Sunday, February 5, 2012
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 5, 2012)
“Reversing the Curse” (Mark 1:29-39)
Sorry. I know it’s only February. But it’s time to talk baseball. You knew I couldn’t wait for April.
Baseball players and fans have been known to be peculiarly superstitious. Teams which have not won the World Series for many years are believed to be cursed. The Boston Red Sox had not won a World Series since their owner sold famed slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918. It was called “The Curse of the Bambino,” referring to the Babe. Every year, as the team got close to clinching a division title, the refrain “Reverse the Curse” would be heard. Finally, in 2004, the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals and their eighty-six year championship drought was over.
There’s another team believed to be cursed. The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series in 103 years. They have endured what is called the “Curse of the Billy Goat.” Billy Sianis was owner of the famous Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago and brought his pet goat to a World Series game in 1945. The goat’s odor was bothering folks in the crowd. Sianis was asked to leave. Later, Sianis sent a telegram to Cubs owner Philip Wrigley, which said, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.” Now, Cubs fans annually hope their team will reverse the “Curse of the Billy Goat.”
Well, that’s all very silly. Don’t blame some imaginary curse for your team’s poor performance on the field.
There is, however, a very real curse which affects all of us. This world is cursed. Arthritis and asthma, cancer and cataracts, diabetes and other debilitating diseases are all evidence that something is not quite right with our bodies. Fevers, colds, even something as simple as a sore throat should tell you that things are off kilter. Every time you look in the mirror and notice another gray hair or another wrinkle, you know that your body is changing … and not for the better. With each passing day it becomes harder and harder for you to get out of bed. Something is terribly wrong with God’s good creation. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says the Psalmist (Ps. 139:14). Yet even these fearfully and wonderfully made bodies get sick and wear out.
Disease, corruption, and death are evident all around us. Some may say this is all about “survival of the fittest.” Only the strong survive. But here’s a newsflash: Even the strong die. A person may live to be 100 if they have been blessed with exceptionally good genes. Eventually, though, every one dies.
This is not the way God intended it, of course. God’s creation was good in the beginning. In fact, it was “very good.” Initially, there was no such thing as disease. There was no death. Death was what God told Adam would happen to him if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). “Dying, you shall die,” the Hebrew literally says. Adam and Eve died spiritually. Their perfect relationship with God was severed. They were now “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:5). They would pass this hereditary condition along to their descendants. And they would one day die physically. Physical death is the result and ultimate sign of the curse which had come upon all creation. “You are dust,” the Lord said to Adam, “and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
When our bodies become diseased, we do our best to figure out why. Poor nutrition, a polluted environment, a paltry exercise regimen might be the cause. Upon further reflection, we may begin to wonder if God is punishing us for something we have done. Our thoughts are directed toward our sin and guilt. The fact is, disease is the result of our sinful condition, not necessarily any particular sin that we have committed. Nevertheless, our illnesses are a reminder to us of our fallen nature, our sinful condition, the guilt we each bear because of our sinful disobedience, and the curse that rests upon creation.
Jesus came to reverse the curse. Jesus became a curse for us to take away the punishment for our sin. St. Paul writes in the epistle to the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). All the consequences of our failure to obey God’s Law were placed upon Christ Jesus at the cross. Isaiah preaches it well in chapter 53 of his book. Jesus “[bore] our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is. 53:4) so that you could have joy and gladness because you are forgiven through Christ’s sacrificial death. “He was wounded for our transgressions” (Is 53:5) so that you might be healed of your sin-sickness through Christ. “With his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5), the prophet says. “The LORD … laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6) so that you and I might have Christ’s perfect life credited to us. “He was cut off out of the land of the living” (Is. 53:8) so that you would never be cut off from the love and mercy of God.
Jesus came to reverse the curse, and this includes the curse of disease and illness. He demonstrated this in his earthly ministry when he brought health and wholeness to ailing and broken bodies. He did it for Peter’s mother-in-law, sending away her deadly, fiery fever. He did it for those afflicted by all sorts of diseases. He did it for those who were oppressed by demons and the havoc they wreaked on the bodies of those in whom they dwelt. He did it to give us a picture of what it was like before the Fall into Sin. He did it to give us a foretaste of Paradise restored.
Jesus became well-known as a miracle worker. The crowds pressed in on him many times during his earthly ministry. He knew the importance of escaping often to be alone in prayer with his Heavenly Father. I imagine he also needed to rest and be alone away from the crowds. But performing miracles was not the main reason he came. His main task was preaching the Good News of the forgiveness of sins through faith in him. “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out,” Jesus told Simon when the disciple informed the Lord that everyone was looking for him.
Jesus heals today. It is not beyond his power to heal miraculously, if that is his will. Jesus did not heal every single individual in Galilee or Judea. Even today, not every disease is immediately healed. Many of you pray and pray and pray about your ailments. We pray for family and friends together here in the Prayer of the Church. Why do some people not get well? Only God in his divine wisdom knows. Are you suffering in any way today? God has not abandoned you. You live in the shadow of the cross. There Jesus suffered for you and shed his blood for you, promising you the gift of salvation and proving that God loves you and will never forsake you. The Great Physician continues to care for you today behind the scenes, using the hands and skills of doctors, nurses, aides, pharmacists, caretakers, and all others in the helping and healing professions.
Your body may be ill, but you already have the healing of the forgiveness of sins. Your body may be worn down, but you have already been made into a new creation through Holy Baptism and the preaching of the Gospel. Your body may be weak and weary, but Jesus nourishes you in body and soul with his body and blood. The Word of God is preached to you and the devil is driven away … the one who caused the curse to begin with. In the resurrection, we will once and for all be healed of all our earthly ailments. What a paradox that, for the Christian, death is the entrance into life. In heaven with the Lord, the soul awaits the day when it is reunited with the body, raised to immortality and perfection … the perfection that God intended in Paradise.
The healing and wholeness Jesus brings to us today leads us to seek to bring healing and wholeness to others. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and she immediately began serving those who were in the house. Likewise, you and I – having been healed of our sin-sickness and made a new creation in Baptism – can serve our neighbors with Christ’s love when they are sick and hurting.
Jesus is still the great healer today of body and soul. He is the one who came to “reverse the curse.”