Technically, I’m supposed to be on vacation this week.
I promised my wife I wouldn’t spend it working and writing. That’s sometimes hard for me to do, but I’ve done a pretty good job keeping that promise, I guess.
I figure since I’m up early this morning and the family is still sleeping, my working on this devotion doesn’t violate the terms of my promise. We’ll see what the wife says about it when she wakes up.
This week, we are in Missouri visiting her father. There is some complicated history between them and because of it we haven’t seen him or this side of the family in a long, long time. But his wife is dying of cancer. That changes things and so we’ve come… to… just be here with him. As Christians, sometimes our presence, prayers and the word of God is all that we can provide in the face of death.
I believe it is always enough.
However, as I opened my bible this morning to our assigned reading (Matthew 8:1-17), I couldn’t help but smile. Given our current situation, I found it a strange coincidence to read about the barrage of miraculous healings that Jesus performs at the outset of His ministry. If only I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me over the years, “Pastor, why doesn’t God still do miracles like this?”
It’s a valid question. Indeed, why can’t miraculous healings be a part of the Church’s ministry today? If only I could have come all the way from Texas and done much more than just pray with Pam’s father and his wife as she prepares to die. What if I could have healed her like the Apostles did at various times in their ministries? If only I could have commanded her to get up out of her hospice bed in the name of Jesus. What if I had been able to pray for healing and then watch as that prayer was answered before our very eyes? That would have been so cool!
But, alas, nothing even remotely close to that happened. All we did was sit and visit and sympathize and pray. If that’s all we offer, is it enough?
Of course, I’m aware that there are many charlatans out there who claim to have the ability to heal through the laying on of hands and such. Yet, have you ever noticed, that such miracles always seem to come with the universal clause: “if you believe, enough.” I have a hard time trusting anyone who tells me the power to be healed lies not with God but with the strength of my faith. And what about people who suffer from chronic diseases like arthritis or Multiple Sclerosis? Is their faith not strong enough? Finally, the salvation these charlatans offer is really only good for as long as you stay healthy. What happens if you get sick again? What happens if you die before you can get to the healer?
There’s got to be something better for us to put our hope in. We need the hope of eternal life.
So it is that the Gospels paint a very different picture of the nature of Jesus ministry; for while, on the one hand, Jesus was a healer and, at times, it seems as if the crowds came to Jesus specifically because of the rumors about His ability to heal–the sick, the lame, and demon possessed—nevertheless, on the other hand, the gospel writers make it very clear that Jesus’ primary purpose wasn’t to be a circus side-show healer. The Gosples make it painfully clear that Jesus came for the purpose of laying down His life by dying on the cross and rising again on the third day. The Gospels make it clear that His death and resurrection alone bring the healing we sinners so desperately need—the ultimate healing for all creation. Jesus’s death and resurrection accomplish the death of sin, itself, and new life with God in Christ. Jesus heals the damage sin has wrought upon us and all creation–the root cause of all maladies and suffering. The root cause of death.
All the miracle healings described in the Gospels ultimately were meant to act as signs to show us that He alone is the one who can heal not just the sick but the sinner, as well.
Just consider how the miracles Matthew records in our reading show us this:
The first miracle is the healing of a man with leprosy. In the Old Testament, leprosy was a death sentence. Of all the ways that God’s people could be separated from the congregation and cast out, leprosy was the worst. Most uncleanliness could be taken care of with various prescribed rituals of washing and sacrifice. These were ways that God provided for His people to be “healed” of that which made them unworthy to be His people. These rituals were sacramental, in nature–physical things to which God attached the promise of forgiveness and “cleanness.” They may have seemed strange and arbitrary to the people of God, just as the sacraments today seem somewhat strange, but that seems to be the way God likes to work. His ways are not our ways; and so, rather than do what we expect, he confounds our wisdom with foolishness so that we must trust His word alone. Just ask Namaan. Remember him? Elisha told Namaan to wash in the Jordan seven times and his flesh would be cured of the leprosy that was eating his flesh and robbing him of his status, but Namaan couldn’t comprehend how something as simple as a bath in a muddy river could be a cure. In the end, it was Namaan’s servants who finally had the wisdom to say, “Sir, it is a powerful word that the prophet has spoken. He has actually said, ‘wash and be clean.’” (2 Kings 5:1-19).
In the Old Testament times, there were any number of things that could make a person unclean– if you touched a dead person, when you completed your menstrual cycle, if you ate pork, etc. Such things made you not only unclean to be in God’s presence, but you couldn’t even associate with others, lest they touch you and become unclean, as well. But all could be made right again, if you preformed the appropriate ceremonies prescribed by God. The main idea behind it all was that we sinful human beings are constantly falling into sin and uncleanness before God and are always in desperate need of the constant grace that God provides to make us right, again, before Him. It was not all that different from how we relate to God, today. We need His constant forgiveness and grace.
