Hope for the Hopeless People

Luke 13:10-17

10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

Dear Friends in Christ,

Over the years we have had Christian singer and songwriter Don Wharton share his talents with us in concerts that he has performed right here in our sanctuary.  And if you’ve been fortunate enough to attend any of those concerts, you have probably heard his testimony of how the Lord rescued him and 6 others after their plane had crashed in the 36-degree waters of the Bering Sea on Aug. 13, 1993.  As he described the moments following that crash – how the plane sank within a minute of hitting the water; how the 3-6 foot waves pushed them farther and farther apart from one another as they desperately clung to empty 5-gallon gas cans; how there was no land whatsoever in sight – I tried to put myself in his place and could not imagine a more hopeless situation that one could encounter, that is, until I came across the following story that author and pastor David Jeremiah shares in his book The Power of Encouragement.

He tells about an old Alfred Hitchcock show which featured the story of an evil woman who was in prison for committing a murder.  She soon realized that her only chance for escape was to become friends with the old man who served as the prison undertaker.  Finally, after much bribing and begging she convinced him to help her escape.  He came up with a plan.  He told her that the next time she heard the bell toll to announce that one of the inmates had died, she should slip down to the prison mortuary and hide in the casket with the dead body.  He would then take the casket out the next morning and bury it in a shallow grave.  Then later on he would slip back out, dig up the casket, and release her.  It was the perfect plan for the perfect escape.

And sure enough, everything went according to plan – at least at first.  One night the woman heard the bell toll, so she quietly slipped down to the dark mortuary and hid in the casket with the dead body.  Not a very pleasant experience to say the least, but one that she knew would gain her freedom.  The casket was transported outside the prison walls and buried.  The woman then waited hopefully, anxiously, expectantly, but no one came to dig her up.  Finally, she decided to light a match she’d brought with her and as the light of that match flooded the casket, she was horrified to see that the dead body lying beneath her was that of the old undertaker.

Now that’s what you call a picture of complete hopelessness.  And I’m sure that if we were to go around the church this morning, many of you could share your own personal encounters with seemingly hopeless situations, maybe not quite that dramatic, but still bad enough to give you that feeling of hopelessness which was no doubt felt by the woman in our text for today.  Notice how Luke describes her.  She was “a woman…who had been crippled by a spirit for 18 years.”

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it?  “Crippled by a spirit.”  I’ve known lots of people over the years who have been crippled by a spirit, maybe not physically, but in other ways.  Anxiety disorders can certainly do that to a person, can’t they?  I’ve seen some people so crippled by anxiety that they couldn’t hold down a job or carry out the everyday tasks that most of us take for granted.  I’ve even known some who could not and would not venture out of the house.

I’ve seen young girls crippled by a spirit of embarrassment because their bodies started to grow faster than those of their peers and they felt that their gangly arms and legs made them stand out from the rest of the crowd.  I’ve seen some people crippled by an overwhelming sense of inadequacy to handle the challenges and responsibilities that have been given to them in the workplace.  They walk around and look as if they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Well, the woman in our text had been crippled physically for 18 years and as a result, Luke says that she was bent over and could not straighten up at all.  But notice what happens next in this story.  Luke says in the very next verse, “When Jesus saw her.”  What an exciting and exhilarating thought that is:  Jesus saw her.  The One who set the mountains in place.  The One who flung the stars across the heavens.  The One who fashioned every intricate detail of the human body.  That One saw this woman.  In other words, he was well aware of her situation.  And guess what, my friends?  He’s well aware of yours too, regardless of how hopeless it may seem to you at this time.  But I want you to understand something here.  He sees your seemingly hopeless situation from an entirely different perspective than you do.

Kind of like what happened to a woman named Janice Anthony.  One morning she and her husband were on their way to work together when they unexpectedly came upon a cow in the road.  Janice swerved to miss the animal and ended up crashing into a telephone pole.  Both she and her husband received their share of bumps and bruises from that accident.  The next day, when she returned to her job at a day care center, she was pretty self-conscious of the multi-colored bruises on her face, fearful that her appearance would upset some of the children.  But those worries were quickly laid to rest when the first child to arrive at the day care center that day ran up to give her a hug.  The little 4-year-old girl’s name was Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth saw Janice’s face, she stopped short, looked her over very carefully, and then announced with all the wonder that a 4-year-old can muster:  “Miss Jan, you have a rainbow on your face!”  Where Janice had seen the ugliness of bruises, little Elizabeth had seen the beauty of a rainbow.

