Sermons, Uncategorized

Disease, Demons, and Darkness

“The Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law” by James Tissot

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“Immediately [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.

“That evening at sundown 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 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 why I came out.” And He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:29-39).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Disease, demons, and darkness, that is the context for this reading from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick (1:30), and many others suffered various diseases (1:32, 34). A man in the synagogue was oppressed by an unclean spirit (1:23-26) and he was not alone (1:32, 34). The darkness which followed sundown (1:32) was not simply literal. It summarized the spiritual and physical condition of a creation corrupted by sin. This was the broken world into which Jesus was beginning His ministry. The direct temptation of the Devil in the wilderness (1:12-13) was only the beginning.

Jesus was not intimidated, however. Undeterred by the Devil or the disease or the demons or the darkness, He went on the offensive. With recently gathered followers by His side (1:16-20), He taught in the synagogue with authority (1:22, 27). With the crowds paying close attention, He exercised lordship over the physical and spiritual forces of evil. His rule was clear for everyone to see and hear, and His fame began to spread (1:28).

But rather than capitalize on His celebrity status (Mark 1:28), Jesus retreated to the relative privacy of Simon and Andrew’s home after the synagogue service was finished. They already had plenty to talk about, but there was going to be a lot more. When they arrived at the house, they found Peter’s mother-in-law ill with a high fever. The disciples immediately brought this matter to Jesus’ attention. They had to wonder: Was Jesus willing to help them, too? Or were His miracles meant only to increase His prestige and renown with the multitudes?

It didn’t take long for them to find out that they would also be recipients of His loving care. Jesus answered their request. He took the woman by the hand and lifted her up. The healing was complete and instantaneous. The fever left her. The woman’s strength was fully restored. She immediately proceeded to wait on them—her way of expressing her gratitude.

As soon as the Sabbath ended at sundown, a huge crowd came to the house with their sick and demon possessed. No matter what the disease, Jesus healed the sick and drove out the demons. Nothing was too difficult for Him.

Jesus did not allow the demons to speak. He wanted those who were healed and those who witnessed the healings to draw their own conclusions directly from His words and actions and thus to come to the realization that He is more than just a healer of the body—He is the promised Savior from sin.

That Sabbath had been an exceptionally busy one for Jesus, yet He did not sleep in late the next morning. After a night of wrestling power from the prince of this world, Jesus left the house before sunrise and withdrew to a solitary place to pray. It may seem strange to us that Jesus, the Son of God, felt the need to spend time praying to and communing with His heavenly Father, but only until we remember He was also truly human. As such, He, too, was dependent upon God for everything. However, in one respect, His prayers were not identical with ours. They were not prayers for the forgiveness of sins, for He had none.

In His prayers, Jesus talked with His heavenly Father about the work that lay before Him and thus found strength for His task. On this particular morning, He may well have discussed with the Father whether He should remain longer in Capernaum or begin taking His message into other areas of Galilee. The Father’s answer is seen clearly in Jesus’ words to His disciples and in His subsequent action. That Jesus felt the need for spending time in prayer reminds us that our need to do so is even greater. Let us take to heart His example.

Peter and the other disciples had different plans for Jesus. It was time to strike while the iron was hot. Jesus’ status was trending. A crowd was quickly gathering. There were many more diseases, demons, and darkness to confront.

But by the time the crowd had gathered again, they discovered that Jesus had already left the house. Immediately, they began searching for Him with Peter leading the search party. That they seemed to find Him so quickly suggests that they were aware of His practice of going apart by Himself to pray.

They told Jesus about the crowd looking for Him. Undoubtedly, they thought Jesus would be pleased with that. But Jesus knew many only came to Him for what there was in it for them. He also recognized the disciples still had a lot to learn about Him and His mission. Had Jesus followed their suggestion, He would not have placed the emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel but on presenting Himself as a healer—the error that many faith healers are guilty of today.

