St Barnabas and St Matthias, 5th July 09
Today I want to look at a very important subject that I think is close to all our hearts, but which we don’t tend to talk about enough in our churches. And that subject is busyness. How people here struggle with the issue of busyness in their lives? I don’t know about you, but most people I talk to seem to be busier than they were twenty, ten, even five years ago. We live in the 24/7 information age where the world appears never to sleep; work is no longer something you leave in the office; our homes are permanently connected to the Internet or have the TV on in the background, and we spend all our time multitasking and networking just to try and keep up with the pace of it all. There just seems to be no time to stop, be still, or even to pray. Our world is spinning ever faster on its axis of busyness, like a playground roundabout being whirled around by some over-enthusiastic parent. So the question is: what does our Christian faith say to all this?
Well, our reading from Mark’s gospel records a series of incidents at the height of Jesus’ popularity. Not for the first time He has arrived in a place only to be surrounded by a crowd of hundreds, even thousands. Jesus is busy. In fact, so busy that later on in Mark 6:31 we read that there is not even a chance for Him to eat. Everywhere He goes there is a crowd pressing on Him, a hot, sweaty crowd jostling for position, some shouting out questions, some straining to hear what Jesus is saying, some arguing with His disciples who are doing their best to protect their master.
Yet what is truly remarkable is that in the midst of all this hubbub and chaos Jesus makes time for people. And if we are very familiar with the gospel stories, if we already know them inside out, maybe we should remind ourselves of this simple but hugely significant fact. After all, as we know, Jesus was a man on a mission. His ultimate destination was a lonely cross on a hill outside Jerusalem where at just the right time He would die for the sins of the world. But that didn’t mean He prepared for this event by making huge speeches or formulating grand plans. No, He pointed the way to the cross and all that it meant by the individual encounter, the personal touch, the specific word to the specific person. Because, and this is a point well worth making as we think about our own busy lives, the Christian faith is ultimately about relationships, about God’s care for you and me. And so when someone came before Jesus with a real and deep need, His response was never, “I’m too busy. I’ve got too many important things to do. Let’s arrange a date six weeks from now when my schedule’s free”. He stopped. He made time. He listened.
Now I am sure that as Jesus walked along by the lake on that frenetically busy, hot day there were plenty of people who came before Jesus with their needs. We certainly shouldn’t imagine that our reading represents the actual sum total of all Jesus did that day! But of all the encounters that took place on that one occasion, Mark only mentions two. So what is it that is so significant about these two particular encounters, and what is it we can learn from them?
Well, first of all, there is Jairus. What’s so remarkable about him? The answer surely is, that he is a synagogue ruler, a member of the establishment that as we move through the gospels becomes increasingly hostile to Jesus and His disciples. Yet here is, down at Jesus’ feet and pleading earnestly with Him, My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live (Mark 5:23). Isn’t that a remarkable statement? No matter what hostility there might be between the religious establishment and Jesus, here is this man of power and rank and influence begging Jesus to come to his aid.
I wonder how you react when someone unexpected asks you for help or even asks you for prayer? In our stressed busy lives our tendency is not to see people as individuals, but see them as stereotypes or representatives of a particular group. Mention the word “politician” for example, and what we do think of? The image presented by the 24/7 media of a greedy, self-serving and self-seeking person desperately clinging on to power.
But Jesus looks beyond the label to the individual underneath. And that’s a point that comes out even more clearly when we consider the second person in the story. Who was she? We don’t know. She isn’t even named, but maybe that isn’t too surprising when we consider her history. She has been physically ill for the past 12 years, with none of the medical treatments we nowadays take for granted. She has become financially destitute and pushed to the margins of society. Emotionally, mentally, even spiritually she is living on the very limit of her resources. And in the hot, noisy, sweaty crowd she is a nobody, the woman everyone shuns as they try to get their piece of the action.
Except for Jesus. To Him this person is neither a second class citizen simply because she is a woman, nor an outcast because she happens to have been bleeding for the past twelve years. She is someone made in the image of God, someone worthy of care and attention, and, yes, even love. So when she comes up and touches His cloak, He quite deliberately asks, “Who touched my clothes?”. Not because He is unaware of who this person is, or that He is embarrassed or offended by her approach, but because He wants to teach the crowd that she is worthy of respect and deserves to be treated with dignity.
And surely there’s another important lesson for us here as well. Because in our busy lives, if we’re honest, we don’t make much time for the people who are on the edges, the people who have obvious and apparently intractable problems. They take up too much of our time, and they interfere with our schedules and our deadlines. Oh yes, we might offer them a cheap prayer or exchange with them a kindly word, but we still keep them at arm’s length before they really become a bother.
But for Jesus this person is worthy of as much attention as Jairus. Why? For the very simple reason that both these people are people of faith, and that when it comes to matters of faith there are no first-class and second-class believers. You either believe in Jesus, or you don’t. And how much money you earn, or the job you do, or the status you have in society is in this sense irrelevant. After all, the faith of the vicar and the faith of the down and out are one and the same, aren’t they? Of course the way they express their faith may be very different, but we should never be blind to the fact in God’s sight they are equal. And I believe that if we really took this truth to heart, if we actually followed the example Jesus sets here, that both our life as a church and the way we live our lives day by day would be radically and utterly transformed.
