GUEST POST: TOM BARBER: reflecting on five healing miracles in Matthew 9…
Imagine you are the Father or the Mother of this little, twelve year old girl who has just died, as in the reading we’ve just heard – you’re wracked with grief at the loss of this life. But you’ve heard about a man. A man who is seemingly able to do extraordinary, impossible things. A man who is able to do what doctors cannot. And you’re running through the streets, looking for this man, holding on to this belief that he might, just might, be able to do something for your little girl. And you find spot him, you run to him, you bow down low before him, facedown, and you look up at this man in desperation, and say, ‘help me’.
This is where we pick up Matthew’s gospel this week. Last week at our Sunday services we heard Jesus say that he desires mercy not sacrifice, we heard about his compassion for the broken, and Matthew continues his telling of the life of Jesus at break-neck speed, rattling through four miracle accounts leaving us with barely any time to breathe.
What is it that we are able to learn from these accounts of healing? We’re going to look at each of them in turn and ask, what is it that we can learn about Jesus and his ministry from these accounts, and what is it that we can learn about how God heals and how the healing ministry of the church might continue today.
It’s worth just pausing here for a moment though and acknowledging that, when I start talking about healing there will be I’m sure a number of different emotions and responses present as we read this. In fact, there’s a slight irony to me writing this post. Last Sunday I was due to be preaching at St Alban’s (one of our other church sites), and I woke up that morning feeling not entirely myself. I assumed I was just dehydrated and headed into work.
Still feeling not 100 percent I rambled through my sermon, then spent the rest of the day basically feeling grumpy and miserable. The next day I woke up feeling even more miserable, and promptly went back to bed and stayed there.
On Tuesday, I finally broke the golden rule of manliness and actually went and saw my GP – as it turned out, my self-diagnosis of beubonic man plague was a little of the mark – but I did have a fairly nasty viral throat infection. So I was sent home to bed to rest, and to wait.
It seemed beautifully ironic to me therefore that I discovered when I was back at work on Wednesday that I was to be speaking this morning on healing.
I wonder if my very recent experience encapsulates in microcosm something of which many of us think about healing. Despite being engaged in the Lord’s fervent ministry I became unwell. Despite plenty of people’s prayers and my own moaning, I wasn’t immediately healed. Yet I got better, and slightly quicker than the doctor suggested I would. Was that God? The marvel of medicine? My stunning physique? Coincidence? A combination of the above?
To address this question slightly more seriously, to some of you reading this the idea of God being able to heal may be a new one, or it may be a concept that you’re aware of but one which you’ve rejected. And I’m aware that, if only by statistical probability, some of you here today will be suffering from illness or injury, both acute and chronic, mental and physical. Others will be caring for those in a similar condition. Still others will have lost friends, family and loved ones this year to sickness or ill health. All of the above may lead to mixed emotions when we talk about healing. Having acknowledged that I’m going to park it just for the moment, we’ll come back to those questions and feelings, because we need to find a way or reconciling them with the five people that we encounter in this passage who are healed by Jesus, and in order to do that we first need to look a little more closely at their stories.
The first case we here about in verse 18 is that of the young girl who has died, whose Father has come to Jesus and said my daughter is dead, can you come – “if you lay your hand on her, she will live” And Jesus says yes, I’ll come. Can you see just the shadow of hope in the father’s eye? And so they head towards his house, but are interrupted en route by a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. Twelve years. And she believes that, if she even touches the hem of Jesus robe, she will be healed. And she does and as soon as she reaches out behind him and gets just a fleeting touch of his garment, Jesus turns to her in verse 22, and tells her that her faith has made her well and with that she’s healed. After twelve years of ritual uncleanliness, twelve years of bleeding, twelve years of not being able to participate in worship, she’s healed, just like that.
And we continue with Jesus as he goes to Jairus’s house. And already the professional mourners have been called in – in those days it would have been customary to hire flute players and wailing women – and he says to these people in verse 24 “go away, for the girl is not dead, but sleeping”. And they laugh at him! And, to be honest, I have some sympathy – these were probably people who knew death, knew what it looked like, they’d have seen it frequently, which adds further credence to the fact that this girl was literally dead, rather than in a coma or some pre-death state. But Jesus chucks them all out – and when things have quietened down it says Jesus takes her by the hand (that’s all he does), and she rises. She comes back to life.
Jesus has just raised someone from the dead, but Mathew doesn’t even stop to draw breath – now Jesus is being followed by two blind men in verse 27, who are crying aloud to him “Have mercy on us, Son of David” – and he takes them into a house, in private, and says “do you believe I can do this – do you believe I can heal you?” and they say “yes” and that’s exactly what happens – Jesus touches their eyes, their blind eyes, and they’re healed!
