Sermon: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 19th July 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  7am and 8am

Readings:   2 Samuel 7:1-14; Psalm 89:21-38; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Throughout the history of the church there has always been a strong link between the church and healing. The hospital movement we know today grew out of the churches’ practice of offering hospitality to travellers and strangers looking for shelter and asylum. And that tradition goes all the way back to Jesus himself. Jesus was well known as a healer and we see that in our gospel reading today that wherever Jesus went the crowds gathered around him and demanded healing.

We need to remember that this was an age where medicine was fairly primitive. Much medical practice seemed closer to the dark arts. It was for a good reason that Hippocrates included in his oath a promise to do no harm, such was the state of primitive medicine.

Consequently, chronic disease was everywhere. Go to any third world country today and one of the first impressions you get is how sick the people are. That was life in Jesus’ day. Sickness was the common experience of men and women. All sorts of techniques were tried to attempt a cure but rarely were they effective. Good health is our normal experience of life. But we live in a unique age. This is not the normal experience of human kind throughout the ages.

So you can imagine the impact of the arrival of a healer who could actually make people better. Not only that, we have recorded for us healings that even today cannot be achieved. The lame walk, the deaf hear, the blind receive their sight. We are not told of Jesus curing the common cold, or reducing someone’s back pain even though those would be nice. Each gospel writer goes out of their way to record for us healings that are extraordinary by any standards.

Jesus goes into the Synagogue and there is a man with a withered arm. “Stretch it out!” says Jesus. Stretching it out is the one thing this man had been trying to do all of his life. Of all people he knew stretching it out was the one thing he could not do. And yet, in obedience to Jesus’ command he stretched it out and he was healed – he was made whole.

Scholars normally attribute the events in today’s gospel reading with the first year of Jesus’ ministry which they call the year of Jesus’ popularity. We have two pictures of Jesus here. The first is of Jesus the teacher with large crowds coming to hear what he had to say. His teaching was nothing like what they had heard before – what was being discussed in the synagogues.

The second is Jesus the healer as large crowds gathered to bring to him all who were unwell. In each picture we can assume the people were gathering in their thousands. But notice, those who put this lectionary together have left out the middle of this chapter. They have left out two other miracles of Jesus – the feeding of the five thousand and the story of Jesus walking on the water. Now this is where the modern thinker wants to part company with Jesus. We have the two sides of Jesus – the teacher and the miracle worker. People like some of Jesus’ teaching and are prepared to accept that. But they draw the line at the miracles. Rationalism just wont let them go there. How could Jesus heal the blind and the lame? How could Jesus feed five thousand? How could he walk on water? There is no rational answer to that.

Some have responded to this dilemma by attempting to remove the miraculous from the Bible in an attempt to find the historical Jesus but when you do that the whole story collapses. None of it makes any sense.

We also need to consider that the teaching of Jesus is so integrated into the healing of Jesus. Jesus’ message is the message of the coming of the Kingdom of God, the restoration of all creation. And that it demonstrated for us by the rolling back of sickness and disease, the power over life and death and the climax of the story with Jesus’ own death and resurrection. If any miracle is irrational it is the miracle of rising from the dead. The miraculous is at the very heart of the Jesus story.

Or we could consider how this chapter is constructed. Our reading begins with the crowds coming to Jesus to hear more of his teaching. The chapter goes on with the dilemma of how to feed all of these people which is solved with the feeding miracle, and then Jesus escapes their presence and we have him walking on the water and then we return to our reading with the crowds demanding more healing. Mark overlaps event after event, never drawing a line between the teaching and the healing. It is all part of the one package.

All of these events take us beyond the realm of the rational and we are challenged by that. But that is the nature of the story of Jesus. It is the story of the creator of the universe becoming a part of his own creation. This is the incarnation, the message of God in the flesh. This is not a rational argument. But it all depends upon our starting point. If we are not convinced there is a God of the universe then nothing of the message of Jesus will help us. However, if we are prepared to keep an open mind then the message of Jesus follows its own logic. If Jesus is the son of God then we would expect him to do the miraculous. If he is the creator of the universe then it makes sense he could heal the eyes of the blind man. If he is the origin of life itself then we are not surprised he can bring back to life a twelve year old girl who has died.

But our own Christian living also has its own irrational elements. When we go to prayer it is an activity that cannot be proved in any scientific sense. It is a belief that there is a God out there who hears our prayers and who in his own unique and enigmatic ways answers our prayers.

This has always been an area of tension for me between me and God. There have been times of crisis in my life when I have prayed to God with an overwhelming sense of knowing what I think the answer to my prayer should be. So I have prayed not only for God to answer my prayer but to answer it in the very specific way I think it should be answered. I have spelt it out to him. I have made it plain. I thought my solutions were good ones. Yet at no time have my prayers have ever been answered in the ways I specified – not once.I have been very disappointed with that. I have felt that God has not listened to me. That God was ignoring me. And yet the outcome has been very different. In each of those cases if God had answered those prayers in the ways I outlined it would have been a disaster. Without fail, it would have been awful. To rub it in, in each of those cases the actual answer to my prayer was much better than anything I could have thought of or anticipated. Prayer is an irrational thing and I am not very good at it. One great theologian once said he couldn’t explain prayer at all, all he knew was that things were better when he did it. Things happened when he did it. And that was all he could say.

We can feel embarrassed when we read stories of Jesus that don’t seem scientific, don’t seem rational, but it is not a criterion we apply to every area of our lives. Marriage is not based on rational thought. We don’t make our friends that way either. The message of the Jesus is the message of God’s love for our broken and lost world. It is the message of God sending his son into the world to draw it back to himself, to rebuild it, to renew it. It is the message of Jesus who sees the crowd who appear to be lost and he responds with compassion for them. It is Jesus who sees the sick and the lame and responds with healing for each one.

Perhaps this is why we can find it difficult to speak about our faith because it is so personal, it touches upon the intimate – God’s love and our love for him.

So our reading today tells of two crowds, each one rushing to Jesus, one group longing to hear his teaching and the other to receive his healing. Each group in their own way was expressing their faith in him, trusting he had the words of eternal life, trusting he could relieve their suffering and pain. And he did. This is the God of love, who reveals himself to each of us in these ancient stories, who reveals himself to us through our prayers, and who comes to us each day by his spirit.

Reverend Ross Weaver