At this, our second medical service today, I want us to consider the passage we had as our second reading from Mark 1 and see what it has to teach us for our present world. And I have three headings; Jesus’ mission; Jesus’ conviction; and, Jesus’ priority.
1. Jesus’ Mission
Let’s look again at Mark 1.29-31:
And immediately he [Jesus] left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
In previous verses (Mark 1.14-15) we’re told:
…Jesus came…proclaiming the gospel [or good news] of God, saying, ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel’.
And Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue was with amazing “authority”. So we read the people “were astonished”. Then what is referred to as a man with “an unclean spirit” interrupted his sermon and said among other things (Mark 1.24):
“Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus simply said, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1.25). When the unclean spirit came out, the congregation were ever more amazed, saying (Mark 1.27):
“What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
And then Mark 1.28, as you might expect continues like this:
“And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.”
And our passage follows that introduction. What do we learn at the most basic level from our passage and that introduction? Answer: our God, from his good news, is concerned for healing and individual well-being. That simply reflects God’s revelation of himself in Old Testament times, as “I am the Lord, your healer” (Exodus 15.26). And Jesus’ mission certainly includes healing the sick.
So the followers of Jesus have followed his example down the centuries. And, yes, that is why we have our NHS today. For, without doubt, the medical profession worldwide as it is today is a product of the Christian faith. Of course, it is built upon streams from other traditions and faiths. But from the word "go" Christians took seriously Jesus' example as recorded here in Mark’s Gospel and his command elsewhere to heal the sick.
So what has happened, in history health-wise, since the 1st century? Let me mention just three things:
i) Christians have developed an ethic of life rather than death. Uniquely, the early Christians were known for their respect for the sanctity of human life and from conception. For human beings are all made in God's image and worthy of respect. But when does that respect start? When human life starts, namely at conception. For my history, and your history, begins with our conception and not our birth or at time during our mother’s pregnancy. And supremely, of course, the incarnation (or the Son of God becoming man in Jesus’ human life), began with Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit and not with his birth on Christmas Day. We say that regularly in the Apostles’ Creed, So these early Christians saw the embryo not as a “potential human” but a “human with potential.” From the earliest days of the Church, therefore, Christians were known for being opposed to abortion and infanticide.
ii) also the early Christians were marked by their compassion. Let me read you something from a letter, written a little later in AD 361, by the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate, a bitter opponent of Christianity. In it he had the honesty to write this:
Now we can see what it is that makes these Christians such powerful enemies of our gods. It is the brotherly love which they manifest towards the sick and poor.
It is simply a fact that Christianity introduced a new note of compassion for all the sick not just the rich and powerful or just the Christian sick. So soon Christian hospitals sprang up. Before the European Reformation Christian monasteries did much work for the sick. After the Reformation sizeable hospitals sprang up as Christian foundations in Europe. So Christianity introduced a new note of compassion for all.
iii) Christians were in the forefront of the new learning and in the forefront of the new 16th and 17th century practices in medicine and surgery. And they saw their science in a totally Christian light.The French surgeon Ambroise Paré famously said of a patient:
"I dressed him but God cured him" – that is, "I used my skills but God then used my skills to heal."
And one of the great doctors of this generation of four centuries ago was Thomas Sydenham. He became known as the English Hippocrates – Hippocrates being an Ancient Greek physician (as some will know). Sydenham gave this advice to students entering the medical profession:
Whoever takes up Medicine should seriously consider, [first] that he must one day render to the Supreme Judge an account of the lives of those sick men [and women] who have been entrusted to his care. Secondly, that such skill and science as, by the blessing of Almighty God, he has attained, are to be specially directed towards the honour of his Maker and the welfare of his fellow creatures; since it is a base thing for the great gifts of heaven to become the servants of avarice and ambition [that is to say, selfishly used to make money and to become famous]. Thirdly, he must remember that it is no mean or ignoble animal that he deals with. We may ascertain the worth of the human race, since for its sake God's only begotten Son became man, and thereby ennobled the nature that he took upon him.
