Over next few weeks we’re going to be looking at different problems in our world – and Jesus’ answer to them. Today – we have a leper whose body is decomposing. And a servant paralyzed suffering terribly. Death won’t be far away for them. So today is the problem of disease and death. In future weeks we have natural disasters and the problem of evil.
I realise that doesn’t sound a very cheery series. So let me say – we are looking at answers Jesus gives. And we need answers – because while not cheery, these problems are real.
Many of us here will be well aware of that. We’ve experienced first hand, or second hand – the awful reality of disease and dearth. Or we’re facing it now in some way.
I want to start by asking how we react to this reality of illness and death? What emotions does it bring?
There’s obviously a spread. At one end there can be a sort of acceptance. I get a chest infection – it’s annoying but it’s just how things are. You hear on the news about an incident where people died – but it feels far away and you hear so many stories like that. Someone old dies – and get phrases like – they had a good inning. It’s a sort of acceptance – this is the way things are in this world.
It’s very different though when it’s not a small illness nor a distant reality. When it’s close and personal - serious illness – someone we love - someone who dies young.
Do you know that poem by WH Auden:
“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum. Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Death can bring that sense nothing can come to any good. It’s absolute despair.
Acceptance – despair. We could add anger and hurt – and questions of why and why me and why now. As we said it’s a huge and awful reality in our world.
So let’s turn to the Bible and see what difference Jesus might make to all of that.
First of all I want us to step back from our passage and see how the Bible views disease and death. Then we can see what’s going on here more clearly.
1) We live in a not right world – because the world isn’t right with God.
For instance take this leper.
God said to his people in the OT, live in relationship with me and enjoy my blessing, but if you turn against me – it’s like I’ll turn against you and your enemies will defeat you, crops won’t grow – and leprosy.
So at this time - one of God’s people suffering leprosy isn’t just a physical condition - his body isn’t well. It actually points to a spiritual condition of things not being well with God.
Actually if we stand further back in the Bible’s story – we find in a general sense - that is true of all sickness and death.
Back in Genesis God made this world perfect. But then Adam and Eve say to God, I want to be in charge - run my life, my world, my way.
And that rebellion – brings disaster into our world.
Imagine a goldfish in its bowl on top of the TV. It’s bored. Checked out most corners of this bowl – Thinks - I want to get out more – I want to live out there in lounge, and watch the TV for once.
So it takes a running jump – or waggle – and up – on to the lounge carpet. Where it discovers it’s not going to live at all.
Its natural environment was water – that is foundational to its existence. Change that and it’s a disaster.
Well our natural environment is living under God’s loving rule. That is foundational to our existence – and as it’s rejected – its disaster - every part of life is affected and spoilt. Relationships, marriage, work – and our health – sickness and death.
We could sum it by saying – we live in a world that isn’t right – because the world isn’t right with God.
You may have experienced someone dying – and feeling – it shouldn’t be like this. This is so wrong.
The Bible agrees – God didn’t make us for this. We live in a not right world. The Bible calls it a fallen world, a cursed world. A gone wrong world. And it’s all because humanity as a whole – rejected God.
Now let me be clear. I’m not saying that if particular person falls ill – that’s because they’ve done some specific thing wrong against God. It’s not directly causal like that. Rather sickness and death are the result of sin in general, not my personal sin in particular.
And that is part of the difficulty of it all – we don’t know why this person, why this illness. It’s because we’re caught up in this not right world.
And if we’re Christians, while we’re forgiven and right with God through Jesus – we’re still live in this not right world. And suffer the falleness of it.
We live in a not right world – because the world isn’t right with God.
I said at the start in certain circumstances we can be accepting of disease and death - that’s the way things are. And in one sense that is right – that is the world we live in. But we should never forget – this isn’t how things were meant to be.
So if I get a chest infection, while I’m feeling terrible and drinking lemsip - I should be reminded – this shows the world that isn’t right. This week we drive past a hospital – a GP surgery – we see an ambulance on the street – it should remind us – this is all because the world isn’t right with God. It’s a sign – evidence – of this dislocation with God.
Now at this point you might be thinking – looks like despair is the only reaction to death. But then we read - v3 READ. Or v13 READ.
When it comes to disease and death clearly Jesus has answers.
But it also raises more questions – does this mean Jesus will always heal illness? Should we expect him to heal like this today?
I want to come to that question – Jesus healing now - next week. For now I want to give a big picture answer as to what is going on here. It’s a big picture of this whole chapter actually so hope it will help us to see it.
To see that big picture – we’ve got to get one more thing clear - and that is -
2) God has promised a perfect world – where everything is right
A perfect world, Isaiah 25v6-9
When Jesus talks to the centurion here he talks about a future day – 8v11 READ.
When Jesus talks about a meal in the kingdom of heaven – he’s referring back to promises in the OT – of a perfect world.
Let’s me read one from Isaiah 25
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,
A banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.
