St Michael’s, 13th September 2009
I wonder what your attitude is to the whole area of healing? Christian healing, in my experience, is one of those controversial subjects that seems to attract a wide variety of opinions. Some people have amazing testimonies of God’s healing and can tell story after story of the way the Lord has worked in power. Some people are very suspicious of the whole subject and want nothing to do with it. And some – I suspect the majority – know about healing, and long to see it happen, but have rarely, if ever, encountered this particular work of the Lord in a direct, personal way. And so what should be a subject in which we can all rejoice and give thanks all too often becomes an area of suspicion, mistrust and confusion.
So the question I want to ask this morning is this: what should our attitude be to healing? Should we be like one of those churches who put up signs that say “Healing, 10am, Sunday” – as if we expect miracles at the same time, same place every week? Or should we be one of those gatherings where our prayers sound like a roll-call in a doctor’s waiting room, without any expectation that the Lord will actually do anything? Or is there is a more balanced (and I would say more Biblical) approach that we should take on board? Let’s take a closer look at our reading from Mark’s gospel and see what we can find out.
Now unusually our passage begins with a healing that has actually failed to take place. A man has brought along his demon-possessed son to Jesus but Jesus is nowhere to be found. He has gone off with Peter, James and John up a high mountain where as we read last week He has been dramatically transfigured and revealed to be the Son of God. We don’t know how long how He has been away – maybe a matter of hours, maybe a couple of days, but the point is, the other disciples have been left, so to speak, minding the shop. And when this man comes along with his boy they find they are completely unable to deal with the situation. Not only that but they discover the teachers of the law are there, ready to pounce on their failure and to criticise them for their lack of success. It seems as if for a brief moment the whole ministry of healing that Jesus has started will end in failure.
And I have to say, it’s hard not to sympathise with Matthew, Judas and all the rest. After all, I guess we’ve all been faced with situations where people have asked us to pray for healing. And we’ve prayed and prayed, and nothing seems to have happened. We know what it’s like when others question the value of prayers, and ask what were we expecting, anyway. Maybe some of you are even in this very situation this morning.
So what changes? Well, the simple answer is that Jesus comes back into the picture. When they (that is Jesus, Peter, James and John) came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.
Healing comes through Jesus
And this leads to the first lesson we can learn this morning: healing is dependent entirely on the power and authority of Jesus. Now this was a lesson that really the disciples should have learnt already. Back in chapter 6 Jesus sent them out two by two with authority over evil spirits and to proclaim the gospel of repentance. And that is what happened. Chapter 6, verse 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. Yet it seems as if only a little while later they had forgotten that experience and were trying to perform a miracle in their own strength or by their own wisdom. But then again, this is what happens to us when our relationship with Jesus becomes flat or tired or stale. We rely on our memories of what Jesus did last year, five, ten, twenty years ago, to shape and mould our prayers, and while our prayers might be good and right and proper, somehow they lack the power and immediacy of a living, growing relationship with our Lord and Saviour. If we are serious about praying for healing we need to recapture the wonder and the awe of knowing Jesus, and we need to welcome Him afresh into our lives.
Healing comes by faith
This doesn’t mean, however, that once we do this, everything will automatically and instantly change. In our reading, for example, Jesus doesn’t, as we might expect, take up the boy and heal him on the spot. Instead, as so often happens, he asks a question of his disciples, “What are you arguing with them about?” Not because He is somehow unaware of the discussions that have been taking place. Or because He wants to know all about the criticisms of the teachers of the law. But because He wants His disciples to own their failure to depend on Him and to act in accordance with His will.
And what is so telling is that the person who answers the question is not one of the disciples, but the man in the crowd. Maybe he jumped in before they had the chance to reply. Maybe, and more likely, it is simply that they were embarrassed and ashamed. They realised they had let Jesus down and they had nothing to say in answer to His question. Which leads on an important point, that if we are really serious about praying for healing, we have to let Jesus first change us. We have to recognise that so often we do not live as if we depend on Jesus, that so often we only turn to Him when there is an emergency to be dealt with, or a crisis to be managed, and we have to confess and repent of that attitude.
You see, the problem people have with the Christian faith is not that they fail to understand its message, or even that they consider it to be untrue. It’s that they see a church who claim to follow Jesus but who most of the time live by their own strength and their own wisdom. As I have said many times before, revival, renewal, call it what you will, in church history has nearly always been preceded by times of deep conviction where the Spirit has shown ordinary men and women how much they failed to depend and trust in Jesus.
But the disciples are silent. And this to some extent explains Jesus’ outburst after the man has finished explaining the situation. O unbelieving generation, Jesus replied, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Not that the words are directed solely at them. They are aimed also at the teachers of the law who should have recognised Jesus as their Messiah but are more concerned to protect their privilege and position. They are aimed too at the crowds who are merely there for the spectacle but are not willing to respond to His message. Because the failure of the disciples, the teachers of the law, of the crowd all boils down to one thing – a lack of faith.
