I once heard a remarkable interview with a student about his faith. It was at a big event at Oxford University, and he came onto the stage in a wheelchair. And he talked about his background. ‘But that’s not important,’ he said. Then he talked about studying Physics. ‘But that’s not important,’ he said. And then he talked about the accident which put him in a wheelchair. ‘But that’s not important, either,’ he said. And then he talked about how his family had prayed for him and patiently answered his questions about God – many of them very angry – and pointed him to the Jesus of the Bible. And he said, ‘I finally came to see that Jesus is God and that he loved me enough to die on the cross for me. And I’m here tonight as someone who knows he’s completely forgiven and going to heaven. And that is important.’
And as we listened to this small figure in a wheelchair saying that, you could have heard a pin drop. Because it’s a remarkable statement of priorities, isn’t it? And it’s the exact priority that Jesus teaches in the next part of our series in Mark’s Gospel. So if you’ve got a Bible to hand, please turn up Mark chapter 1, where Jesus answers the question, ‘What matters most in life?’ And before we look at it, let’s pray.
Father, thank you for Mark’s record of what your Son Jesus said and did when he was here on Earth. Please speak to us through it now, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, last week we saw how Jesus began his public teaching and miracles. And we left off at Mark chapter 1 and verse 32:
"That evening at sunset they brought to [Jesus] all who were sick or oppressed by demons [in other words, in the grip of spiritual evil]. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons."
And no wonder the whole city was after him – because if it had been here, today, Jesus could have emptied not just the COVID wards of the RVI, but every ward. And as the news spread, Newcastle would be gridlocked with everyone else trying to get to Jesus for healing. And there would soon be TV crews from all over the world, with the kind of publicity and popularity that we as a church can only dream of.
But read on, verse 35:
"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, 'Everyone is looking for you.' And he said to them, 'Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.'"
And the first thing we see there is:
1. The Temptation for Jesus (verse 35)
Just look again at verse 32:
"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed."
There are only two other places where Mark tells us about Jesus praying. One was after the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6.45-46) – when you can imagine how popular he was, and how people wanted him to meet more of their felt needs (‘Do you think he can multiply banknotes, too?’) And the other was in Gethsemane, just hours before the cross, when he prayed,
"Father… remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will." (Mark 14.36)
And both were crisis points, when Jesus could have pleased himself and packed in his mission. And this moment was a crisis point, as well. Because all Jesus had to do to have the whole world follow him was to give it what it wanted, to give it what it thought it needed, rather than what it really needed; to give it healing and health, as if this life was all there is, and that was all that mattered (which I guess is how many see it today).
That was the temptation for Jesus. And he knew he had to re-commit himself in prayer to the mission his Father had given him – which was to go to the cross for what we really needed.
And maybe you’re a bit shocked at the thought that Jesus could be tempted by popularity or applause. After all, wasn’t he the Son of God and therefore above that sort of temptation? Well, yes, he was the Son of God – but the Son of God become fully and really human. Which meant he wasn’t above any sort of temptation. He was tempted every way we are – only never gave in.
And that’s why he finally went to the cross for our forgiveness. It was the end-point of facing this temptation to please himself every day of his life – and yet saying ‘No’ every time. So let’s appreciate the fact that his going to the cross was a spiritual battle all the way, and let’s be grateful that he fought it and won it for us. Because on his obedience hung our salvation.
The next thing we see here is:
2. The Priority for Jesus (verses 36-38)
Look at verse 36 again:
"And Simon [later called Peter] and those who were with him searched for [Jesus], and they found him and said to him, 'Everyone is looking for you.'"
And they were irritated, they were criticising Jesus – they were basically telling him what he ought to be doing: ‘Why are you walking away from all these people? Why are you throwing away the chance of an even bigger following? Why are you risking the PR disaster of not meeting all the needs they want you to meet?’
"And he said to them, 'Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.'"
There are three places in Mark where Jesus says why he came. There’s this one, where he says, ‘I came to preach.’ (1.38) There’s one we’ll see in two weeks’ time, where he says, ‘I came to call sinners back into relationship with God.’ (2.17) And there’s one more, where he says, ‘I came to give my life as a ransom for many’ (10.45) – in other words, to pay for the forgiveness we need by dying on the cross.
So putting those together, when Jesus said he came to preach, he meant: he came to preach that we needed him to die for our forgiveness – and then actually to die and then rise again for us.
And Jesus knew that’s what we needed above all. Because he knew that if he did heal absolutely everyone in sight, but none of them heard that they needed his death to put them right with God, it would only do them a few years’ physical good – and even that would wear off. But spiritually, they’d still be on the wrong side of God, missing the point of life, terrified of death, and ultimately facing God’s judgement for ignoring him.
So that’s why Jesus’ priority was to preach – about who he was and why he came. And that’s why he had to correct Simon and the others for wanting him to serve a different agenda.
