Sermon on Luke 13.10-17: the God of Surprises

Can any of you recall a moment when your life has changed in a big way that was completely unexpected? It might have been the moment you met someone who became central to your life. Or when you discovered a new interest or work opportunity, not through your own search but because someone made a recommendation.

Such incidents might help us think our way into the experience of the woman Jesus heals in the Gospel story today. She has been crippled for eighteen years, and we get quite a detailed description of how bad her situation was. She was bent over and unable to stand. It is not difficult to imagine how tough life would have been for her. Her view of the world around her would have been as restricted as her movement and her ability to lead a normal life. As in many of these types of stories in the Gospels, it seems assumed that she would have had to live by begging, so had none of the personal autonomy that we so value. In fact, this is underlined, I think, by the way St Luke tells the story. She wasn’t brought to Jesus for healing by friends, and neither was she crying out for help. She was just there, outside one of the synagogues he was teaching in. He found her there – possibly being carried there by someone to be as close to the place of prayer as possible. And there is no pre-amble, just this:

And seeing her, Jesus called her to him and said to her, ‘Madam, you have been liberated from your infirmity.’

Then he raised her to her feet, and she began to praise God.

Then the synagogue administrator expressed disapproval, because the healing happened on the Sabbath.

But I began where I did this morning because this story does not seem to be entirely about what we might first think and what earlier commentators have often assumed. Although it is a healing story, the emphasis is not on the miraculous cure, and although there is a strong difference of opinion between Jesus and the synagogue leader about timing, it is all too tempting to suggest that the conflict is between a rules-based Judaism and a love-and-grace-based Christianity.

Neither of these interpretations quite works, though, if we cast our attention to the sayings of Jesus that come just before and immediately after the incident. The story is more about what the late spiritual writer, Gerard Hughes, called the God of Surprises, although the sense of jeopardy and urgency leads me to sometimes conceive God rather as a God of ambushes – the God who, if given the chance, transforms and brings new life and new possibilities.

The healing story is sandwiched between two botanical parables: the parable of the fig tree and the parable of the mustard seed. In the first, Jesus tells the story of the fig tree and the grouchy farmer. The owner of the land visits the fig tree three years in a row and never finds any fruit on it. He declares that it is no more than a waste of soil, but the vinedresser asks him to leave it for another year and let him fertilise it and give it a chance. The threat remains that it will be cut down eventually, but it is given a second chance, or even a third chance – how many is left unsaid.

The mustard seed parable is much more succinct, and Jesus spoke it in response to a positive reception to his healing and teaching, around the woman in the story.

Jesus asks, what is the Kingdom of God like? and immediately answers his own question:

It is like a seed of mustard, which a man took and cast into his garden and it grew and became like a tree, and the birds of the sky took up lodging in it.

Something insignificant but of amazing potential.

Writing this sermon, I decided I needed to go back to Gerard Hughes’s book, The God of Surprises, as I had not re-examined it for decades. Some of you will know it, and more are likely to have no idea what I am talking about, as it was a book that almost every reflective Christian read back in the 1980’s. There are elements in the book which are very much of their time. It is heavily based in depth psychology, for example, and constantly refers to the threat of nuclear war, but its essential insights remain helpful.

Central to its argument is that human beings are essentially spiritual beings. Hughes was arguing against any dualistic thinking that saw people as souls inhabiting bodies. What he meant was that we are all complex, multi-dimensional creatures. Our bodies, our experiences, our memories and our decisions are part of a whole, and together defy the comprehension of our conscious minds, which are usually focused so much on securing basic needs and creating a persona that who we really are is easily and often damagingly left out of the equation.

Hughes insisted that God is within us and wants, out of love, to unlock our inner labyrinths and let our true selves, which shine forth with his glory, out into the light. There is treasure within all of us, he argues, that God wants us to find.

The woman in the parable discovers that she can move again, that the person she was before her illness can start afresh and that she can praise God. The leader of the synagogue who thinks that compassion can take a rest one day of the week begins to see new possibilities. The Fig Tree which has led the farmer to despair still has the potential to bear fruit. The Kingdom of God, which is also usually described in the Gospels as something inside people, can turn from being only a tiny seed to a tree, which can give home and sanctuary to a multitude of birds.

This is a realistic and hopeful message that might help to sustain us when we feel despondent about ourselves and our worth, and when we look at the hatred and threats that surround us and might overwhelm us any moment.

It does not have to be like this.

Hughes quotes a line of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins from ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ which draws on the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It can be our prayer:

Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness in us, be a crimson- cresseted east.

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