Jesus makes house calls

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our Gospel reading this morning could be reduced to three sentences:

  • Jesus makes a house call when hearing that his good friend’s mother-in-law is ill; healing her, she gets up and makes everyone tea.
  • Simon’s house is turned into a pop-up clinic as large numbers come to the door to be healed – and Jesus heals them.
  • Jesus, getting up early, goes to a deserted place and announces he is going to leave Capernaum to spread a message.

So endeth the lesson? Well not quite.

Kyle Harper, in his series of lectures on Mark’s Gospel warns that:

The reader loses meaning by cutting up and breaking down the text (of Mark’s gospel). (For) truly, in the gospels’ case, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

He goes on to say:

Therefore it is best to read each gospel individually as a narrative … (to find the) meaning, not only at the individual word or sentence, but also in the structure of the gospel as a whole.

So if we return to our reading this morning, we would be making a mistake to think that Mark’s purpose in relating that incident in Capernaum was simply to promote Jesus as a faith healer but one who left the town even though he was clearly doing much good there. Notably, the reading concludes with Jesus saying:

Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message, for that is what I came out to do.

And here it is that we find a hint of the broader narrative meaning of Mark’s gospel. So what is the  meaning? Harper concludes that the message of this gospel is that ‘Jesus was the Messiah’, but not the messiah of Jewish expectation. Therefore Mark’s purpose in his gospel was:

To convince his audience that the Messiah was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.

Remember that Mark’s gospel comes to a much more abrupt end than the other three gospels which all have significant post-resurrection comment. It is true that later versions of Mark’s gospel did add some additional verses making it more comparable with the other gospels. But if we go back to the unredacted version, the last words we read are:

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. [16:8]

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, had gone to the tomb that morning to tend to a dead body; the dead body that represented the death of their expectations. They had surely not expected this outcome to those wondrous three years that had gone before – they had not expected the crucifixion of he who they had come to believe was the messiah of Judaic expectation. Remember that just days earlier, as we read in Mark 11, they had witnessed the crowds of Jerusalem proclaiming:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord [11:9b]

And they would have recalled what the disciples would have related to them about Jesus’ words when they were ‘in the villages around Caesarea Philippi’, when Jesus evoked an answer from the disciples as to ‘who do people say I am?’ [8:27] receiving the answer:

Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. [8:28]

Prodding further as to ‘who do you say I am?’ Jesus had heard Peter say:

You are the Messiah. [8:29b]

And now, here they were at a tomb – the tomb of the dead Jesus, the tomb of dead expectations. Dreadful as it would have been, they could deduct a terrible but still rational logic from what had transpired in those last fateful days. Jesus had not been the messiah they had expected but they still loved him none the less; and they wanted to tend to his broken body as a sign of their love. They would have been in deep grief as they arrived at the tomb … all that would have been normal.

But instead they were bewildered and they trembled and fled in fear. Why? They trembled and were bewildered because they did not find the broken body they came to tend, but an angel of the Lord who said:

Jesus has risen! He is not here!

And so the original version of Mark’s gospel  brings the narrative purpose of the whole to a climactic conclusion – again, repeating the words of Kyle Harper – this messiah:

was actually a sacrifice that had been sent to suffer and die.

But why this? Why did Mark want to focus on such a counter-intuitive deduction as to the message that Jesus had come to proclaim?

I have referred to Kyle Harper’s lectures on Mark’s gospel, but my first introduction to his work had nothing to do with Christianity but was his recently published book ‘The Fate of Rome: Climate Disease and the End of an Empire”. A fascinating work, but not a subject for today except for this chance comment:

When pagans died, they recorded the length of their earthly life on their tombstones. When Christians died, they recorded the date of their death, considered the day of their rebirth into the afterlife. [pp81-82]

Returning to Mark’s gospel, his purpose was precisely to convey that Jesus’ message was to signal rebirth into the afterlife – through resurrection.

So let’s go back to this morning’s reading and my three sentence summary. There was a whole lot of healing going on. Taken by itself, we would be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ message was one of temporal healing; but that could only ever be a transient message. And if that is what the reader would take out of our reading this morning it must ultimately be flawed, for death would still come to those Jesus healed – Simon’s mother-in-law would eventually have died; as would all of those he healed that day in Capernaum. The healing he brought could only ever have been temporary.

The great sadness is that we can so easily think that faith in Jesus will definitely and completely overcome all earthly ailments and travails. The physical healing that Jesus brought, as recorded in the gospel miracles, was profound but it could never be permanent – those healed would still ultimately die. But there was a much deeper healing that Mark wanted his listeners to understand – the message that because the dead Jesus rose from the dead, so too, through faith in him, can we.

As you know, I have a fortnightly radio program on 1079 Life; indeed, the first program for the 2018 season will be tonight at 8pm and my special guest will be Wendy Morecroft – I encourage you to listen in. Here endeth the commercial. Well almost – by way of giving advance notice, on Easter Day, April 1, my guests will be Joy and David Woodroofe who, at that time, will be days away from embarking on the Happy Chappy Ride. They will be riding a Harley Davidson around Australia raising funds for cancer awareness.

