Sunday, February 15, 2009

Audio from Sunday, Feb. 15

From Mark 1:40-45. Andrew Henry reads Scripture.

Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 15

Based on Mark 1:40-45.

Part of what is special about being a person is making choices. We love to make choices; maybe I should scratch that and say we love to have options. We don’t always love having to choose between two options, especially when we feel like both options are worthy or exciting ones. But we certainly don’t love having other people make those choices for us—even if there are hard choices to be made, we want to be the one to make them. In fact, this is part of what is so threatening to us about growing old or becoming disabled—the inability we would have to make our own choices. The thought of someone else choosing for us when we will wake up or when we will go to sleep, what our range of choices will be to eat, etc. is very difficult for us. We can’t even abide the thought of being unable to choose what to eat for breakfast or how to fix our hair; we are a culture in love with choice. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it has good and bad consequences, for sure, but it’s more or less just reality. We love choices.

“If you choose, you can make me clean.” So says the leper to Jesus. It is an interesting phrase, isn’t it? Not, “if you want to, you can make me clean,” but “if you choose, you can make me clean.” In other words, it is not a matter of having the proper orientation of the heart—the leper believes that Jesus wants to make him clean, but he is encouraging Jesus to choose to do it. Not, “if you had a bar of magical soap, you could make me clean.” But “if you choose, you can make me clean.” The leper also believes Jesus has the power to make him clean; but he is encouraging Jesus to use that power on his behalf.

Maybe you have heard of one of the oldest theological questions, a question people still write books about today; why bad things happen to good people. The question goes, “If God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, then why do people suffer?” Right, if he truly loves people, he doesn’t want people to suffer, and if he’s truly powerful, he could wipe out suffering with a wave of his hand. So either God isn’t good or he isn’t powerful, goes the argument. Either he’s an impotent God who can’t stop suffering or he’s a hateful God who enjoys suffering.

What this debate has always seemed to miss to me is this word, choice. What if God allows suffering in the world not because he can’t get rid of it and not because he loves it, but because suffering often has a redemptive purpose; in short, what if there is suffering not because God loves it, but because God chooses to allow it? This shouldn’t surprise us if we’ve read about God in the Bible and how frequently suffering is used in order to redeem and change things. Look at Habakkuk, for instance, one of the dearest books of the Bible to me; in this book Habakkuk cries out at the injustice of his nation and God says, “OK, I’m going to bring in a nation to conquer it.” Habakkuk says I didn’t have that in mind, but God does and throughout the conquering and suffering, he says, I will have you clearly in the palm of my hand; there is a great and inscrutable purpose here that you cannot see or understand but I am the God even of suffering. Look at Jesus, whose suffering brings new life and not incidentally results in his own resurrection. Look at the early church, who rejoices to be counted worthy of suffering because they were following Jesus and believed as they suffered with him, they would also be raised with him. It seems to me that suffering in the Bible is a choice—sometimes that people make in choosing to follow God—and sometimes a choice that God makes to do redemptive work in people. I don’t think that explains all suffering, but there is a lot about suffering that falls into place when we say, “Can God eliminate suffering? Yes. But does he sometimes choose to and sometimes choose not to? Yes. Why? We don’t know. We don’t always understand God.”

So when the man says, “If you so choose, you can make me well,” it is an interesting phrase to me because it recognizes Jesus’ choice as a powerful thing. He doesn’t doubt that Jesus is a nice guy and has positive feelings towards him, he doesn’t doubt Jesus’ power, but what he does doubt is that when the rubber meets the road Jesus will actually choose to do it. Will Jesus choose to extend his hand, to make the effort, or will Jesus move on to the next thing—still a good guy, still a powerful guy—without extending that effort on behalf of the man? Or will this be some other suffering that Jesus will choose to let go on?

I want to ask you to put yourself in the position of the leper. What are those things that we are hoping God will heal in our lives? All of us come to God with some kind of leprosy, some kind of sickness that we are hoping God will heal. What is it for you? Think about it. For some of us the sickness is just that, a literal, physical sickness: we come to God with an ailment we hope he will heal. I have been there and I have been healed and that is a testimony for me. But there is a difficult truth here: if it is really a matter of God’s choice to heal us, then the inescapable point is that God may also choose not to. For all of us at least once in our lives there will be an ailment which we will not be healed from, because all of our bodies in this room will break down at some point, sooner or later. That’s just reality. There is a certain threat and a certain comfort that comes from recognizing that it may or may not be God’s choice to heal you. Often, when we don’t recognize this, we get into trouble. If we believe that, “oh, God will heal me if I have enough faith or if I pray the right way,” and you don’t get healed, you start to think, “Well, something’s either wrong with me or something’s wrong with God!” And a crisis in your body becomes a crisis in your spirit. And so even though it’s scary to say, “God may not choose to heal me,” it ultimately relaxes you from this constant worry that either you’re doing something wrong or that God isn’t really big enough to help you. So it’s ultimately a relief to realize that God doesn’t play by our rules, that God is big enough to heal you but ultimately may or may not based on what he thinks is best. You see, while sickness is horrible and we don’t see signs of it in heaven, it does accomplish a rather major good in many of our lives. Talk to people who are sick sometime—I do—and see what has happened to their priorities since they have become sick. Sickness reminds people that they are not invincible and reminds them to live their lives in a way that they truly want to live it. If what we really need in our lives from God’s perspective is to live with certain priorities, and sickness makes many of us start living with those priorities, it shouldn’t surprise us that God occasionally allows sickness to creep into our lives.

