catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 13 :: 2007.06.29 — 2007.07.13


And heals all your diseases

Note: the following is the text of a sermon that was preached by Dr. Stan Mast at Lagrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on November 12, 2006.

Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits-
who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
Psalm 103:1-5

As we join together in this service of prayer for healing, it is important that our celebration of the Lord’s Supper is at the heart of our service.  The sacrament was given by Jesus to help us remember all that God has done for us.  When we are overwhelmed by a sense of our sinfulness, or our prayers for healing seem to bounce back off the ceiling, or we’re stuck at the bottom of the pit, or we are crowned with despair and desolation, or when one bad thing after another batters our lives and flying on eagles’ wings is an impossible dream, it is easy to forget all his benefits.  In this simple but powerful picture, the Lord’s Supper calls us back to the center of it all and to the vast benefits that flow to us from the cross of Christ.  Tonight, the Lord’s Supper helps us think about this lovely but troublesome phrase, “and heals all your diseases.”

It is such a lovely phrase; the trouble with it is that it doesn’t seem to be true.  This week I conducted the funeral of Annmary Heerspink.  She had been emotionally troubled and physically ill for a long time.  She had prayed for healing, and so had her family.  But instead of being healed of all her diseases, her life came to a tragic end.  Many of you have heard of the sudden death of six-year-old Lucas VandenBerg from Alger Heights.  On Friday he fell asleep at school.  His family took him to the doctor, who shocked them with the news that he had advanced leukemia.  All over this community people prayed for his healing, but he died on Sunday.  You have your own stories of passionate persistent prayer for healing that didn’t happen.  The Bible says, “Praise the Lord …who heals all your diseases….”  We want to claim that promise for our service of prayer for healing tonight, because it is so lovely.  And yet it is so troublesome.

What do we make of it?  Well, we might say that whenever God doesn’t heal, it’s because there was something wrong with our prayers or with us.  But Psalm 103 says nothing about that; it emphasizes that it is the Lord who heals, not our prayers.  There is always something wrong with us and with our prayers.  That’s why we have to be saved by grace, or else we wouldn’t be saved, or healed at all.  It is cruel and un-biblical to lay the death of Annmary or Lucas at the door of poor prayer.

Then why doesn’t a gracious God keep his promise here in Psalm 103?  Well, perhaps because this isn’t a literal promise.  Look at it carefully.  Clearly it is poetry, and poetry by definition isn’t literal. It’s full of imagery.  The end of verse 5 is a perfect example—“so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”  Poetry is more descriptive than prescriptive.  This is a picture of what God does, not a promise of what he will do.  Or more accurately, this is what God did for David.  Read it carefully and you will see that it is a personal confession.  “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul…, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases….”  This is David praising God for what God has done for David in his life, not David promising that God will do the same in every life, that God will always heal all the diseases of everyone.  That’s an important consideration as we try to understand our text.

But that’s not the end of the story, because David does move on in Psalm 103 to the universal experience of all God’s children.  He begins in verse 6 with a resounding theological affirmation that is true for everyone.  “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.”  What a crucial truth as we wrestle with prayers for healing.  In this whole sorry world, where so much goes wrong, God always works righteousness; God always does right.  And David concludes in verse 19 with an affirmation that sends the angels into a frenzy of praise.  “The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.”  As the familiar hymn puts it, “This is my Father’s world; O let us not forget that though the wrong is oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” Above the misery of human existence, says David, above all our depravity and diseases and dark pits and disappointment with unanswered prayers arches the majesty of our Sovereign God who always does right.

That helps to frame our text theologically, but it doesn’t yet speak to our broken praying hearts.  David speaks to our hearts in the verses between those great theological pillars in verses 6 and 19, where we are given an insight into the heart of the majesty of God.  David has gazed into the heart of God.  What he has found there is grace, abounding grace, limitless grace, amazing grace that will not stop until all God’s children have received all God’s benefits, including the healing of all our diseases.

That’s why the Son of God became human.  He was on a mission of grace, teaching and preaching and healing, suffering and dying and rising with healing in his wings.  His own healing mission helps us understand how our text applies to us.  Did Jesus heal every disease?  Some texts say so.  No disease was beyond his power—not congenital blindness, not lifelong paralysis, not chronic hemorrhaging, not leprosy, not demon possession, not even the ultimate disease called death.  Sometimes Jesus healed every disease presented to him.  Other times it says that he healed some, a few, or only one out of the crowd.  Think of the man by the pool of Bethesda surrounded by dozens more who went unhealed.  Sometimes the lack of healing is attributed to the complete absence of trust in him, while other times he simply overcame the absence of faith and performed a miracle that produced faith.  And it is surely true that Jesus’ public healing ministry was limited to that tiny plot of geography in and around the Promised Land; he healed no one in Rome or China.

All of which is to say that the grace of God in Jesus Christ is mysterious.  Jesus can heal every disease.  Jesus often does heal our diseases.  And even when he doesn’t heal them in ways that we envision, as was the case with the death of Lazarus, even when our loved one dies in spite of our prayers, Jesus can heal even through death.  Martin Luther said a challenging and helpful thing about the mystery of prayers for healing.  “When we try to dictate to God the time, place, and manner for him to act, we are testing him….  It’s nothing less than trying to deprive God of his divinity.  But we must realize that God is free—not subject to any limitations.  He must dictate to us the place, manner and time.”

We want to pray for healing tonight with a sense of confidence, so we cling to the words of our text—“he heals all your diseases.”  But it all gets pretty murky when you dig deeper.  That’s why we have the Lord’s Supper.  It simplifies and clarifies.  It draws our attention away from ourselves and our sins, our diseases and our prayers.  It draws us back to the center, to the righteous sovereign God who loves us unto death.  It reminds us that the grace of God that would stop at nothing to bring all of God’s benefits to all of God’s children.  Jesus gave the Supper so that we would “forget not all his benefits.”

We may not be able to predict how God will answer our prayers tonight.  But of this we can be absolutely certain—Jesus died so that our sins would be forgiven, our diseases healed, our lives redeemed from the pit, our heads crowned with love and compassion, our desire for goodness fulfilled, and our youth renewed in that great day when we shall rise up on wings like eagles.

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