And so it is with Jesus.  He sees our bruises in life from an entirely different perspective than we do.  He sees them as opportunities to display his power and his glory.  Remember the story of the man born blind whom Jesus and his disciples came across one day?  The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And how did Jesus respond?  He said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”

So remember that.  Remember that your seemingly hopeless situation may very well serve as a springboard for God to do something absolutely incredible in you, for you, or through you.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:  “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” 

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is once you’ve made it through a seemingly hopeless situation to share hope with someone who is facing their own hopeless situation?  I firmly believe that’s why God sometimes allows us to face those tough times, so that he might be able to use us as his instruments to hold out hope and comfort to those who are battling their own feelings of hopelessness, and to let others see that with his help it is possible to make it through.  I’ll have more to say on that later, but for now let’s move on to the 2nd point I want to make.

Not only does Jesus know our situations, not only is he aware of the things in our lives that may be crippling us right now, he alone has the power to lift those burdens from our backs.  That’s exactly what he did for the woman in our text.  Luke tells us that when Jesus saw this poor woman, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.”  Then he laid his hands on her and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

I love what Jesus says to her there.  He doesn’t say, “You are healed of your infirmity” or “You are made well again.”  He says, “You are set free.”  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of being completely set free from something that has kept us bound or burdened for a long time and there’s especially nothing quite like the freedom that Jesus can give.

Recently I read about one of the most unusual baptismal fonts in the world.  It can be found in a small college chapel in North Carolina.  It’s made from a huge stone, which has been hollowed out, so that it could hold the water used in baptisms.  On that very stone many years ago African slaves stood to be sold to the highest bidder.  Today, however, that stone serves as a launching pad, so to speak, for new believers in Jesus Christ.  An inscription on the stone says it best:  “Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery.  Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, men become free children of God.”

And so it is with us.  By the grace of God and the power of Jesus Christ, you and I have been delivered from slavery to sin and baptized into that same freedom.  As a result, we have moved from despair to victory, from tragedy to triumph.  Thanks to all that Jesus has done for us, the greatest burden of all that you or I could ever carry has been lifted from our shoulders, and that is the burden of our sins.  In Isaiah 53:6 we hear these familiar words:  “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  What a freeing thought that is, to know that as long as our faith, our hope, our trust are resting in Jesus, you and I will never again have to carry the burden of our own sins for Jesus carried that burden all the way to the cross.  There it was placed on him.  There our sins were exchanged for his perfect righteousness.  There he suffered and died in our place, as our Substitute, so that we might know the joy and freedom that his grace and forgiveness bring.

All of which leads us to our final point today.  Having been set free from the crippling burden of our sins, Jesus now calls us to lift one another’s burdens.  You know, it’s so easy to see ourselves in the woman that we’ve been looking at this morning whose back was straightened by Jesus.  But we need to see ourselves elsewhere in this story.  We need to see ourselves in Jesus, for doesn’t the Bible identify us as the Body of Christ in this world?  So we need to see ourselves lifting the burdens of others, straightening their crooked backs that have been weighed down by anxiety, fear, worry, sorrow, despair.  We need to see ourselves reaching out as Jesus did and giving hope to the hopeless.

You may have heard the story of the church in Germany that was hit by a bomb during World War II.  As the parishioners rummaged through the remains of their beloved house of worship, they came across the statue of Jesus that had stood above the altar.  Amazingly, the statue was completely intact, except for one thing.  The hands of Jesus had been broken off.  After they rebuilt the church, they seriously contemplated repairing that statue and restoring the hands of Jesus.  But they chose instead to put the statue back in place with the hands of Jesus missing.  And beneath it, they put this inscription which has Jesus saying:  “I have no hands but yours.”

May you and I who have already found our hope in Christ take that inscription today and write it on our hearts and on our minds so that as we live our lives from day to day, we might be constantly alert for opportunities whereby we can be not only the hands of Jesus, but his feet, his ears, his eyes, his voice, and his loving touch to those who need hope in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.