***A slightly more personal rumination of a long running internal train of thought. Don’t worry, I’m fine. I just hope it helps somebody else.***
When Your Help and Hope Don’t Come
Everyone knows Lazarus. Everyone knows the blind beggar. Everyone knows the man on the mat, lowered from the roof, whom Jesus told to pick up his bed and walk. These are the stories that people celebrate, that we believe show the work and attitude of Jesus.
But when you are the one waiting for your miracle, and you fail to to receive it, these stories are not exactly stories of celebration. I hate my health and I hate it’s decline. I hate the maintenance. I hate the lost opportunities my maintenance carries. I hate the haze of waking up with low blood sugar. I hate not being able to control my blood sugar. I hate the pain, not because it’s debilitatingly painful, but because it’s basically unnoticeable to others until somebody starts to wonder, “Where is Caleb today? I guess he couldn’t make it,” before promptly forgetting me.
I hate the constant limitation that my cystic fibrosis and diabetes make normal. And it’s not going anywhere. I used to sing. I loved to sing. I can’t sing anymore. It was taken from me. And with every forced breath, held in with the cough, I know what and who took it from me.
With this reality, those healing stories — Lazarus, the blind beggar, the man on the mat — they just don’t have the same luster. With time, the hope of some future miracle like theirs fades to a bleak and bitter question:
Why them, and not me?
“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus said. What about mine? Is my faith not enough? Do I have to believe harder? Will that cure me? Where is my command to get up and walk? To breathe deeply and relaxed, with no worry or effort? When can I get the guarantee that I will sleep well without waking up throughout the night? When will Jesus stroll up to me and casually throw out, “Do you want to be healed?” I don’t want something big. I just want to deeply laugh without a cough. I just want this medical tape to stop itching.
A thousand small requests pile up with no relief. It’s just a small miracle. You don’t have to tell me not to tell anyone. They won’t even notice. Is that too much to ask?
Those who get their miracle may feel wonder and gratitude. Those who need no miracle may feel satisfied in their heart when they read that Jesus healed “many” and “all those who were brought to him.” It makes them feel good. But when you actually need it, those passages aren’t happy ones. They are ironic.
Why them and not me?
Those Jesus Left Behind
With time and frustration, you begin to notice the parts of the gospels that are not accented. Jesus healed all who came to him? Well, no, he didn’t. He healed all who came to him in time. The relatable verses, for me anyway, come after the healing.
And he healed many who were sick with 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 1:34-39
The next towns? What about the rest who were looking for him? What about them?
Likewise, John 5 tells the story of the man who was crippled for 38 years. He is lying at the pool near the Sheep Gate, near five roofed colonnades that is called Bethesda. A “multitude” of invalids were there. And Jesus walks up to one lucky bastard and asks, “Do you want to be healed?” He said nothing to the others. The man answered Jesus, complaining, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” The idiot didn’t even say “Yes.” But sure enough, he was healed.
I am not among those who he healed. I am among those who he left before the sun came up. “Everyone is looking for you,” he was told. “Too bad,” he responded.
The spit of Jesus can bring sight to the blind. But Jesus just left. One word, one touch of his garment, or heck, probably just a sneeze from the almighty would have had the entire courtyard of Bethesda alive, sprightly, and dancing. Just take a few passes and let them touch your coat, sir. Why not? He said nothing to them. And he says nothing to me.
That’s fine. I’ll just sit here. You know…. Like I always have.
Because there’s no hope in these stories. There is no happiness in miracles. They’re done. They’re over. They ain’t happinin’ again, and certainly not to you. This is what it means to be among those Jesus left behind.
“This is why I came out.”
When the wonder and hope are gone, you could stop reading. But you don’t have to. You can read and find something else. You can start to see things in certain stories when you know what’s really going on. For example, can you catch the funny thing in this story?
On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”
If you are the casual church-going reader, you might think that this word from Jesus is a grand and reverential one. A statement with gravity: “Your sins are forgiven.” But it was not, at least not to the man on the mat. It’s nothing at best, and a disappointment at worst. You do not carry your friend all the way to Capernaeum to the magical rabbi from Galilee because you’re expecting to carry him back. And you certainly don’t do it because you expected his sins to be forgiven. What does that even mean, anyway? There’s a process for sins at the Temple. We need miracles now, sir.
