Sermon delivered on the second Sunday before Lent, February 8, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm 104.26-37; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In one way or another, all of our readings this morning point to Jesus, the Word of God and the Wisdom of God. Given that our readings are part of our healing service this morning, I want us to look briefly at why keeping our focus on Jesus is so important to our overall health. For starters, Jesus is critical to our health because as John and Paul point out (but not George and Ringo), he is the very embodiment of God and this vast, wonderful, and beautiful creation was created through him, echoing the claim of our OT and psalm lessons. Do you want to know who God is? Look, in part, at the beauty of the world around you. Look at the beauty of healthy relationships, look at everything that is good and right. They will all proclaim to you, as the psalmist said (Psalm 19.1-4), the beauty and goodness of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. How can any healthy human being not fall in love with and adore this God?
But we also know there is plenty of ugliness and evil in the world, epitomized supremely by death itself. Of course this was not God’s original intention. As the creation narratives make clear, God created everything to be good and declared his image-bearing human creatures to make it very good. Likewise, the writer of Proverbs tells us that Wisdom, the OT forerunner that pointed to Jesus (with the notable exception that unlike Wisdom, Jesus was not created), delights in the human race, precisely because we are God’s image-bearing creatures. No, the ugliness and evil that has infected this world (the darkness as John calls it in his prologue) resulted from human sin and the dark powers and principalities that our sin has unleashed.
So what does this have to do with our healing service? Because sin and the evil behind it quite literally make us sick, whether it be physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or all of the above. Every time we chase after false gods and create a lifestyle around them, it sickens us. Every time we hold onto our anger and refuse to forgive those who wrong us (or whom we think have wronged us) so that we refuse to do our part to bring about real reconciliation with them, it sickens us. Every time we are jealous or envious of others for whatever reason, it sickens us. Whenever we deny that marriage is the God-given and foundational relationship between a man and a woman for our good and the good of society, it sickens us. Whenever we treat marriage as a throwaway commodity that can be easily entered into and just as easily abandoned, it sickens us. Whenever we seek outlets for our good and God-given sexual urges outside the context of marriage as God ordained for the human race when he created us, it sickens us (cf. Galatians 5.19-21). Oh, not necessarily all at once. It sickens us like years of smoking sicken us. We rarely get cancer after smoking our first pack of cigarettes. It takes awhile and not everyone who smokes contracts cancer. But sin, like cigarettes, sickens us in ways we never fully understand and ultimately kills us as both the OT and NT strongly attest.
Sin and the evil behind it not only sicken us, it sickens God’s good creation because the folks who are charged with caring for God’s good creation are sickened. The general sickness of God’s good creation can also cause us to have a warped and skewed understanding of the nature and character of God because there are many instances in which the innocent suffer unjustly as a result of this sickness and this makes us wonder where God is in all of it. Do the innocent suffer because God does not care or has checked out on his creation and creatures? Do the innocent suffer because God really isn’t in charge? Or maybe they are just collateral damage that comes with the territory when God zaps the wicked. Oh wait! The wicked don’t always get zapped! All of these faulty ways of thinking about God can tempt (and in some cases actually cause) some of us to walk away from God and/or stop believing in God altogether.
There’s also one more thing that can sicken us. Just as our refusal to forgive others who have wronged us sickens us, so our false ideas about God that lead to our refusal to believe in and/or accept God’s forgiveness sickens us. If we really do believe we are in the hands of an angry God who is determined to send us to hell because of who we are or what we might have done or who always looks eagerly for the opportunity to zap us whenever we misbehave, it will inevitably lead us to despair, which will sicken us as badly as anything else we’ve talked about.
That is why these lectionary readings are so important for us to hear and wrestle with because they all point us to Jesus. When we get our conception of God straight, everything else falls into place. Now before we look at Jesus and all that he means for our health, let us acknowledge that there is a mystery to suffering that we will never penetrate. Even Jesus, the very embodiment of God, did not offer an explanation for the unjust nature of suffering and the often capricious affliction of all kinds of evil on the innocent. Instead, as he told Lazarus’ sister, Martha, he had come to abolish the power of evil, sin, and death over us because he is the resurrection and the life (John 11.17-27). As God’s people we can therefore live with the mystery of the existence of evil and suffering if we are convinced that God really is for us, not against us, and that God really is doing something to heal his world, and our readings remind us of just that.
They tell us that God is indeed our Creator, that he created all things good, and that he is actively and intimately involved in the life of his creation and creatures, especially his image-bearing creatures. The psalmist proclaims that in wisdom God created all things and that all creation looks to God for its sustenance and very existence. When God gives freely and graciously, which is almost all the time, we thrive. When God withholds anything from us we are “troubled,” and when God takes away our breath we ultimately die, part of the curse that was imposed at the Fall (Genesis 3.1-19).
