This morning, we’re going to talk about sickness. Being ill. Getting better.
It won’t have escaped your attention that the NHS is struggling at the moment.
Let’s be clear: I’m not making a political point.
There has been more tinkering done to the NHS in the past 15 years than in the whole of the 50 years that went before it. Different governments have done different things.
You could argue, if you wish, that a particular solution is a good one. You could argue that a particular political move is bad for the Health Service. I’m really not interested in the politics of it – at least not for today.
The heart of the problem is clear, and it’s nothing to do with the NHS. The population of the British Isles is increasing, and we are all living longer than our ancestors did. That means that we are spending a higher proportion of our lives with more things wrong with us.
Modern medicine has advanced amazingly. When Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928, I’m sure he had no idea what kind of medical cures would be possible today.
But for all of that, the needs are just so vast. You could even say that the Health Service has been a victim of its own success. So many conditions are curable that we all live longer and have further problems.
Indeed, you could even go further than that and say that all medicine is palliative medicine. When you hear in the news that some new drug has been released, it’s loose language to say that it will lower the mortality rate. The mortality rate is still 100%. Good doctors can delay the day we die, they can cure us of this particular illness, but that’s all. They can’t cure us forever. They can’t solve the problem.
Which makes us ask the question: How can I actually be made better? Is there a solution to the problem of sickness that is more than just buying time?
Well, we find ourselves this morning at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Matthew’s gospel.
According to Matthew’s account, Jesus travelled around Galilee doing three things. Verse 23: He went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing disease and every affliction among the people.
He taught. He announced. He healed. But most of the attention in this paragraph is on the fact that he healed.
And Matthew wants us to see how total his healing ministry was. That’s not to say that every sick person in the whole of Galilee got better. But all the same: Total in two ways.
So total in terms of geography. He got so famous for this that people came from a huge region. Verse 25: Great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and Judea and from beyond the Jordan. So that’s Galilee which is in the north-west, the Decapolis which is the north-east, Jerusalem is the city in the middle, Judea is the south-west and the lands beyond the Jordan were the south-east. Got it? Everywhere!
But also total in terms of medical conditions. Verse 24: They brought to him all the sick, those afflicted with various disease and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.
So, we have diseases and pains – that takes in every kind of physical complaint. Demon possession is listed next – those who were spiritually afflicted. Then, in a separate category we get epileptics. It’s actually wider than that, and refers to a wide range of mental illness. The word is literally moon-struck; it just means anyone who had any kind of insanity or mental health problem. And lastly we get paralytics, those who have lost the use of their limbs – whether through a serious accident or a stroke.
You see how total this is? People came from everywhere! And Jesus healed them of everything!
I don’t know if you’ve ever read the short story: Three men in a boat. It was published in 1889, and tells the story of three men and a dog who hire a rowing skiff for a holiday on the Thames. It tells the story of their trip from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford.
It was meant to be a semi-serious piece of travel writing, telling you about all you’d find on the banks of the Thames. But their antics slightly take over.
The journey began because a doctor prescribed a holiday. Let me read from chapter 1:
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into—some fearful, devastating scourge, I know—and, before I had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.
I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever—read the symptoms—discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it—wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance—found, as I expected, that I had that too,—began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically—read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid's knee.
I felt rather hurt about this at first; it seemed somehow to be a sort of slight. Why hadn't I got housemaid's knee? Why this invidious reservation? After a while, however, less grasping feelings prevailed. I reflected that I had every other known malady in the pharmacology, and I grew less selfish, and determined to do without housemaid's knee. Gout, in its most malignant stage, it would appear, had seized me without my being aware of it; and zymosis I had evidently been suffering with from boyhood. There were no more diseases after zymosis, so I concluded there was nothing else the matter with me.
I sat and pondered. I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class! Students would have no need to "walk the hospitals," if they had me. I was a hospital in myself. All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma.
I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.
That’s partly an excuse to read one of my favourite pieces. But it also shows how total Jesus’ healing ministry was. You could go through any medical text you liked, and Jesus healed the lot. Broken limbs, bronchitis, pneumonia, demon possession, cancer, flu, failed kidneys, hepatitis, depression, psychosis. If it was around, then, he could have cured HIV. And he probably even had a cure for housemaid’s knee.
