This woman knew what it meant to suffer. For 18 years, she had been bowed down by a crippling spirit, her back broken under its weight. Long gone were the days when she could trade smiles with a friend or admire the color of the sky. Her world was upside down and full of pain; and she was alone in bearing it.
Until she encountered Christ.
Walking into the synagogue, she wouldn’t have seen him speaking. She wouldn’t have thought or even imagined anything unusual or special happening that day. But then a voice called her name, and she suddenly found herself the center of attention. A wandering rabbi named Jesus had seen her. He had called her to him, grasped her shoulders, and said, “Stand up. You are healed.”
And for the first time in almost two decades, the woman rose to her full height and looked this man in the eyes. And then she left, praising God.
I could almost stop the sermon there, this story speaks so well on its own. God is a God of healing and redemption, more devoted to restoring his beloved creatures to wholeness than to preserving his own life. The end. But I won’t stop there because I think there’s something about this brief tale that we might not realize at first. And that is simple. We are or have been or will be that crippled woman.
Each one of us knows that the world we live in can be hard and even cruel. Tragedy can strike even the healthiest of families. Debt can accumulate in even the most responsible of households. Anger can rule even the kindest of people. These things happen; and whether or not we have thought of it this way before, the grief or sorrow or worry that results from those kinds of situations can stay with us. Can stay on us. Before we know it, our spiritual and sometimes physical backs bend, and we are bowed down, our eyes glued on whatever problem is before us.
That spiritual posture is in just as much need of divine intervention as the woman in our Gospel text today — and that’s because God doesn’t want us to be fixated on the products and consequences of Sin and Death. He doesn’t want us obsessing over how we might pay the next bill or how we will ever be happy again without this person or that comfort. What God wants for us is freedom, freedom to look him in the eyes and see who he is: A good and merciful God who redeems our lives from the grave. Who satisfies us with good things. Who is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness (Psalm 103).
The God we worship is a God of healing and redemption. He delights in raising fallen, sinful human beings out of the grave so that they — so that we — may live lives of peace and wholeness with him.
Imagine what it must have been like for that woman to walk home and see how the world around her had both changed and stayed the same: how the children had grown up and started their own families, how the night sky held the same, innumerable stars. Imagine the hope she felt for the first time in years. God had saved her. She was free. And though she couldn’t know what the next days would hold, something about the way that rabbi had looked in her eyes, something about the way his voice sounded gave her the feeling that everything would turn out alright in the end.
Everything will turn out alright in the end, even if the freedom we experience in the present life looks and feels different than the miracle we heard today. When we encounter Christ in this life, our burdens may not disappear. We may not suddenly stand tall, having shed every last trace of anxiety or worry. But Christ nevertheless sees us and speaks, reminding us again of the work that he has done and is still doing.
We are a people meant for freedom. For rest. For peace with God. Jesus ensured that this hope could become our reality. He put his shoulder under the cross, bent his back, so that we might be called friends and children of God. And in so doing, he has lifted us to the heights of the earth, so that we might see the future before us, and hope for it. And love it. And believe it is coming.
And in a different kind of way, that is a miracle. All those spiritual blessings will slowly but surely transform our lives. When we come together to hear and speak the words of Holy Scripture, to taste the Body and the Blood of Christ, to share our burdens and cares and victories with those around us, we are changed because those experiences are an encounter with Christ himself. He is here with us now, bringing joy to the sorrowful and healing to the broken. Though we may not see him, he calls us, saying: “Stand up. Be free, beloved child of God.” AMEN.