship God even though her prayers for healing had gone unanswered for eighteen years, while other people did get their prayers answered. She came to worship God despite the fact that she had probably been told that she was cursed by God, that she did not find favor with God, as evidenced by the fact that God had not healed her. She came to worship with the community that, at this point, kept her at a distance, lest they be tainted by whatever she had done to deserve her present condition. She came to the synagogue with no expectation of what was about to happen. She came to the synagogue and met Jesus, whose heart was not twisted up at all, but was instead full of compassion and grace. It is interesting to note in this story that Jesus didn't ask permission to heal this woman. He didn't even ask this woman if she wanted to be healed. He simply saw her and let his heart take over. He called her over and he said, "Woman, you are set free." He placed his hands upon her and the healing came. Her twisted body became untwisted, she stood up straight, and she praised God. And what Jesus did for this woman is what Jesus does for all of us. Our bodies do not necessarily need to be untwisted, but our hearts sure do. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus enters our hearts. He enters our hearts with forgiveness, with love, with compassion, with grace. And, slowly, as the Spirit works upon our hearts, they slowly become untwisted. And, the compassion and grace that had been squeezed out by sin, slowly begins to fill up our hearts once again. This is the wonderful work that Jesus does in our hearts through his Spirit and to give you an example of what an untwisted heart looks like, let me tell you about what happened at the Olympics last week. Perhaps you saw this story as well. During the woman’s 5000m run, American runner Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin got their legs tangled up with each other and they both went down. Abbey got back up quickly and it looked as though she was going to keep on running, but she stopped and turned back around to see that Nikki was still on the ground. Now, in competition, there is no such thing as sympathy for your opponent, and you certainly don’t help them. You only task is to beat your opponent. Abbey rejected that idea. She walked back over to where Nikki was on the ground and she helped her get up and to keep going in the race. A few moments later, Abbey went down in pain, and this time it was Nikki’s turn to stop, to turn back, and to help Abbey get up. Here were two women whose hearts were not twisted at all, but were instead filled with compassion and grace. When asked about it after the race, Abbey said, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way.” The Spirit of God prepares our hearts that way as well. As we are forgiven, as we experience the blessings of God that come our way, as the love and grace of God washes over our lives, our hearts slowly begin to untwist. They refill with compassion and grace. Our hearts become the source of compassion and grace that we lavish upon others. Thanks be to God for untwisting our hearts.
Pastor Jim's past sermons:
Untwisting our Hearts
Links to past sermons can be found at the bottom of this page.