Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
They’re the first healing miracles we’ve studied on this particular pass through the gospel together, but they’re not the first ones Jesus has accomplished in Luke. A couple others have already happened (the healing of a man with an unclean spirit and the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, both in chapter 4) and in that same chapter we also find this note: “All those who had any … sick with … diseases brought them to [Jesus]; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.” (Luke 4: 40) So the man battling leprosy and the man who had been paralyzed, in today’s readings, are two among many. You may also recall that when Jesus spoke in the synagogue in Nazareth earlier in chapter 4, his hometown crowd was angry with him that he wasn’t focusing his healing energy right there but was sharing it far and wide. Suffice it to say healing is a big thing for Jesus in the gospels. He does it early and he does it often. As we just heard in Luke 5:17, “the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”
Even in the midst of so many healing miracles, a couple lines stood out to me this week as I read the particular stories you’ve just heard. First, in Jesus’ encounter with the man covered in leprosy, it’s the dialogue that gets me. The way the sick man addresses Jesus: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” In other words, he knew both that Jesus could do this thing he desperately wanted, and that he might not. There’s something poignant in that combination of optimism and realism, that mix of hope and holding back. Though of course there’s a happy outcome here in this case with Jesus’ response: “I do choose. Be made clean.” (Luke 5:12-13)
And then we have this episode with the small group carrying their friend to Jesus to be healed of his paralysis, remarkably persistent as they push through a crowd of people and move those roof tiles to put him front and center and make sure Jesus sees him. I’ve always loved this story with its testament to how much they cared about their friend. Who among us hasn’t felt desperate at times to bring someone we love to Jesus’ attention for healing? But it’s the crowd’s reaction at the very end that struck me most this time. In verse 26 we read: “amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying ‘We have seen strange things today.’” (Luke 5:26) For some reason that piling on of words like “amazement,” “awe,” and particularly the phrase “strange things” spoke to me. Perhaps because I’ve spent my whole life around healing miracle stories like these in the gospels. I’ve come to expect them here. Of course, Jesus heals. So perhaps I needed this wake-up call from the crowd: “we have seen strange things today.”
When it comes to these kinds of gospel stories there are so many things we could talk about. Like whether Jesus was allowed, under Jewish law, to heal on the Sabbath (the law encouraged acts of compassion actually; we can talk about that another time). Or which specific skin conditions leprosy might be referring to (perhaps quite a few). Or whether demons and unclean spirits are ancient ways of referring to mental illness of various kinds (it could well be). Or why Jesus connects forgiveness to acts of physical healing. These are all interesting questions.
But they’re not the most urgent question, are they? Not now. Not during a global pandemic. The question more likely to keep us up at night is why heal them and not others? Why these people, Jesus, and not our people, or even all people?
Naturally we’re thrilled when we do hear of dramatic healing from injury or illness. We’ve celebrated a couple of those good news stories even very recently as a church family. But why not every child at Children’s Hospital? Why not every person battling COVID in every ICU? Why not every cancer patient, every dementia patient, every addict, every case of chronic pain? Why not your loved one? Why not mine?
Again, healing is a big thing for Jesus in the gospels. We can’t help but wonder why that doesn’t always translate into healing for someone we love, or for someone for whom we’ve been praying fervently, or even for ourselves. So you’re in good company if you have a whole lot of questions when you run across texts like these we’ve read today.
I’m afraid I don’t have easy answers for you. There it is. Full disclosure. I’m wondering right along with you today. Because as many sermons as I’ve heard over my lifetime about Jesus’ healing miracles, and as many explanations as they’ve tried to offer about why the Great Physician who canheal doesn’t always heal, I’ve yet to come away with an entirely satisfactory answer. I just don’t know. But in the midst of a pandemic it would have felt irresponsible to skip over gospel texts like these and not address the topic of healing at all. It seemed important to try.
And while there’s a whole lot we don’t know about God’s healing miracles, the testimony of Scripture does offer us important truths that can speak to us in this conversation. Let’s see if leaning on a few of those truths can help us today.
