Great BIG God
PBS has a wonderful series on the radio called Story Corps, and specifically, there’s a book and video project called “Listening Is an Act of Love,” that’s based on the Story Corps idea.
In a nutshell, it started almost two decades ago as a project to record everyday people’s life stories.
And so PBS put these little recording booths in a few shopping malls and other public places around the country, and people could go into them, sit down, hit the “record” button, and start talking.
People started doing this, and what PBS found was treasure chest of wonderful vignettes and astonishing histories of people’s lives.
It turns out that these everyday people were extraordinary!
People talked about things like how they survived Nazi death camps.
What it was like to grow up in the Segregated South.
Recalling what it was like to sail into Ellis Island as an immigrant….
So many rich stories.
You see, everyone has a story to tell.
Everyone has a rich history.
It’s one of the reasons I became a writer early on.
I love to hear and read people’s stories.
Now, in the church, we all have stories, too.
Here, we like to share our faith stories — our testimonies:
How we came to faith, how God blesses us in our lives, and how God heals us.
The testimony builds us up and helps us to reflect on what God is doing in the life of this community we call church.
We love those faith stories, and we could probably sit and listen to them every day.
I know I could.
But there’s something bigger happening here in our reading in Mark, isn’t there?
Last week and today, and most likely in the weeks to come, we see Jesus healing people early in his ministry.
We’ll watch in the coming weeks — as Jesus begins to make his way to the cross — how many people he will touch and heal along the way.
And even after his death, resurrection and ascension, the apostles begin to touch and heal people, too, as we read in the book of Acts.
And today, it’s no different.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel tells us in Verse 29 that immediately after leaving the synagogue (where Jesus healed a demon-possessed man that we read about last week), they arrive at Simon Peter’s house.
Simon’s mother-in-law (which means Simon is married), is sick with a fever, and so Jesus goes in, and we pick it up in Verse 31:
“He went to her, took her by the and, and raised her up. The fever left, and she served them.”
That’s what Jesus does. He touches. Lifts up. Heals.
Remember those words: Touches, Lifts up, Heals. … We’ll come back.
I don’t want to miss emphasizing what Simon’s mother-in-law does:
As soon as she’s healed, she gets up and serves them.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking, “Let the woman rest!”
She’s practically on her death bed, and as soon as she’s feeling better, she’s getting food and drinks out, and setting tables and taking care of the men.
Yes and no.
The verb for serve that is used here is the Greek Diakoneo — that’s where we get the word deacon from. It means to minister to or to care for.
We see the exact same language in other places in the Bible, specifically, when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.
The angels appear and the serve — Diakoneo — Jesus in this way.
Simon’s mother-in-law is doing the kind of serving that the angels are doing.
What does that mean?
It means not just feeding the apostles and Jesus after church on Sunday, it’s helping, strengthening, and enabling Jesus for the very important ministry and journey ahead as the Lord guides.
In this regard, it’s sacred.
OK, so now back to our other verbs: Touch, Lift up, Heal.
Don’t worry, we’re not going to translate from the Greek here.
But we are going to see a deeper meaning that shows us something about the character of God through the actions of Jesus.
1. The first thing is Touch.
Jesus takes her by the hand, Mark tells us.
Maybe Simon’s mother-in-law just has a cold or the flu, and the fever is resulting from that.
Or maybe she has yellow fever or scarlet fever… we don’t know.
But one thing for sure: You try to avoid touching someone with a fever, right?
Why? Because they’re contagious.
It’s the first century, people! Penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928.
Jesus very often heals by the physical act of touching:
This implies that health — not illness — is contagious.
Do you see that?
Health is good. God is good. Healing is good.
Serving is good.
When we reach out and touch others in Christ’s name, the results are always good.
That should be contagious!
2. So, Touch, Lift up, and Heal.
So the next is to lift up.
Pretty obvious: Jesus helps her up out of bed.
To stand up on her own feet.
This is the goal, isn’t it?
And isn’t this what we do in our community?
When we share Christ with others, they’re touched in a way that they’re lifted up.
Remember, we were just talking about those testimonies?
They’re uplifting because we know we’ve been touched by the Holy Spirit.
3. Which brings us to our third verb, heal.
You can see where I’m going with this, right?
You could do this one yourself.
You see, this is how we’re healed:
We’re touched by Christ, then we’re elevated — lifted up — and once we are on our own feet through Christ, we’re healed.
Jesus offers this to everyone.
It’s called Grace. We talk a whole lot about that here, don’t we?
Can’t earn it, don’t deserve it…
You see, Jesus is demonstrating exactly what it means to live under the grace and care of a Great Big God.
One who is eternally willing to hold, to elevate, to heal.
In the bigger picture, we look at this little passage and see how we are saved because of that Great Big God having sent his only begotten Son to us.
To touch our lives, lift us out of death, and heal our broken conditions.
Specifically, to heal us from the sickness and pain of the brokenness that had separated us from God.
Also known as Sin.
At the micro level of just this one healing, we see the macro picture of God’s promise for all of us.
And, like the Angels and like Simon’s mother-in-law, our response?
It’s not just to serve.
