Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16

Text: Psalm 71:1, 3
In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
Be my rock of refuge,
    to which I can always go;
give the command to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.

Our rock and rescuer

Let’s start with the woman we hear about in the gospel reading today.  She is a woman who has had a bent over back for 18 years.  She’s a person who makes weekly worship, hearing the Word of God and praying at the synagogue part of her week.  She’s expecting the same thing to happen as always happens.  There’s something different about this woman.  We are told she has been crippled by a spirit.  Some have translated this as a “spirit of infirmity”.  In most other cases when Jesus heals people, we are told they were blind, or crippled, had leprosy or a withered hand but here Luke, who is a doctor, describes this woman’s bent over back differently – he says she had a “spirit of infirmity”. Not just an infirmity but a spirit of infirmity – a disabling spirit. 

We know that the mind can have a powerful influence over our physical health.  We know that a spiritual or mental problem can cause all kinds of physical side effects. For example, it’s a known fact that stress weakens our immune system, increases blood pressure, affects the heart all kinds of other ailments.  Anxiety causes headaches, stomach pains and bowel problems.

So, it’s highly likely that Dr Luke wants to tell us that this woman’s health issue is not so much a physical one but a spiritual or psychological one.  We don’t know any details, but it’s possible that a burdened mind and a shame in the past, a spiritual problem, was causing her bent over back. 

So, this woman walked into the synagogue bent over looking at the ground, looking at knees rather than looking into eyes.  Knees don’t accuse or mock.  Knees don’t cause pain and guilt.

She came to the synagogue that day expecting the same old same old.  To go into the synagogue, to listen and leave unnoticed.  But unknown to her there was someone there that day that did notice her.  He set her free from her spirit of infirmity. She stood up straight.  She praised God.

This account in Luke begs the question: have we come here today expecting the same old same old or have we come here loaded down with whatever burdens us, whether we are willing to admit these things or not.  Do we expect to leave here standing up straight, shoulders back, our burdens lifted and praising God?

From the beginning of today’s service, we have said that this place is the place for those who are tired and bent over with the troubles of this life.  Are you expecting something to change? 

This leads me to Psalm 71.  The songwriter is in some kind of trouble, some kind of spirit is terrifying him, something or someone is casting a frightening shadow over him.  Maybe you can recall a time when you have been terrified like this. 

Maybe it’s a momentary thing – something that happened so quickly but frightened you so much it’s left a deep impression on you.  On a personal note.  Once on the way to a church council meeting, a car came out of a roundabout too fast.  It crossed on to my side of the road and came straight toward me.  I have no idea how we missed each other.  I can still see the wide-eyed open-mouthed expression of fear on that young teenager’s face.  Arriving at the church one of the church councillors seeing how pale I looked asked whether I’d seen a ghost.  “No”, I said. “I think I saw death”.

On the other hand, was your experience one that was longer lasting – an illness, a relationship gone wrong, grief that wore you down.  Your downcast and sad eyes reflected what was happening in your mind and soul.  There seemed to be no way out.  The longer your situation lasted the more your spirit was disturbed and depressed.    No doubt your health began to be affected.  Like the woman in the gospel you were bent over spiritually and mentally and maybe it affected you in some physical way as well.

Let’s learn from psalmist.  Whatever troubled the song writer, he says, “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge…. In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me.”  Think of a child who is afraid.  Something has caused this little one to be frightened.  What does this child do?  He/she runs behind the parents’ legs or hides behind his mother’s skirt.  Or perhaps they put out their arms to be picked up knowing that they are safe in the secure and familiar arms of a parent.

We are in times when we are very much like this frightened child.  We are in a pandemic that continues to threaten us.  Natural disasters come one after another with more heavy rain predicted soon. 

War in eastern Europe is having a widespread affect and what is more frightening is the prospect of armed conflict right here in our own region.  Here in Australia we are used to being far away from the world’s problems, but the world has become a very small place.  We are powerless to stop the flow-on effect of world events.  We don’t have control over our own safety, our future, and even though our government leaders are skilled leaders they too can bend under the weight of the stress of what the future might bring.  Once we felt safe and secure, we now have to deal with frightening emotions and experiences.  We can either frantically try and create a safe place or rationalise what is happening some way or recognise our own limits and seek the help of someone greater than ourselves.

