Surprised by Jesus
"Surprise me," we say, but not in serious matters. Then we say, "No surprises." If you're not surprised by Jesus in our text, then you're a better theologian than me.
Jesus goes toward sickness. We don't; I don't. Take the recent outbreak of flu. As you watch it march through families, you hope, you pray, that it might pass you by. If someone has a cough, you edge away from them. And from sneezes you run like the plague. And a fever? Even the non-medical of us know that if someone is running a fever, they are certainly contagious. Now you can be contagious without a fever, but you're not considered no longer contagious' until you've been fever free for 24 hours.
Peter's mother-in-law was in the throes of a fever, and Dr. Luke tells us in his Gospel that it was a "great" fever. That's a real 1st century medical diagnosis. That diagnosis corresponds to our typhus (Trench, 250). Typhoid fever today is rare in the US. There were only 205 cases in the US in 2015. However, in the 19th century, typhus killed more French soldiers than the Russians did. In Canada the typhus epidemic of 1847 killed 20,000 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typhus#19th_century).
If flu sends us scurrying, imagine how a typhoid outbreak would panic us. Not Jesus. He is told about the sick woman, "So He went to her." In Greek, "He came up right next to her." Matthew tells us that Jesus touched her. And when the "whole town gathered at the door" bringing their sick, Jesus went toward them too. Mark tells us that many were sick with various diseases. Imagine all the hacking, coughing, and sneezing going on, and Jesus is out there in the midst of them all touching, healing, helping. And you're not surprised?
You're quoting Jesus words in your head. "It's not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." And you're thinking of me saying that as a doctor moves towards sickness, so Jesus moves towards sinners, and so the Great Physician of bodies and souls moves toward both. Right you are. But still you should be surprised because although God incarnate, Jesus can still get sick. In the same way that He could hunger, thirst, bleed, and tire, so He can cough, sneeze, get plugged up, have a headache and fever.
Some of you are stubbornly hard to surprise. You're thinking of those doctors who went into the Ebola outbreak and how some of them got sick and died, and still more went. You're thinking of your own family doctor, but you're not thinking rightly about Jesus. Matthew tells you what Jesus was doing here was fulfilling Isaiah's prophesy: "He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses."
Jesus healed by taking the diseases into His own body. Last week we spoke of how disgusting it might be for the holy God to experience the ordinary things of human existence bodily. How about sicknesses? Jesus healed by taking on Himself the burden of our diseases. For this reason, we read of Jesus when healing sighing (Mk. 7:34), groaning in the Spirit, and being troubled and agitated (Jn. 11: 33, 38).
Your doctor, no doctor, heals this way. The best illustration I know is the 1968 Star Trek episode "The Empath." An alien woman heals Dr. McCoy every time he is tortured by taking his cuts, bruises, and injuries on to her own body. She touches him and the gash on his head leaves his and shows up on hers. McCoy gets better; she gets worse.
You do realize that as sinners, we deserve the sicknesses, the diseases, the tortures inflicted on us by a fallen world? Animals don't. God subjected them to the corruption of this fallen world because of us. That's why we often have quicker and deeper compassion for a suffering animal. We intuitively feel they are innocent. We're not. Jesus is. He's innocent. He doesn't deserve to get sick, be sick, suffer sickness. Yet He humbles Himself to take our infirmities and sicknesses into His holy body.
Surprised? Most of us our surprised that first responders run toward the danger we flee. Most of us our surprised that soldiers move toward the enemy which civilians are fleeing. Most of us our surprised that ordinary doctors go toward the sick we have fled. But surprised by Jesus? We take it for granted that God in our flesh and blood should wade into a whole townful of sick people. I mean, He is God, right?
Okay, let's go at this from another way. The God-Man Jesus not only goes toward sickness, He goes to God in prayer. Do you think a doctor has ever came to me and asked even a remotely medical question? Do you think an RN has? Nope, not even an LVN, LPN, or MA has. But this Man in whom "all the fulness of the Godhead dwells bodily" according to Scripture, goes to God in prayer. He gets up "long before daylight", goes to a "solitary place, and "was praying." The last phrase in an imperfect which means He was praying over and over. This isn't repetitious prayer but intense prayer. And the word is in the middle voice. This means the action is closely related to the subject (Jesus) in some special sense which the author wants to emphasize. The reason for the emphasis is inferred from the context. Greek uses the middle voice where we would use italics.
