The Healer

In 1901 the UK life expectancy at birth for men was 48. In 1931 it was 58. In 1971 it was 68. In 2001 it is projected to be 74. For women those figures are slightly higher. In 1901 infant mortality was 142 deaths per 1000 live births. In 1931 it was 67. In 1971 it was 18. In 1991 it was 7. In 1971 - at today's prices - the Government spent 15 billion on the NHS. In 1981 [at today's prices] it was 23 billion. In 1991 it was 32 billion. In 1971 there were 24,000 GP's; in 1981 there were 27,000; in 1991 there were 32,000. There is much to be thankful for in terms of our national health. It was Madam Curie who said:

one never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.

But not all is well. Listen to these figures. In 1973 the number of new heroin addicts was 508. In 1981 it was 1,660. In 1991 it was 6,328. In 1993 it was 9,063. Then take the cost of the sexual and marital revolution that has occurred since the 1960's. In terms of AIDS, other sexual diseases and related health charges the cost to the public purse is over £1 billion a year; the annual cost of divorce is £5 billion a year; the costs of other support for family disintegration is £600 million; related youth crime £1½ billion; and single parenting £1 billion. That gives you a grand total of £9 billion as the cost to the tax payer that was not being paid in the 1950's. And that cost is one quarter of the entire National Health Service budget. You can't say sexual and marital behaviour is a private matter. Yes, there must be compassion for all who are caught up in the tragedy of the sexual revolution and the breakdown of marriage and the family. Yes, there must be help for everyone. And, yes, there is forgiveness at the cross for every kind of marital and sexual failure. No, there must not be a "holier than thou" attitude. We are all, at best, forgiven sinners - and some of us fail in these very areas. But politicians of both parties must not be approving of (or themselves indulging in) behaviour and life-styles that have such disastrous public consequences, when hospitals can't stay open in Cornwall; when older people are not getting the services they require; and when cuts are necessary elsewhere. Jesus loved the sinner but hated the sin. So should Michael Portillo, William Hague and Tony Blair. And so should we. To recap - there is much to be thankful for, but there are still problems. So what about the future? Will there always be something to be thankful for in these islands in terms of our national health? You cannot assume so. The great tradition of modern medicine has evolved from the Christian gospel. Lose that gospel and you cannot guarantee keeping fresh and vigorous its fruit in terms of modern medical care. Not so long ago there was an article in the BMJ. It contained these words:

As the influence of the Church declines until its effect is negligible ... a general lowering of standards seems inevitable.

As one commentator puts it:

It was no accident that the morale in the medical, nursing and all related professions was at its highest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Christian Churches and Christian influence were at their peak.

But what does the bible teach us about all of this? Well, that brings us to our passage for this morning - Matthew 8.14-17. And my headings refer to Jesus' healing miracles and describe them as, first, IMPORTANT; secondly, UNIQUE, but thirdly, PROVISIONAL. First, Jesus as the healer is vitally IMPORTANT Look at verses 14-15:

When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. {15} He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

Last week we saw how Jesus healed a leper and then a gentile centurion's servant. And now here he heals a woman - Peter's mother-in-law. These represent people that were being "left out" by the rest of society - the sick among lepers, gentiles and women. And Jesus immediately helps them in their need. Here was the beginning of something quite new, but which we now take for granted - a targeting of the needs of the sick. One Jewish medical historian writes of the new status this gave to them:

The place of the sick in society was altered from its very foundation. Whereas disease in the entire course of previous historical development had sharply isolated the sufferer, in Christian times he was actually brought closer to his fellow men by the fact of his illness ... To care for him is a Christian obligation ... The birth hour of large-scale, organized care of the sick had come.

Of course, modern medicine owes a debt to the practitioners of ancient Greece and Rome; and indeed to some of the Arabs in the late middle-ages. But major developments since the middle ages have been in the church and by Christians. Jesus was seen as the healer. He was the example to follow. So Christians have made a major contribution to the world-wide spread of Western medicine. After that fundamental raising of the social status of the sick and disabled, you had from the 4th century down to the 19th and 20th centuries, Christians building and funding the world's great hospitals. And you had individual Christians in the forefront of all the major developments until very recently. Is it a coincidence that now when non-believers are making much of the running, there is an ethical and moral breakdown emerging in modern medicine? I doubt it. And public health and national, not just individual, care came from Christians. John Wesley was important with his book Primitive Physick: or an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases in 1747. This year is its 250th anniversary. It was in this book that Wesley said: "Cleanliness is, indeed, next to Godliness." Wesley's fondness for soap had a profound affect on the nation's health. A 100 years later, another Christian, Charles Hastings, was the driving force behind the Medical Act of 1858 that established the General Medical Council for Medical Education and Registration. A Worcestershire surgeon, he wanted to raise provincial standards. So he founded the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association and a journal in 1832. In 1856 (two years before the Medical Act of 1858) it merged in the national organization that became the British Medical Association. At the last BMA meeting he attended before he died he led the members in a special service of worship. 100 years later in the 1950's there were a huge percentage of Christian doctors and nurses. They had followed the example of Jesus the healer in his care and concern for the sick. Tragically in the 60's and early 70's some of the Christians in medicine lost their nerve - as did many clergy who advised them - under the assaults of humanism, secularism and sheer hedonism. But thank God that there are now younger doctors who are seeing the issues. They need our prayers. The issues focus particularly on matters of human generation, sex and sexuality, and death. It is not easy being in a minority of one in a hostile peer group in any profession - let alone medicine or nursing or social work. There are those merit awards; there are those possible promotions - especially if you are younger. And, you say, you don't want to risk them. I know. It is not easy. But who said being a Christian was going to be easy? The question is simply this: are you going to follow Jesus Christ or not? So, Jesus' healing miracles are important. They show his concern for the sick. He saw disease as the enemy. He saw it as part of the fallen world that needs to be opposed. And that world view has given us modern medicine as we know it. It has evolved as Christians, especially, have followed Christ in opposing disease and helping the sick. But, secondly, Jesus' healing miracles are UNIQUE. Look at verse 16:

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.