It is not surprising that Jesus’ disciples and the multitude would be seeking Him that morning. He was breaking the darkness, as several hymns put it. The people were increasing with hope. But Jesus had other things in mind. He informed His disciples that He would not stick around and satisfy every appeal in town. R.T. France describes what this meant:

Here for the first time, we meet a recurrent theme of the Gospel, that of the difference between Jesus’ programme and His disciples’ (and still more other people’s) expectations. It is not just that He is one step ahead of them; His whole conception of how God’s kingship is to be made effective is quite different from theirs. While they would naturally pursue the normal human policy of taking advantage of popularity and building on success on their own home ground, following Jesus will increasingly involve them in having to learn a new orientation” (The Gospel of Mark. NIGTC, 111).

Strengthened by His time in communion with the Father, Jesus saw clearly what He must do next. Though Jesus had much more He could still do among the people of Capernaum, it was time for Him to move on to the work His Father had prepared for Him. Jesus’ clear plan stands in stark contrast to our tendency to lose focus, to allow others to set our agenda, and to put lesser things above what is most important. Given our weaknesses, it is reassuring that Jesus keeps things straight. His highest goal was, and is, to fulfill the Father’s command that He save the lost. Jesus therefore informed His disciples on that very morning that He would set out on a preaching tour of Galilee.

Wherever Jesus went on this tour, He entered the synagogues. This offered Him many opportunities to preach the Gospel, since synagogue services were not only conducted on the Sabbath but also on Mondays and Thursdays. In connection with His preaching, He also drove out demons, for they were opponents of His message. The tour may well have lasted several weeks or even months, but Mark summarizes it in one verse. “And He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).  

As the Son of God and Lord over creation, Jesus was demonstrating His divine authority and sovereign rule. Demonstrations would continue throughout His ministry. They would culminate in the ultimate sign of His lordship on Easter morning. The announcement of His resurrection would provide life and salvation which exceeded even the temporary healings and exorcisms described in our text.

Which brings us to our day. Given the endless series of things to which Jesus attends, we may sometimes imagine that He is too busy for us and our problems. But Jesus knows and cares for us individually. He commands us to lay all our needs before Him and stands ever willing and able to help us.

The world is still dark. It is still filled with disease. The Devil and the demons still tempt and oppress. Much like the people in our text, you come to worship this week looking for Jesus. You are looking for help and looking for healing. You look for the Lord to reign graciously over your particular struggles with darkness.

Often, Jesus seems to depart for other towns. He seems to leave you in the darkness and without deliverance. He seems to leave you to struggle with your doubts and despair.

But the preaching continues! The announcement goes forth. That is how Jesus continues coming to town after town—even to ours. Through His called and ordained servants, Jesus proclaims His victory over all the forces of darkness. Through the promises spoken in His name, He makes known and spreads forth the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

As you consider the darkness in your life, it would be easy to list the usual suspects—the pandemic, social unrest, political dysfunction, and economic uncertainty. But you’ve heard much about these lately. It might be more helpful to dig deeper, to poke and prod at more specific problems casting shadows over your lives: Doubts and despair sown by the Devil, family relationships sick with selfishness or self-righteousness, the internal demons of depression, anxiety, fear, suspicion, or jealousy, the oppression of the Devil, the world, and your own sinful nature. And there’s the physical manifestations of sin through death and disease, such as cancer, heart disease, COPD, dementia, arthritis, glaucoma, osteoporosis, neuropathy, diabetes, and stroke, just to name a few.

Dearly beloved, those and many other physical afflictions will be taken away from you in time or in eternity. I often speak of this in funerals, saying that the deceased loved one is alive and well with the Lord in paradise awaiting the day of resurrection, while the disease is dead and gone forever.