I have known David and Joy for nearly twenty years; David and I worked together in World Vision. A deeply faithful couple, they have been forced over the past seventeen years through an odyssey of grief and pain. In 2001, their youngest son, Paul, died suddenly at age 20 from a brain aneurism. And then, a year ago, their second eldest son, Kym, died aged 37, from bowel cancer. Joy has produced a beautiful little book, ‘Picture this … reflections and photography expressing part of my life’s journey’. In the introduction to this book, Joy writes about the terrible loss of two sons, untimely taken:

The pain and anguish of losing two sons has had me questioning a lot of things in life … even my faith. But at the end of the day, my faith is what I am hanging on to, so I hang on knowing that there is a God who is far bigger than me and who loves me regardless of my weaknesses … he is my strength.

Later in the little book, she has a short poem, entitled ‘Hanging on’:

I’m hanging by a thread Lord, just holding on

Every step I tread Lord, I’m trying to be strong.

Life is sometimes easy, life is sometimes hard,

At the moment I am struggling in life to play my part.

So I’m casting all my burdens on the One who knows me best.

I’m hanging onto you Lord, you’re my hope and you’re my rest.

Reading those words of Joy’s earlier this week brought to mind our beautiful reading from Isaiah this morning that ended with these encouraging words:

He gives power to the faint,

And strengthens the powerless …

… those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.

Neither Joy nor David believed that prayer would prevent Paul and Kym from ever dying, though they would so profoundly have hoped that their deaths would not have been so untimely. But, through faith, they know that they, in God’s timing, will meet Paul and Kym again.

As affirmation of how they can know this, the Isaiah reading today and our psalm both convey an understanding of God as one who reaches out to us. I love the warm way that God speaks in the start of the reading from Isaiah:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Has it not been told you from the beginning?

Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

What a wonderful and deep sense of comfort these words convey. Here is a God who is talking to us; he would surely only talk to those he cared about. And then from our psalm:

The Lord heals the broken in spirit: and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars: and calls them all by name.

Here is a God who is not only omnipotent – all powerful – he is also omniscient – all knowing. He can not only count the stars he knows them by name. It reminds us of Luke 12:7

Yet not one of (the sparrows) is forgotten by God.

A few weeks before Christmas, we took a break for a couple of nights down on the South Coast. Playing cards in the evening I encountered a  moment of transcendent power  – not in the card game … I lost. It had been a warm evening as we played, warm and still – the sort of evening when little midges fly about. As I was playing, I became conscious of one little midge crawling around on the tablecloth in front of me. Ordinarily, I might have shooed it away with my hand, or even crushed it with my thumb. But on this night, I found myself awed by the moment. For as I watched this little, very little, morsel of life living out its life’s journey, I marvelled at something so small that, in all its tininess, had sensory organs, digestive organs, a nervous system. My feeling of awe went further, I found myself feeling great warmth, even love for this little piece of God’s creation. I wished it well and hoped that, in its short life span, it would find meaning appropriate to its created purpose.

But then, as I pondered this special moment, I realised the profound limitations of my love for this little midge. I could do almost nothing to advance its created purpose. Other than not killing it, or turning it right way up if it happened to be on its back, there was absolutely nothing else I could do to help it. The moment reinforced the limits of my power and knowledge; but it also brought into wonderful focus that there are no such limits to God’s power and knowledge relating to that little midge. The breath of life that was keeping that midge alive had come from a God who knew not only of its existence, but also of its anxieties, its yearnings, its hopes. Yet, as the verse from Luke goes on to state:

Don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.

On 29 May 1937, Pastor Martin Niemöller gave a sermon entitled ‘God is Love’. He would only give three more sermons before he would be arrested by the Gestapo on July 1 of that year, prelude to seven years he would then spend in a Nazi concentration camp. At a moment when he could have been forgiven for believing God was abandoning him, he preached:

Friends, whatever the burden that oppresses us and whatever the temptation that harasses us, ‘God is Love’, and it is precisely as miserable creatures – as oppressed and perplexed creatures – that we must learn anew: ‘He first loved us’, loved us not with friendly benevolence from afar, loved us not with a comforting smile that let us hope  for a coming deliverance, but with a love which was not confined to the distance nor to a better future, but which came to us in the midst of the dark valley and poured itself out till it covered the last vestige of our loneliness and distress – yes, of my, of your loneliness and distress; – and this love is called: Jesus Christ, and in Him perfect love is bestowed upon us, and God has not kept back one single drop of this love: God has become our Father completely – wholly – in Jesus Christ, and there now exists no burden of which we are allowed to say: ‘This is my burden and I must bear it.’

This was the message Jesus had intended in the pre-dawn of that day in Capernaum when he had gone out to a deserted place after having temporally healed Simon’s mother-in-law and so many others. His message was that his sacrificial messiahship would mean that we would never have to say that ‘this is my burden and I must bear it alone’ for God  loves us, proven by the gift of his son’s death and resurrection. He loves us with ‘a love … not confined to the distance nor to a better future’, Jesus heals us.