In our Old Testament reading for today the people of Israel, after their spectacular
exodus from Egypt, are slowly moving across the desert and dying from snake bites. God tells Moses what to do:
Numbers 21:9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and
whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and
Thus for more than 3000 years a serpent on a pole has been a symbol of healing. The Greeks had the same symbol; perhaps they got it from the Israelites.
Let us pray. Lord our creator and redeemer, we gather again to learn from your Word. Help us to find our way in the world along the path that your Word illuminates.
Healing stories appear in much of the Bible, but the subject is something with which I have not been comfortable. Perhaps that is because I have great appreciation for the techniques of modern medicine, and believe that scientific understanding opens the door to medical progress.
Healing is the subject of about 40 passages in the Old Testament, starting with Genesis 20:17. “Then Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children.” This brief account leaves me wondering what was actually going on.
The story of Naaman, recorded in 2 Kings 5 is far too long to read here, but a
condensed account serves the purpose: Naaman, a prominent foreign military
commander, suffered from leprosy, and came from his country to see the king of Israel,
because his wife’s Israelite slave girl said that a healer could be found in Israel. The king says he can do nothing, and is distraught, but the prophet Elisha steps in, and Naaman goes to the house of Elisha. The prophet does not even meet Naaman, but sends a messenger to the door, who tells Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman is furious at this dreadful snub, and wants to go home at once. His travel party persuades him at least to try what he has been told to do, because it is so simple. He does so, and the Bible says “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy.” Beautiful ending.
For several years when I worked at UNC my office was across the hall from a
respected microbiologist who taught the water purification course for all the water
plant managers in the state. I once asked him if there could possibly be anything in the
water of the Jordan River that could bring about such healing. His simple answer
came at once: NO.
If mysterious healing is a problem, and for me it is, the opposite is much more
so. The Old Testament contains two incidents in which sinners immediately contract a
fully developed case of leprosy as punishment for their sins. Once God struck Moses’
sister Miriam with leprosy because she opposed the all-knowing Moses (Numbers
12:10), and once the prophet Elisha called down instant leprosy on a sneaky servant (2
Kings 5). If amazing cases of healing raise doubts about what actually occurs, the same
can surely be said about cases of instantaneous illness, whether brought on by the
word of God or a prophet.
Most of us know nothing about leprosy, but Velma Grose grew up in India, the
daughter of a Mennonite medical missionary. There were often lepers around. She has
agreed to tell us about her experience.
Our passage from Numbers contains this frankly shocking statement: “the LORD
sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many
Israelites died.” In the thinking of the people at that time, and of some people
subsequently, God is directly responsible for everything that happens. That view has not stood the test of time; it shuts down any consideration of human free will.
Healing is not only from illnesses or birth defects. Throughout the Bible we
come upon cases of psychological healing. Consider Psalm 147:3. “He heals the
broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.”
We see it again in Isaiah 53:5: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he
was bruised for our iniquities: he bore the punishment that made us whole; and with his
stripes we are healed.” These famous lines are the entire text of two choruses in
Handel’s oratorio Messiah.
Here are two more examples of psychological healing in the Old Testament:
Jeremiah 3:22. Return, O faithless children, I will heal your faithlessness.
Hosea 14:4. I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.
One Old Testament passage from Isaiah makes a bridge to the New Testament:
Matthew 13:15 quotes Isaiah Ch. 6 to make a powerful statement of stubborn resistance, a deep psychological problem:
“For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
New Testament examples of healing abound; considering only the gospels there are 59 passages. However, more than one gospel sometimes reports the same story.
Whatever the exact count, Jesus was very active in healing people. Physical illnesses
got a lot of his attention—high fever, leprosy, paralysis (Matt. 8), blindness, etc. These
stories are well known. However, the psychological dimension is also there…
Luke, chapter 8 tells of Jesus healing a demon-possessed man. Today we do not
usually think of demon-possession as a kind of human illness. I have always considered
this a very primitive, unsatisfactory description. Today we have deeper understandings.
However, the murder of three young Muslim students in Chapel Hill last month by a
middle-aged man who lived nearby makes it easier to contemplate demon possession
as a reality in our own time–and our own town.
The apostles also do some healing, especially in the book of Acts. Not to make
light of their good work, but Acts 4:22 warms my heart: “For the man on whom this
sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old.”(End of quote.) I
am all in favor of healing beyond age 40.
I have one credible report of faith healing. Once upon a time in the Bethel
College Mennonite Church a woman whom we all loved suffered from a cancer that the
best specialists could not push into remission. A young associate pastor decided to
attempt a faith healing and gathered some close friends in the woman’s home. We
were never told how the healing service was conducted. When the woman went back
to the cancer specialists they said the cancer had left her, and that they could not
explain it. That was many years ago. Tina Block Ediger died last year.
Quite often I don’t know how healing occurs. In such cases, I can at least believe
that someone, a specialist, knows how it works. The Bible is long on reports of healing
and short on explanatory details. However, that is not a helpful approach to stories of
healing in the Bible. “No matter how we understand these pre-scientific stories, it seems clear that part of what God wants is for people to be whole, healthy, healed, saved – physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially… How and what form this takes varies greatly.” To insist on understanding as an essential prerequisite to belief is to miss the point. However, in order to understand, I must redirect the sermon.
Joseph Campbell was famous for the study of myths and mythology. His thought cannot easily be summarized, and surely not in a moment, but he said: Myths teach us how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. …The myth is for spiritual instruction. [2x]. In a famous book Campbell said “It has always been the prime function of mythology …to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” This is tremendously helpful, because it means that important stories and images need not all be literally true to carry great truth. Seen this way, the meaning of the many Biblical accounts of healing is at once obvious: Healing is very important in the Divine scheme of things, perhaps even a task for all of us.
In 1 Corinthians 12:28 the apostle Paul says that “gifts of healing” are essential in the church. We have more than half a dozen people with careers in healing of one kind or another, physical or psychological. However, the responsibilities don’t end there. Let us also consider the healing in which all of us can be active:
1. Comforting those who are dealing with illness or grieving the loss of a family
member. Some of this happens in long, tight conversations after worship or during the
2. Providing food for those who are grieving the loss of family members. I don’t cook
much that’s fit to share, so this task falls to others, if not to Trader Joe.
3. Helping in time of unusual need, e.g., with major housing projects.
4. Assisting families blessed with a newborn child.
5. Aiding people looking for work.
Our needs for healing may take unexpected forms. Melissa Florer-Bixler, writing in the February issue of The Mennonite, spoke of the challenge of worshiping with lively young children and concluded “Every Sunday our lives confess to those in our church, ‘We need you. We need Jesus. We can’t do this on our own.’”
During the sermon discussion I hope you can add to the list of ways in which we can help each other.
In his sermon two weeks ago Isaac said: “The whole point of the gospel, the point of the church, is to live out the life of Jesus, to live out God’s love…”
To the extent that we serve each other in these ways, we create as much of God’s
Kingdom as we can realize on earth, and that surely is worth doing. Thy Kingdom
come, thy will be done. Amen