Watercolor painting by E. J. Kirsch

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Sep 9, 2018

“He Does All Things Well” 9-9-18

Mark 7:24-37
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018

In 1875, Fannie Crosby, who in her lifetime published over 8000 hymns and gospels songs, wrote a hymn called “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”  This hymn incorporated the phrase upon which this morning’s sermon is based—“Jesus has done all things well.” (7:37) The first verse of the hymn is as follows:
All the way my Savior leads me,
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who through life has been my Guide?
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort,
Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well;
For I know, whate’er befall me,
Jesus doeth all things well.

Like Fannie Crosby, I’ve taken the liberty to adjust the tense slightly, from the “he has done” to the present continuous “he does all things well.”  My hope is that we will embrace the amazement of the inhabitants of the region of the Decapolis and find in their testimony strong encouragement to trust in Christ and turn to him in life’s challenges and opportunities.

There are times when it seems that in the modern era, certainly in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, preaching becomes an exercise in problem solving.  Although we formally speak of Scripture as the Word of God and a light to our path, at a practical level parishioners often view it as fraught with difficulties.  The text apparently needs to be explained away as much as it needs to be explained.  So it is important that we hear what the evangelist wants us to hear, that Jesus does all things well.

There are certainly questions that arise in our minds reading today’s text.  Jesus, after a rather sharp encounter with the Jewish leaders earlier in the chapter, perhaps not surprisingly, leaves the country.  He had charged them with maintaining a tradition of interpreting and applying God’s law that resulted in empty, worthless worship.  The level of hostility this would have aroused cannot be underestimated.  Likewise, one can imagine that Jesus needed some personal time just to refresh his soul and get away from the crowds.   The text is clear that when he went to Tyre, he did not want people to know he was there.  But, word gets out and a Gentile woman shows up at the door, begging Jesus to cast an unclean spirit out of her daughter.   Jesus’ response strikes us as unfeeling, perhaps even rude and demeaning.  “It is not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (7:27) In this reply he presses her on why she, as a Gentile, would dare to hope to share in the blessings promised to the descendants of Abraham.  His words sound jarring to our ears.  But, we should be slow to judge the one who will judge the world.

In the first place, we can note that Jesus’ reply is not a refusal.  His response, instead, takes the measure of her faith and creates room for her to respond.  Will she walk away in despair or will she persist?  Jesus’ reference to food and dogs provides her with an opening.  “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall under the table.”  The woman refuses to give up, but persists in her entreaty.  Effectively she says, “Even though I am a Gentile, surely you will not turn me away.  Surely there is something you can do for my daughter.”  For her reply, Jesus sends her away in peace and the promise of her daughter’s restoration.  The second thing we would do well to note is that this kind of story--this kind of exchange--was highly prized in the ancient Near East.  We read with 21st century ears conditioned by the norms of a pluralistic, liberal democracy and are offended by the tone and words of Jesus.  The original readers would have delighted in the woman’s response.   They would not have said, “Wasn’t Jesus insensitive and out of line, but “Didn’t she answer well?”  “Wasn’t that a clever response?!”  And, “Wasn’t Jesus’ gift entirely what one would expect, given such a humble, tactful, wise reply?”

The healing of the disabled man in the territory of the Decapolis likewise presents us with a set of questions, this time more out of curiosity than vexation.  A deaf man with a speech impediment is brought to Jesus.  They ask Jesus to lay his hand on him.  Jesus’ response is far more elaborate than what is requested.  Jesus takes the man aside, puts his fingers in the man’s ears and touches the man’s tongue with his saliva.  He then utters the command of healing with a groan.  (7:34) The emotional impact of this situation on Jesus is noteworthy.  In John 11, at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus displayed similar emotions.  He wept. (11:35)  When the Jews near the tomb remarked that the one who opened the eyes of the blind would have been able to prevent Lazarus from dying, John tells us that Jesus was “deeply moved,” or, possibly, “indignant.”  Here in Mark, though, he groaned.  Later, in Mark 8:12, Jesus groaned inwardly at the Jews request for a sign from heaven.

So there is a striking contrast between the way Jesus deals with the plight of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and the disabled man.  With the former, Jesus simply speaks a word and the unclean spirit departs.  With the latter, there is intentional physical contact and sense of the Lord being deeply burdened, perhaps even wearied by the brokenness of the world.   We are perplexed at why the business of healing should appear to be so random.  “Tell us, pastor, why this should be the case?”  To this I can only reply that I don’t know.  Your speculation would be as good as mine.

