Mission Minded: Compassionate at heart
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Why did Jesus come? Why did he leave heaven and come to earth? I know there’s a lot of good ways of answering that question that all basically say the same thing. You might say, “He came to take away our sins by dying and rising.” Or, “He came to save us and bring us to heaven.” You could even say, “He came to do mission work – to preach the gospel – that we might believe, and by believing have life in his name.” All great answers. All correct! Yet, if that is his purpose, then why do we have so many accounts of Jesus healing people, driving out demons, and doing other miracles? Why so many accounts of him where he seems to focus on physical needs rather than spiritual needs? How do these fit into Jesus’ purpose of seeking and saving the lost?
I’m not sure if you have noticed it, but we’ve had a lot of gospel readings from Mark 1 recently. In fact, all the readings from the past few Sundays have been back-to-back accounts. First, Jesus called some of his first disciples – Peter, Andrew, James, and John. And although Mark doesn’t mention it in his account, Luke records a miracle that happened that day. After preaching from Peter’s boat, Jesus told Peter to put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch. Peter recently came in from fishing. They hadn’t caught anything all night. But when they listened to Jesus, “they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break… and their boats began to sink” (Lk 5:6-7). Then we had Jesus teaching in the synagogue and a man who was demon-possessed cried out against Jesus, so Jesus drove the demon out. Now the reading for today, which actually happened that very same day, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law. And, after seeing or hearing about the miracles that Jesus had been doing, “The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He drove out many demons” (Mk 1:33-34) as well.
It seems like this is a very troubled town! There are illnesses, diseases, physical defects, not to mention demon-possession. This was a town that was weighed down with all kinds of difficulties, and obstacles, and dire needs. But which town isn’t? How many here in Temple have needs that they are struggling to meet? How many are sick, or weary, or downhearted? How many of you right here in this room are struggling in some way or going through some sort of difficulty at this very time in your lives? Maybe others know about it. Maybe only you know. Let me ask you, if you heard that Jesus was in town, would you go to him for help? Would you find out whose house he’s staying at and go to see him right after church? What would you say to him? What kinds of things would you ask him to help you with?
We all have difficulties in life. It’s a fact. And you could use those difficulties to fuel your disappointment and depression. You could use it to fuel your discontentment or anger with God for allowing such things to happen. Or…… Or, you could see them as a reminder that you can’t go it alone. You can’t do this on your own. Last week we talked briefly about the forces of evil that are against you. Devils and demons trying to tempt you, trying to pull you away from God, putting obstacles and difficulties in your path with hopes that they will cause you to curse God and turn away from him. Your own sinfulness too – my own sinfulness – on its own that sinfulness is enough to keep you and me separated from God. And my sinfulness continues to put sinful thoughts and motives in my mind, leading me to do sinful things. It may cause me to think that I don’t have time to help anyone else because I have enough problems of my own. It may cause me to think that my problems are bigger than anyone else’s. I could even take all this as a sign that I should just give up and despair of all hope. Or, I can take this as a reminder that I need help. It’s ok to admit it. You need help too. We can’t do it on our own. And that is why Jesus came.
In this reading we see so many people flocking to Jesus because they know their needs, and they know that they are powerless to meet these needs on their own. We also read about probably the most famous example of someone who is suffering and in need, Job. In just the first two chapters of the book of Job, he lost nearly everything he had. He lost all his herds, he lost all his sons and daughters, he lost his health. And as he lay there with no source of income, no children, struggling with grief, body infested with sores, what did he do? In pain and suffering his only recourse is prayer that trusts in the mercy of God and in the power of God to relieve and to rescue. The power and hope of the gospel are evident in the basic fact that Job prays at all. He continues to trust in God’s mercy and his promises to hear and help him even in the face of such terrible suffering. Even with the expectation that the only rescue will be in death, Job does not abandon his trust. He prays, “Do not mortals have hard service on earth? Are not their days like those of hired laborers?… So I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me… My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again” (Job 7:1-7).
