Sunday, February 4, 2018

Epiphany 5B

Isaiah 40:21–31, Mark 1:29–39




O God, you revealed your Son to all people by the shining light of a star. We pray that you bless the people of St. Andrew with your gracious presence. May your love be our inspiration, your wisdom our guide, your truth our light, and your presence our benediction; through Christ our Lord. AMEN.


Debbie had a track record of being a devout person of prayer for health and healing, for herself and for others. She was deeply moved by the testimonies of those who had experienced God’s healing in their lives.


As a child, Debbie had prayed with childlike faith for all that ailed her grandparents. She prayed for God to bring back together the divorced parents of her friends. She prayed for children suffering around the world. She wondered why more of her prayers were not answered. In her teenage years Debbie decided to document the success rate of her prayers. She kept a written record of all the people she prayed for, and then she noted whether their health had improved. Many showed some improvement, but when it came to praying for miraculous healing, her success rate was negligible.


When Debbie married Dana, they both desired to have a child. Debbie prayed that God would bless her womb. In six years she suffered four miscarriages. After the first one, she did everything the doctors told her to do to prevent a second miscarriage. But it was to no avail. During her last two pregnancies, Debbie prayed each night, “God, keep my baby and me safe. Please give us a healthy child.”


Well-meaning friends at church offered Debbie and Dana a variety of explanations for the miscarriages. One person said, “This is part of God’s plan.” Another asserted, “It will make you appreciate your children even more once you have them.” A third person assured them, “God is building your character by allowing this.”


The explanation that bothered Debbie and Dana most, however, was: “You just need to have enough faith!” The implication was that the prayers of those with a weak faith were going to yield weak results. Debbie and Dana had a hard time believing that a loving God was keeping some kind of “faith-o-meter” and that only prayers with a sufficient level of faith would result in healing.[1]


Those who offer lack of faith as an explanation for unanswered prayers will often cite Jesus’ own testimony. For example, in Mark 6:2–6 we read: “On the sabbath [Jesus] began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, `Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, `Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed by their unbelief.”


In last Sunday’s gospel lesson we read how Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. In our gospel reading for today Jesus takes his ministry of healing into the community. He enters the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus comes to her bedside, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. The fever leaves her, and she is able to get up and provide the hospitality she wants to offer.


In verses 32–34 we are told that in the evening “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.”


Following the sermon, we will be singing the beautiful hymn “Healer of Our Every Ill.In our gospel reading it does not say that Jesus healed all who were sick, but it does say many. Mark portrays Jesus as an amazingly successful healer. He is far more successful in his healing ministry than Debbie was in her praying for healing. The only thing that seems to get in the way of Jesus’ healing ministry in the gospel of Mark is a lack of faith. Does the gospel of Mark support those who explained Debbie’s miscarriages as a result of a lack of faith?


The first thing that can be said is that none of the members of Debbie and Dana’s church had the authority to make such a judgment. It is one thing for Jesus himself to judge where we stand in our faith and to assess why prayers were or were not answered. It is another thing for followers of Jesus to presume they are in a position to explain why or why not specific prayers are answered.


A second point: I have never kept track of my record in praying for healing. But I suspect that my track record for success is similar to Debbie’s. I suppose I could claim that I am a more successful prayer than Debbie since Donna and I had only two miscarriages before our first child was born and then look what happened— we ended up with six children. Perhaps the message in our situation is: be careful what you pray for. The truth is that most, if not all, the time we do not know why some prayers are answered and some are not. Faith in God is, of course, a good thing. We want to do everything we can to help cultivate such faith— both in ourselves and in others. But none of us are in a position to measure the level of a person’s faith and judge whether it is sufficient for healing to occur.


One other point: every person Jesus healed ended up dying. As wildly successful as his healing ministry was, it did not keep people from dying. Does that mean that Jesus' healing ministry was ultimately a failure? If the focus of a healing ministry is first and foremost on keeping people alive, then even Jesus failed to be a successful healer.


If we are not in a position to measure the strength of a person’s faith or to judge why prayers for healing are successful or not, what can we affirm about the healing ministry of Jesus, based on the biblical witness? First of all, Jesus’ healing ministry was a vital part of his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of God. Jesus proclaimed in word and deed that God is very, very near. God cares about the challenges of daily life that common ordinary people face. Healing ministry is about proclaiming God’s nearness in a tangible way.


Secondly, Jesus was concerned about healing of the whole person. He cured people afflicted with a variety of ailments. He sought to provide physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. He emphasized self-care as well as the care of others. That is why we are told in Mark 1:35 that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Jesus needed time to renew his body and soul. Time in prayer with God was essential to that renewal.


In the beautiful passage from Isaiah 40 the prophet celebrates the renewing power of the Creator: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary; and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”


Portico Benefits, a ministry of the ELCA focused on health and retirement benefits, promotes what is called “The Wholeness Wheel.” It emphasizes physical, emotional, vocational, intellectual, social/interpersonal, and financial wheel-being. In the middle of the wheel, at the heart of well-being, is Christ. The rim of the wheel, surrounding all the other forms of well-being, is spiritual well-being. A healing ministry can take a variety of forms addressing these various aspects of well-being.


Finally, the deeper we explore Jesus’ healing ministry we discover the main point is to express love. If the focus of life were primarily on avoiding suffering and staying alive, then Jesus himself did not do a very good job of either one. There must be something more to life and to a healing ministry. The motivation for Jesus’ healing ministry is a clue. Again and again, we are told that Jesus was moved with compassion to reach out and heal. The heart of life is about living with compassion. To love fully is to live fully. The measure of a life is not the number of our days. The measure of life is whether we loved and were loved today— this day—that the Lord has made. Our prayers for healing are successful inasmuch as they are an expression of our love and of our confidence that we are loved. Loving is the way of healing for followers of Jesus. As we will sing and pray in the final two verses of “Healer of Our Every Ill,” “Give us strength to love each other, every sister, every brother; Spirit of all kindness, be our guide. You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing; Spirit of compassion, fill each heart.”

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.





[1] This account of Debbie’s prayer life is a condensed version of Thomas Jay Oord’s

account in “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, January 17, 2017, page 16.