A sermon given at 8am Holy Communion (BCP) by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 21st of August 2022.


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

This morning I hope to weave a tapestry from a number of threads which have stood out to me from our readings this morning. Listen to these:

  • Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you. [Jer. 1:4]
  • To you, Lord, have I come for shelter. [Ps 71:1]
  • You have not come to something that can be touched … you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God … and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. [Heb 12:18,22,24]
  • Then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years … ought not this woman … be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day? [Luke 13:11,16]

Firstly, the idea that God has forever known us, long before we were born, is so wonderfully reassuring. Our reading from Jeremiah had these words spoken to him in terms of his having been called to prophesy. But similar messages about God’s abiding love for us, which started before we were even born, are echoed elsewhere in Scripture – for example:

  • For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. [Psalm 139:13-14]; and
  • Did not God fashion us in the womb? [Job 31:15]

Then we had the message from our Psalm today, that God is always there to shelter us – there are myriad such references throughout Scripture, many refer to God as a rock by the lee of which we might seek refuge; but I think one of my favourite such protective references is from Luke [13:34]:

How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Here again we have the implication that, by offering us His protection, God is doing so because we are his children. I only partially quoted just now from Luke – the full verse read:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.

Did this cause Jesus to feel wrathful over Jerusalem’s waywardness? On the contrary, as we know from a later verse in Luke:

When Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it. [Luke 19:41]

 Which, in my mind brings us to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, where we are told that Jesus’ incarnation changed the very nature of how we might relate to God. Before Christ, one only ever approached God with awe, even dread:

A voice whose words made then hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given. [Heb 12:19-20]

Was not this how Moses felt on Mt Sinai, and how the prophets had so often responded when they heard God speaking to them? Yet, the epistle to the Hebrews said all that had changed with Jesus ‘the mediator of a new covenant’, who became a voice to whom we could listen and ‘give thanks, (offering) God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe’.

All of this so powerfully attests to the wondrous love of God for all of us, his children. He has ever known us from even before we were born, he reaches out to us, he offers to shelter us and to give us rest.

Which brings me to the last of the threads of the tapestry; our Gospel reading about Jesus healing the woman of troubled spirit. We are told that she ‘was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight’. This might suggest she had serious physical problems and this may well have been true; but I am struck by the words in the preceding sentence, that she was ‘a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years’. I have this image of a woman physically contorted by her ongoing state of mental anguish.

Luke tells us that Jesus cured her for ‘immediately she stood up straight’. If she had simply had a physical condition which Jesus healed, it would have been a powerful miracle which should certainly impress us. But I think that there is so much more to be garnered from the episode provided we don’t lose sight of words from the previous sentence which described her as ‘a woman with a spirit that had crippled her’. For here we have a message which can speak so significantly to us in our own times. We live in an age where there is so much evidence of crippled spirits; of people who, though they might not show it physically, are twisted in on themselves by emotional or mental crises.

We all know that the most recent Australian census revealed that the proportion of the population identifying as Christian is now less than half the population. This has been widely reported and discussed. Less news attention, however, has been given to another set of data from that same census – namely the figures relating to mental health. According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald of 28 June, 2.2m people, or 1 in 12, have a diagnosed mental illness; more alarmingly, mental health issues ‘surpass(ed) every other chronic illness’.[1] The 2021 Census was the first to ask questions about mental health, so comparisons with previous census data is not possible. However, the Medical Journal of Australia reported in 2017 that depression had become the fourth highest cause of disability in Australia; and that, over the period 2001-14, the number of Australians in receipt of disability support pensions due to depression increased 51%.[2] While it has also been reported that in 2016-17, 4 million Australians received mental-health related prescriptions, a 25% increase over the figure reported in 2010-11.[3]

Now, I am not suggesting a direct correlation between the decline in Christians in Australia and the increase in mental health issues; rather I am wanting to highlight the way in which we may be offered assistance through Christ. Back in 2018, I interviewed Chris Cipollone, author of Down, not Out: Depression, Anxiety, and the Difference Jesus Makes. Chris is a pastor, he is also someone who continues to suffer from depression. His reflection on his own experience would indicate that such comparing of different census statistics absolutely misses the point. Many Christians suffer depression, in so doing they are walking in the steps that devout people such as Martin Luther and John Wesley had trodden, and acknowledged, centuries ago. Chris highlighted that the real point, in the face of his ongoing issues with depression and anxiety, was:[4]

I couldn’t prove anything to anyone. I couldn’t prove whether I’d be able to function the way I wanted to. But in the gospel, there is nothing left to prove, because God loves us – not because of what we can provide, but through the salvation Christ offers.