In fact, the thing that stands out here is not only how off-topic this statement is, but how self-serving it is, too. This statement wasn’t for the paralyzed man’s purposes. His purpose is to walk. This was for Jesus’s purposes. And not necessarily his benevolent purposes. It was to pick a fight:
And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins“-he said to the man who was paralyzed-“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.”
That wasn’t for the man on the mat. That was to prove a point. “But to relieve your suffering, get up and walk”? No. “But so that you know I’m a good guy and not one who speaks blasphemies, get up and walk”? No. But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to forgive sins: get up and walk.
That’s weird. I’m starting to believe that Jesus isn’t all that into healing the sick after all. But he did a lot of it, right? That needs to speak for something. Why else would he have done it?
That’s when things get weirder.
And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
So, did Jesus heal the sick and raise the dead because he had compassion, like in Luke 7 with the widow in the funeral procession? Or did he do it to fulfill a prophesy of Isaiah and make himself known by checking off a box? When you read stories of healing, and other stories like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 and Mark 7 where Jesus appears — ahem — somewhat less than compassionate, the evidence builds up against an internal motivation for the sick because they are sick.
It is all the more reinforced by Jesus’s own words when he leaves the crowds who are angling for his healing touch:
“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.”
“Everyone is looking for you,” he was told. “Too bad.”
Lazarus Died… …Again.
You know, one funny thing to really think about is that Lazarus died. No, not that time. We all know about the first time. That four-days stint was the exciting one. He rose from the dead after that one. I’m talking about the second time.
It’s not in the Bible, but I’m sure it happened. There’s not a 2000-year-old Jewish guy named Lazarus living somewhere around the West Bank today. He’s dead. And he’s been dead ever since he died the last time. Weird to think about, isn’t it? I’m sure it was cool when he rose from the dead. …for a little while. But then things just went back to normal.
So, what was it for? Mary and Martha were sad when Lazarus died the first time. I’m sure they were sad the second time. What was the point of it? What was Jesus’s reason for that whole episode? Of course Jesus was moved by the death of his friend. That’s why “Jesus wept.” But there’s more. It’s there if you look for it.
So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
And such it is throughout the gospels. Jesus has an odd relationship to the miracles he performs. He’s not really about them. And why not? I think I realized why with this fact about Lazarus: he died again. But Jesus? He did not. Why not? As he explained to the sister of Lazarus:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
There’s something more to living life than just being alive.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
And so it was that he said to the man on the mat:
“But that you may know the Son of Man has the authority on Earth to forgive sins, I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”
Which one was the miracle? Both I suppose. But which one was better? Well, sure. I’m not dumb. It must be the forgiveness of sins. The escape from eternal judgement that the forgiveness of sins offers must be greater than the ability to walk, I guess.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
It’s better, right?
Which One Would You Take? Which One Would I?
That lucky man on the mat in Capernaeum got both his forgiveness and his legs. But what if he had to choose? And he could only choose one. Which one would he take? What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? What an obvious truism — a rhetorical question — until the world you hoped for is offered back to you.
Which one would I take? If I were offered health as a possession, would that be something I would be willing to give up? Would I be attached to it? Would I follow the possession or the one who gave the possession?
I can’t say that I know. No fool would ask for eternal damnation just to walk for a few decades. But those trades are never so clear. Would I choose a guaranteed salvation and roll the dice on some form of physical health? Would I choose guaranteed physical health and roll the dice on salvation?
Think of all the good you can do with two legs. Think of all the praises you can sing with your voice. Think of how grateful I would be…. ….or how grateful I would probably be….. ….if God healed me the way he healed him. Surely this good work wouldn’t keep me from recognizing what was done for me, right? This would lead me closer to God, right?
On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
One out of ten. None of the others returned. Where was the faith? Did they have it? Surely that wouldn’t be me, right? I can do it, I promise. I will return. I will not deny you. I will not forget you. Give me my health, and “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.”
Why isn’t Jesus into his miracles? Why doesn’t he spread them far and wide? Why does he hold back and pray? Because miracles don’t work. Lazarus died again. And so will I.
