Out of the Depths: Learning to Trust Christ in a Fallen World

Sermon delivered on Trinity 4B, Sunday, June 27, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 2 Samuel 1.1, 17-27; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 8.7-15; St. Mark 5.21-43.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

We hold our quarterly healing service today. Most of you will come forward for us to anoint you with healing oil, lay our hands on you, and pray for you according to your needs/requests. Some of you will find immediate healing and relief. Others of you will not. What are we to make of that? Are the ones who have prayers answered like the woman of great faith in our gospel story today? Do those whose prayers remain ostensibly unanswered lack sufficient faith? These are vexing questions and deserve our attention. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you! If you have lived long enough you can relate to the opening line of the psalmist from our psalm lesson this morning. Life can weigh us down to the point where we feel like we are drowning. Some of our parish family are struggling with chronic illness and devastating loss, this despite their fervent prayers for healing/recovery. It’s heartbreaking to watch. We all know others who cry out for God’s healing power or relief from a host of evil maladies that weigh them down terribly and yet apparently find no relief. On the other hand, the Lord recently granted what was effectively a healing miracle to a woman for whom our intercessors have been praying. Her doctors were convinced she had pancreatic cancer, a death sentence as we all know. But there were fervent prayers asking for healing and when the tests came back, it was discovered she had lymphoma, which while still cancer is highly treatable with a fairly good prognosis. The doctors were stunned. Welcome to the challenge of living in a good world cursed by God over human sin and rebellion. We experience incredible beauty of all kinds living alongside incredible ugliness of all kinds, and it can make us crazy. Out of the depths, O Lord, I cry to you! Indeed.

And this dynamic, along with the questions it raises, is not new or unique to our day. We see it in our gospel lesson this morning. St. Mark sandwiches two stories of healing, faith, and fear together for our edification. What is he trying to tell us? Surely the woman with the chronic bleeding problem had prayed to God for healing and help. She had suffered under many doctors and found no relief or healing. We all know or have heard of folks who struggle likewise today despite our spectacular medical advancements and knowledge that often produce phenomenal results. It is not a stretch of the imagination to think this poor woman had prayed Psalm 130 regularly as part of her entreaties to the Lord. Not only was her bleeding a medical problem, it was also a social problem because it rendered her unclean and she was not supposed to even be there in the crowd with the others. Yet there she was, trembling in fear over the possibility that Jesus and/or the crowds would turn on her because of her unclean condition. 

Then there was the leader of a local synagogue whose daughter was desperately ill to the point of death. Jairus risked scorn and humiliation reaching out to this itinerant teacher who had on more than one occasion come into conflict with Jairus’ counterparts over matters of faith and practice. Yet here he was, desperate for our Lord to come and save his daughter. He too had likely prayed Psalm 130 in desperation before reaching out to Christ for help. 

So what is St. Mark trying to tell us in these gripping stories of faith, fear, and healing? We start with the woman. Here we see a person of great faith. She was convinced that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothing, she would be healed. Indeed, our Lord confirmed that her great faith had healed her once she did touch his clothes. So is St. Mark telling us that healing depends on faith? After all, we’ve all heard a version of this claim before. Doesn’t this scene prove that it’s true? Not so fast my jumping-to-wrong-conclusions friends! While Christ did tell the woman that her faith had healed her, it was clearly his power that had caused the healing. Notice the remarkable statement Jesus made before he told her that her faith had made her well. As soon as she touched him, Christ felt power go out from him and he said so. It was his healing power, aided but not dependent on the woman’s great faith, that had caused her to be healed. Furthermore, the woman’s faith wasn’t perfect. After all she approached Jesus from behind because she was afraid. But she was also desperate and her faith overcame her fear. Sound familiar? So let none of us hold the mistaken idea that we are healed (or not healed) based on the amount of faith we have. That’s bad theology, my beloved, because it puts the focus on us and our powerlessness, instead of the Lord and his power. Also in this poignant scene of healing, faith, and fear, St. Mark surely wants us to see that even with all of life’s pressures, even when it feels like we are about to drown in the sea of life with all of its brokenness, sickness, suffering, and sorrow, we can approach Jesus and he will make room for us because of his great love for us. Christ reflects his Father’s huge heart for his wayward children.

But what if healing doesn’t come, at least in the manner we ask or according to our timetable and expectations? Does that mean Christ rejects us? Hardly, as the story of Jairus’ daughter attests. As with the bleeding woman, St. Mark paints a picture of fear and faith. As we have seen, Jairus was desperate in approaching Jesus. And then the awful news came: your 12 year old daughter is dead. Don’t trouble the teacher anymore. But Jesus isn’t just any teacher. He is the Son of God, God become human, who entered our world to heal it and us from the ravages of our sin and rebellion and the Evil unleashed by it. And so our Lord told Jairus not to be afraid, just as he had told the woman. Then with intimate details that surely indicate an eye-witness recounting, our Lord raised the dead girl back to life, pointing us to Christ’s resurrection and our own one day. As St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, those who are baptized into Christ share in his death and resurrection (Rom 6.3-5). In this story, we see a foretaste of that reality. 

