Text: Luke 5: 12-13
CHRIST AND CANCER
Today’s sermon needs to have a long introduction before it is preached. When I was in high school, like all teens, I hardly gave a thought to cancer and terminal illness. We were immortal back then. Risky behaviors did not faze us. I well remember though the first time I awoke from that dream. I was 20 years old and in the military and I got my High School Alumni newspaper and in it was a headline about one of my classmates, Tom Coleman, who had been struck by lightning while golfing and had died. The two of us had sat next to each other in science class, played basketball together and sometimes studied together. That bit of news stabbed me awake to a truth that I had not wanted to admit. That I was in fact mortal.
Maybe every once in a while you pick up your school yearbook and count the ones who have died. And more than a few of us, when we pick up the morning paper are instinctively drawn to the obituaries. It’s a sobering experience, isn’t it, when we see AGAIN, someone we know listed there? It reminds us that our day is coming just as it came for that one we read about.
What shall we say to these things? SOMETHING must be said because sickness and death can shake our faith in the love and power of God. And I regard it as my primary responsibility as a pastor to nourish and strengthen faith in the love and power of God. And so I want us to listen carefully today to the teaching of Scripture regarding Christ and cancer, the power and love of God over against the sickness of our bodies.
There is much in Scripture about healing. A good example would be Romans 8:18-28. A brief exposition of that passage says 5 things about illness. First, in this age, all creation, including our bodies, have been subjected to futility and enslaved to corruption, i.e. death. Second, there is a new age coming when all those who endure to the end in faith will be set free from all pain and sickness. Third, Jesus Christ came and died to purchase our redemption, demonstrate its character as both spiritual and physical and give us a foretaste of it now. Fourth, God controls who gets sick and who gets well, and all His decisions are for the good of His children even if they are painful. Fifth, we should pray for God’s help both to heal and to strengthen faith while we are UN-healed, and should depend on the Holy Spirit’s intercession when we don’t know which to pray for. Finally, we should always trust in the power and love of God even in the darkest hour of suffering.
So much for the academics of healing. Allow me to turn now to my personal experience, where the heart of this message lies. But first, let’s clear up some confusion, OK? Some of you may not know exactly how ill I am. Here are the facts. I have been diagnosed with colorectal stage 4 cancer. Now they use the 5-year method. My oncologist put it this way: The statistics are that about 5% of people with my kind and stage of cancer will be alive after 5 years from first diagnosis. There, with that out of the way, I can go ahead and preach. OK, lets read the sermon text now. It’s found in Luke 5:12-13.
>>Luke 5:12-13 (New Living Translation)<<
In one of the villages, Jesus met a man with an advanced case of leprosy. When the man saw Jesus, he fell to the ground, face down in the dust, begging to be healed. “Lord,” he said, “if you want to, you can make me well again.” Jesus reached out and touched the man. “I want to,” he said. “ Be healed!” And instantly the leprosy disappeared.
I owe the idea of this sermon to Sharon who pointed out in a bedtime reading an element of this story that I had never noticed before. Listen to the dialogue carefully. The man says, “If you want to heal me.” Jesus replies, “I want to.”
Why this special arrangement of language? I think it may reveal something about healing that we often overlook. Namely that Jesus did not have to heal every sick person within eye view. There are references to Jesus healing all, but these are within the immediate context and locale. 20% of Jerusalem, Israel, and Judea were made up of the sick or injured. Healing all such would give Him NO TIME to teach, to travel, to visit with loved ones. Jesus could not afford to have hundreds of paparazzi-types on His heels every minute of every day and night watching him heal people. He simply could not accomplish His gospel ministry were He to spend all His time just healing people.
But the healings He DID perform played important roles in the spread of the gospel. He did choose to perform many remarkable healings, ones that primed peoples’ interest in the Gospel and encouraged true seekers to continue their search for God. I think Jesus still heals that way today. He chooses to heal some and not others, and for the same reasons. If Jesus healed everyone who prayed to Him, the whole world would follow Him, but for the wrong reasons. There would be no room for faith. Anyway, do you think that a miracle guarantees belief? I think not and my brother-in-law’s brother is a case in point.
Bobby H. was diagnosed with a particularly difficult to treat cancer when he was 15, some 20+ years ago. His condition deteriorated until the doctors could do no more and invited the family to watch and wait for the inevitable. That night, many from my family were there and they felt the only thing they could do was to pray in collective prayer. They held hands around his bed and prayed for healing. The next morning, the nursing staff noticed a small improvement in his condition. The next day even more, and more and more. He was dismissed from the hospital not long after that and has been cancer free for many years now.
Did this lead Bobby to give his life over to Christ, to even thank God for the miracle? No. It did not bring about change in Bobby’s life.
But this sermon is about me. People have been praying for me ever since word got out that I have cancer. They’ve been praying that God would heal me. Not vagaries. “Lord, please heal Pastor Joe.” Many of you are praying for me. And I am grateful because I know prayer changes things. But so far no cure. I’m holding my own, which I am grateful for, but those darn statistics are like a hound dog in the distance, whose bark reminds me that others did not escape. Why should I?