Disease, demons, and darkness—Jesus came to defeat all these, as He demonstrated in Capernaum and Galilee and, ultimately by His death on the cross. Through His Word and Sacraments, He still comes to forgive, restore, comfort, and encourage us. And when He returns on the Last Day, He will break the darkness once and for all as He raises you, me, and all who have trusted in His name to everlasting life in body and soul. That is the promise that I get to preach, that you get to hear, that we get to share. This is how Jesus’ mission continues in our towns.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Great Faith

“Christ with the Canaanite Woman and Her Daughter” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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“But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:25-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile territory, a coastal region northwest of Galilee that had never been part of Israel and had been dominated by the Phoenicians in Old Testament times. Jesus goes there, not primarily to engage in ministry, but to avoid the opposition arising from His recent confrontation with Pharisees from Jerusalem. The Canaanites who live there are descendants of those whom the Israelites failed to exterminate when they occupied the land. Most are unbelievers and idolaters, but this woman is an exception.

With the word “behold,” Matthew draws attention to this Canaanite woman and her words. She speaks like a disciple and calls Jesus “Lord.” This woman, who might so quickly be dismissed as unclean, speaks like a believing Israelite and addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who had just been offended by Jesus’ teaching on what makes someone clean or unclean.  

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” It is a heartfelt prayer to the only One who can help. But how does Jesus respond? “He [does] not answer her a word.” Jesus’ response, or rather, lack of response, may surprise or even puzzle us. We have never seen Jesus treat anyone this way, and we wonder why He did this. Many commentaries seek to provide a satisfying answer, as though Jesus’ actions require a defense from us. But it is useless to conjecture why; Jesus simply remains silent.

But is that so out of character? Doesn’t it seem to you, that God is often silent when you are most anxious for an answer? At times, God seems inattentive, inactive, indifferent. And this silence may lead us to disappointment, despair, and hopelessness. God’s silence can be hard to take. It must have been excruciating for the woman in our text. You could probably tell of times when you have experienced this. It can be difficult. But it is necessary because it is only out of the silence that faith arises. As the writer of Hebrews puts is, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The woman hopes for healing for her daughter. But even before that, she hopes for a response from Jesus. You, no doubt, have hoped for many things, too. Some of your prayers are known to others. Others you have kept hidden, because the hurt is too raw, you’re afraid it will overwhelm you if exposed. The need is so deep, you prefer to keep it under wraps to avoid the pain.

Jesus is silent as though He has not heard the woman’s plea. His disciples, however, have had enough. They ask Him to “send her away.” Give her what she wants so she’ll leave us alone and we can all get some rest.

Why Jesus replies to the disciples as He does, with words about His not being sent except to Israel’s lost sheep, we cannot be sure, but the words of the Canaanite woman provide a likely answer. She, herself a Gentile, has raised the issue of who Jesus is by calling Him “Lord, Son of David.” These titles are key to Jesus’ identity. In an especially important sense, Jesus has been sent only as Israel’s Messiah. To be sure, His identity as Israel’s Messiah and Savior has implications for His relationship with the rest of the human race and the entire creation. Nevertheless, Jesus is, first and foremost, “the Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham,” as Matthew describes Him in the opening verse of his Gospel. Jesus is not there for the disciples’ convenience or to be a wandering wonder worker.

Undeterred and unfazed by Jesus’ apparent indifference, the woman persists. She “kneels” before Jesus, the same word usually translated as “worship,” calling Jesus “Lord” for the second time, and continuing to cry out, “Help me!”

Finally, the Messiah of Israel speaks to her directly. If His silence was disappointing, His words are crushing. If His words seemed harsh before, now they are brutal. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not just that Jesus has been sent only to the lost sheep that are Israel’s house, but it’s also that He has come to give bread to feed the children, the people of Israel, and “it is not right,” if this woman is thinking that she should get what by right and by divine economy belongs to Israel.

Remember, Jesus has just provided bread in the wilderness for five thousand men, besides women and children, with twelve baskets of fragments left over (Matthew 14:13-21), and He will soon provide bread for four thousand more (Matthew 15:29-38). In Jesus, Israel’s God is feeding His ungrateful, uncomprehending people once again, as He had done during their forty years of wilderness wandering, while they waited to get into the promised land, the land that God had taken away from the idolatrous Canaanites. Now, Jesus wants to know this: does the Canaanite woman really know who He is, or are the things that have come out of her mouth just words and no more?