As I began working on this sermon last week, I had what I thought was a pimple coming in on my forehead. I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, Michael, you are almost 31 years old. It’s time to stop getting pimples.” But the pimple didn’t feel just right, and by the evening it grew into a full-blown rash and I called the doctor and made an appointment for the next day where he told me I had shingles. Shingles, if you don’t know, is when the virus that gives you chickenpox mysteriously reactivates and attacks your nerves; those who have had it will testify that it can be an extremely painful condition. And so I had to re-evaluate this sermon in light of what I was going through: did all my high-minded rhetoric about suffering really pass muster in my own life?

I decided it did. You know what the main temptation in the world is for a young American who is relatively wealthy? It’s to feel invincible, like you cannot be touched, like there is nothing you cannot do. The world is your oyster and all you gotta do is open it up and enjoy. Of course, nothing is further from the truth and there is perhaps no more dangerous attitude to the Christian spiritual life, where we are constantly reminded that the world is God’s and exists for his glory, not our existing for our own pleasure. And something has got to prick that attitude from time to time; why not shingles? Nothing like a virus attacking your nerves and making you feel like you’re being poked again and again with electric pins to make you realize you’re not in charge here. Which is of course what my spirit needed; there are times where making someone well might undermined good things going on in their spirit.

I’m not alone in this idea, that our sickness has the capability of teaching us, that our sickness has the capability of making us different people that we wouldn’t be without the sickness. People with far greater disabilities and sicknesses than me will tell you that they have become the people they are because of their disabilities and have a unique story to share with the world because of their sickness. They see God in a different way because of their sickness than others do and so they have a unique way to talk about God with the world. So while it may scare us that our future is in God’s hands, what could be better news, really? Because whether healed or not, our future is in God’s hands. If God chooses, he can heal us and we can glorify him in our healing. If God chooses, he can choose not to heal us and we can glorify him in our sickness. This is the good God we serve.
Of course, there are many other options besides physical sickness. Many of us are hurting in the current economic situation. We are scared of what the future holds, we are unsure about whether what we thought was secure really is as secure as we assumed it was. In this case, we must be aware again that God may or may not bring healing to us; things may or may not go back to what they were before. I have noticed the way in which our national culture has changed in this recession; people are saving more, buying less. People are reconsidering whether things will bring them happiness after all. Is it any surprise that God might choose to let us endure poverty, either individually or as a people? There are all sorts of problems where we must be able to say, “If you choose, you can make us well.” This is our preference, to go back to a soaring stock market, secure retirement funds and a measure of financial security. But we don’t know whether that desire for security is borne of our good sides or our bad sides. We don’t know what kind of people we’d become if we had it: would we truly use our financial security to reach out and touch the world with God’s love or would we use it to buy nicer cars and TVs? I don’t know what I would do—do you? So we leave the choice with God because we’re not wise enough to make it. If he chooses, he can make us well.

Well, as we read on in the story we read what Jesus says next: “I do so choose. Be made clean!” And the man is instantly and completely healed. And even though Jesus told him to kind of keep the message quiet for now, not to share it with too many people because Jesus is not ready for that kind of publicity, but the man can’t keep quiet about it and he just has to share it with everybody.

Your story may end up that way. I hope it does. I hope that whatever you are seeking healing for, physical, emotional, financial healing, whatever it is, I hope Jesus hopes to heal it. He has many times before for me and for many of us here. I think the lesson of this part of the story is that when that healing does happen for us, we need to share it broadly. When Jesus touches us and heals us, there should be something in us that cannot be silent. When this happens, it helps the whole community remember that God is powerful and that God heals. Can you imagine the buzz that that town must have felt long ago when they saw this man proclaim that he had been touched and healed of an incurable disease? The town must have been so excited—we know they were because they all showed up and asked Jesus for healing. Something in us must sing and not be silent when we are touched and healed.
But because it is God’s choice, your story may not end up with this immediate happy ending. The sickness may stay or grow. The financial situation may not improve.

This all may or may not happen in the way we would choose. But if it does not happen for you, take heart; because this is not only a picture of immediate healing: it is a picture of the healing that awaits all those who believe in Jesus. Whether or not every physical ailment was healed, we all who are Christians have been touched by Jesus; and that touch itself makes us realize that in every meaningful way, we are healed. Whatever becomes of our bodies here, we realize that we do not carry those sicknesses forever. Heaven is depicted as being a place where all of our wounds are healed, even those wounds we didn’t know we were carrying around with us here; it is depicted as a place where the will of God is more perfectly known and a place where his desire for all of us to be healed is more perfectly carried out. It is that vision that keeps us going, whether we have been healed here or not.