Topical Scripture: Matthew 8:1-17
It has been a stressful week in the news, to say the least.
I flew back from Israel last Saturday night, the day after a US drone killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. We were all a bit relieved when we landed safely in the US. Airstrikes against our troops on Tuesday were followed by news of the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 tragedy. No one knows what comes next in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the wildfires in Australia has killed more than a billion animals and destroyed an area more than eight times larger than the region that burned in California in 2018. A million people are without power in Puerto Rico after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the country on Tuesday. Thousands of people slept outside their homes due to concerns that further tremors could cause other buildings to collapse.
And, of course, Harry and Meghan are stepping down from their role as “senior” royal family. One headline said, “First Brexit, now Megxit.”
When war threatens and airplanes are shot down and fires rage and the earth quakes, it’s normal to wonder where God is. Or why we should trust him with our problems and pain.
What do you wish God would do in your life today? This morning, we’ll meet three people whose stories can be our stories. The choice is ours.
Three wrong answers
Where is God when life hurts? In our text we find three wrong answers to our question, followed by three right answers.
One: Limit God’s power. The first character in today’s story is a leper. There were several skin diseases classified as “leprosy” in the ancient world. The most common was Hansen’s disease, a disorder that affects the skin and nervous system. Over time the person loses the ability to feel his fingers or toes. He wears them off, bloodies them, infects them, and they rot and die.
The disease was incurable until the late 1940s and was an impossible disease to treat in the first century. At least, for everyone but Jesus. He touched this untouchable man and healed him. If he could heal leprosy, he can heal any disease, any body, any problem. The wrong answer is to limit God’s power.
Two: Limit God’s love. Our second character in the story is an even more unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. He was a Gentile, considered by the Jews to exist only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was a “centurion,” a Roman military officer in charge of one hundred soldiers. Part of the force occupying and enslaving their land. Part of the army which forced them to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome and subjected them to pagan, idolatrous oppression.
Imagine an impoverished Jewish rabbi helping a Gestapo officer, and you’ll have the picture. But Jesus answered his prayer and heals his servant, to the shock of the incredulous crowd of hostile Jews. The wrong answer is to limit God’s love.
Three: Blame the person who suffers. Now a third person enters the story. Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot get out of bed. But Jesus heals her so fully that her strength is instantly restored and she makes them all a meal.
There is no indication of any sin on her part, anything wrong that she has done. We live in a fallen world, where disease and disaster are inevitable. Some suffering is our fault, as with an alcoholic with liver disease. But the wrong answer is always to assume that the person who suffers is at fault. We often make their pain worse.
Three right approaches
What are we to do when it doesn’t seem that God has answered the prayer we prayed, that he didn’t heal when we asked his help, when our leprosy did not get better, the servant did not recover, the mother-in-law died?
One: Judge the dark by the light. The leper and the centurion both called Jesus “Lord,” as they should. The word translates kurios and was used of Caesar, kings, owners, those in control. Jesus is Lord. And he didn’t change when my father died, or my high school friend committed suicide, or my hero in seminary was fired. He is still on his throne. He is still Lord.
What do we know about God? He is love; he is the creator of the universe; he does not want any of us to perish; he gave his Son to die for us. Remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.
Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in North Korea?
Remember his grace in your life and judge the dark by the light. I’ll never forget a seminary student of mine named Walter. The year his wife and several children died, his pastor called every day to say, “Walter, God is still on his throne.” Then Walter told our class, “God is still on his throne.” Judge the dark by the light.
Two: Understand that his ways are higher than ours. The leper has it right: “If you will, you can make me clean.” But God’s will and ways are not always clear to us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).
At the time, Joseph didn’t understand why he was enslaved in Egypt. Moses didn’t understand why he had to spend forty years in the desert. Joshua didn’t understand the flooded Jordan River and fortified city of Jericho. Daniel didn’t understand the lion’s den, or Paul his thorn in the flesh, or John his Patmos prison. But we do.
Three: Trust God to give you what you ask or something better. Here we come to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. When we prayed for something God did not grant, we can know that it was best that he acted as he did. Even when we do not understand why. The person did not get well. The house burned down; the divorce became final; the car wreck happened. And we do not understand why God did not grant us our prayer.
Dr. E. K. Bailey was the Senior Pastor of Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas and one of the finest ministers of the gospel I have ever known. Our friendship was priceless to my soul. Several times, God healed my dear friend of cancer. Then he did not. I still don’t understand why.
I must assume that it was not best for him to be healed. Dr. Bailey is with the Father in glory, in a paradise we cannot begin to imagine. One second on the other side of death, he was glad he was in heaven. In the providence of God, his contribution to God’s kingdom on earth must have been completed, his reward prepared, his eternity made ready. Even though I don’t understand it or like it.
That’s the faith assumption I must make when God does not grant what I ask: he is doing something even better. Though my finite, fallen mind cannot begin to imagine how that could be so, I must trust his love and compassion enough to accept it by faith.
Not until I became a father did I understand some of the things my father said and did. Not until we are in glory will we understand completely our Father’s will and ways (1 Corinthians 13:12). When we cannot see his hand, we can trust his heart.
Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle—he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.
In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?