Let me boil this down for you. The Author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, uses the middle voice to describe the fact that Jesus "was praying" to emphasize that this is surprising, or ought to be. It's utterly too human. Jesus praying is on par with His suffering, sighing, bleeding, and dying. But it's not to you. That's because you're not paying attention to the context. We know that when the Man Jesus healed, He felt power go out of Him. That's what Jesus says in Luke 8:46. We know that demons didn't depart without a fight. So, add a whole townful of healings and exorcisms and Jesus is wiped out.
But you're about to make a big mistake. Praying is not a means whereby God strengthen us or the Man who is God. Prayer is the means by which we make known to God our needs, fears, hopes, worries, thanks, and pleas. Mark records Jesus praying 3 times. Here's the first time. Then He prays after the Feeding of the 5,000 when the crowd wanted to crown Him as king. And He prays in Gethsemane. We know that in response to the Gethsemane prayer the Father sent an angel to strengthen Jesus to drink the cup filled with God's wrath against a world of sinners. So, I infer from the overall context of Jesus' prayers in Mark, that Jesus prays to be able to do the next task at hand. The crowd had offered Him the crown without the cross. How tempting it would be to run after them and get it, especially while His chosen apostles were struggling feebly and fearfully against demonic forces on the open water. But instead Jesus prays, and then walks out on the water to rescue His disciples from a cross they can't bear.
And so here, Jesus prays in order to do the next thing. And if you're not surprised by what that is, I give up. If you're not surprised by Jesus going toward sickness and going to God in prayer, you've got to be surprised by the fact that Jesus goes forth to herald not to heal.
Set the scene. Simon and friends aren't casually looking for Jesus. They are literally hunting Him, following hard upon Him, pursuing Him closely. The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses this word to describe overdriving cattle (Gn. 33:13). And He's being hunted for His healing not His teaching. "Everyone is looking for you," Peter cries out excitedly. You're a hit Jesus. Come back to the city and bask in your popularity. People are lined up to be healed and more are on the way.
But Jesus does what He does virtually every time the apostles get excited about the success of His ministry, He pops their bubble. "No, let us go somewhere else, to the nearby villages." According to the Greek dictionary Liddle-Scott this is the word for a market-town, "a place not entitled to be called a polis [city]." Why does He want to go to these one-horse towns, these one-stop-sign Podunks, these places where just two roads meet? "So, I can preach there also." He doesn't say what all of wish He had, "So I can heal there also." Or at least, "preach and heal there also."
Then Jesus drives the nail into the coffin of the likes of me who want not a Jesus of the scars, of the sicknesses, of the bleeding, crying, dying, but a Jesus of healing, of delivering, of wowing the world. He drives a nail in my desire for a Jesus who heals when and where I want by saying, "That is why I have come." He comes to preach not heal. Healing did accompany His preaching sometimes, but that was to point to the preaching. Jesus didn't come to set up a medical clinic but a ministry of the New Testament.
Jesus literally says He came to herald and the text closes by telling you that Jesus was heralding throughout Galilee. And what was the content of the message. Nothing different than what you hear every Sunday. That God sent His only Son into the world to do what no sinner can. To keep the holy Law that not only condemns us in time but for all eternity. Look above you. If you're seeing divine Commands saying, "You gotta do this; you better do that; you ought to do this," you don't believe that Jesus fulfilled all of God Laws in your place. So, they no longer hang over your head.
And Jesus heralded the message that He, God the Son, took on human flesh and blood to bear the grief, the sorrow, the judgment, the damnation, the death our sins deserve. Look down. Do you see your grave open beneath you and the flames of hell licking up at the bottom? Then you don't believe that Jesus swallowed Death for all men. You don't believe Jesus defeated the Devil who had the power of Death, and so you are no longer at the mercy of either. Jesus by suffering all of God's wrath against all sinners turned that open grave into a door opening into everlasting life. Walk through it. It's open for you. "Come unto Me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Jesus doesn't call some, most, many, but all. And that means you. That means especially you.
Surprise! Jesus doesn't go by my puny expectations that can't rise beyond a healthy, active, life in a fallen world for 90 or so years. I think of time; Jesus heralds eternity. I think of being healed only to die of something else; He preaches of never dying. That's why He came. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris. Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (20180204); Mark 1: 29-39