Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
We had a great conversation in Pub Theology recently–we were talking about God, and who God is, and what it means to us when we talk about God.
Now, one person mentioned during our conversation that they thought of God as perfect. They didn’t know what perfect looks like, but that was something that they understood as fundamental to who God is.
Another person struggled with perfection as a definition for God—“look at the world around us,” they said. “Can you really say that God is perfect?” They were looking at the way God’s creation has consistently screwed up, and they struggled to see how creating fallible, sinful, broken people could have possibly been the intention of a perfect God.
Does God make mistakes? Are we a mistake?
Really this is a question about Free Will—what does it mean that we have free will?
Jeremiah gives us one answer: in our text this morning, we learn from the prophet that God is perfect, that God believes that we are perfectly made, that we are just the way we were meant to be. That God formed us in the womb. God gave us everything we need to flourish.
But there is one thing that God didn’t give us: he didn’t create us to be machines, robotically doing God’s bidding. Instead, God gave us freedom to move around in the world.
Which creates problems, of course. Wouldn’t we all prefer that the people and animals under our control were perfectly obedient all the time? Wouldn’t it be great if our kids never fought with us, our friends always laughed at our jokes, and we never stuck our foot in it? Wouldn’t it be awesome if your dog never chewed up your favorite shoes and your cat never peed in your suitcase?
Wouldn’t it be great if we were always completely confident that we could achieve whatever goal was set before us?
Of course, we aren’t. And the reality is that, while we might prefer that the world bend to our will, when it comes to us individually, we treasure our freedom. There are very few people in this world who enjoy having every decision made for them. And God made us like that on purpose. For all of its confusion, that, too is a gift from God for the people of God.
Because it means that we have the freedom to choose God back. We have the freedom, like the prophet Jeremiah, to find the words to speak. The freedom to discover that, for all of our weakness and vulnerability, God has the capacity to fill us with a life of purpose and meaning that we can choose. The freedom to walk the path of justice and mercy because we wish to, not because we have to.
That freedom—the freedom to choose—is expressed in our tradition as sanctification. Sanctification is the practice of choosing holiness, and as followers of Jesus, that means using our freedom in ways that bless not just ourselves but the world that God has made. Choosing kindness, and mercy, and justice, the things of God for the people of God, over everything else that calls to us.
There is a great example of what this might look like in an ancient story called the Odyssey. The Odyssey follows the journey of its hero, Odysseus, as he fights his way home to his family. This is his only goal. And there is this one point in his story where he must pass by a stretch of the ocean that is known for shipwrecking captains. Here, the irresistible song of the sirens lures men into the waters and the rocky shores, where they inevitably perish. And so Odysseus, who wants to go home, directs his men to plug their ears with beeswax, and to tie him to the mast. No matter what he says or how loud he begs, he remains on that mast. Until they are safe. Until he can remember what is truly important.
Of course, Odysseus isn’t the only ancient person who sought to protect his freedom by binding his options. This is what the law of Moses was and is intended to do—it creates limits around the people of God so that they can honor their choice to follow God. Like Odysseus, the Jewish people bind themselves, in this case, to a covenant that governs their behavior and ensures that everyone is taken care of.
Except for when they aren’t. It turned out that sometimes, the rules and the values come into conflict. In Jewish tradition, these conflicts are explored in something called the Midrash—in midrash, great rabbis like Rashi and Akiva try to resolve the problems. And in our Gospel today, Jesus steps right into the middle of that conversation: if the rules are meant to help us follow God, what do we do when it seems like God is asking us to break the rules to help another person? Jesus answer is that there is no conflict—freeing a crippled woman from her bondage on the Sabbath, a day of freedom for God’s people, is precisely the intention of Sabbath to begin with. But not everyone agrees.
Because they have a different vision of holiness.
I can relate to that. Don’t we all, if we are honest, have an idea in our minds of what perfection looks like? If we could have the perfect life, your idea of what that looks like would probably not look the same as mine. Some of us might bring to mind a place that seems perfect, or people that we would surround ourselves with. Because we all have different ideas of perfection. Just like the people in the bible.
But here’s the thing. Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that holiness, that perfection, isn’t about you or me or what any one person thinks. It is about us. It is about the community, and we aren’t perfect until all of us are free. We aren’t perfect until the lame can walk, the blind can see, the sick are healed, the widow and the orphan are provided for, the prisoner is visited, and the lonely are embraced. Only then are we perfect. And so he heals on the Sabbath. He breaks a rule. Because he has looked at the bigger picture—God’s Dream of the Kingdom of God—and he saw this woman left behind. Not all rules are the same. (it may surprise you to learn, by the way, that most rabbis agree with him).
So if you are asking yourself—what does this mean for me? Perhaps you would do well to hear what Jesus often says to those who pose that question: “Go and do likewise.” We who would call ourselves Christians are called to respond to Christ by seeking to be like him.
To refuse to settle for a shallow faith. To look for the big picture : ask yourself, “Does my life make room for others? Have I remembered the poor, the sick, the lame, the lonely as much as I have remembered myself? Have I used my freedom for the glory of God? Or only for myself?
Our tradition has another name for this. John Calvin called it “putting on God spectacles” so that you can see the world the way that God sees it. Because when we really listen to what God is saying in the Scriptures, it changes our vision. We see the world differently. And that can make all the difference.