Jesus and Cancer

A talk given by Lionel Windsor at a Cancer Council Biggest Morning Tea on 31 May, 2007, at the home of Keith and Pam Gregory, of St Michael’s Anglican Cathedral, Wollongong.

Acknowledgements

I count it such a privilege to be able to take part in this morning tea. It is so impressive, this enormous effort being made by the Cancer Council to eradicate this horrible disease.

I’m sure each person in this room has been touched by cancer in one way or another. I can count at least 5 or 6 people I know who have suffered from cancer. A very good friend of mine who recovered from a cancer of the knee. My wife’s uncle is right now suffering from a brain tumour. And there are so many others.

There are many things we could say about cancer and sickness and suffering in general. But Pam has asked me to speak briefly this morning about Jesus and his own teaching and experience of disease and death recorded for us in the Bible. We’ll look at some of those experiences and teachings from Jesus. I hope you will agree that if there’s anybody who’s qualified to talk about sickness and death, it’s Jesus! For Jesus came into such close contact with so many suffering people, some of whom had those long-drawn out battles with sickness, perhaps even cancer (although the word itself doesn’t appear in the Bible). And of course, Jesus himself suffered. He himself went through the suffering of immense pain and death.

When it comes to suffering, Jesus is somebody who knows, who sympathises, who cares.

Jesus knows that sickness and death is dreadful

The first passage records the actions of Jesus, when he came to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, who had died of a terminal illness. Here we see how much Jesus knows that sickness and death is dreadful:

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Do you notice how Jesus reacts to the sickness and death of his friend here? He doesn’t avoid it, does he? He wanted to see where Lazarus was laid. He doesn’t try to minimize the enormity of it.

Why are you here at this morning tea? I suspect it’s because you know that cancer is dreadful. You know that to deal with it, we need to do more than just change the subject, or close our eyes, or escape into entertainment. You’re here because you want to help to face up to it, and deal with it. Well, Jesus faces up, fair and square, to the dreadfulness of disease and death. He doesn’t try to sweep it under the carpet. And he doesn’t offer empty words of comfort. No, he is deeply moved in spirit and troubled, he weeps. The words are even stronger in the original language: it’s not that Jesus just felt a bit disturbed and shed a little tear. He’s furious and stirred up! When asked to come and see the grave, he bursts into sobbing tears! Jesus knows that sickness and death, including cancer, is dreadful.

But why does he think it is so dreadful? Part of the answer comes in that last sentence:

‘See how he loved him!’

Jesus wept Because of his love for his friend Lazarus.

When we are touched by cancer and other drawn-out illnesses, it often clarifies and crystallises our priorities, doesn’t it? Cancer can give us the opportunity to ask ourselves what is truly important. Just recently, a colleague of mine called Byron Smith was writing about his own experience of cancer. He wrote of the shock, the sadness, the pain; but also those moments of insight, and joy at the love of family and friends. What makes life worthwhile? So often, the answer is love: relationships, friendships. They make life worthwhile. And when we realize that, it can really give us deep joy in relationships, as friends and family gather around and we express true care for each other. But sadly, it can also deepen the grief; as broken or neglected relationships in our lives make us sad beyond measure. And even more acutely, we face the possibility of our good relationships being broken by death. That’s why Jesus’ love caused him to burst into tears in the face of death.

Jesus says there is something even worse than sickness and death

And because Jesus knew that relationships are what makes life worthwhile, Jesus also taught that there is something even worse than sickness and death. Jesus says,

‘I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.’ (John 8:24)

Jesus spoke again and again about a problem that he called ‘sin’. ‘Sin’ means a broken relationship with God. And a broken relationship with God is even worse than sickness and death. The Bible teaches that sin is, in fact, the root cause of all our death and sickness. The reason we live in bodies that are subject to cancer (and so many other terrible diseases) actually stems from our broken relationship with God.

When I say the word ‘sin’, I’m not just talking about wrong actions I don’t mean just things like drinking too much or swearing or lying. I’m talking about a whole attitude of life. Our desire to live life our own way without God. Our uncaring lethargy towards our loving maker. Our betrayal of his goodness to us by using his world and other people for our own selfish purposes.

The reason our bodies are subject to sickness and death in the first place is because we are living in a world that has turned its back on God. Sin is like cancer, but far more pervading. It eats away at us from the inside, and spreads through our whole bodies. It affects each one of us in different ways. But sin is, in fact, the root cause of all our other problems. So when Jesus wept at death and sickness, his tears were not just because of the suffering he saw right in front of him. It’s because this particular death crystallized for him the underlying problem: people with a broken relationship with God. People trapped in sin. People ultimately facing God’s judgment for rejecting him.