But leprosy was a whole different ball game. There was no simple ceremonial washing or ritual sacrifice that could take that disease off of your skin. In a day and age of no antibiotics, Leprosy seemed almost like the mark of death, itself. Indeed, it brought physical death and presumably eternal death, also, for once it was contracted there didn’t seem to be much that could be done to make the person “clean” again. It’s hard to say if the Old Testament Law considered them ceremonially cut off or literally cut off from God’s people. In other words, did leprosy merely symbolize eternal damnation or did it actually mean eternal damnation? It’s a scary thing to consider.
However, what if the leper should suddenly be healed? Leviticus 14:4-8 actually provides a the ceremony for such an occasion, if it ever occurred, whereby the Leper could be declared clean and be restored to God’s people. What a joyous occasion that would have been; however, sadly, the bible records no examples of this ever happening prior to Jesus’ miracle in Matthew 8. Perhaps that’s why Jesus has the man go and show himself to the Pharisees and give the Old Testament offerings prescribed by Moses. It may have been the first time such offerings were ever given. Perhaps this too, was meant to be a sign for the Pharisees that Jesus alone could fulfill the Law of Moses. If only they had been willing to see such signs.
And just consider the powerful sign this miracle was for everyone else who witnessed it. Here Jesus actually touches the leper—a move that should have made Him unclean, also. Yet, His touch removes the leprosy, instead. It demonstrates that He alone can remove whatever makes us unclean before God, He is able to remove even that which was unremovable—leprosy. When He touched the man, Matthew specifically records that the leprosy was cleansed (verse 3).
Next, Jesus encounters another outsider: A centurion in the Roman army, a Gentile. We are told that Jesus marvels at the man’s faith. “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed,” the man says. This man trusts the authority of Jesus’ word.
Today our faith is based on the very same. We put our trust in the power and authority of Jesus’ words. His word in Holy Baptism is a powerful word, indeed. It attaches the very name of God to plain water. In receiving the water, a sinner receives the very name of God and becomes a part of God’s holy family. As strange as it seems, this washing is like an adoption; we are declared children of God. The uncleanness of our sin is washed away and we are right in God’s sight, even though we continue to sin. Also, in a similar manner, the Lord’s Supper is a gift that is given through Jesus’ words which give what they promise: “Take and eat, this is my body… Take and drink, this is my blood… given to you for the forgiveness of sins.” Like the centurion we trust the authority of these words; in our hearts, by faith, we receive and respond, “just say the word, Lord.”
I suppose, the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper don’t seem as dramatic as miraculous healings—at least on the surface they don’t seem that amazing. By faith we see them for what they truly are. But why doesn’t God also work miracles like we read about in Matthew 8?
I guess He could if He wanted to. Indeed, it may well happen all the time. Sometimes, I think this is the only way to explain many of the medical mysteries we hear about. I’ve known many people who where suddenly cured of a sickness that the doctors couldn’t handle. Such healings seemed perfectly coordinated with the prayers of God’s people. But the “how” and “why” of these miracles remains a mystery. For as often as God grants them, we know there are many other times where God does not elect to give miraculous healing. The bible gives us no insight into such things, nor are there any promises that all Christians throughout time should expect such things. When we witness what we think is a miracle all we can do is rejoice and thank God for His goodness and grace.
But I also know that there are many occasions where the cancer that miraculously left, suddenly comes back years later. When that happens, I don’t think it diminishes the miracle, but it does remind us that such miracles are not the main point of our faith. Ultimately, the miracle cure doesn’t do anything to save us. The miracle healing of today can’t protect me from a car accident tomorrow. And what about those who are dying of old age? Why is it that even in the bible there are no miracles that can cure that? And finally, even all the people that Jesus healed and raised from the dead eventually got sick again or died from other causes, even old age.
You see, while it would be grand if a miracle would happen to take away the cancer that is killing the wife of my wife’s father, in the grand scheme of things, that miracle would prove to be rather small and insignificant, for at almost 80 years of age, she would at some point, again, soon approach death. It would happen again and again and again, no matter how many miracles were performed. For the wages of sin is death. We must all pay this wage, and there is only one way this malady is cured: Through Christ alone!
Thus, the Gospels, do not give us only a miracle worker in Christ. He is the Savior. Matthew reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:17). We know this prophecy better as: “He has born our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). But Matthew highlights with his translation that Jesus is the healer of that which brings all grief and sorrow; He is the one who promises and provides eternal healing for the root cause of all sickness and uncleanness in this world–Jesus brings the once and for all healing from sin and death. All flesh waits for that day when Christ will come and with but a single command—“Rise”—death will be undone and the dead will live again in the flesh. On that day, every tear will be wiped away and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord,[d] that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
“…encourage one another with these words.”
That’s what we came to Missouri to do.
We came to comfort and encourage my wife’s father and his wife as they prepare to deal with the worst malady all—death. In the face of such an awful disease, we bring the authoritative word of Christ and the hope it brings to all who believe.
It is enough!