Beware the Clay We Take For Gold
It takes a great deal of faith to believe that the thing that you want is not the thing that is good for you. It is not at all normal to ignore the thing that you can touch and feel and which brings you pain, and to instead look at the thing that you cannot see, and for which you can only hope. But that’s what Christianity is.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
That metaphor is a little bit lost on us, because the man sells his physical possessions to gain a physical field with a physical treasure. But that’s not what God offers us. “My Kingdom is not of this world.” But health is of this world, and relief from pain is of this world. And that’s what I want. But that is not what is being offered.
It was not health that made Jesus live forever. It was his death to sin. It is so counter-intuitive, because we see people sin all the time, and they are plugging along just fine.
Health obscures the faith that saves.
But that’s the difficult part of faith. We saw his perfect life, but we also saw his terrible death. We only briefly saw his new life, and now we do not now see him living on. All we see are our current troubles, and his physical absence. All we have left is his Holy Spirit, which does not exactly produce physical effect we hope for.
If it is God’s will, then I will be healed. What is God’s will? “Your Sanctification.” Darn it. “That’s kinda lame,” we think. And that’s what it means to be worldly.
But that is the dichotomy of living in faith. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7-18:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
What a perfect metaphor, and scary when you think about it. There is an eternal treasure in a jar of clay. The only way to see the treasure is to break the jar.
But you are the jar. Your life, your health, your possessions, your respect, your career. It’s all the jar. Every temporal thing you have that you think you are using for the glory of God. It’s clay.
Beware the clay we take as gold. It is so difficult because clay isn’t a bad thing. There are so many good and enjoyable things which we should not have shame in enjoying, and which we are right to be grateful for. But they will not last, and they are dangerous to value more than they are worth.
Not Worth Comparing
Why doesn’t Jesus heal today? For the same reason he didn’t heal then. Health is temporary. Health is seen. Lazarus died again. And so will you.
Keeping that knowledge when it is not before us is the faith that Jesus came to bring. Knowing that our life is not “real” life and our death is not “real” death is the project that Jesus brings. The difference between eternal life and temporal health is the difference between clay and gold.
This is why those who saw Jesus welcomed death. Because, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” If they can take a violent, lonely, and agonizing death. I suppose I can take a slow and frustrating one with so many of my friends by my side.
There are so many things that I want, and which I will never have. In this world of dirt, clay looks so good. But clay doesn’t last. Health, money, jobs, experience, knowledge, my voice, and my vaunted future? Dust and vanity. It is clay — temporary. It doesn’t last. So much that we love doesn’t last.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Some things that do last, however, you don’t have to wait for life after death:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
Some things fade away:
- “Do you want to be healed?”
- “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.”
- “Lazarus! Come out!”
Others never do:
- “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
- “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
- “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”
Christianity is not about getting what you want. Christianity is not about getting what you want in life, and it’s not about getting what you need for life. Christianity is about not getting what you want in life and not getting what you need for life. It is about reaching that level of complete need, and then finding that there is more than just this life.
I am among those Jesus left behind. But I am not among those Jesus left unloved.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, in his joy that he receives from the love of God, he goes and sells all that he has, including his very health, and buys that field for the treasure underneath.
I was given love. Violently and painfully, I was given love. It has ripped every distraction away from my eyes to show me that beneath all of this gold-looking clay, there is love and joy in suffering. Tough love gives faith. And faith brings hope, not miracles.
Lazarus? He died again. Me? I won’t.
So, I talked a lot about how individuals came to Jesus asking for a miracle. They came with faith, though some did not, and they all walked away healed. In so many cases, they said as the leper did, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” Or as the centurion believed, “Say the word, and let my servant be healed.” The leper was cleansed. The beloved servant was healed. “What faith!” Jesus often exclaims, and gives them what they ask. Or take the father with the son with an unclean spirit:
“it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
And with a word, the boy was healed. Their faith brought them healing. Their faith brought them relief. Their faith brought them what they needed in the moment.
But remember the man who was brought next to Jesus, and who desperately needed a miracle with his more impatient companion. He did not ask for a miracle at all. His faith was of a different sort. His friend, desperate and in pain, and knowing full-well what Jesus could do, screamed at him, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other man, equally in need of a miracle, equally in pain, and with faith in the same man, but with a completely different purpose, said something else. Hanging on the cross, he asked instead,
And what type of response did Jesus give this new request? “What faith! I tell you get off your cross and go home.”? No. Not at all. Instead, he said something much more incredible:
“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
He too got what he asked for.