Some prayer, huh? But notice, although his prayer is filled with misery and distress, he doesn’t turn away from God. In fact, these are the very things we should be bringing to God! Your prayers don’t have to all be roses and sunshine. They don’t have to be carefully crafted with eloquent phrases and quoted Scriptures. Jesus says, “Come to me you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). You are encouraged to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Pt 5:7). There’s only two outcomes to any kind of misery you face in life – only two outcomes that matter. Either, Satan will use that misery to drive you away from God. Or, God will use it to drive you to your knees, and then will raise you up again with the gospel in hope that trusts and triumphs even if the suffering stays. Each and every one of your problems, every trouble you have, every obstacle that blocks your way can be seen as a blessing in disguise. Because each one of them gives you a reason to seek Jesus, the compassionate and merciful Savior.
Earlier I asked how many of you would go see Jesus if he was right here in our city today. Well, he is here! He’s with you every day. Any time you need to lay a burden on him, he is right there to listen to you in prayer. Any time you need to hear from him, he’s right there in the Scriptures or even in your mind with the parts that you have memorized! We also have the privilege of gathering in a place like this – together with many others who are hurting or struggling each in their own way – and sitting at his feet to hear his words of compassion. And I understand, we don’t physically see him. We can’t physically touch him and cling to him. I can’t wait until the day we can! Jesus understands that too. He understands that we are sensory beings – bundles of nerves and senses. And so, he also comes to us in two very special ways. The first is baptism, where he not only says your sins are washed away completely, but he connects it with a physical element used with his words: “Baptized (“washed”) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19). And when you are burdened with guilt or wearied with troubles, he not only feeds you with his word, but feeds you in a special way with his own body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins to strengthen you and keep you. He connects you to him in both word and sacrament.
He does this, because he cares for you and so that you can focus, not on your troubles, but on his Mission of reaching the lost. It’s very useful for us to put our own problems and hindrances in this perspective: trials spur us to seek his help; his help spurs us to do his work. There are many hurting people in the world. There are many people struggling, in pain, and in distress. And you have what they need! I know we often think of mission work as knocking on people’s doors to invite them to something we have going on at church. Or volunteering for an event where maybe we can talk to strangers about Jesus. And that is a form of mission work – but not one that everyone is suited for or feels comfortable with.
You may not realize it, but all life long God has been equipping you for a different kind of mission work – a mission work that understands people’s hurts and needs because you’ve been there. You’ve experience it. And, having experienced it, you can sit in the pit with a person you know when they are hurting. You can understand them in a way that no one else does. You know what they are struggling with mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. And when they realize they can’t get through this on their own, you can introduce them to Jesus, your compassionate Lord. Maybe you know what it’s like to struggle with the worries and anxiety that come with a cancer diagnosis, and you can be an ear to someone who is going through that. Maybe you know what it’s like to walk through life with a hole in your heart because you lost someone you love, and you can be a friend, a companion – someone to cry with or laugh with. Maybe you know what it’s like to hit rock bottom and feel stuck or hopeless as you try to figure out what to do, and you can be there to offer help or a sense of security to someone who just hit new lows.
Each of you is unique in what you have experienced. Each of you is uniquely gifted with difficult and painful experiences that allow you to minister in ways that I never could – nor could the person sitting next to you. Each of you is also gifted with the compassionate heart of Jesus. I love the Greek work for compassion. It’s splankna. It literally means that your stomach is turning out. Or, as we would say, your heart goes out to them. You can actually feel it. And even if there is no foreseeable hope of things getting any better, if you’ve used this opportunity to tell them about Jesus – your anchor in churning waters – then you have given them something better. You’ve given them the Gospel. You’ve given them a home in heaven.
That is why Jesus came. Though we read about many of his miracles, the main point was never the miracles themselves. Jesus puts emphasis on the preaching, not the miracles. After telling the people about who he is – God our Savior – he then proved it with miracles. They supplemented his message, but they are not his main purpose. That is why, when it was clear that the crowds were only gathering to see his miracles, he said, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mk 1:38).
Jesus met people’s immediate needs, so that he could meet their eternal need. Better than anyone else, he knew that the miracle of bringing a sinner to faith was infinitely more important than even the most dramatic healing or exorcism. And that’s a miracle that Jesus still does today! When you reach out in compassion to meet immediate needs, you also gain an opportunity to reach out with the gospel so that Jesus can meet their eternal need. That is why he came.