So what are we to take from all this? How do these stories help us grapple with the reality that sometimes God does not answer our prayers for healing in the manner we ask or expect? Let us start by acknowledging that more often than not, God does answer our prayers for healing. Think about the times in your life God has healed you from illnesses of all kinds. If you are hard pressed to come up with personal examples, ask any of our intercessors—Jeanne, Julie, Lisa, Tucker, myself—and we will give you lots of examples of God’s healing in answer to fervent prayers. Or ask Archbishop Ben Kwashi of Nigeria, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer and now is free of it as a result of many fervent prayers. We dare not deny this reality and focus on what God apparently doesn’t  do for us. 

But let us also acknowledge there is a mystery and an enigma to healing (or lack thereof) because we all know of instances where our heartfelt prayers have apparently gone unanswered. Because we are not God with God’s eternal perspective and omniscient knowledge, we must be very reticent about offering “answers” to our “why” questions. Let us have the humility to acknowledge that we will never know all the reasons this side of the grave, if ever. We live in a fallen world ravaged by human sin and the evil it unleashes. As the psalmist acknowledges in today’s lesson, there is a relationship between illness and sin. If God held us accountable for all our sins, who could survive? The answer, of course, is no one! Part of what we therefore must understand is that God shows his great love and mercy in healing any of us to begin with because none of us deserve that.

We know this is true because we have seen the cross of Jesus Christ and we believe that Christ died for our sins so that we could finally be healed or saved, i.e., we know the Father’s great love for us. Did you know that the Greek NT word for healing and salvation, soz?, is the same word? There’s a reason for that because unless Christ saves us by his precious blood, we have no hope of ever being ultimately healed. So let us acknowledge as God’s beloved children that there is a mystery to unanswered prayer. When we are confronted with that, let us turn in faith and remember God’s mighty acts of power in our lives and the lives of his people. For Christians, the first thing we should always ponder is Christ’s death and resurrection because they testify about God’s great love, mercy, and grace toward us. They literally witness to our future. As St. Mark has shown us, faith is an important conduit through which God’s power works for our benefit. Remembering God’s mighty acts of healing and rescue remind us that God has the power to heal us and loves us enough to have acted decisively on our behalf when he became human to die and be raised again. When the floodwaters of life and/or illness surround us we must be intentional in our remembering and turn to each other to be reminded of this truth. God will surely use our efforts to sustain us. 

And let’s also be clear about the nature of healing so that we can keep things in their proper perspective. What happened to the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter after Christ healed them? What happened to Lazarus after Christ raised him from the dead? What will happen to us if Christ chooses to answer our prayers and heal us completely? They died and so will we barring Christ’s return before our mortal death. My point is that all physical healing this side of the grave is temporary at best. As the story of Jairus’ daughter reminds us, our full and complete healing will not occur until Christ returns to raise us from the dead and bring in God’s new creation in full. Until then, all healing is only temporary. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t desire to be healed or mourn when our prayers for healing apparently go unanswered. What I am suggesting is that we need to keep healing in its eternal perspective and remember that we will not be healed in full until we have our new resurrection bodies. In the meantime, we must be strong in our faith and learn to trust Christ in any and every circumstance because only Christ has the power of life and true healing. 

So how do we keep our faith strong? As we’ve seen, we need to remember God’s love and mighty works on behalf of his people, on your behalf and mine. We do this best when we learn the story of God’s rescue plan for us and God’s creation. That means we read our Bible regularly and we talk about those stories regularly. Second, we worship together regularly and come to the Lord’s table each week to feed on his precious body and blood. When we do so, we unite ourselves with the risen Christ in a most powerful way and he can more effectively minister to us. Ideally we should feed on our Lord everyday. When that isn’t possible, we feed on him through reading and study of the Scriptures and through prayer, and we do this individually and together because we are the family of God and families take care of each other. Doing these things also remind us of the nature of God’s character. Many of us have a faulty notion that God hates us and is out to get us. Refusing to answer our prayers for healing is one way for God to punish us. But there is no way we can read today’s gospel lesson and hold that mistaken notion. God loves us so much that he became human to die for us to deal with our sin that separates us from him. In other words, God became human to heal us. An abusive Father would not do that, my beloved, and any such thinking frankly comes from our darkened minds and/or the Evil One himself. So let us praise God when our prayers for healing are answered, always having a grateful and humble heart. And let us join together to mourn for and support each other as David did for Saul and Jonathon in our OT lesson when our prayers apparently go unanswered. God will honor our efforts to persevere in faith together because our faith opens us up to his healing and saving Presence. This in turn helps us trust in God, even in the face of unanswered prayer. We worship and love a God who has rescued us from the ultimate illness of Death. Let us learn to trust his love, goodness, and power completely, even when we don’t understand it or observe it in action in ways we can comprehend. He will never let us down or abandon us. How do I know this? How can you know this? Because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.