We are into our third week of Lent. How are you doing? When people talk about giving things up for Lent, they aren’t usually talking about pausing all of their social engagements and isolating themselves. Perhaps, one of the good things that is happening is that people are remembering what is really important in their lives. It gives us an opportunity to press “pause” on our lives and re-evaluate things. And, I don’t mean buying a year’s supply of toilet paper. I’ve read that the reason that people do that is that it gives them a sense of control in a situation over which they have no control. It demonstrates how little control we actually have over our lives. Most of it is an illusion. This is a time to turn to the one that is in control. Yes, I mean God.
Am I suggesting that God created this world wide pandemic and directly cause so much suffering for so many people? I’m not really saying that, but there are some good things that are happening as a result. People are doing things for the good of their neighbors. In Italy people stuck in their homes are opening their windows and singing, so that the people who live by themselves don’t feel so alone. Pollution levels are measurably being reduced in Italy due to the lack of motor-vehicle traffic. There are areas in China where you can hear birds singing for the first time in years because the reduction of noise pollution. I haven’t seen anything about this, but I will not be surprised that with all the extra hand washing and caution that there will be a reduction in deaths from the regular flu. All of these things we are doing combat against that too. We also have more time to pray whether in desperation or gratitude. Being in communication with God is always a good thing. Are you finding ways and time to draw closer to God, to strengthen your relationship?
That is the main purpose of our worship series, See Yourself in the Picture. It gives us an opportunity to contemplate what may be familiar stories from a different perspective. Rather than passively listening, we imagine that we were there with Jesus when these things happened. It’s amazing. 2000 years is a long time. So many things about culture and the way we live our lives are so different, and yet people are people, so we get concerned about, need help with, the same kinds of problems. We can see a living God a living Savior that is with us and active in our lives today, and that is very important for us in the current climate to keep us from losing heart.
In today’s Scripture narrative, we continue with Jesus in the very early days of his ministry. We started with Jesus in the wilderness and the trials and tests that he needed to go through to be prepared for the demands of his public ministry without him losing heart. Last week, he called the first disciples to leave their old lives and turn completely towards God. We are called to do the same and to spread the Good News first by being in relationship with Jesus then extending that to the contacts and relationships that we have in every part of our lives.
This week Jesus is on the road. He is no longer the obscure anonymous man from Nazareth. He has started his public ministry in earnest, and people are starting to take notice. Our Scripture passage comes from Matthew 4:23-25. I invite you to look at the painting as you read.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. 25 Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.
The Word of Life!
Thanks be to God!
Our painting for today was actually inspired by another passage in Luke 7, the raising of the widow’s son, but it does an excellent job of helping us image the magnitude of the crowds following Jesus. Perhaps, you are familiar with the story of the four men bringing their friend to Jesus for healing. The crowds were so thick that they couldn’t get anywhere near Jesus, so they made a hole through the roof of the house he was in and lowered their friend down. Jesus was inundated.
Yes, as we talked about last week, there was the power and magnetism of the person of Jesus, but historians agree … Take note of that. It doesn’t happen very often … historians agree that the primary explanation of the size of the crowds that Jesus drew were because of his extraordinary healings. (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part 1, pg 33) We know that this was a time before modern medicine, and yet why were there so many sick people that they would flock to him from hundreds of miles around?
It was all a reflection of its time and place in the world. The place was Palestine, a province of the Roman Empire. It was a conquered region, but it didn’t act like many of the conquered regions around the Mediterranean Sea. They would not adopt the Roman culture. They would not worship the Roman gods. They would not worship the Emperor, Caesar. They proved that they would rather die than give in on this point. The Romans needed a population in the territory, so they could extract wealth. They eventually came to an understanding with the Jewish leaders, but the Jewish people still didn’t want them there. They wanted to be independent and free to worship there God their way. Despite all of this, there were still a number of rebellions. Palestine was a volatile place during Jesus’ day.
What is an Empire to do? It splits the loyalty of the people. It offers positions of power and money to some. It over taxes others. This results in pitting the subjected peoples against each other. With the high taxes, it keeps people busy among other things. All of this resulted in 70-90% of the people in poverty to some degree. For some it was temporary. For others it was a permanent state. The concept of hygiene was very different than what we think today. High stress. The quality of the water. Drinking water was bad. Food insecurity was a constant thought for many. All of this served to cause malnutrition and compromised immunity. In an agricultural region where physical labor is required, these stressors keep building and suddenly it is not so surprising that so many people were ill or permanently injured. And if there is a new virus strain that is making its way through the population, people would have a much harder time fighting it off.
Jesus’ healings begin to repair the damage that the Roman Empire is inflicting on the people. In God’s kingdom (or empire. In the Greek the word for empire and kingdom are the same, but that’s another story.) the people of God’s kingdom are healed, and their lives are restored. The healings are a sign that something important is going on. That God’s world as described by Isaiah is coming to pass. Namely the people have access to an abundance of good food. They are healed from their physical ailments. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them, as it says in Isaiah 35. (35:5-6) There were other healers that traveled around, but nothing like Jesus. No wonder the people flocked to him. They may not be thinking of the passage from Isaiah, but they have hope … hope that things can change for the better.
