I have never understood the idea of Christmas in July. Christmas is a stressful time of year for me, and I really don’t look forward to it. As a pastor, I struggle a lot with Christmas as I try to keep the liturgical season of Advent something of its own, to try to build up that sense of anticipation so that, when Christmas finally comes, it is as joyful as it can be. I get so tired of the secular commercialization of Christmas and I find no magic in those secular traditions. And as a single person, putting up the Christmas tree each year is an absolute chore that takes me two full afternoons. I hoped that, after I brought home my first cat, he would climb up the tree and knock the ornaments off, so that I would have an excuse not to put the tree up again. But, as an older cat, he took no interest in the tree. I’m hoping my second cat will now provide me the excuse I need not to put the tree up this year. Any time someone puts up a countdown to Christmas on their Facebook page, I write, “STOP IT!” in all capital letters. I shake my head and groan at the Hallmark channel airing Christmas movies in July. So, when I hear about Christmas in July, I wonder why anyone would want to do that more than once a year. I just don’t understand the whole concept.
But, if I’m being honest with myself, I will admit that the real reason I don’t like Christmas in July is the same reason that the leader of the synagogue was upset that Jesus healed on the Sabbath: there is only one right day to celebrate Christmas (well, actually, 12, if I’m being liturgically correct) and July isn’t it. And so, after many years of hearing this story of Jesus healing the bent over woman on the Sabbath, I can finally begin to understand and empathize with the synagogue leader’s point of view. There are six days available to do work, and the Sabbath day is not one of those days. And healing is work. If you don’t believe me, ask any one of our members who are doctors or nurses. If you’re not Jesus, healing people who are sick involves things like writing prescriptions and then making sure your patients are taking those prescriptions correctly; making sure your patients are following the diets that you laid out for them; performing surgery on them when necessary, and a whole host of other things. Then, when your patients come in and they’re not healed because they haven’t been doing what you’ve told them, you can add frustration to the emotional toll that healing takes on you. And, even for Jesus, healing might be work. We don’t know how his human and divine natures worked together to heal a person, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. Jesus might have been absolutely exhausted after healing the sick. So, as I said, I can empathize with the synagogue leader. The Sabbath day was—and still is, for observant Jewish people—a holy and sacred day, on which no work should be done. And here is this Jesus, who not only is an observant Jewish person but who is also teaching in the synagogue, blatantly violating the Sabbath by doing work on it! And, after all, this woman had been bent over already for eighteen years—surely she could have waited one more day to be healed. It’s just not right.
And, when we look at this story this way, we find that it’s really not about the healing miracle at all. It is also not a story about how grace wins out over the law. What this is really about is a dispute between two Jewish people about what is appropriate behavior on the Sabbath day. When I was training to be a deaconess at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, I was assigned to a specific congregation for what was called fieldwork; that is, a congregation in which to learn some of the more practical aspects of what I was being called and trained to do. This congregation was a Messianic Jewish congregation: those who identify as Messianic Jews describe themselves as Jews who keep all of their Jewish practices and yet believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The pastor of this congregation was a convert to Lutheran Christianity from Orthodox Judaism, and he told us often that, “Wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” In other words, within Judaism it is okay to dispute over the interpretation of the Law, and, more than being just okay, it is in fact a sign of faithfulness, a sign that you are engaging with the Law that God has given, seeking to more fully understand it and to find joy in following it. This is what is happening in this synagogue scene today: the leader is offering one interpretation of what is proper to do on the Sabbath, and Jesus is responding with another interpretation. And to more fully understand Jesus’ interpretation, we need to first understand some more of what the Sabbath day means.
We in 21st century North America don’t really make distinctions between days of the week anymore. Some of us might remember blue laws, those laws which forbade businesses to be open on Sundays. Many of us remember how kids’ sports teams did not have games on Sundays, out of respect for families who felt it important to attend worship services. Those days are long gone. While many businesses in Powell still close down on Sundays, there are still restaurants that are open if anyone wants to go out to eat, and many of us shop at Blair’s and Shopko right after our service here. Sports teams think nothing these days of having games on Sundays, much to churches’ chagrin. Slowly but surely, our society has said that one day is much like another.
This was not so in Jesus’ day. When describing the meaning of the Sabbath, Richard Swanson, professor at Augustana University, writes, “Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God’s dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all creation” (Provoking the Gospel of Luke, p.181). Perhaps the prohibition of doing work on the Sabbath is so that we can look around and pay attention, so that God might reveal to us a glimpse of God’s kingdom.
And that’s where Jesus’ interpretation of what is permissible on the Sabbath comes in. If the Sabbath is meant for us to cease our work so that we might catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God, then it is absolutely the right time to free a woman whom Satan bound for eighteen long years. Freeing the woman from her bondage is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God will look like when it comes in its fullness. After this story of Jesus healing the bent-over woman, Jesus tells the crowds that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed and like yeast: it is sown in secret, and we don’t notice it until the plant takes over the yard and the yeast causes the bread to rise, unless we have eyes to see it. Here, in this healing story, Jesus is asking us if we can see the kingdom of God coming in the release of the woman from her bondage, on the day of the week when we are supposed to be taking notice of the signs of the kingdom.
And that is the question for us today: Where do we see signs of the kingdom of God? And when do we see them? Are we so worried about what is right and proper to do and not to do that we miss the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst? Or, are we so busy with our schedules that we don’t take time to breathe, to rest, and to look for God’s wonders and signs in our midst? On Friday, I met a friend in Red Lodge, and as we walked around, we wandered into the Base Camp photography store. As we looked at the beautiful pictures that the man had taken of animals and nature in the area, we began asking him questions of how he had gotten such wonderful shots. And his stories reflected his own wonder, awe, and patience with nature. He sits still for hours waiting for the perfect shot, and the bears and the wolves grow accustomed to him, know that he’s not going to harm them, and then, it seems, almost pose so that he can get the perfect photograph. For me, this is a glimpse of what the kingdom of God in its fullness will one day look like: humans and animals at peace with one another, neither one harming the other, but both in awe at what God has created.
And this brings me back to Christmas in July. I still don’t quite understand it, and in my mind, it is not right and proper to celebrate the birth of Jesus in July. But, this might be how others see the kingdom of God in their midst: by remembering Jesus’ birth and celebrating his incarnation, his becoming human, one of us, in order to bring us salvation. And perhaps by doing this in July, it reduces the amount of commercialization and allows people to focus on what the true meaning of Christmas really is. Perhaps by mocking this practice and groaning about it, I have missed the Holy Spirit working around me. So, if what you need to glimpse the kingdom of God is to have a second celebration of Christmas in the summer, go for it. I think, though, that above all, we should be keeping our eyes open in all that we do and remembering to take the time to look around and see what God might be up to when we least expect it. We never know what God might show us. Amen.