Scripture readings: 2 Sam. 1:1, 17-27; Wisdom 1:13-15 (NRSV); Wisdom 2:23-24 (NRSV); Lamentations 3:22-33; 2 Cor. 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43 Sermon by Martin Manuel from Mark chapters 3-5
Though King David said that we humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” we don’t always function in accordance with God’s good design. The results can be painful. When we become less active due to injury or aging, we can feel a great sense of loss. Perhaps nothing is more heart-wrenching than the sight of an injured or terribly sick child, leaving us asking, Why does God allow suffering? Does he even care? Though answering those questions is beyond the scope of this sermon, the Bible does provide comfort by giving us snapshots of God’s perspective on human suffering. We’ll look at a few of those snapshots today, finding reassurance that our triune God does care, and invites us to share in that caring with him.
Snapshot 1: God created life full of vitality and good
God’s good intention for humanity is addressed in a book called The Wisdom of Solomon. Though not part of Holy Scripture as defined by most Protestants, it’s of interest and value to us. Note this from chapter 1:
God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. (Wisdom 1:13-15, NRSV)
Understanding that God created the human body for peak performance, Solomon realized that death, preceded by decline and pain, was not God’s plan. Solomon placed blame for these unfortunate outcomes on the devil:
God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. (Wisdom 2:23-24, NRSV)
Instead of listening to God, Adam and Eve, exercising the freedom God gave them, chose to listen to the devil who led them into a deceitful trap. This, in turn, caused them and their descendants to experience the sorrows of death. God was not at fault.
You’ve heard the expression, “It wasn’t meant to be.” Usually, it’s spoken when something desired fails to happen. It implies that God manipulates everything that occurs. But that idea (a form of theological determinism) contradicts what the Bible says concerning the freedom God grants us to make choices. Because of our bad choices, we humans live in a world that gives free reign to evil, often negating the good results of the sound choices we do make. For that unfortunate outcome, we must not blame God.
Snapshot 2: God reacts compassionately
When our bad choices cause bad outcomes, how does God react? Does he say, “You reaped what you sowed”? Though that might be true at times, it does not portray how God feels about us, even when we rebel against him. Consider this: If you told your child not to ride their bike down a steep slope and, disregarding your instruction, they injured themselves, would you say, “I told you so… now suffer the consequences”? Perhaps some parents would say that, but I doubt that, even then, they would disregard their child’s injuries. Most parents would rush to the injured child’s side to help, only later reminding them of their disobedience. Do we think that God would do less?
In our reading today in 2 Samuel, we are reminded that David, a valiant man with a tender heart like God’s, grieved the death of Saul and his son Jonathan, even though Saul had been trying to kill David:
Saul and Jonathan—in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted. They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions….. “How the mighty have fallen in battle! (2 Sam. 1:23, 25)
In our reading today in Lamentations, the prophet Jeremiah shows a similar heart in response to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Though Jeremiah warned the Jews of impending destruction if they failed to repent, Jeremiah did not gloat when that destruction came. Instead he grieved the people’s suffering, reflecting God’s own heart for his people:
No one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone. (Lam. 3:31-33)
In allowing Jerusalem’s destruction, God’s purpose was not to merely to inflict pain in order to punish—his purpose was to discipline in order to bring about restoration of the relationship with God that the Jews severed.