Do you believe that? For 200 years people have been trying to get round the miracles of Jesus and explain them away. But at the end of the 20th century after a barrage of attacks (often irrational attacks) the only Jesus that there is any evidence for is the Jesus that made supernatural claims and performed amazing deeds. It is the Jesus that Peter preached about on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2.22:

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

Nor was the ancient world full of "miracle workers" like Jesus. Oh! yes. There was a gullibility among some (but no more than today). Plutarch was a priest of the Greek god, Apollo, and an exact contemporary of the Gospel writers. In one of his works Plutarch tells about the Greek general Pyrrhus. He tells how the general was once making a sacrifice. Suddenly, he says, the severed heads of the oxen that had been killed stuck out their tongues and began to lick up their own blood. Plutarch describes this as "a great sign". You also get bizarre alleged miracles in the apocryphal gospels. Contrast that with verse 16 - let me read it again:

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.

There is no comparison. J.B.Phillips entitled his book about the historicity of the gospel narratives, "Ring of Truth." You can see why! Christianity is a miraculous religion. With regard to other religions, Confucius refused to accept miracles. Buddha allowed only "the miracles of the revelation of man's inner self.". And Mohammed personally claimed only the Koran was miraculous. But Jesus is totally involved with the material world, even, when necessary, in a miraculous way. Jesus Christ, the bible says, was the "agent" of God in creation and now sustains this universe of space and time. Colossians 1.17 says:

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Hebrews 1.3 says that Christ is ...

... sustaining all things by his powerful word.

He is at the heart of the universe. But he does not, so to speak, then suspend the natural laws. A miracle of Jesus is not some irrational intervention from outside. No! It is the consistent working out of his love and justice in the face of sin and evil by the one who is the world's co-creator. It is not a bizarre, random event, as with Plutarch. So, of course, Jesus' miracles were unique. They were acts of power. They revealed, for those who had eyes to see, his deity. And he gave his apostles power to perform miracles. And they, too, were unique in what they did. Paul said they were signs that proved apostleship. It is true that today (as in earlier centuries) Christians can receive amazing answers to prayer. Remarkable healings are sometimes claimed. But they are not like Jesus' miracles. St Augustine in the 4th century at first believed miracles had ceased with the apostles. In later life he changed his mind. But he never likened these contemporary answers to prayer to the miracles of Christ or his apostles - nor should we. Jesus was unique. His miracles were evidence of his divine power. Do you, then, see what that means? The bible says that you are to come to Jesus. And he still offers that invitation ...

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matt 11.28).

The bible says that you are to believe in him, to obey him, and to trust him to protect and keep you. His miracle working power means you can do that without fear because he is almighty. Who needs to trust Christ this morning - perhaps for the first time? He can be relied upon. His miracles were unique acts of power. They show his deity. Finally, his miracles were PROVISIONAL One word for "miracle" in the New Testament literally means "sign". Jesus miracles were not only acts of power; they were also signs. They pointed away to something else. In our passage Matthew says that Jesus healing miracles pointed to his messiahship. Look at verse 17:

This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."

That is from a remarkable passage in Isaiah prophesying a coming Messiah and especially his death. Here Matthew sees this prophecy partly fulfilled in Jesus healing ministry - carrying our diseases not into his body on the cross, but away from the sick. Matthew knows and the whole bible teaches that God is in control of history. And the Messiah is God's answer to man's need. This world is not all there is. There was a beginning and there will be an end. In the meantime there is a problem - it is heart disease - spiritual heart disease. It goes by the more common name of sin. It is when men and women live as though they were the creators of the universe and do not recognize God as the creator. When a school boy on a work placement thinks he can perform a surgical operation, even under supervision, the newspapers are in uproar. How much more will God be in uproar when we think we can perform like gods and without supervision. So what is your spiritual heart like? Is it right with God and healthy? The bible says (Mark 7:21):

from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery.

Jeremiah 17.9 says:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

What is the remedy? Answer: the healing of your spiritual heart disease by Jesus Christ. That is what his physical healings point to - a spiritual healing that will last for all eternity. Those people healed on the evening you read about in Matthew 8 eventually died. Those healings were, therefore, provisional, for death is the ultimate reality for everyone. But what then? That is another vital question. Can I personalise it? Where are you going after death? Where are you going to spend eternity - in heaven or in hell? There is a heaven and, Jesus says, there is a hell. In verse 12 of Matthew 8 he has just spoken of being "thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." These are not easy matters to talk about. If you are a doctor, it is not easy telling someone they have terminal cancer. But sometimes that is the truth. The bible says that if you reject Christ you can have no confidence for eternity - in fact you should be worried. It is not easy telling someone this. Of course, Jesus wants healing and wholeness and eternal life. He came to seek and to save. That is what he died for on the cross - to bear our sins in our place and to give us new birth by his Holy Spirit. But he respects our freedom. I must conclude. I do so with four statements of fact. One, if someone doesn't want to be treated by medicine or an operation, you cannot force them. Two, if someone doesn't want to be treated by Christ with forgiveness for sin and new life, he will not force them either. Three, it is folly not to take medical advice when that will lead to physical health. And, four, it is ultimate folly not to take God's advice when that will lead to eternal health and heaven.

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