That would be tantamount to trying to pay Jesus for the healing.
No. We can’t do that.
Diakneo: To get up and put our whole, healed bodies into helping Jesus’s ministry.
That’s when we get our testimonies!
Well, this is just one short piece of what is a pretty straightforward passage in our reading today.
You see, the neighbors and friends hear about this miraculous healing, and the fact that just a couple hours before, Jesus healed a demon-possessed guy in the very public synagogue, and they’re now lining up at the door with all their sick folks.
And we’re told that Jesus heals many of them.
I take that to mean not all of them.
And at some point, Jesus turns in for the night, and we read in Verse 35 that in the morning, Jesus slips out to a “deserted” place to be alone in prayer.
Always going to the Father… That should teach us a lot.
The apostles, Mark tells us, track him down or hunted him, depending on your version of the Bible.
Those are strong words.
See, the people are desperate, and the apostles are really short-sighted here.
They think Jesus is only here to heal people and teach a few sabbaths in the synagogues.
Verse 38, Jesus says “Let’s head in the other direction.”
They’re in Capernaum, way up in northern Palestine.
Jesus has some other places in mind.
And, more, other people in mind. Who?
Well, rest assured, keep coming back to church on Sundays, and you’ll find out.
Or you can read it in your Bibles… That is allowed ;)
What we’ll say for now is that Jesus will greatly expand the scope of his ministry, starting in and around Galilee, “preaching in their synagogues and throwing out demons” (Verse 39).
When prayers aren’t answered
Now, we could probably end there, and this would be a great story about how Jesus heals, what the resurrection means for us as far as us being healed, and how we are called to serve God through helping Jesus’s ministry to continue and spread to everyone, everywhere.
That would be a good message, and it would be accurate.
But that still leaves a couple of questions:
Why didn’t Jesus stay and heal all of them?
And what happens when our prayers aren’t answered or our sickness isn’t healed?
Like I said when opening this sermon, I love a good story, and even more, I love a good testimony.
Our testimonies generally are about how “some thing was bad in my life, or my life was a mess, and Jesus reached out and touched my heart and lifted me up and healed me.
And now I serve the Lord!
But for many of us, our testimonies might sound different.
We don’t call them testimonies, actually.
They sound more like this:
“I’ve been suffering with this thing all of my life, and I can’t get clear of it, no matter how hard I pray and how faithful I try to be.
It’s as if God doesn’t hear me.”
There’s just no hallelujah in that.
And maybe, you know, a well-meaning Christian friend tells you:
* “Be patient, God’s got a plan.”
* “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Or, worse: “You just need more faith!”
Has anyone said this stuff to you before? Have you said it?
I heard that a lot when I was lying in a hospital bed for a month from a botched cancer surgery.
Or when my father died unexpectedly at a pretty young age.
Or when my marriage could not be reconciled.
“God’s got a plan. You just need to have faith.”
I do think God has a plan. And I do think we need to have faith.
But not that God gave us these bad things or took people away from our lives.
God is Good, Genesis tells us.
It is not possible for God to be bad.
God is not a Creator who only created;
God is creating today, and will create tomorrow, too.
The prophet Isaiah tells us:
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing. (Is. 40.26)
Prophesying to the Israelites who have been exiled from the Promised Land, Isaiah tells them:
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…
He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless…
…they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not grow weary. (Is. 40.28-31 excerpts).
There is a bigger answer to those hard questions we ask.
There is a bigger response to those hard prayers we pray.
We’re in the hands of a Great Big God, whose plan infinitely exceeds anything we can imagine here on earth.
If you want to know God’s plan, I can’t tell you.
And we can’t understand completely.
But we do know God’s character, and we know that God is good.
And we know that we have been touched, lifted and healed so that we can serve and bring glory to God, here and eternally.
But Jesus makes it clear that not everyone is healed from their earthly pains, no matter what they are.
Is God capable of doing this? Without a doubt.
Can you or I say why God doesn’t? No.
That Jesus cured “many” means he didn’t cure “all.”
We don’t know why that is, and we are witnesses to that in our own lives today as well.
That doesn’t mean we give up praying or believing.
It’s just that the end goal has never been about all that we can accomplish here in this world.
Yet it’s also not only about being so heavenly minded that we’re completely useless here now.
Jesus began a mission 2000 years ago, and that mission continues in us today through the power of the Holy Spirit.
We’re here for each other, and God is still listening, and God is still creating.
That’s what we must have faith in.
And sometimes that’s impossibly difficult.
We all know that.
But God is much bigger than all of this,
and thank God for that.
Because in all of it — sickness and health, loss and gain, heartbreak and love, sadness and happiness, suffering and bliss…
We’re held by the same hands that hold this world so tenderly and lovingly.
We’re held by the same hands who created the stars and counts them by name.
We’re held in the same hands on which each of our names are inscribed.
We’re held in the same hands that give us eternity — an eternal life with a whole cloud of witnesses.
Those who have passed before us, and those who will come after us.
And to live in the love and caress of the Holy Spirit.
Those are the hands that touch us.
Those are the hands that lift us up.
Those are the hands that heal us.
Those are the hands that unconditionally love and hold the whole world.