So how am I doing in all this? What effect has it had upon me? Is my faith suffering?
Well, to be honest with you, that cannot be answered easily. Some days I go through my routines as though nothing is wrong even though not an hour goes by that I do not think about my cancer. Some days it just does not bother me that much. Other days I worry deeply that I may not have accomplished all I was called to do by Christ. Did I really find God’s will for my life and did I follow it? I am tempted to think “No,” and then the regrets start flooding over me, and I lie awake in the middle of the night worrying that when I reach the end of my days here, I will be found wanting.
But then, the next day, probably as the result of someone praying for me, I am reminded that God holds no anger against me as His loved child, that even if I did not accomplish all He wished for me, that I am still engraved in the palm of His hand, as the Psalmist wrote. This illness has thrown a spotlight on my weaknesses. But then I read in scripture and am comforted in spirit that in God’s great plan for me, even my weaknesses have been redeemed.
The apostle Paul is arguably the greatest Christian to have ever lived. Much of the New Testament is from his pen and his missionary journeys seeded Christianity all over the Mediterranean. Even so, Paul’s authority and position as an apostle was seriously challenged on more than one occasion. A case in point: Some “super-apostles” had come to the church Paul had established in Corinth claiming a special unique authority from God by means of all kinds of ecstatic utterances. They bragged about their visions and revelations from God and made Paul appear to be just a so-so apostle. And some believers at the Corinthian church were falling for it!
So how did Paul respond? Read about it in 2 Corinthians 12 where he argues for the authenticity of his leadership by appealing not to his visions and revelations from God, not to his successes and gifts, but instead TO HIS WEAKNESS! He writes about how God had allowed him a “thorn in the flesh” to humble him. Most likely it was a physical ailment. In ancient times large thorns were buried in the ground to slow an enemy’s progress. This stake was cutting through Paul to the center of his being. He asked for relief 3 times and each time he was refused.
Hmmm . . I wonder why he prayed 2 more times after the first time he prayed for relief and was told “My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Didn’t he believe God the first time? Or the second time? He finally got it on the third try. How like us Paul was. Paul concluded: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why for Christ’s sake I delight in weaknesses, in hardships, and in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
When all is said and done, either my prayers and yours will be answered or not. Either say, I win. In the meanwhile, God has given me MY thorn in the flesh to make me stronger. In my weakness I can be made strong in the Lord.
I wonder, may my cancer in fact BE an answer to prayer? I’ve been praying for years that God would stop tolerating this incessant sameness with me. Well guess what? That prayer has been answered, only not in the way I had anticipated, nor in a way that I would have chosen. But I HAVE been changed. I’ve been forced to plunge deep into my faith experience. This illness has brought with it something I could never have gotten any other way. It is breaking me of the pettiness that has marked my life. It is reminding me that I am not the end-all and be-all of CentralBaptistChurch. I contemplate God all the time now. It reminds me that I have been blessed beyond measure. It has forced me to look back and see the wonderful gifts that have been given me, gifts that I largely took for granted . . . until now. It is forcing me to realize how important relationships are, that time spent with family is so much more precious than hours spent in the office.
I was scheduled to get my first chemo treatment last January 19th(2004). I was a nervous wreck. What would it be like? How would I be treated? Would it hurt? How long would I have to endure it? They told me it was actually a poison. What would it do to my body? How much of a burden would this place on Sharon? I was too nervous to even drive. As we left Woodbury and ramped on to I-295 a big yellow 18-wheeler was right in front of us, slowing us down considerably. It made me upset thinking “O great . . . Late for my first treatment!” At that precise moment of mixed anger and anxiety Sharon pointed out a bumper sticker on the back of that big truck. Now, I’ve seen a lot of bumper stickers on cars and trucks, but not like this one. It had just two words on it: TRUST GOD. A coincidence? Perhaps. A special reminder from God? I think so. But still, it hasn’t been easy and I have had my struggles with God. But, to whom else shall I go? For he alone has the words of eternal life.
I have come to the belief that God is in control, not cancer. Cancer is limited. It cannot cripple love. It cannot corrode faith. It cannot eat away at peace. It cannot destroy confidence. It cannot kill friendship. It cannot shut out memories. It cannot silence courage. It cannot invade the soul. It cannot reduce eternal life. It cannot quench the Spirit. It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.
In the meanwhile, am I passive and/or pessimistic? No. I will try every medical way of beating this. And I will try to take care of this physical “temple” that has its thorn. I am making myself an expert on my illness. And I will continue to pray and cherish your prayers for my healing.
Like the man we read about earlier, I continue to pray, Lord “if you want to, you can make me well again” for it may just be that Jesus will reply “I want to.” Either way, I win. But for the present, I hear Him say, “My grace is sufficient for thee.”
“‘Tis grace hath bro’t me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”
Let us pray:
O wonderfully gracious God almighty, how can I fully fathom your love. You are majestic and limitless and I am finite and fallen. Thank you for reaching out to me with your hand of grace in Jesus and choosing to include me in your wonderful plan for the ages now and to come. In Jesus’ name I praise you and thank you. Amen.