What a poignant question that is. The reality is that sometimes we don’t receive the relief and the cures that we long for and pray for. Here is a sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, that speaks to that question and to that reality.
The Answer Is Yes!
A Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 and Mark 1:40-45
It is no wonder the sick man thought that Jesus’ answer might be “no.” No was the answer he got all the time. Leprosy, even in its mildest forms, what today we would call psoriasis, was one of those conditions that meant you were unclean: impure, unholy, unacceptable to God. Could you live in town like normal people? No! Could you come into the precincts of God’s house? No! Could you come into the fellowship of God’s people? No!
People with leprosy had to live alone outside the town walls, wear disheveled clothes, cover their mouths and cry out “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever any normal person was near. Work was out of the question. To survive they depended on pennies tossed at them by softhearted people. The givers were careful not to get too close, though. Any contact with an unclean person would render them temporarily unclean and banned from the community and the house of worship themselves.
If Jesus said “No!” to the man’s request, that would be no surprise. Jesus might be just as disgusted by the man’s condition and as wary of contamination as everyone else. God frowned on those who were unclean—that was common knowledge. Jesus’ answer could very well be “no!”
There are times when it’s tempting to conclude that Jesus’ answer to suffering people now is “no.” How many times have we prayed and prayed and prayed for sick or troubled people, but we see little or no positive result? How our hearts long for a complete cure! How our souls beg God for help! Yet no cure is forthcoming. The sickness progresses, and they die. Jesus’ answer then seems to be “No, I don’t want to heal you. It’s not my will.”
When people develop modern equivalents of leprosy, such as HIV infection, “no” is what they often hear from the community, and even from the church. “No, God doesn’t want to heal you,” some are quick to answer. “Your sickness is a punishment from God. You deserve to be sick and more.”
And then there’s the mechanical model of healing: God will say “no” to your request for healing unless you satisfy the faith requirement. “Let’s measure your faith,” God says in this model. “No, your faith is not quite strong enough. The answer to your prayer is no.”
But what about people with permanent disabilities? Is “no” the answer Jesus gives them? It certainly is the answer humanity often gives them. Education is just one arena where this happens. Parents of children with severe disabilities go to the officials and plead, “Could you please provide an assistant so my child can go to school? Could we please work out an Individualized Education Plan that will help my child learn?”
Learning is a crucial form of healing for these children and for everyone. But consider this comment by someone in the U.S. Department of Education some years ago. The official said that people with disabilities are inevitably morally responsible in some way for their condition. In other words, they deserve their misfortune, and therefore it’s okay to make only a small effort to provide them an education. That official’s comments sum up a common attitude. Some school officials and some other parents seem to wish special needs children would simply go away. They want to say “no,” and they will say “no” if you don’t hang in there and advocate for your child. Is God’s answer “no” too?
If Jesus said no to his request for healing, the man with leprosy wouldn’t be surprised at all. And yet, he still dared to come near to Jesus. He dared to speak and to ask! What more did he have to lose? “If you choose, Jesus, you can make me clean. Will you?”
Quickly Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the man who had leprosy. Jesus’ answer was a resounding “Yes! I do choose to heal you. I do want to heal you. The world says NO! But I say YES! The synagogue and the temple say NO! But I say YES!” Never mind if some religious official now considered Jesus unclean and untouchable. The answer was YES!
This man received a physical cure for his illness, yes. But he received much, much more: a deep, deep healing for his wounded soul. This lonely outcast received restoration to the human family and to God’s family. Nobody had touched him with love in a very long time. Yet that was the first thing Jesus did.
The answer is clear: God wants to heal people. God is at work this very minute in the lives of all who need healing. God loves them even more deeply than we do. God loves even those we don’t love.
Yes, it does cause us deep pain when we do not receive the medical cures we want with all our hearts, and when relief is slow in coming. Let’s be honest about that. It hurts! Psalms like the one we read this morning are quite eloquent about that anguish. But that doesn’t mean that God does not want to heal and is not doing any healing work at all. God is at work whether we see him or not. God is working in many ways to heal and to bless.
Stretch Out Your Hand, a book on healing ministry in the church tells the story of one group’s anguished prayers for a cure. Jeff, a 21-year-old college student and member of the track team, was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This horrible illness causes people’s ability to move to waste away until they can’t even breathe any more, and they die. (See Norberg, Tilda and Robert Webber, Stretch Out Your Hand (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998), 77-79.)
At first Jeff was filled with hurt and rage—understandably! His family and friends were appalled at the diagnosis. Earnestly and repeatedly a team of praying people asked God to cure Jeff, so he could go back to school and run again. Earnestly they asked that his life be saved. As the months passed, it broke their hearts that Jeff did not receive a medical cure. However, it did become clear that God was moving in his life in a powerful way. God led him to work on his troubled relationship with his parents, and God healed it. Forgiveness flowed, and so did healing.
Then Jeff began to contact people that he had hurt, to ask their forgiveness. Most became his supporters as the disease progressed more and more.
Jeff drew closer and closer to Jesus, and so did the group praying for him. Though they never stopped wanting a cure, their anguished prayers relaxed more into expressions of trust in the God who had his arms tightly around them all.
The author writes that Jeff began to be so certain of God’s love that he would say to people, “I know I’m dying, but I wouldn’t exchange my life for anyone else’s in the world. I know I’m dying, but I’ve been healed. I know I’m dying, but if I didn’t have this illness, I would never have had this joy.” And, indeed, it was obvious that Jeff was living in profound joy.
Jeff began to see death as his healing, leading him into his new life with God always. It was clear that God had healed him, even though his friends cried many tears because of his death. It was also clear that God had used their prayers. In the work of healing, God’s answer to Jeff and his friends was “Yes! I do want to heal you!”
God gives healing in many ways. Thanks be to God for what God accomplishes through medicine and surgery! Thanks be to God for helpful drugs, for insulin, for physical therapy and prosthetics, and for all kinds of adaptive equipment that enables people to live meaningful lives even with a non-standard, non-normal body! These are gifts from God!
Healing. It comes as renewed strength, as a mysterious peace, as rest, as the easing of an inflamed memory. Healing. It comes as a renewed and deepened understanding between you and someone you’ve hurt, or who has hurt you. Healing. It comes as the will and the ability to survive a devastating loss, to go on living after the one you love the most is gone. Healing. The loving support of fellow strugglers, the tender mercy offered to those who are dying. Healing. It comes as deepened trust in God. It comes when the Lord stretches out his hand and says it’s time to come home for good.
Does God want us to be healed? The answer is YES!
Is not the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God’s ultimate YES to us? Yes, it is! Paul says that in Christ, every one of God’s promises is a YES in Christ Jesus. And that includes the promise of healing from sin and sickness and death.
This very minute Christ is stretching out his hand to touch those who have made a mess of their lives, “Yes! He declares. I do want to heal you! This very minute Christ says, “yes, all you who are brokenhearted, all you whose bodies and souls are worn down, all you lonely ones and outcasts. The answer is yes.” Christ’s hand is stretched out to one and all!
People of God, whatever your past, whatever your present, whatever your prognosis for the future, stretch out your hands to the one who is already stretching out his hand to touch you. Let him touch you. Trust him to do what is good and right for you and your loved ones. Trust him to keep his promise to restore you in every way on resurrection day.
“I do want to heal you,” says the Lord Jesus Christ. “The answer is YES!”
Thanks be to God!
Art: Medieval Leper With a Warning Bell