(this is the sermon from Jan 17th, which I forgot to upload!)
You’d have to say, Mark doesn’t hang around. In Matthew and Luke’s gospels Jesus doesn’t start his ministry until the middle of Chapter 4 – but here we are, just on our second chunk of Mark, middle of Chapter 1 – and Jesus is right into it – proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God and, I suspect more importantly, showing people what it looked like.
But we are also thrown right into what I, as a preacher, find one of the more difficult questions of the gospels – what are we to make of healing miracles and the casting out of demons that run throughout the life of Jesus? Or, rather, what do we make of the fact that we don’t seem to see the same pattern of miraculous healing in our own lives or the lives of those dear to us?
Should we? Is it that, as some would maintain, we simply lack the faith to see God’s miracles at work, that we are too trapped in our own cultural mindset of rationality and scientific method to be able to expect, or even genuinely ask for, the miraculous?
Others might say almost exactly the opposite – that the miracles recorded in the gospels didn’t really happen, that they reflect the credulity of a pre-scientific age, or that the gospel accounts, not being written as historical biography as we might understand it, but as theology, or hagiography even, aren’t intended to describe what actually happened, but instead stand as a sort of parable for what Jesus’ teaching was really about.
And yet, as seems ever the case, I find neither of those perspectives to be convincing. I have known too many people of genuine, deep faith, pray for healing for themselves or those they love, with a confidence that their prayer would be answered, only to find that healing, at least in the form that they were hoping and trusting for, was not to be.
But at the same time, the gospel accounts don’t read like hagiography. Read some of the accounts of the saints, or some of the non-canonical gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, and you find plenty of miracles which just don’t sound right, don’t have what J. B. Phillips, the twentieth century Bible translator, called the “Ring of Truth” that the gospel accounts do.
The gospel writers clearly were not setting out to write history or biography, there is plenty of internal evidence that they have moved events in time or geography to better suit their narrative flow and the key themes they are trying to express, that events have been merged, teaching summarised, and the like. But to simply invent a whole aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry doesn’t seem credible for a writer working at a time when the eye witnesses to those events were still alive.
So we seem left with the tension – that it seems the life and ministry of Jesus was characterised by literal physical healings, in a way that the life of the modern Church is not.
And what are we to make of it? Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed, and I’m sure you won’t be surprised, if I tell you that I’m not going to be able to answer that question for you. All I can hope to do is to offer some of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that make a sort of sense to me, pieces that you might be able to fit into your experience of life and insight into God and find some piece of the bigger picture.
The first of these pieces is clear in our gospel reading today – that the miracles in Jesus’ ministry played an important role in getting people to listen, in showing the truth of Jesus’ words. In today’s reading the people marvelled at his teaching, but also at the authority with which he spoke – an authority which was specifically identified with his ability to command the forces of evil and be obeyed. And we might think too of another healing miracle, the lame man lowered through the roof by his friends, to whom Jesus said “your sins are forgiven” but then, to the doubters present, he added “so that you might know that I have the authority on earth to forgive sins, I say ‘get up and walk’”.
Perhaps part of the reason that we do not have the simple, absolute power of healing the Jesus showed in his life is simply that we are not Jesus! We do not speak with his authority, with the authority of God. And how dangerous it would be for any Christian preacher to be listened to as if his or her words were to be treated as the voice of God; how dangerous, indeed, it is, when this does happen, in cults and extremist religious movements, or any context in which a single voice is given absolute, unchallenged authority….
Any wisdom we have to share resembles any gifts of healing we have to offer – partial, unpredictable, and only ever by the grace of God. And instead of miracles to prove our identity, Jesus offers us an alternative – “by this, shall others know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another”
A second piece, related, is the role of miracles as signs of who Jesus is – this is a theme brought out most explicitly by John, in his gospel, but it is present in the synoptics as well. The miracles recorded seem to illustrate Jesus’ power over different aspect of creation – nature (stilling the storm, walking on water – health (healing, of course) – the spiritual world (casting out demons) – the economic (a coin in the fish’s mouth) and practical needs (feeding the five thousand) – and of course, ultimately, over death itself.
In this sort of reading the miracles were demonstrations, ultimately, of Jesus’ divinity; that it is he, and he alone, who is to be worshipped as God incarnate, Emmanuel.
The third and final piece I have to offer is one that I’ve found increasingly helpful over the past year or so, as I’ve reflected on Jesus final words in the great commission, sending us out to continue to work of the Kingdom of God that he began. And that’s that the miracles of Jesus serve to show us what the Kingdom of God is like – God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven – give us a sense of what we are called to make real. For Jesus was the fullness of God’s Kingdom, the one who lived totally consistently with the way of God, but a fullness which was only a foretaste of the real thing, in which all people will live in harmony with God.
So perhaps in the healing miracles we see that the Kingdom of God is about healing – not just miracles of healing, but the work of healing in the medical and caring professions. Last year my mother-in-law very badly burnt her arm – but thanks to the Australian health system she received perhaps the best care available anyway in the world. I have no qualms about suggesting that the work of, in that case, the Concord burns unit, is a small piece of the Kingdom of God. Many here – perhaps most – could tell similar stories; perhaps the point of the healing miracles is that part of the work of the Kingdom is to offer the best care we can to all of God’s children, whoever they are, wherever they live.
In a way this is little more than common sense and logic – Jesus did things because they were the things God wanted done, so we ought to do our best to do things he did. And since we don’t – mostly – have the power of miracles at our fingertips, we have two options – well, three really. We can work to do the things we see as important in the life of Jesus; to bring healing, justice, peace, reconciliation, truth; we can pray for God to work those same things in and through and around us; or we can get cynical and give up.
I guess the life of faith is about trying to blend the right mix of options one and two, and fighting the temptation to collapse into option three.