So, let’s look at this painting. This depicts a particular healing, in fact a raising back to life of a widow’s son outside the town of Nain (Luke 7). Several groups of people have converged in this place outside the town gate. We have a funeral procession that includes the friends and family of the deceased, most notably the deceased’s mother. It also would include professional mourners called wailers. These were people who would make a racquet, which would allow the grieving people to give full voice and show of their grief without being a spectacle themselves. The wailers were like a diversion. The next group would include Jesus, the disciples, and crowd that was following him. They would have seen Jesus heal people before. Then, there are the people who just happen to be at the gate, or they’ve been attracted by the commotion, and they want to see what’s going on.
Imagine that you are one of the people in that crowd. Which group? Where are you situated? Are you in the middle of things with all the people jostling around you with a front row place to see everything that is happening? Are you on the edge of the crowd away from the crush of people?
Why are you there in that place at that time? What were you doing right before you arrived at the gate? Now, that you are there, how does it feel to be there with all these people? Is it exciting? Does it feel oppressive? A little bit of both?
You see Jesus approaching. The excitement is building. You can feel it across the crowd. He is making his way over to the widow who had already lost her husband, but now she’s lost her son too. How kind of Jesus to go and express his sympathy and show his caring. But wait a minute! Something is happening. The energy is changing. It’s like there is electricity in the air. Everyone knows that something extraordinary is happening. A hush comes over the crowd as Jesus lays his hands on the dead man, or is he? I mean the man. He’s moving! He’s not dead. He’s talking with his mother. The crowd erupts. Pandemonium.
Now, that you have witnessed this, what are you going to do? Do you run and tell everyone you know all about it, like the woman at the well did (John 4)? Perhaps, everyone you know is already there — friends, family? Do you discuss it with them excitedly?
How do you regard the event? Is it like a magic show when you can’t figure out how the trick was done? Perhaps, you consider it one of the signs as described in Isaiah, a signal that this is the person sent from God? Could this really be the one?
What if you were a close friend or relation to the person who was healed? How would you feel? What would you be thinking? Does it change you?
Look at all of the people in this painting. Think of them all as being changed by this event in some way. It could well be like the description of the parable of the sower. The seed is scattered, but its ability to produce a harvest depend on where the seed lands. For some, it’s snatched away before it can take root. Others show immediate change, but the roots are among the rocks. It withers in the heat of the sun, and it doesn’t last. For some it lands in the thorny parts of life, and the troubles of the world choke it out. Then for some there, the seed land on good rich soil, germinates, and develops deep roots.
Imagine that you are one of the people who has been healed, perhaps today, perhaps days or weeks ago. That’s why you are continuing to follow Jesus. How has this healing changed you? More than the physical healing, how does this change or affect how you think of yourself? How does this change your identity? You are not going to be the same again. I used to be the person who … but now I’m not. It can be disconcerting. There are things on which we rely and count on that define us, even if those are the things we think are holding us back. In this case, you have to re-evaluate everything that you think you know about yourself. What you can and cannot do. You have to re-evaluate all of your relationships.
The thing is that through Jesus we are all healed from something very important. We are healed from the burden of sin in our lives. It is as if sin is the contagion, the virus, the disease. It has the ability to kill us. We are healed from the rule of sin over us and all the damage it does, both the physical and emotional toll it takes on us. When we live in light of the healing, the effects of living in a broken, sin-filled world are reduced. This brings a new identity with it too. Have you been the cynic? The person who always has to win or be right? When we receive our new identity in Christ, we don’t even want to do the same things anymore.
Consider how you were before your encounter with Jesus. Discipleship, faith, is often referred to as a journey, a path. We are all at a different place on the path in our journey with Jesus. We have a destination, but we can also look back and see where we were. We can see how we have changed. Our identity has changed. We really aren’t that person anymore.
Habits can be hard to break. You might be stuck thinking of yourself in the old way. Alternatively, you may even be fully aware of the change in your identity, or you could be somewhere in-between. With the help of the Holy Spirit over time you will see the change because you have been healed. Your spirit is healed right down to your spiritual DNA. As Jesus will say in the next chapter of Matthew. “You’re kingdom subjects. Now, live like it. Live out your God created identity.” [Emphasis mine.] (Mt 5:48)
This is a disconcerting time, a time when we feel out of control and we don’t know what’s going to happen next. When we remember how Jesus walked right into the lives of these people we hear about in the Bible, we are reminded how Jesus still walks with us through our worry and our pain. That is the point of seeing ourselves in the picture of these stories about Jesus. It helps us to visualize and remember that this real person Jesus really did these things. How they affected the people who witnessed them directly, and what that means for our lives now.