The woman speaks and shows her faith. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, You’re absolutely right! It would be bad indeed to try to deny or contradict God’s plan to save His ancient people Israel. You are Israel’s Messiah, and the bread you give belongs to the children. I agree and believe, and I don’t want the children’s bread. But when the children eat, they drop a few crumbs, don’t they? And the dogs get to eat them, don’t they? The bread of the Messiah is so abundant and so overflowing that everyone can eat and there are still fragments leftover. I’ll take the crumbs!”

Last week, we had Jesus rebuking his disciple as Little-Faith. We learned what little faith looks like. We learned the dangers of little faith. And we were reminded that little faith in Jesus is still saving faith. This week, Jesus lauds an unnamed Canaanite woman for her faith: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28).

How did she know? Who had taught this Canaanite woman about Israel’s Messiah? We simply do not know. We do know, however, the ultimate answer to the question of how this woman came to know and believe. The Father revealed to her His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to little children (Matthew 11:25-27).

Great was her faith. In what does greatness of faith consist? Two things. She knew who Jesus is: Lord and Son of David. And she knew that Israel’s Messiah has come to give such abundance that there will be something left over even for her. Great faith puts all hope in Jesus. It believes Jesus can and will help. The woman demonstrates this faith by looking for Him, following Him, begging Him for mercy, and continuing to ask even when it seems that He doesn’t care a whit about her. That’s the way all genuine faith in Jesus works.

The unnamed woman is not too proud to hear that she has no right to ask or demand anything. She listens humbly as Jesus says He was sent for the children of Israel and referred to her people as dogs. The children of Israel were God’s chosen people. They had received the promise and the Messiah came to them now. The Canaanite woman does not belong to His people. She recognizes her lack of standing. She identifies herself as a beggar—worse, a dog. She also recognizes who she is talking to. Jesus is the Master and He has bread (even if it was just crumbs) to spare. That’s the way it always is with true faith. Faith knows that if He helps, it’s undeserved grace.

The Scriptures make it clear how you and I are also beggars and we have no standing before God outside of Christ. He has all that we need for this life and for eternal life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us God’s children, heirs of God’s kingdom. He has washed away our sins and clothed us with Christ’s righteousness. He feeds us with the Bread of Life, Himself, His very body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. Furthermore, God’s Word reminds us that Jesus is still Lord, and He has even more to spare. So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy, “Lord, help me.” And He does. He will. Not always when or how we would like Him to, but always at the right time.

It is interesting to note the different ways that Jesus deals with people who come to Him for help or for healing. He often surprises us by the way He treats people. When we analyze each episode, however, we see that He deals with each person in exactly the right way, for He can look into their hearts, and He knows what is best for them. In this way, He also teaches us that He deals with us as individuals. He knows our needs, and He is always concerned about providing what is best for us. His primary concern is to keep us in the saving faith to everlasting life. Nothing could be more important than that. We need to remember that always, especially when our gracious Lord deals with us in ways that we cannot immediately understand or appreciate. Any difficulties we have to endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us in the life to come.

The promise in this text is not that Jesus will respond here and now by doing our will. He does on occasion, and at such times we sing His praise. But in many cases, and in an ultimate sense, we are stuck with the silence. Our shared experience with the Canaanite woman in our text comes to an end… for now, at least.

You see, our story is not yet finished. Our healing and restoration has not taken place yet. But it will. At the return of Jesus, when God’s silence is broken by the trumpets and His absence is replaced with His glorious presence, we will know the fullness of His mercy. As He did for the unnamed woman and her daughter, God will bring you and me full and eternal healing. In the meantime, we live in faith and prayer, appealing to and trusting in the mercy of God in Christ. Such is how it goes for those who live by faith alone. Amen

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Does Anything Astonish You Anymore?