Snapshot 3: Jesus reacts the same way
God the Father showed his heart of love and compassion for humanity by sending his Son into the world as its Savior. Jesus is the definitive depiction of God’s compassionate disposition toward humanity. The Gospels give many examples of Jesus’ compassion for people. Let’s look now at a few of them in the book of Mark. We begin in chapter 2 at a time in Jesus’ ministry when great demands were being placed upon his time and energy. The way Jesus reacted shows his priorities:
When Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. (Mark 2:1-2)
Imagine going home for some rest and having a big crowd show up at the door demanding your time and attention! As the story unfolds, we learn that some in the crowd were so intent on getting close to Jesus, that they opened a hole in the roof above Jesus’s head and lowered a paralyzed friend to Jesus’ side. Instead of being perturbed, Jesus responded with compassion and healed the paralytic. Then in Mark 2:13, we are told that Jesus left the house to meet with another crowd of people at the seashore (so much for rest and relaxation!). Then in chapter 3 we learn that a few days later Jesus returned to the same seaside location and yet another crowd:
Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. (Mark 3:7-9)
The situation was becoming chaotic and people, including Jesus, might have been hurt. Yet Jesus stayed and ministered to these needy people. A while later, he entered a house, where another crowd gathered—one so big that Jesus had no time to eat (Mark 3:20). Serving people sacrificially was clearly a high priority for the Son of God. Then, in Mark chapter 4, Jesus returned to the seashore once again:
Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. (Mark 4:1)
Jesus spent time with this crowd, teaching and compassionately healing them. Then, as we read in Mark chapter 5, Jesus left them and crossed the lake to help a demon-possessed outcast who was in desperate need of deliverance. Jesus healed him, then returned to the other side of the lake:
When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. (Mark 5:21-24)
Any parent will relate to this father’s concern for a seriously-ill child. With compassion, Jesus graciously responded. On the way to the child’s side, another pitiful situation emerged:
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:24b-34)
Though on his way to do something quite important, Jesus stopped to lovingly respond to this woman in need. Not only was she healed, she learned an important lesson and became an example of faith in Jesus.
The story continues in Mark 5:
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:35-43)
Some think Jesus worked miracles merely to attract crowds so he could preach to them. But Jesus’ behavior here is inconsistent with that idea. If he was merely seeking attention, why travel to a remote location to heal a demoniac? Why quietly heal a bleeding woman? Why secretly revive a dead girl? Answers to these questions explain why Jesus healed the sick and drove out demons. Put simply—he cared. Jesus loved hurting people so much that he was willing to give of his time and energy, to forgo some of his own needs in order to serve. In doing so, Jesus was showing how God feels about people, despite their flaws and sins.
Jesus, sent by the Father, willingly entered into human tragedy and hopelessness in order, not to condemn, but to relieve, rescue, deliver, heal, comfort and save. Jesus knew very well that it was not his mission at that moment to turn this planet into a paradise where no pain or suffering exists. That is to come later in a new heaven and new earth. For now, humanity is in the “time between the times”—the time between Jesus’ first and second comings, when the good news is being proclaimed and people have opportunity to embrace it. Today is the day of salvation!
For those who embrace Jesus and his gospel through faith, the result is an intimate relationship with the Father, through his Son, by the Spirit. That relationship provides help to cope with the evils in this present world while living in the hope of the world to come. Living in this world now, in step with the Spirit, they are participants in what Jesus continues to do to share God’s love with a sin-sick, needy world.
Our triune God cares more for us than words can describe, though the apostle Paul was inspired to sum it up with these words in today’s reading from the epistles:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
The eternal Son of God, in becoming flesh through the Incarnation, divested himself of tremendous wealth. He did so in order to address the root cause of humanity’s problem through his atoning sacrifice. During his earthly ministry he acted out of compassion to alleviate suffering in the lives of people he encountered. Since his ascension, Jesus has continued his work of compassion—interceding on behalf of all humanity.
Snapshot 4: The Church participates
The ascended Lord Jesus, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, calls and equips the church to participate with him in his ministry of compassion and intercession. Note what Paul says in 2 Corinthians chapter 8:
Here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. (2 Cor. 8:10-11)
Paul is referring to the financial support that church members in Corinth were giving to assist impoverished people, including church members, in Judea. The point is that the caring, compassionate heart of our ascended Lord continues to be focused on the needs of people here on earth, and he invites his followers to share in his heart of love for all people.
Those who think God doesn’t look with compassion and love on people in their fallen, sin-sick state are sadly misinformed. God cares more for us than we can ever comprehend—he cares more for us than we care for ourselves. When people suffer, even as the result of their own sin, that suffering is not God’s doing. Rather than causing our suffering, God pities those who suffer and grieves with them, even while he refuses to remove from people the freedom to make decisions—even bad ones that lead to suffering.
Because God the Father does care, he sent Jesus who entered into human misery and suffered with us, and sent the Spirit as our Advocate to be in us now and forever. God’s plan is to deliver humanity completely from its troubles in a new heaven and new earth. Between now and the arrival of the fullness of his kingdom, God offers help, relief and deliverance to those who put their trust in him. As we experience his grace and mercy, we are invited, inspired and encouraged to share it with others in need. Amen.