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GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS

'I know that God is the source of all love, all compassion'


Read Lamentations 3:22-33

and Mark 5: 21-43

I'm not going to take a particular verse for my text, because I want to roll up both readings, from Lamentations and Mark's gospel, and try and connect the two. We're going to look briefly at suffering, and God's response to it.

It's not a comprehensive sermon on Christian healing because I don't consider myself able to deliver such a sermon, there are too many mysteries that I have yet to answer in my own mind. But what I share with you is my understanding as far as it goes, and I hope you'll find it helpful.

I must start off by saying that this is something of a first, in that I have never preached a sermon before on a passage from the Book of Lamentations. In fact, if I'm going to be honest about this I should also add that this is not a book that I've explored at all.

It's an odd book to study, as a lot has been lost in the translation. Basically it would appear that what we have is a collection of poems from several authors, one of which was possibly Jeremiah. It's written in a particular style of poetry called acrostic verse - and all that means is that each verse, or group of verses, begins with a fresh letter of the alphabet and works in order through all 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Very clever but, as I say, lost somewhat in the translation to modern English.

Do you do a lot of wingeing? Or do you know someone like that - someone who's forever complaining about the weather, aches, pains, work, people, what's on the TV etc., but then might suddenly break off and say something like 'But hey, must look on the bright side, I suppose, it could be worse!'

Well, the Old Testament can seem a bit like that at times - and Lamentations is a case in point. In fact for those who are into classical music you might recognise some typical words from chapter 1

'Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look around and see.

Is any suffering like my suffering, that was inflicted on me,

that the Lord brought on me in the day of his fierce anger.'

This is cheerful stuff, and it carries on for a couple of pages in the same suicidal mood until we get to the passage we read. Suddenly it feels as if the writer has vented every bit of bile that he possibly can, taken a moment to draw a deep, deep breath and thought to himself 'Whoa, hang on a second, it can't really be as bad as all that for goodness sake……. after all, you've got to look on the bright side.'

And what's on the bright side?

'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions (his steadfast love, or his deeds of faithful love) never fail, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.'

Familiar verses, and the source for the inspiration of at least two favourite hymns, such is the importance of this book. But equally important are the two verses which end this reading

'Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.'

The Lord's great love, His steadfast love, great is your faithfulness. These are not the words of someone who has given up all hope, who is blaming God for all the ills of body and world, but the words of someone who, for a moment, has chosen to change his gaze from self to God and dwell for a moment upon the unfailing love which God has for his Creation. When all else seems against us, when our backs are up against the wall, when sickness overcomes us or those we love, there is still nothing that can separate us from the love of God. That is God's promise to His people.

When we turn to the pages of the New Testament we find nothing to contradict this. We see in the person of Jesus One who shows that same faithfulness, that same compassion, that same steadfast love for all, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what state they might be in. The reading from Mark's gospel shows us God's compassion in a very practical fashion, as Jesus responds to the heartfelt plea of one of the synagogue rulers called Jairus. 'Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live'

What must that family have been going through. My daughter was seriously ill not so long ago and I remember very well a sort of mental numbness, a panic that seems to grip you, a feeling of helplessness, that here is something beyond our power to help, beyond our understanding or capacity to comprehend just why this should be happening to us as a family. Somehow we just assume that illness and death are things that happen to other people.

But when it does happen to us, when the chips are down so to speak, could we demonstrate the same faith in Jesus as Jairus did? Could we ask with all honesty for Jesus to touch our child, or husband or whoever is ill, with the words 'Please come and put your hands on her SO THAT SHE WILL be saved.' Not might possibly, or 'if it be your will' but that she WILL be saved.

'Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.'

Now, the book of Lamentations was obviously written in the light of a particular historical situation. But that doesn't make it any less relevant for us. For if we can't apply the words, the underlying truth, of these words to our own situations, then it makes a mockery of our understanding of Jesus.

For in Mark's gospel surely we see Jesus acting in the light of those words. He shows compassion of the ultimate kind, he recognises the faith of those who ask or touch, be it the synagogue leader or the unknown woman suffering from haemorrhaging, and he brings into that situation something very special. He shows a love that is beyond our understanding because it is a love that has its origins in the source of all love, the Godhead. We have the capacity to show love and compassion, but somehow in comparison to the life of Jesus our love - however worthy and true - seems so much short of that ideal.

Yes, there is healing of body in the story from Mark, because this was something that was spectacular enough to find its way into the gospels. But there was more than this. We hear of many other healings taking place that aren't recorded in such detail, and I wonder if that's because they weren't so obvious physically. Because Jesus brought much more than physical healing into a situation. We have hundreds of thousands of doctors and therapists in this world of ours who are perfectly able to heal both body and mind. But what Jesus brought into a situation such as this is shalom - 'a total restoration of life as it should be' and that is more than just physical healing.

So often in this life we spend our time treating symptoms. People are depressed, unable to sleep, ache or cough and we trot down to the chemist to find something that will relieve the symptoms - oh, and the relief when the hay fever eases and we can see properly again, or the headache or slight fever subsides so that we can continue to work properly.

But treating symptoms is just that, dealing with the outward manifestation of what's actually wrong inside.

Jesus when he healed did more than treat the symptoms. The woman who touched Jesus' clothes had faith in him, yes, but we read that once the action had taken place 'she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.' Another version says 'she felt in herself that she was cured.

'Go in peace' said Jesus to her after assuring her that she was indeed healed.

What did the woman feel? It was more than just the loss of pain from the words that we're given. It was some inner feeling, something that only she could describe. Perhaps Jesus' words to her hold a clue. 'Go in peace!'

Maybe it was a sudden feeling of peace, an inner peace that convinced her that all that she had hope for had actually happened, a peace that brought release from fear, fear of disease, fear of death.

The healing that Jesus brings is more than just relief of symptoms, it's more than just the physical release from pain, disease or discomfort. For what Jesus brings is something more, it's a healing of the whole, a restoration not just of body or mind but something which reaches beyond that to family, relationships, acceptability in society. The woman who touched Jesus was at her wits end, but was also someone who was probably estranged from family and friends through her condition which, in those days would have been considered unclean.

Jesus brought not only the release from pain and discomfort but also release from prejudice.

My daughter suffers from a chronic illness, there is no cure, and yet her faith which was always there is now tremendously strong. I find this not only difficult to understand in human terms but also a tremendous witness, that through prayer something has happened in her life - despite much suffering - that has given her the inner peace that I now see demonstrated in her life. And I know that others also see this inner strength and peace in her life and are touched by it.

'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.'

I have no answer to the person who says of a child who has died 'Why did a God of love allow that to happen.' I will not even attempt to explain it away with trite words. I don't know why my daughter should be struck down with illness. I don't know why my father should have been perfectly fit one day and yet dead a few months later through cancer. I don't know why there is so much suffering in this world, other than the obvious blame that lies at the door of a selfish mankind.

All I know is from my experience of God, and that is echoed in the words that we have heard today. I know that God is the source of all love, all compassion. I know that his faithfulness to mankind - his covenant with mankind is everlasting, and it is these truths that I cling to in times of trouble.

And as the Jerusalem bible translates verse 24

'Yahweh is all I have,' I say to myself, 'and so I shall put my hope in him.'

© John Birch

 

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