On Pain and Resurrection Hope
In the past year, I have prayed SO MANY prayers for healing.
I have prayed for healing for victims of natural disasters, and epidemics, and hunger all over the world.
I have prayed for healing in the aftermath of mass shootings and terrorist attacks.
I have prayed for healing for people hurt by racism, and poverty, and sexual violence, and addiction.
I have prayed for members of my own family; and I have prayed for all of you, and for the people you love.
I have prayed so many prayers for healing. I have called out to our loving God, and spoken God’s promises as petitions, and discovered new depths to my own and humanity’s need for a healing God. And some of those prayers have been answered. I praise God for all of the people in our congregation who have made it through serious medical scares. I am so thankful.
But some of those prayers haven’t been answered, at least not the way we wanted them to be. And this week, the world lost Kristin, for whom we have been praying for months. And it breaks our hearts.
And in that reality, this gospel story of miraculous, awe-inspiring healings… is painful.
One of the resources I read this week reflects powerfully on that pain. In her piece “Mystery, Not Magic,” writer Debie Thomas gets really honest about how hard it can be to find gospel hope in stories of healing when the healings we are praying for, just aren’t coming. She does a much better job than I think I can do in guiding us into this scary territory. So, for the first part of this sermon, I want to share with you what she has to say. This is what Ms. Thomas writes:
“I’ll be honest: right now this Gospel passage feels cruel. Or if not downright cruel, then at least inaccessible. What are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories, here, today, now? Is it just me, or have things changed rather drastically since he walked the earth two thousand years ago, ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders? Where has all the magic gone?
“’The problem with miracles,’ Barbara Brown Taylor writes, ‘is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.’
“And so we theorize, theologize, and spiritualize: ‘God is using this sickness to build your character.’ ‘He’s preparing you for something great.’ ‘Satan is testing you — stay strong!’ ‘You need to have more faith.’ …
“Besides being insensitive and hurtful, these claims and admonitions encourage us to assume that health, wholeness, and comfort are the norms we should expect to experience in this life. Everything else by this accounting — physical pain, emotional pain, chronic illness, untimely death — is an aberration. No wonder people flock to churches that promise prosperity, healing, and happiness Sunday after Sunday — why not grab hold of the magic if it’s out there to claim? Why not demand glitter and spectacle?
“Don’t get me wrong — I love many of the healing stories in the Gospels. I love the power and compassion with which Jesus touches the sick and the suffering, restoring them to their families, their communities, and their vocations. But sometimes I wish that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had included a few less dramatic stories in their books, too. Did Jesus ever, for example, visit a feverish woman, take her hand, and offer only the comfort of his presence — no cure? Did he ever tell a chronically ill child, ‘I can’t take away your pain, but I love you, and I’ll try my best to help you bear it?’ Did he ever encounter an unclean spirit he didn’t or couldn’t cast out? Did he ever sit in the dark with a profoundly depressed man — just sit? Did he ever keep vigil at a deathbed, and cry with the family as they said goodbye? No resurrection — just tears?
“Needless to say, we can't know the answer to these questions, but we do know that the Gospels only record about three dozen of Jesus’s miracles altogether. In this week’s story, the “whole city’ came to Jesus, and he healed ‘many’ — not all. Though the crowds continued to look for him the morning after he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he left them unhealed and skipped town. In short, Jesus only healed a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world's disease and despair. And unlike us, he never glamorized healing — if anything, he seemed embarrassed by the attention his miracles attracted, as if they were beside the point. Most of the time, he told people to keep their healings and exorcisms quiet.
“What does this mean? Maybe it means that we’re the ones who’ve turned Jesus into a magician. Maybe it means that if we look more carefully, we’ll find a Messiah who is much more mysterious — elusive, subtle, quiet — than our consumerist and quick-fix culture wants to follow. Who, for example, is the Jesus of verse thirty-five of this week’s story, the Jesus who eludes the crowds, seeks out deserted places, prays in the dark, and hides from his disciples such that they have to ‘hunt’ for him? Clearly, this isn’t a Jesus who will appeal to faith healers or prosperity preachers. But he is the Jesus of the Gospels.”
Debie Thomas gives words to both my frustration with this story, and to the deep hope and call that I hear in it. She names the pain of wanting a miracle for ourselves, and then reminds us that the miracles were NOT why Jesus came.
The miracles were evidence that he cares… that, when confronted with human pain, with broken bodies, and minds, and relationships he reached out to restore and to heal.
But that wasn’t the point. When his disciples hunted him down where he was praying in the wilderness – resetting with God – he said, let’s keep moving, to the neighboring towns “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for THAT is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38).
He came to proclaim the message: the message that the Kingdom of God had come near (see Mark 1:15); to call the people to change their lives and to trust in God’s promises that were NOT about comfort and health as normative – because comfort and health are the things that most often DEFLECT our trust in God… because it is so easy to put our trust in them.
No! When Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is at hand he was NOT promising delivery from pain; he was telling us that God was getting into the pain WITH us. That God was refusing to stay remote and unmoved by our suffering; that God was taking on a human body, and human weakness, so that in our deepest grief and our most excruciating pain, we would NEVER be alone. Because God is always with us.
That nearness of God is essential to making the rest of the gospel message a true comfort, rather than an urge to ignore ours or others’ pain. Because the rest of the message is that comfort and wholeness in the here and now is NOT the point. A promise for temporal healing is not why we follow Jesus. Rather, Eternal Life is the promise to which we hold.
And that’s a dangerous message if we don’t hear about God’s nearness first. If we ONLY hear that God’s true promise is for eternity, it can sound like we aren’t supposed to CARE about the here and now. If we only hear that we are supposed to live in a way that is guided by the HOPE of what is yet to come, we can be confused into thinking that it’s best to be detached, or that the work of justice, and compassion, and love is somehow a distraction from true piety.
But that is a deep distortion of the gospel, because THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS NEAR. The pain we live in now, the grief that breaks our hearts matters to God SO MUCH that God got onto a CROSS to be with us in that pain.
But the cross is NOT the end of the story. Resurrection is. And THAT is our HOPE. That is the message that Jesus came to share – that call to put our trust in God who holds us in love beyond the grave.
Because THAT is the only hope that is a real hope. Every person Jesus healed inside or outside of Simon’s house would eventually get sick again. The human mortality rate has never changed. It is ALWAYS 100%.
And immortality would be a shallow hope anyhow, in this broken world, that is so full of pain, and fear, and loss.
But we have a very DIFFERENT hope. A hope that the God who comes near to us in our pain, is the same God who rises again in glory and promises to raise us up as well.
Up from pain,
And from brokenness,
And even from the grave.
That’s why Jesus came. Not to produce little miracles in the moment, but to welcome us into the one great mystery that changes everything. The hope of resurrection, that means that we will NEVER be separated from the love of God.
In closing, I want to invite us to a ritual that draws on the Epiphany reminder that Christ is our light. For many centuries, Christians have lighted candles as physical symbols of our prayers – for healing, or for comfort, or for God’s presence in our need.
I invite you each to take a candle now. As a symbol of whatever prayer is heavy in your heart today. But ALSO as a symbol of God’s nearness to that need. I will light my candle from the altar candles that remind us each week that Christ is present with us as we worship. And we will share that light together as we, like Jesus in the wilderness, seek God in the stillness of silent prayer.
And then, once all have received the light of Christ present with us, we will sing together, in praise for the Almighty who is near and who promises us resurrection.
Thanks be to God.
 Debie Thomas, “Mystery, Not Magic” on https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1640 (accessed 1/29/31).