Paul and John declare that in and through Jesus God created all things and that even now Jesus is Lord and ruler of the cosmos, even if he is currently hidden from our sight and even when we wonder what kind of ruler Jesus is. This, of course, is not a problem with God. It is a problem with our ability to comprehend how God works. We simply do not have the ability to know all that God knows. That is why we must have a robust faith in God and knowing God’s very character as made manifest in Jesus is vital to having that kind of robust faith. Listen if you have the humble ears to hear. John further attests that though there is darkness (evil and all that is opposed to God) in the world, the darkness has not overcome Jesus’ life-giving presence in it. These all remind us that God is no absentee landlord or uncaring God, but rather actively at work in the redemption of his creation and creatures. This is why Paul could say that all things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8.28). Paul didn’t say that only good things work for God’s good purpose, but all things. Not even evil can thwart the good purposes of God. If you do not have your eyes fixed squarely on Jesus and really know him and his great love for you, frankly this will be hard, if not impossible, to believe.
But when we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus a couple things happen. First we see that God is not indifferent to the ravages of evil and suffering. To the contrary, look at all that Jesus did in his earthly ministry. He brought healing and release for all kinds of affliction and suffering and forgave all kinds of sin for those who sought it, proclaiming that this is what happens when the rule of God comes in full. Why would Jesus do this if he were against us or did not love us?
But of course the most powerful testimony Jesus gave about the love of God and his determination to destroy the power of evil, sin, and death came in what Jesus did. In our epistle lesson Paul is adamant, along with the other writers of the NT, that on the cross Jesus dealt with our sins and reconciled us to God by dying for us, and in that reconciliation we can find real healing and peace. In Jesus God came to take the full brunt of evil on himself so that we might be ultimately freed from it. And when God raised Jesus from the dead, God declared he had broken the power of death itself and that his new creation had begun, the new heavens and earth in which God will finally abolish evil, sin, and death forever when it comes in full. Notice that none of this answers our why questions. But given the breathtaking promises revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, do we really need that answer? We know God will one day heal us permanently and fully, unlike the temporary healing that occurs in our mortal body. If you want to know what God is up to regarding the evil that afflicts us, look no further than Jesus’ death and resurrection and then rejoice and give thanks!
Second, when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we see God’s blueprint for all that it means to be fully human and for what it takes to be genuinely healthy. When we look at our Lord’s life and teachings we see him telling us and modeling for us God’s intention for a healthy life. We see Jesus forgive his enemies as he was dying on a cross. We see him remind his followers that for most people, marriage is essential for our relational and sexual happiness, citing the very creation narratives in Genesis to support his assertion. We see him being patient and kind to all kinds of people, never holding a grudge or being jealous or envious of others. But most importantly, we see Jesus embodying godly wisdom—the fear of the Lord that produced a single-minded focus and commitment to following God’s will in all things for our sake, even when it would cost him his life. “If it is possible, Father,” he prayed at Gethsemane, “take this cup of suffering from me. Yet not my will but yours.” The extent we can imitate Jesus in our living is the extent we can expect to be happy and healthy, despite what might be going on around us.
Let me be clear. None of this guarantees that sickness and suffering won’t strike us. Our Lord suffered on more than one occasion. Why should we expect to be immune from it? Neither does any of this suggest we should abandon medical science and the advancement of human knowledge in favor of “spiritual healing.” We should never see the two approaches to health and healing as being at odds, but rather as being complementary. That’s why we should exercise regularly and eat right and all the rest. But medical science deals primarily with the body and as we have seen, we are much more than just a body. Following Jesus and his blueprint for healthy living along with heeding sound medical advice gives us our only chance to find real happiness and health in our lives. Anything else will make us sick. That is why we are to abandon our old unhealthy lifestyles as the NT writers consistently encourage us to do. They are not killjoys trying to spoil our fun. They (and God) want us to be fully human and healthy.
As you come forward in a few moments for intercessory prayer and anointing, resolve to act (or continue to act) on these things. If you are in need of forgiveness, profess your need and expect to receive it. If there is someone you need to forgive and seek reconciliation with, confess your hardheartedness and resolve to do all in your power and the power of the Spirit to make it happen. If you are grieving or weighed down in sorrow and need God’s consolation and strength, come and receive it. If you are living an unhealthy lifestyle of any kind ask Jesus for the power to leave it behind and follow his blueprint for healthy living instead. And if the Lord tells you to seek his help in human counselors or physicians as part of that process, listen to him and do it.
Above all, resolve to deepen your relationship with Jesus and seek to know him better. He’s available to you right now in the power of the Spirit, in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, in worship, and in the fellowship here. Seek him out and expect to find him because he loves you and will help you wherever you find yourself or in whatever condition you come. Whatever that healing looks like (or doesn’t look like), remember God works in all things for your good because you love him and he loves you. This, in turn, will equip you to proclaim the Good News you have in the Lord Jesus to others, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.