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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on February 5, 2006

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Sermon preached by
The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler

February 5, 2006
Epiphany 5

In 2003, just after the space shuttle Columbia broke up during its descent, there was a television interview with a middle-school student who had sent an experiment up with the Columbia astronauts. I can't remember her exact words but she said something to the effect of "I am so angry and so upset - that all my hard work on my science project is just gone." She later added that she was also sorry about the astronauts. I'm sure her parents were dying a thousand deaths as their child - who sort of reminded me of Lucy VanPelt from the Peanuts comic strip - went on and on about her upset over her science project after seven lives had, quite literally, gone up in smoke.

But I think the child's concern over her science project was just an "on the surface" sign of what was really going on underneath - what she had really lost: a relationship that had been built with the astronaut overseeing her project, a sense of trust in the power and wonder of technology, a certain naivete about the glories of being an astronaut. Her outward expressions were valid and real and important - but the deeper truth of what was going on underlay the surface.

The same is true in today's Gospel with Jesus' healings and exorcisms. We heard about one specific healing - that of Simon's mother-in-law - and then the Gospel went on to talk about how the whole city gathered around the door and how Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and how he cast out many demons. Those miracles - those outward signs are valid and real and important but much deeper truths - about God, about Jesus, about humanity - underlay them. Mark's Gospel is especially keen on downplaying the miracles, the glitz and glitter of Christ's life.

It is Mark who has what is called "The Messianic Secret", seen in today's Gospel and in other Gospel stories throughout Mark. Today the demons Jesus casts out are told to be silent. As we continue to read through Mark's Gospel during this Church year, we'll hear again and again how Jesus commands those he has just healed, "Don't tell anyone."

Jesus didn't want to be known as just a miracle worker. When Jesus performed a miraculous healing, he wanted people to see the power of God's grace in action when it comes in contact with human faith. He wanted them to focus on God, on God's message underneath the miracle. As J. Marshall Jenkins has said, "[Jesus] did not want them to miss the real glory for the glitter, but the glitter entranced everyone, including the disciples...." (The Ancient Laugh of God, p. 19) It still does.

There are Christians today who are constantly promising miraculous quick fixes for everything from illness to financial matters, telling us to "expect a miracle." There is a particular tv evangelist who blesses prayer cloths to mail off to people so they can use it for their own miracles. All that, when Christ so often spoke against following him solely for showy spectacles.


When the crowds come looking for their own miracle following the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus says to them, "You seek me because you ate your fill of the loaves." Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of how a wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign. Just as Satan predicted in the wilderness, the world will fall the feet of anyone who can dazzle spectators. (See Id.) So Jesus, with all kinds of power at his command, showed an ambivalence toward miracles: "Don't' tell anyone what you've seen."

Walking on water and healing the sick and raising the dead weren't the ends of Jesus' mission. They were to convey deeper, underlying truths: that God is the Lord of all creation; that his will for us is health and wholeness and life. Each miracle was performed for a particular purpose far beyond the miracle itself. When Jesus healed a leper by touching him, it wasn't the cure that was the deep truth; the deep truth was that an untouchable had been touched, the unapproachable approached. In Christ there were no more untouchables, no more outcasts. The water turned into wine wasn't just a magic trick to help out a young couple who hadn't planned the appropriate amount of wine needed for their wedding reception. The deep truth was God's power to transform, renew and recreate. When Jesus the Jewish male healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, it wasn't just about making someone physically well. The deep truth was that there were no boundaries on his healing grace. It wasn't just for Jews but for Gentiles, not just for men but for women, not just for the holy but those considered "unholy."

This is not to say that Jesus' healing miracles weren't important during his earthly life. They were - but only in the sense they helped proclaim the underlying message of God's power and glory and mercy and grace. This is not to say that Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit doesn't continue to heal today. He does. We pray every week - hopefully everyday - for those who need healing of one kind or another. But as writer Philip Yancey has put it, "[While] Jesus never met a disease he could not cure,... a demon he could not exorcize...he did not come primarily to heal the world's cells, but to heal its souls." (The Jesus I Never Knew, pp. 174-175) He didn't come to show God's glitz and glitter; he came to show God's love and grace and mercy and forgiveness, for it is those things that truly heal us and make us whole. It is those things which truly raise us to new life.

And it isn't just us today who tend to be drawn to magical displays of God's power. I think it was a temptation for Jesus as well. It's interesting in Mark's Gospel that when Jesus is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted, Mark doesn't delineate particular temptations as do the other Gospel writers. Maybe that's because Jesus was tempted in various ways throughout his life - not just in the wilderness - and being a popular miracle worker was one of them. In fact, in today's Gospel Jesus does all sorts of healings and exorcisms and only after prayer does he realize that, even though others are waiting for their cures, he is to move on and preach - not stay and work miracles. Attraction to wonder-working is a temptation for us all.

At a society event in London, one of the guests was speaking to someone who looked awfully familiar to her, but she couldn't quite place her. Suddenly the woman realized that the person to whom she was speaking was the Queen. "I'm so sorry, Your Majesty," exclaimed the woman. "I didn't recognize you without your crown."

The same can be true for us in terms of Jesus: we tend to recognize him through the obvious, glitzy, glittery and glorious things - his exorcisms and healings. But, in truth, much of what Jesus did in terms of healing miracles and exorcisms can be performed today through medical science and psychiatry. The real power of God lies in what which no one - not science, medicine or psychiatry - can accomplish: the healing of souls in such a way that we are truly whole: no longer crippled by anger or fear or greed or revenge or hatred or unforgiveness or a sense of worthlessness. That kind of wholeness will never ultimately be accomplished by anyone but God. For it is the power of God's love and grace which underlies that kind of healing, a love and grace which wants nothing but our wholeness and health as his beloved children - and perhaps that love and grace of God toward us is the greatest miracle of all.

 

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2006 The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler
St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Buffalo, New York
Reprinted with permission