And this point is crystallised in the exchange between the unknown man and Jesus. From verse 22 onwards … If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us. ‘If you can’ said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
Now this is the one of the most famous dialogues in Mark’s gospel and rightly so. We don’t know why the man originally decided to seek help from Jesus. Maybe he already knew who Jesus was, and believed He could make a difference. Maybe he had just heard a rumour of a passing miracle worker, and was desperate to try anything. But whatever the reason, and this is a point worth reflecting on, because of the disciples’ failure, he was wondering if Jesus could make any difference at all.
To which Jesus makes the most extraordinary promise. Everything is possible for him who believes. What did Jesus mean by this? Well, there is among Christians what I like to call the “name it and claim it” brigade who believe that if you pray for anything you will happen to get it. They are normally linked to organisations that make regular appeals for large donations to their cause and seem to have no problems raising funds. But was Jesus here really writing a blank cheque for His followers? I rather tend to think not. Now I know this week several e-mails have arrived in my inbox telling me that I have won a million pounds in a lottery, but as I never bought a ticket or have even heard of these particular lottery organisations, I have reason to suspect this is not the Lord’s way of providing for me at the moment. Because what Jesus is asking us to do is not believe that my every whim and every want will be supplied, but essentially to trust in His goodness and mercy and love, and that He will give us what is right and what is best for our lives.
Not of course that this is necessarily easy. Our particular situation may well be one of such pain and misery and suffering that we find it hard to trust in God’s goodness, and we may well sympathise with the man who cried out I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! Incidentally if you have a King James Version you will find that it follows later versions of the story which talk about the man crying out with tears, and I guess there have been occasions when all of us have prayed with tears in our eyes longing for Jesus to make some difference. But what should comfort us is the realisation that God never acts in accordance with the amount of faith we happen to have in a particular situation, as if the more we believe, the more He does. He acts when with little faith or much we are willing to place ourselves utterly, entirely, dependently in His hands. That is faith. And that is the second lesson we can learn from this passage this morning – that healing comes by faith that is through quiet, still trust in our loving, gracious Heavenly Father.
Now in saying all this I am well aware that in our country today there are a surprisingly large number of people who believe all kinds of faith healing. There are the folk who go to the psychic shop over the road and put their faith in crystals or witchcraft or dream therapy. There are folk who go to the spiritualist church round the corner who put their faith in their power to communicate with the dead. And many of such people would say that their faith works. They may well not accept the claims of Jesus but they will say they have access to a spiritual power at least as great as ours. So, briefly, what should our response be?
First of all, we have to say that we have a loving, gracious Heavenly Father who constantly calls people back to Himself even in spite of their wickedness and rebellion. On occasions He may grant healing simply in order to open people’s eyes to His mercy and grace. At other times we have to be brutally honest and say that such claims of healing are nothing more and nothing less than the work of the demonic. Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light and although he has no real creative powers, he is a master of deceit and deception, and loves to embroil people in his lies. That’s why in the end the proof of whether a healing really is from the Lord is the long-term effect on a person’s life – whether they are drawn into a relationship of love and peace and joy with God their Maker and Redeemer – or whether they are dragged down deeper into wrong and dangerous practices.
In our reading this morning Jesus could healed the man’s son right on the spot. He could have driven out the demon there and then and sent everyone off on their way. In many ways it would have been an easier and simpler solution. But what would the result have been? The man would have been confirmed in his impression that Jesus was a powerful miracle worker and the crowds would have continued to follow Jesus looking for the next big stunt. They would have in fact missed the point, that healings themselves are only signs and pointers to something bigger and more important, to the person and work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ who in turn wants to draw people to the Father’s love. That is why in verse 25 Jesus finally effects the healing before the crowds overwhelm him in the melee. He wants people not to focus on the boy but on His authority and His power, on the fact that here is someone who is more than able to bind and crush Satan and to raise people to new life in a new relationship with God.
The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. That is the resurrection power of Jesus at work, and we need to understand that when we place our faith in the goodness of our loving heavenly Father we are doing nothing more or nothing less than asking Him to release that same resurrection power for His glory and His purposes. Because when we do, we begin to glimpse why on occasions the Lord grants physical healing and on other occasions why He does not. You see, that resurrection power is not something we can control for our own ends and purposes, but it is there to grant to all those who believe an assurance of eternal life, with sins forgiven, with the victory of evil guaranteed, and the promise that one day sickness, sorrow and even death will be completely and finally overcome.
Healing is rooted in prayer
And this is why thirdly and finally healing has to be rooted firmly and deeply in prayer, as Jesus tells the disciples in verse 29: This kind can only come out by prayer. But I suspect that what He meant by prayer was far more than our often tentative, hesitant prayers for God’s will be done. I suspect he meant us to pray something like, “Heavenly Father, we recognise that all good things come from you and we totally depend on you. We place our faith and trust in you afresh as we place our brother into your hands. May your power be at work in him to assure him of your love and goodness, and your victory over sin and death and evil. And we ask all this in the name of our Lord and Saviour who died and rose again for us. Amen”. For when our focus is on the Lord, when we are in living, growing relationship with Him, and when, as we were thinking last week, we are learning to listen to His voice, then I believe we can leave our requests and petitions in His hands, knowing that as it says in Romans 8:28: In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.