Wise words still. And that leads on to:
2. Jesus’ Conviction (Mark 1.32-34):
That evening at sunset they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 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 he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
And that is fine. You will like this emphasis on health and healing – that is part of the good news. But what do you make of that distinction, in Mark 1.32, between sickness and being “oppressed by demons”? And what do you make of Mark 1.34:
“And he…cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
Problems for many come because of a failure to realize that a belief in demons, as Jesus identifies them, is not because Jesus is pre-Freud or ignorant of modern psychology. No! It is simply because of a failure to realize Jesus’s conviction that this universe of space and time is not all there is. For Jesus knew there are two realms – in the Lord’s prayer one is called “earth” the other “heaven”. But then, in that infinitely greater heavenly realm, Jesus taught that there are not only angels (supernatural messengers obeying God). There are also fallen angels or “demons”, the chief of whom is called, “Satan” (meaning “accuser”). Yes, the Bible is relatively reticent about all these.
That is unlike some earlier Jewish and some medieval Christian people who over speculated about them, as do some moderns. And that, among other things, has led to a general disbelief in the West regarding angels and Satan (or the Devil – to use the Greek form).But the Bible, while reticent, is clear. Take just two examples. Paul writes in Ephesians 6.12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against …the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
And Peter similarly in 1 Peter 5.8:
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
But is all that credible? Yes, for two simple reasons. One, many people can believe that the sum total of human individual wrongs and misdeeds does not account for all the evil in the world. There is a super-plus. And Jesus and the Bible teaches us, quite simply gives and explanation. It is this. That super-plus is not an “it” but a “he” – Satan. And, secondly, Jesus himself had just experienced the Devil. Mark 1.13 tells us that Jesus, after his baptism:
…was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan. And [then]…angels were ministering to him.
But we have to be careful as history has shown. So C.S. Lewis said in his Screwtape Letters there are two errors to avoid in this subject; one is the danger of neglecting the reality of the devil. The other is an unhealthy preoccupation with him. For the Devil is pleased with both of those. That brings us finally to:
3. Jesus’ Priority (Mark 1.35-39):
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 he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
So it is clear that in his mission, although part of it was to help people physically in this life through healing and in those days demonic oppression, prayer and preaching were his priority. Why? Because Jesus, knowing that this life is not all there is, saw people needed to be ministered to holistically. He knew they were not just physical machines, where if you know your physiology you can treat them physically and all will be well. No, people are more than their bodies. They have hearts, wills and minds - a spiritual side as well as a body. For as well as a body they have a soul, with the heart that desires, the will that chooses and the mind that rationalizes but also worships and needs to worship.
However, whatever the terminology, people are truly “psychosomatic”
- they have a soul (in Greek, a “psyche”), as well as a body (a “soma”). And that is where the Christian doctor has answers, because Jesus has answers to the problems of the soul. But that is where the NHS falls down. Therefore, Christian doctors are so needed and needed to be willing graciously to go against the secular tide to witness to the gospel and its teaching, including its ethics. For Jesus knew that the healing that people needed most of all was of the soul or heart. For they have spiritual heart disease.
Jesus later teaches in Mark’s Gospel. Mark 7.20:
“What comes out of a person is what defiles him [like being badly infected with the spiritual equivalent of Covid 19]. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
And that is all the result of the Devil tempting our first parents to ignore God and to believe in himself, not God, as reported in Genesis. There has been disaster ever since. But Mark’s Gospel builds up to the last chapters which are all about the death of Jesus, where, at Calvary, the devil was defeated but not finally destroyed – that awaits Christ return at the end of time.
For your sin and my sin was atoned for at Calvary as Christ died in our place. So we can have new hearts and receive God’s Holy Spirit as we repent and trust in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. All this teaching and much else is so vital that it was Jesus’ priority. But prayer is part of that priority.
For prayer actually changes things - not always in the way we expect but as God knows best. One, prayer, says James 5.14-16, should play a part in healing (and surely both healing indirectly through the NHS and still sometimes directly, without medical intervention). But, two, even more importantly, prayer changes hearts as we pray for the Holy Spirit to work in or on them.
Who needs to pray for such heart change this evening? Then you can “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” and “you will be saved” (to quote Paul in Romans 10.9).