In other words God is going to throw a party – and it’s going to be fantastic.
Years ago I went to the wedding of an old university friend. Since university he had made lots of money in the city – and this wedding was extraordinary.
When we went into the hall to eat – people were gasping at the forest of flowers. During the 5 course meal – my neighbour took pictures of the food – because it was so beautiful. Fantastic wine for each course.
We didn’t have time for the petit four and coffee – because we had to go to our boat that was taking us dancing down the Thames – he’d got in Carol Decker from Tai Pau – China in your hands, and Howard Jones – what is love - anyway. Which if you were a teenager in the eighties was a treat. If you weren’t you thought who’s this!
On top of all that – it was lovely to see friends, talk and laugh and celebrate together.
But I did think – half way through – God is going to throw a much better party. This is just a taste – a glimpse of the heavenly party.
Food – wine – enjoying each another, celebration.
And the best thing – Isaiah goes on:
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, he will swallow up death forever.
My friend’s wedding was a lovely celebration of a marriage. But one day sickness and death will come.
But in God’s party that is swallowed up. So nothing will spoil it, there will be no tears. It will be perfect.
It’s a promise of what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven – or what I’ve called God’s perfect world.
It’s an amazing promise isn’t it? Unbelievable.
In fact that is just problem – the idea that one day we’ll rise with new perfect bodies that will never die and enjoy God and his people in an eternal party – frankly is a lot to believe.
Most people would laugh at that. If we are Christians we may believe it to some degree - but it’s easily not that real to us. It can be a rather vague dream – a distant hope.
Only then we read v3 READ. And v13 READ.
A man claiming to be God’s king – is healing in the most amazing way. There is no examination, no prescriptions, no surgery, no drugs, no physio, no out patients visits.
With just a touch or a word – it’s like the sickness is banished. Swallowed up.
It’s like a little taste of that perfect world.
3) A picture of that perfect world
In fact – that’s just the point. In this healing Jesus is giving us a picture – a foretaste – a trailer - of that perfect future from Isaiah. That’s the big point here – this is a picture of that perfect world.
The other day I came across a promo video from a holiday company. The blurb went like this:
“A paradise of tropical sea, the fragrance of pine trees. Undefiled paths surrounded by a thousand flowers. Colourful countryside, an unreachable dream. Magical and beguiling, that’s IBIZA.”
Well – I didn’t know – but if you don’t believe it – you can watch the promo video. The strapline was:
“See where you are going before you arrive.”
That is the sense of what Jesus is doing here. He comes into our world as God’s king - the one who will bring God’s perfect kingdom. And so he gives us a picture of it.
As he touches the leper and the sickness is banished. As he speaks the word – and the servant is healed – it’s a glimpse of the future. It’s a moment of heaven now. It’s proof to us that one day Jesus will speak – and will bring about Isaiah 25 – and the dream will be reality.
In the face of death despair can feel like the only option – as the poem says “nothing now can ever come to any good.” Feeling like that isn’t wrong – that’s what it can feel like in the middle of grief.
But there is an ultimate answer to sickness and death – there is a king – who will bring about God’s perfect kingdom. And here is a picture – here is proof. See where you’re going before you arrive.
Let’s finish by thinking about how we should react.
Entry & exclusion to God’s perfect world, 8v8-11
When Jesus says many will come from east and west he’s saying many people will be at God’s party who you wouldn’t expect – like this centurion. While – those who would expect to be there – the subjects of the kingdom – are thrown outside.
So this sounds serious – there is entry to the party and there is exclusion from the party.
And the difference – the reason you get in - in a word is – faith. V10 READ.
This centurion shows us the heart of faith is trusting Jesus above what you can see – which in his case is disease and death.
In the Roman army they had a system of delegated authority. Emperor at the top with supreme authority – then his authority is delegated down various layers - down to the centurion. That meant when the centurion spoke – he spoke with the authority of the emperor.
He sees that Jesus is like that. He realises Jesus is from God – he’s God’s king - so he speaks with God’s authority.
So while he can see his servant is desperately ill, there’s no hope - he can say to Jesus ‘only say the word and my servant will be healed.’ He trusts in Jesus as God’s king – in his power – in the face of disease and death.
Same goes for us. Will we trust Jesus – beyond what we can see.
It’s like we’ve got two things to weigh up. On one hand we’ve got the reality of disease and death. So often an overwhelming reality. Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.”
On the other side we’ve got God’s promise of a world made right. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, he will swallow up death forever.
Which of those is bigger to us – which is more real? So often it’s disease and death isn’t it – that’s what we see and experience.
But in the middle there is Jesus. God’s king – God’s authority – the one who will put this world right. It’s as though he’s saying to us tonight, you’re struggling to believe that amazing future. Death feels too big and real. Let me help you. Be clean – go it will done.
Look at me. See what I can do. See where you’re going before you arrive. Have faith.