We know, first of all, that Jesus cares deeply about our interior lives and not only about our bodies. So sometimes healing can mean something other than a physical cure. Throughout the gospels we see him forgiving sins, casting out evil or unclean spirits, and addressing woundedness from marginalization and abuse and injustice. In other words, he sees beyond our most visible scars into hidden areas of pain. He knows about battles you may have been fighting for years that other people can’t imagine when they look at you. Jesus sees them, sees you. You don’t have to explain; he knows what you’ve been up against. And sometimes he’ll reach right in there and get to work on the kinds of battle scars others can’t see. People may look at you and see something like a skin condition or a physical disability and think that’s your biggest problem … when all the while you know the places you’re really falling apart are on the inside. Jesus understands. And he’s capable of working wonders there.
We also know that community can make an enormous difference in our healing. Sometimes you’ll be the one bringing your dear ones to Jesus, and doing so persistently, pushing through any obstacles in the way to get them seen by our Great Physician. And sometimes you’ll be the one who’s carried. You may find yourself unable to take another step, but then you’ll marvel at the lengths to which your posse will go, the steep inclines up which your people will carry you, the sheer number of roof tiles they’ll haul over to the side to get you to Jesus for healing. Thank God for the gift of community, for those who bear us up in body and spirit when we can’t get there on our own.
But here’s another true thing: prayer isn’t a magic formula. It’s not always enough to get right up in Jesus’ face. God’s healing power doesn’t work like a vending machine where you insert your coin, and push the right number, and out comes the exact item you requested. There’s an unpredictability to the whole enterprise. We can’t count on healing, even as we ask for it, which puts us in a really strange head space or heart space sometimes, doesn’t it? Like the man with leprosy, we want to demonstrate our faith in Jesus’ power by saying “Jesus, you can do this!” But at the same time we’re humbled by the first part of his ask: “if you choose…”
Physical healing of the dramatic sort we read about in Scripture isn’t an everyday thing. After all, miracles are called miracles precisely because they’re not the way life normally unfolds. More of them seem possible these days with advances in technology and medical science. But even the most advanced treatments and procedures rarely have a 100% success rate. If healing from disease was inevitable, don’t we think we’d have a handle on COVID-19 by now? But illness and death are, somehow, a regular part of life. They’re built into the system of how human bodies work. I think that’s why that final verse in Luke 5 stood out to me this week. Awe and amazement seized that crowd when the man who had been paralyzed suddenly began to walk. Awe and amazement because such feats of physical healing are never sure things. They’re “strange things,” (Luke 5:26) the exception rather than the rule. Well worth celebrating when they come – Gracious God, we thank you! – but not something we can count on.
Which brings us to another thing we know, not only from Scriptures but from personal experience too: life isn’t fair. I can’t explain to you why tragedies happen, why excruciating pain persists, why some people suffer from debilitating skin conditions and some people cannot walk. I can’t explain why some people are healed miraculously and others never are. But we’re assured in Scripture that it is not because they’re less worthy. It is not because Jesus doesn’t see them, or because God doesn’t love them. It is not because they don’t have enough faith. It just is. It’s the way the world is.
With any number of you over the years I’ve lamented that I was never given a magic wand at my seminary graduation. How I long to be able to heal wounds and diseases, eliminate pain and change outcomes in miraculous ways for those whose hard stories I hear. I imagine you do too. If we care about other people, we can’t help but feel this way. That’s our God-given compassion making itself known. But the only thing I can think to do about it is to persist in carrying to Jesus those who are suffering, continually laying them at his feet… and meanwhile offer them as much support as it’s within my power to give.
Sometimes our prayers for healing will be followed by a stunning physical or mental or emotional restoration. If we’re fortunate enough to experience such a thing, it should fill us with awe and amazement and prompt us to give glory to God. And sometimes no such thing will happen. Healing miracles are “strange things,” after all, out of the ordinary, not the usual thing. (Luke 5:26)
But there’s no reason not to keep on asking – faithfully, persistently – remembering that God hears the cries of those who are suffering. And the God who hears all and sees all never abandons his children. Not once. Not ever.
So as we sing together now, know that I’ll be praying you feel seen and loved and held by the God who knows where you are in greatest need of God’s healing power. Amen.