The purpose of a psalm like Psalm 71 (which is called a Psalm of Lament) is to direct us away from ourselves to a conversation with God and to a deeper understanding of God’s relationship to us and our relationship with God.

So like a small child we run to the open arms of our heavenly parent because we trust him.  The songwriter speaks of God as a refuge, a deliverer, a rock, a fortress – a rock and fortress are immovable and constant and permanent.  God can be counted on, leaned on to provide protection.  All these images bring together the idea that God can be trusted in the face of everything that life can throw in our direction.  In fact, the psalm writer reflects on times in his life when God has been his rock and fortress.  He says,
For you have been my hope, Sovereign Lord,
my confidence since my youth.
From birth I have relied on you;
you brought me forth from my mother’s womb.
I will ever praise you. (Psalms 71:5-6)

The world may rage and roar against us, he says, it may threaten us, the wicked and the evil will control us, but there is every reason to praise the Lord.  This is not praising him only when good things happen but continuously.  He is always our rock, our refuge, our fortress, our hope and our salvation.  His love never stops.  To put it in a very human way, his legs are always available for us to hide behind when danger threatens.  He will not turn us away.  Even when things are at their worst, God is still our rock and refuge.

The psalm finishes with these words,
I will praise you with the harp
for your faithfulness, my God;
I will sing praise to you with the lyre,
Holy One of Israel.
My lips will shout for joy
when I sing praise to you—
I whom you have delivered.
My tongue will tell of your righteous acts all day long,
for those who wanted to harm me
have been put to shame and confusion. (Psalms 71:22-24).

This song is still our song today even thousands of years after it was first sung. 

Be assured that God’s protecting hand is as strong as ever. 
We are his beloved children;
he has made us and saved us with the blood of Jesus;
he has brought us into his kingdom through the water of baptism;
he has promised that he will be with us always with his divine protection and will always watch over us as we endure the tragedies, the troubles, the economic battles, the threat of ruin in this life. 
He has promised to be there at our dying moment to comfort us with his presence, assure us that when we leave this life, he will transport us to heaven.

A house painter was at work on top of a tall ladder that leaned against the second story of a house.  A small boy playing in the yard discovered the ladder, and as is natural for small boys, he began to climb it.  His mother came out to check on the boy and was shocked to find that he was more than halfway to the top of the ladder.

As the woman stifled a scream of panic, the man at the top looked down, saw the child, and instantly perceived the danger.  Signalling the mother to be silent, he calmly said to the child, “Look up, sonny, look up here to me, and keep climbing.”  Rung by rung, he coaxed the child ever higher.  “Come on now, keep looking up, keep coming.”  At last, the child safe in his arms, the painter carried him safely to the ground.

Each of us is somewhere on a ladder.  If we look down, we may be terrified.  God is saying, “Look up to me; keep looking up, and you will never be dismayed or undone by whatever is down there.  Keep looking at me because looking down at the horrible prospect of what will happen will only terrify you all the more.”  So we are encouraged to keep on looking up because that’s where our safety lies.  We look up, take heart, and keep climbing.  Or as the psalm says, “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge … be my rock of refuge to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 71:1, 3).

We look up at the face of our Saviour and see his love and concern for each of us as individuals.  He will not stop reaching out to help us until we are safe in his arms.  It doesn’t matter what circumstance and situation it is that fills our heart with fear, he is there for us.

God provides a place of refuge; however, he is not a place for us to hideaway from others. 

Jesus calls us to be his love and to proclaim to others how they can find hope and trust in the God whose love for them never ends.  We have experienced the joy of rescue, of being surrounded by God’s sheltering arms, of being released from guilt and death by the death and resurrection of our Saviour, so it’s right to follow the psalmist when he says, “I will tell of your goodness”.  Tell of God’s goodness to another terrified and confused person and encourage them to look up to the only one who can be their rock and fortress.

The 71st Psalm is full of imagery reminding us how powerful God’s presence is in our lives in the middle of trouble and mind-bending adversity.  In the end our understanding of God and our faith will be stretched, challenged and changed  We will trust God even more and praise God more sincerely and enthusiastically. 

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1).


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

21st August 2022

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Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, revised Australian edition 1994.

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