Jesus says there is something far greater than just staying alive

If you have been touched by cancer, you yourself may have discovered afresh that relationships are what makes life worthwhile. If cancer has taught you to savour the joy of love and friendship, and to weep at the bitterness of broken relationships, then Jesus wants you to know how much more significant is a relationship with God. Because in knowing that, in facing up to that, there is the true hope of a solution, a cure. Jesus knows that there is something worse than sickness and death. But Jesus also says the there is something far greater than just staying alive. And that is the real possibility of a restored relationship with God. This is the thing that makes life truly worthwhile. Do you see these words of Jesus?

Jesus said to [Martha], “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” (John 11:25-27)

What did Jesus mean when he said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’? That’s a strange thing to say, isn’t it? Resurrection means coming back to life from the dead. Life beyond death, beyond sickness, beyond suffering. Jesus is saying that in him is the cure, not only to sickness, but to the problem of death itself. To the problem of our broken relationship with God.

Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Jesus knew the pain of this world; the unfairness of death, the dreadfulness of disease. But Jesus is claiming to be the ultimate cure for all death and suffering. Jesus claims that his own death and resurrection means that he has dealt with sin once and for all. That he has brought forgiveness for us, and enabled us to be back in a relationship with God. Jesus’ own death and resurrection is a radical treatment for a radical problem.

And if you trust him, if you put your life into his hands, you can be forgiven, completely. And you can look forward to everlasting life! You can have a certain hope of life, truly free of sickness and pain. That is Jesus’ promise: an eternity with him, in a new creation, free of any disease and death. Yes, life is good, but there is something far better than just staying alive.

I would so love to see a cure for cancer, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Let’s try to enable it to happen. But we actually need more than a cure for cancer, don’t we? We need a reason to live. Life is more than the absence of disease, isn’t it? It is the things that make life worthwhile: relationships with people, the joy of family and friends. And most of all, a relationship with God. The great news of the Bible, is that Jesus has actually given us the cure for the underlying cause of sickness and death. He has restored our relationship with God.

I don’t know exactly why you are facing your own personal struggles today. There are no promises in the Bible that you won’t be affected by cancer in this life. But there is a promise far more satisfying and profound for those who trust in Jesus. It’s called resurrection, life in new bodies, in a new and wonderful creation, living forever in a perfect relationship with God. And it’s a promise that gives meaning even to our suffering now. In fact, Jesus could have kept Lazarus from dying, just as Mary had said. But in this instance, Jesus even allowed Lazarus to die so he could demonstrate that there was something far better than even life in this world. He allowed Lazarus to suffer further pain and death, so that he could bring him back from the dead, and show everyone his power to do that for each one of us. Jesus did that, because he knew how important it was for people to see the cure he offers: forgiveness, a relationship with God, resurrection.

I myself first heard of the forgiveness that is available in Jesus through a lady called Reta Round. Reta just recently passed away at the age of 89 after a long battle with throat cancer. In the last stages of her life it was painful for her to speak. I attended the funeral, and let me say, though it was tinged with deep sadness, it was a funeral full of joy and hope. For I know Reta trusted in Jesus—it was obvious to all. Like Martha, she knew that Jesus was the Son of God, come into the world. She knew that her life here on this earth had its share of suffering. But she had that firm hope of forgiveness, of everlasting life, based securely on the man who died and was raised to life, to cure our sin, to give us perfect forgiveness, and to remove death and suffering forever. And we know that we will see her again at the resurrection – a relationship restored and made perfect forever. It gave her joy that outshone even her dreadful suffering. And I do pray that you know this certain hope as well.

Like to know more?

You can find the whole touching story of Jesus’ encounter with sickness and death in the Bible, in John 11.

The book, Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, by John Chapman, will help you to think about important issues of life, death, and life after death (57 pages. Published 2007 by Matthias Media, Sydney).

If you have access to the Internet, look at Byron Smith’s website. A young Christian man who has suffered from a carcinoma in the chest, Byron has many helpful insights for those who are affected by cancer. For example:

there are things that are worse than death. There are things more important than simply staying alive. And so while I have always wanted to do things that help me survive, I don’t want that effort to dominate my life and thought.

Why do I think there are things worse than death, things better than life? Because Jesus seems to have thought so too. He loved life as God’s good gift, but for Jesus, trusting and obeying the giver came before preserving the gift. When faced with the choice of obedience or survival, he prayed ‘not my will but yours be done’. He could have run. He could have kept his head down. He didn’t have a death-wish – he knew that death sucks. But he also knew there was something worse than death: a life that failed to trust God.

Death is bad, but untrusting anxiety, apathetic lethargy, bitter regret, faithless betrayal: these are the real enemies of God and humanity. These will blunt and bleed the soul, poison the spirit, and stop the heart more surely and grievously than the cessation of brainwaves and breath.”

Thanks

Thank you to David Ould, Sarah Powell, Ben Gooley, Pete Greenwood, Dave Philpott, Anthony Douglas, Lillian McKeown, Dan King, Linden Fooks, Lewis Jones, Glenn Hohnberg, Cameron Blair, Mike Greenwood, Andrew Mahaffey and Lee Turnbull who all provided helpful input to this talk.