More pointedly, Chris Cipollone described this salvific power of Christ at a particular moment of crisis in his life:[5]

Something amazing happened in that moment … I realised that for all that had been taken away on account of my mental illness, one thing had not been snatched from me, and that was the love of Christ.

Prescriptions may offer a chemical response to a mental health issue, other forms of treatment seek to address different aspects of a person’s condition. They may each play an appropriate role in treatment of those suffering – possibly enabling a better capacity to cope with others. However, our gospel reading should take us to a place more profound than that the woman ‘stood up straight’ after Jesus’ treatment.

Jesus healed ‘a woman with a spirit that had crippled her’.

How did Jesus heal the woman? Luke tells us that Jesus ‘laid hands on her’, but I think our reading tells us so much more than that. The concluding verses of the reading deal with the upset of the religious officials about Jesus having done this act of healing on the sabbath. We might conclude, therefore, that Luke’s point was to highlight a false religiosity which would deny the woman a chance to be healed on this one day in the seven of a week – healing had been done out of normal office hours, and that was an outrage to some. But I think there is much more to be read into the verse which read:

Ought not this woman … be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

The priests had been upset that Jesus had worked on the sabbath; in reality, however, I think it is clear that Jesus fulfilled the sabbath day by that very act of healing; that it was more powerful because it was done on that sacred day rather than any other of the six options of that week. In order to consider this, let us think first about the sabbath? Hebrews 4:9-10 reads:

So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

What is this Sabbath? Literally, it is the seventh day, the day God had finished his Creation and, seeing that it was good, he rested [Gen 1:31; 2:2]. Not just in Judaic tradition, but also Christian, we have interpreted the Sabbath as just that, the seventh day of a week of labour. Yet, two other gospel readings are worth noting here. First, in Matthew, we hear Jesus say:

The Son of Man is the lord of the Sabbath. [Matt 12:8]

While in Mark, we hear:

The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath [Mark 2:27]

Returning then to the woman with ‘a spirit that crippled her’, Jesus had ‘freed her from bondage on the sabbath day’; he had given her more than physiological and psychological healing, he had opened up for her the door to God’s peace, for her to be able to rest in God, for her to be in the Sabbath of God, not the seventh day of the weekly calendar.

We are told that following her healing, the woman had ‘praised God’. At one level, her praise would have been incited by the immediate condition having been healed. At a deeper level, however, she could have understood that ‘before (she) was born’ God had known her, and loved her; and by loving her, she knew that she could go to his Son for shelter. She had no need of being frightened in the presence of the living God, instead she could find in Jesus ‘the mediator’ of a new covenant of love.

May Christ who knew us before we were born,

The Christ who shelters us under his wing,

The Christ who came to meet us,

May He bring his Sabbath balm to us at whatever stage and travail of life we may be.

[1] Census Australia 2022 results: Mental health tops list of chronic illnesses (smh.com.au)

[2] Is the prevalence of mental illness increasing in Australia? Evidence from national health surveys and administrative data, 2001–2014 | The Medical Journal of Australia (mja.com.au)

[3] Data from Mental health-related prescriptions (aihw.gov.au) and Patterns of Use of Mental Health Services and Prescription Medications, 2011 | Australian Bureau of Statistics (abs.gov.au)

[4] Chris Cipollone, Down, not Out: Depression, Anxiety, and the Difference Jesus makes, the good book company, UK, 2018, p20.

[5] Op.cit, p18.