No wonder he was popular!
The question is: Why was Jesus able to do this? Where did these powers come from?
The clue comes in his preaching. We’re told he preached the gospel of the kingdom, the good news that God’s kingdom had come. The kingdom of God is something alive. It’s another way of saying the reign of God. Jesus preached the good news that God reigns!
In the Old Testament, God promised that he would send a king who would bring in God’s rule. God would use his rule to make the world a better place, to stamp out all that spoils it. Jesus announced that he was that promised king. So when he arrived on the scene, sure enough, the world began to become a better place, he began to remove all the things that spoil it. And that starts with our sickness.
What Jesus did was amazing. But for me it raises two big questions:
Firstly, does Jesus still do this today? Second, how do I sign up?
Well let’s take the first question first. Does Jesus still do this today?
The answer is yes and no. Anyone who simply tells you that the answer is yes, he does still do this today, is only giving you half the answer. Anyone who simply tells you that the answer is no, he does not do this today, is also giving you half the answer.
Does Jesus still do this today? Yes. And No.
The answer is yes because of Easter day. If you were here on Easter Sunday, you’ll remember I said that the good news is not just that Jesus rose from the dead. The good news is that he is alive today.
That means he still rules as God’s king – today!
That means it is still within his power to heal us of our sicknesses – today!
It is a big mistake to think of Jesus, or to talk of Jesus, as though he’s just in the past, as though somehow he couldn’t do things like this today, as though he were dead.
But the answer is also, often, no.
That’s because when you read Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, he stresses that there is always a now and a not yet about his kingdom. The kingdom of God is here, but it’s not yet fully here. We have to wait until Jesus returns in order to enjoy everything Jesus came to bring, to enjoy God’s active rule fully.
Indeed, just look on into the next chapter of Matthew. Verse 3: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Verse 4: Blessed are those who mourn. Following Jesus often looks like poverty and sadness, even persecutions verse 10.
So, one day Jesus will come back. When he does so, sickness will be gone. Gone for good.
In the meantime, Jesus reigns. He’s on the throne. He’s in charge. He can heal. He does heal. But he often chooses not to heal.
Certainly it’s true that, while we wait for Jesus to come back, we still die. We all will. So any healing Jesus does bring now is temporary. Each of us will have one day when Jesus chooses not to make us better, and that is the day he decides we should die.
But even then, if we trust Jesus, that death is the gateway to life with Jesus. You know how the hymn goes: Jesus lives, henceforth is death but the gate of life immortal. Then we stay with him and wait to be reclothed in a perfect body that will never fail or die again.
So we are right to ask: Does Jesus still do this today?
And as we ask that, there are two dangers. We can be too quick to say “yes, he does”. That’s to forget the tension Jesus taught between what we have now, and what we do not yet have. But we can also be too quick to say “no, he doesn’t”. That’s to forget that Jesus is alive and he still rules today.
How Do I Sign Up?
The other question I find myself asking as I read about Jesus is: How do I sign up?
The answer to that is in the passage we’re looking at.
Just as we have heard about Jesus and feel drawn to him, so did great crowds back then. Huge crowds followed him from all over.
The problem is that many of them were very superficial. It was all shallow.
What we need to do is to follow him, but to remember that Jesus did 3 things as he travelled about, not just one. He didn’t just heal people. He taught, he announced, and he healed.
He announced who he was and why he came. He taught what it means to follow him.
So if, like me, you’re reading about this Jesus and you find yourself asking: How do I sign up, the answer is to follow him. But that means signing up for the whole package. We need to read the rest of Matthew, to find out what following him will look like for us.
But we don’t need to wait until we’ve read every bit of the Bible, and answered every question before we sign up. You can sign up today. You can decide that you want to follow Jesus, whatever that would look like for you. And then as you read Matthew, as you find answers for your questions, you’re doing that from the standpoint of someone who’s already signed up.
Or perhaps you’d find it helpful to come to our Christianity Explored course, and find out more there.
What is abundantly clear is that Jesus really is the king God promised, he really does rule, and that is good news!