Devotion for the Pipestone Zone LWML Board meeting

Then [Jesus] returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged Him to lay His hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, He put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more He charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:31–37).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

We live in astonishing times. When I was a kid, if someone had a phone in his car, it meant that he was very rich. Some people had color television, hardly any had more than three channels. A single computer filled a large room. Now many kids over the age of twelve have a smart phone that they can use to watch videos, text, talk with friends, video chat with someone practically anywhere in the world, and which has more computing power and speed than the most advanced computers had just a few ago. I could go on and on, listing all the astonishing things that are happening in our world.

Yet what’s most astonishing to me is that none of this seems to astonish us anymore. We’ve become so used to technological advances that they no longer surprise us—unless they don’t work or operate fast enough. That begs the question: “Does anything astonish us anymore?” More important: Have we lost a sense of astonishment when it comes to our God?

The case was pathetic, beyond the ability of any physician to heal or even to improve—a man who was deaf and mute. Friends of the man brought him to Jesus. Since the man who was deaf and mute could neither understand easily nor express himself readily, Jesus took him aside privately. Then using some exceptional sign language, the Lord made the man understand what He was about to do for him. Jesus placed His fingers in the man’s ears; He would give him hearing. Jesus spit and touched his tongue; He would give him the ability to speak clearly.

By looking up to heaven, Jesus showed the man that the cure He was bringing him was more than an ordinary man could perform. It came from God. The sigh was a physical sign of His compassion.

Then Jesus spoke one word, Ephpphatha, which means, “Be opened!” This Aramaic word was later used in the Church’s baptismal liturgies to emphasize the Spirit’s power to open ears to the Gospel. And the man was immediately and completely cured. His ears were opened. His tongue was released. He spoke plainly. The barriers to sound and speech were shattered in one moment and the pent-up words of praise came out with astonishing clarity.

And Jesus charged them to tell no one. How ironic that the newfound gift was to be silenced. Not only was the man to keep the secret, but also his family and those who saw the miracle. This command to silence is one of the many times Jesus prohibits the spread of His work or identity. However, as it happened before, the more He commanded, the more they joyfully disobeyed.

Jesus commanded the people not to tell anyone because the Jewish people of His day had a totally false, political conception of the coming Messiah. Christ made it clear that He had not come into this predominantly Gentile territory to organize a political insurrection. He had come to earth to lay down His life a payment for the sins of the world. He was determined to let nothing compromise the purpose for which He had come.

Jesus knows that the crowd’s praise will eventually force His enemies to kill Him. However, He must have time also to do the miracles and teaching before the end. So He must generally limit the spread of the news until Palm Sunday when the crowds can sing out without restraint.

St. Mark tells us the crowd was astonished beyond measure. While many crowds have been impressed by Jesus, this crowd has reached a new level of astonishment. They are astonished by the healing He brings with His Word.

Do you know what is really astonishing? Our Lord still works in people’s lives through His Word! That’s why you are encouraged to worship, to be in the Word in your daily devotion, to sign up for a Bible class. Through His Word, Jesus speaks His people, life-changing Ephphatha to your heart. With the Law, He exposes your spiritual deafness. With the Gospel, He tells the astonishing story of His love for you in manger and cross and tomb. With that message, He is about to open your heart. He makes your sin-dulled ears to hear clearly again the Good News of His love and forgiveness.

Through His Word, our Lord is able to astonish when no one else can. Hearing what God has does in Scripture opens your eyes and ears to the astonishing things Jesus did in His death and resurrection and is even now doing in your life through His Word and Sacraments. Making you His dear children in Holy Baptism. Creating a clean heart and renewing a right spirit in you. Strengthening and preserving you in body and soul with His body and blood unto life everlasting.

Most astonishing of all still remains the future we can’t yet see and can only hear about: the eternal beauty and joy and love and delight of heaven. Oh, that will astonish us! and in ways, so we hear, that can’t now even be put into words.

Yes, God is doing astonishing things in our lives through Christ Jesus. May we, like the people in the region of the Decapolis zealously proclaim: He has done all things well! Amen.