What I do know is that at a certain level Jesus’ behavior is far different from what we assume it should be or what we would anticipate.  The question, “What would Jesus do?” strikes us as intuitively simple.  That is simply not the case.  Would Jesus always answer requests for help with a sympathetic reply?  Apparently not.  Does this provide us warrant to answer people rudely, taking Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman as our example?  I don’t think so.  Has Jesus provided us with a standard method for responding to human brokenness?  Absolutely not.  Apparently, people are different and Jesus discerned a response appropriate to each situation.   What would Jesus do?   What indeed?

Of this we can be sure, Jesus always responded to people with grace and truth or truth and grace.  Sometimes grace is front and center; sometimes truth is uncomfortably in the face of the hearer.  But in Jesus, truth and grace are always present together.  As the Psalmist expresses it, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Ps. 85:10)  From both Tyre and the Decapolis the answer comes to the question, “What would Jesus do?”   Jesus would do all things well.  He would enter into our lives with grace and truth.  The truth is that those outside of the family of Abraham have no claim on the grace of God.  The grace of God is that, by faith, those who are outside are adopted into the family and have all the privileges of the sons and daughters of God.

What I would urge us to note in particular from these two episodes is the power of intercession.  Jesus is revealed as the one who has done all things well through the ministry of intercession.  The Syrophoenician woman prostrates herself before Jesus and entreats him to help her daughter.  We are not told who the people are who bring the disabled man to Jesus.   Perhaps his family.  Perhaps his friends.  We know that the man from whom Jesus drove a legion of demons had earlier gone into the territory of the Decapolis bearing witness to what Jesus had done for him.  When the news got out that Jesus was in the area, people undertook to bring this disabled man to Jesus.  Mark says that they “begged” Jesus to lay his hand on him.  There is a boldness and deep faith evident in all of these intercessors. The            demon-possessed little girl and the deaf man who could not speak well are delivered because people interceded for them.  So when you wonder if it worth spending time in prayer, remember that Jesus does all things well and that he is willing to be entreated on behalf of others.

This made a deep impression on the Apostles.  It comes out in the first administrative crisis of the early church.  When a particular group of widows in the church were overlooked in the distribution of food, the problem was brought to the Apostles to sort it out.  Their response, of course, was to delegate the problem to people who would eventually become known as deacons.  Their rationale was that they needed to devote themselves to “the prayers and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4)  In a similar spirit, St. Paul set these priorities for Timothy in guiding the worship of the church:  “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone...” (1 Tim. 2:1)  Intercession is the life blood of the church.  To use a sports metaphor, it is our “sweet spot,” it is our place of greatest power.  It is that dimension of church life in which it is demonstrated to the world that Jesus does all things well.

This was brought home to me on an occasion when a staff member of a church I served was diagnosed with a rare, “incurable,” degenerative disorder.  This person had recently joined the staff, returning to her home town and church to take up the work of ministry.  Her diagnosis left everyone in the congregation devastated and shaken.  We decided to hold a “service of prayers for healing and wholeness,” using one of the liturgical treasures of the Reformed churches.  A large portion of the congregation gathered in the chapel for the service.  The elders and I laid hands on her and I anointed her with oil.  Several members led a season of intercessory prayers.  It was a very moving service and there was a powerful sense that God was with us.  The next time she went to the doctor he was unable to find any sign of the illness.   He told her that he could offer no explanation.  She was able to offer one with great conviction and thanksgiving.   She continues to serve the church years later.

Likewise, our brother Glen shared his testimony to God’s healing power in the last edition of the church newsletter.  The pastor and elders led a service of prayer, with the laying on of hands, for Glen here in this sanctuary.  We join him in giving thanks for the way that God has spared his life in the face of a fearful cancer diagnosis.  Now, of course, not all instances of intercession result in these powerful, joyful, hopeful deliverances that we witness from time to time.  But Jesus does all things well.  He will deliver us all from the power of death and the grave. 

Moreover, this kind of intercession is not just for those who face the spectre of death sooner than they might have anticipated.  Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” Prayers for healing and wholeness, the laying on of hands, the anointing with oil are for all of life. 

The testimony of the Father and the Spirit is that Jesus has done all things well.  God the Father raised him from the dead.  He “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4)   The resurrection is the demonstration that Jesus is a perfect savior, that he has done (and will continue to do) all things well.   He went to the cross as a perfect sacrifice.  Isaiah says, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”  He still does.  He will be entreated for all that afflicts us.  Perhaps the greatest news of all is that the one who groaned over the plight of the man in the Decapolis is also interceding for us; moreover, in a creation which groans, waiting to be set free from bondage to decay and corruption, the Spirit also intercedes for us with groans that are too deep for words.  (Romans 8:26)  Amen.  Thanks be to God for his grace and truth.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906