And we may need the same correction, because it’s so easy to want Jesus to serve our agendas, isn’t it? For example, to insist to ourselves that he should heal us of some physical or mental health problem. Or to want him to get us the grades we want to get to the uni we want to get the job we want to get the money we want to get the things we want. Or to want him to give us the marriage partner we want and then the children we want – complete with the abilities we want them to have, and the lack of problems we want them to have. And so on.
And it can seem obvious to us that Jesus should serve our agenda – when in fact it’s not. Because his agenda is: to see us forgiven back into relationship with him, and then growing in faith and likeness to him, and persevering to heaven. Which may or may not include things on our agendas. For example, to grow in me in faith, he may make me wait for some of those things – or even not give some of them at all. To grow me in likeness to him, he may give me children with needs I’d never have chosen. And to make me persevere to heaven, he may let me experience some of this world at its worst, to wean me off it, and make me look forward.
And we need this correction corporately as Christians, as well. Certainly, our denomination does. Because it’s often backed agendas that are OK in themselves – like fighting poverty or environmental responsibility – but it’s done so because it’s more popular and easy to back an agenda the world wants, than to preach Jesus. And now, tragically, it’s backing the LGBT agenda – which is anything but OK according to the Bible.
But we also need to ask the question of our church – and the areas we’re each involved in. Is all our activity really serving the spread of the gospel, and the building up of believers through the Bible? Or are we serving a different agenda – maybe just social, just sporting, or just whatever-it-is.
So that’s the priority for Jesus – preaching above healing. But then look at verse 39:
"And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons [in other words, not just preaching]. And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, 'If you will, you can make me clean.'"
Which is a really interesting moment, because Jesus has just walked away from a healing rally in Capernaum and he’s just said he’s come to preach – and up pops this guy saying, ‘Will you heal me?’ So what does Jesus do? Verse 41:
"Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean."
Which begs the question: why? Why did Jesus do his miracles as well as preach – especially when it meant people could so easily come to him with the wrong agenda? Well, that brings us to the last thing here:
3. The Miracles of Jesus (verses 40-45)
Look at verse 40 again:
"And a leper came to [Jesus], imploring him, and kneeling said to him, 'If you will, you can make me clean.' Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean."
And Jesus did his healing miracles as visual aids of what he preached. Because what he preached was that he’d come to bring in the kingdom of God. Do you remember that from Mark 1.14:
" … Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…'"
And the kingdom of God is where everyone and everything is perfectly serving God as King. In other words, where the consequences of the fall – when the human race originally turned its back on God – are gone, undone. So where there’s no more sin or sickness or death.
And Jesus’ miracles were signs that he is the one who’ll bring that kingdom in. And they were signs of what that kingdom will be like – when he takes those who trust in him to be with him in the end, beyond this life. And it’ll be a place without leprosy, without viruses, without cancer, without disability, without depression, without wheelchairs, without ageing, without glasses, without walking sticks, without medication, without hospitals, without funerals – without anything bad or sad to spoil it.
But that won’t be in the here and now. It’ll only be in his kingdom, in the end beyond this life. And his miracles were glimpses or foretastes of that future. It’s like if you fly somewhere on holiday. And as you’re coming in to land, between the clouds, you catch glimpses of the place you’re going to. And you’re not there yet, you’re not experiencing it all fully, yet. But they’re glimpses of where you’ll be soon, making you think, ‘I could be on that beach in two hours’ time,’ or, ‘I could be on that mountain tomorrow.’ And that’s what the miracles are like. We may be trusting in Jesus, but we’re not there yet in his final kingdom, we’re not experiencing it all fully, yet. But his miracles are glimpses of where we’ll be soon.
And so the lesson is not to expect healings like this leper got as part of normal, everyday Christian experience. The lesson is to look forward to an experience beyond this life, of which this leper’s healing is just a foretaste.
Of course the Lord does heal today. He’s constantly healing our bodies through the brilliant mechanisms he’s built into them. Sometimes he uses the means of medicine and surgery as well. And sometimes he heals miraculously.
But we’re not to expect healings like this as ‘normal’, or full health in this life. I know there are Christians who say we should – who say that ‘God has promised us full health’. To which I want to say: they’re right that God’s promised it in the gospel; but they’re wrong about timescale. Because the timescale is that we’ll only have full health when we have resurrected bodies in the new creation of his kingdom.
So, ‘What matters most in life?’ Jesus would say: being back in relationship with him now, so that ultimately we’re in his kingdom beyond this life.
And that’s why that student in the wheelchair could say what he said. He can’t walk now – but he knows he will do again, beyond this life, thanks to his relationship with Jesus.
Whereas this leper, it seems, was the opposite. Because he got his healing. But it doesn’t look like he began a relationship with Jesus as Lord. Because to avoid people coming just for healings, Jesus told him not to broadcast it. Verse 45:
"But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town"
Which doesn’t sound like someone serving Jesus’ agenda. It sounds like someone who got Jesus to serve his agenda for that brief moment, and then just carried on living his own way.
And Mark would say: what matters most is sorting out whether your agenda, or Jesus’ agenda, is the right one to live for.