But even as they’re leaving, someone else is brought to Jesus – this time it’s a man who can’t talk, from the context some commentators suggest he was likely deaf-blind, and here again Jesus strategy is different but it leads to same end result – Jesus casts a demon out from him and he’s able to speak. And whilst in the case of both Jairus’s daughter and the two blind men Jesus’s name becomes famous as a result of these actually quite private healings, this latter public healing and exorcism leads people to question exactly where Jesus’s power has come from.
So what can we learn from these reports of healings and the ministry of Jesus? Well, often when I’m preaching on a passage, as I study it I look for patterns – I ask questions of the text and seek to establish why the writer has written it in the way that they have. In this case though, there aren’t that many concrete similarities between these accounts – they are each unique in their own way. What is Matthew trying to show us?
First up, quite simply, God heals. Matthew is showing us that Jesus has the power and authority to bring healing – that he both sees and meets the physical and spiritual needs of those around him. Not even death is beyond his power.
Secondly, God heals in God’s way. There isn’t really an established pattern or method of healing in these stories. Faith is certainly a big part of it, but beyond that, each of them is different, and Jesus brings about healing in different ways for each person. For some, it involves touch. For others, a proclamation of faith. For others, like the demon-possessed man and the paralytic we met earlier in this chapter, they are brought to Jesus, through, as far as we know, of no volition of their own.
Thirdly, healing happens in God’s timing. The bleeding woman is healed the instant that she encounters Jesus, but he seems in no particular rush to reach Jairus’s daughter, who is arguably in a more perilous condition, and he makes the blind men wait. Healing happens, it would seem, not in our timing or necessarily in the timing that we expect, but in God’s. The bleeding women waited twelve years for her healing, and God waited until after Jairus’s daughter was dead to heal her! We know from the story of the centurion’s servant in chapter 8 that Jesus was capable of healing at distance, but he chose to wait, and go to Jabirus’s house.
But how does this help us, today? Well, we know that in chapter 10 Jesus releases the disciples, and gives them authority to, amongst other things, to heal. And we know that Jesus says that anyone who has faith like a mustard seed can move mountains, and that in John’s gospel he tells his disciples that they will do even greater things than himself. And we as the church carry on that tradition, that ‘job’ of discipleship, so we should expect to see healings.
And so we return to those different feelings and emotions in the room that we acknowledged earlier. Those of you who believe in the power of Jesus to heal today, those who don’t, those of you who are waiting for healing and perhaps some who’ve been waiting for a long time. Those who believe that Jesus can heal but not that he can use you through the Holy Spirit to bring that about. And those who’ve seen God heal in spectacular ways.
The temptation at this point is to go into story-mode. I could tell you about times God has used me to heal people, or when he’s used others, or use stories from the great healing evangelists. Or I could tell you about times in my life where God’s healed me or others that I know.
But actually, in my experience, I think sometimes hearing those stories can actually be really disempowering. That’s never the intention, but it can leave us thinking ‘it happens for them, but not for me’. It can lead us to believe that some people are anointed to heal at the exclusion of others.
Can I let you in on a secret? I don’t have any special powers for healing. Neither does Richard, or Nicola, or anyone else in the room. Some of us are more experienced or confident than others in praying for healing and that’s ok but it doesn’t make us special. [Many people who studied the ‘gift of healing’ in the New Testament letters have concluded that the gift is for the person who gets healed not the person who is used by God to facilitate it. They simply use a gift of faith or their spiritual authority]. I’ve been in the situation many times and I’m sure many of you will be able to relate to this where maybe you’re at a conference or a prayer meeting or service of some kind, and you’re thinking, ‘if only they could pray for me, them, that person, they’re really holy, I bet it will work if they pray for me’. Or maybe you can relate to praying for others and thinking ‘oh goodness, I hope someone comes to help me soon because nothing’s happening’.
Actually, we can all pray for healing, and I think we need to be really wary of people who claim a particular gift or impartation for healing. Because God is incredible there are particular people who seem to see more healings than others, but it’s actually not about them, it’s about God. I once worked with a healing evangelist for a week and I ended up texting my boss at the time and saying “hypothetically, if I were to punch this healing evangelist in the face, do you think God would heal them?” – because it was all about them, when it should have been all about Jesus.
If you don’t believe or you’re not sure that God can use you to heal people, be encouraged by this simple fact – it’s not about you! Faith as small as a mustard seed – God does the healing, in His way, and in His timing. You just get to help people by asking. And anyone who loves the Lord Jesus can get involved.
And if you’re waiting for healing, if you need healing this morning, remember that God heal’s, but it happens his way and in his timing. We can’t manipulate Him – we can only ask. And if you come for healing this morning or at any time and it doesn’t happen for you please hear that it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’ve done anything wrong, or that you unconfessed sin, or not enough faith. The only faith you need is as small as a mustard seed. It’s just a ‘not yet’. God heals, His way, and in His timing, and he loves you unconditionally. Keep praying, keep asking.
God heals, in God’s way, and in God’s timing.