Of course Jesus didn’t actually have to spend the amount of time that He did with either Jairus or the unnamed woman. He could, for example, have said to Jairus what he said to the royal official in John chapter 4: You may go. Your son (or in this case daughter) will live. Or He could simply have acknowledged the presence of the woman and let her go on her way. Because I am sure there were by now other people pressing forward with their claims, other demands on his attention, and Jesus hadn’t actually managed to travel very far at all on that day.
But, no, Jesus stops what He is doing and transfers all His attention to the people in hand. Why? To bring them to a full and true understanding of what faith in Him all about. And that I think is such an important point. You see, there are no short-cuts to bringing people to Jesus. It would be nice to think you could bring someone to church, send them on a course, and they would come out as a fully-fledged mature believer. But that’s not how it works. Bringing people to faith involves investing time and energy, and yes, love, and if that sometimes involves laying aside our busy schedules, then so be it.
So let’s look, first of all, at how Jesus deals with the unnamed woman. No doubt whoever she was, she thought (quite rightly) that by touching Jesus’ cloak she would be physically healed. But actually her healing needed to go far deeper that. She needed to be healed of the emotional and spiritual scars of twelve long, gruelling years, and quite probably stuff going even further back than that. And for that to happen she needed to come before Jesus, openly, honestly, holding nothing back. Which in fact is what happens in this story. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. Not part of the truth, or just the bit of the truth she felt comfortable saying, but the whole truth. And she poured out her story, Jesus didn’t keep wondering when she would stop, and He certainly didn’t let the anxious glances of the disciples distract Him. Because the more the woman spoke, the more she realised that in the presence of Jesus there was nothing to fear, and no reason to hide anything about herself. Jesus knew all there was about her already, and He was ready to meet her with total and unconditional love and acceptance.
I wonder, how often do we let people tell the whole story about themselves? Listening to people can be a costly, time-consuming exercise. It is a process that can often be interrupted by the telephone ringing, or the e-mail arriving, or the sudden realisation there’s another appointment to go to. But actually if we can listen, if we can learn that same kind of love and acceptance, then I believe we will see many people like this unnamed woman come to faith. Mission, outreach, evangelism isn’t only about talking to people and using lots of words. It can sometimes be as simple as listening, as loving, and letting people have the space to meet with Jesus for themselves.
And what about Jairus? How did he feel as he heard Jesus pronounce those wonderful words Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering? Maybe irritated that Jesus was spending such time on a person like this? Angry that Jesus seemed to be ignoring the needs of his own daughter? But then, Jairus, just as much as the unnamed woman, needs to understand more fully what faith in Jesus actually involves. Not simply, as so many people think today, having Jesus there when you want Him, but believing in Him even against the evidence, and recognising Him to be as He truly is – Lord of heaven and earth.
And the first step in the process comes when the men from his house turn up in the middle of Jesus’ conversation and say Your daughter is dead…Why bother the teacher any more? Because, after all, if Jesus is just another teacher, just one of those travelling miracle workers so common at that time, then indeed there is no point bothering him. He can do no more, and the case is closed. But Jairus to his credit is beginning to see that there is more to Jesus than that, and when He hears Jesus’ words to Him Don’t be afraid; just believe he trusts and accepts. Not, I think, that Jairus already knows what Jesus is going to do – but he recognises that in some way as not yet understood this man from Nazareth is Lord even over this immensely painful and tragic situation.
Not that taking this step of faith is at all easy. There is the crowd still jostling and pressing against them as Jesus makes his way towards the house. There are the hired mourners weeping and wailing on his doorstep who can only laugh at Jesus’ words. And it could have been so easy at any point along the way for Jairus to lose his nerve, to accept the inevitable, and to show the teacher the door. But he does not. He realises that for all his position and all his status there is someone greater than himself and his part is to believe and to do whatever Jesus asks of him. Because that in the end is what faith is all about. It’s not, as we so often assume, simply believing the right things about Jesus, or giving a kind of intellectual agreement to His claims upon our life. It’s about letting Jesus take control of our life, to do whatever He asks of us, and being willing to respond with straightforward, practical action. More about that next week.
For it is as we respond to Jesus, as we place ourselves in His hands, that we come to realise just who Jesus is. And for Jairus – and we might add, his family – the supreme lesson that they learn is Jesus really is Lord over life itself. Not in a theoretical kind of way, or as some kind of ideal, but in hard fact of their little girl aged 12 being raised back to life. And I think this whole lesson about the practical nature of faith is summed up right at the end of the passage when Jesus tells the parents to give her something eat. Because Jesus is as much Lord of the obvious, basic stuff like food as the miraculous healing and the raising to new life. And sometimes what He calls us to do is simply feed the hungry and tend the sick. It is, you see, work which is no more and no less important than the big, the spectacular and the stuff that grabs the headlines.
So how, then, does this passage apply to us and to our busy lives? Or to put it this way, how it possible for people to meet with Jesus today? It would nice to imagine that one day we could be walking along and there is Jesus in front of us healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the kingdom. But that’s not going to happen. Because, instead, Jesus calls us to be the body of Christ, His physical presence here on earth. And so if people are going to come to a living faith in Jesus, then this passage challenges us at a very deep and profound level what it means for us to be church. Do we really make space to form deep relationships with folk we meet or do people see a group of busy individuals who have no time to meet them at their point of need? How much effort do we take to look beneath the label or to welcome those on the margins? Are we willing to listen to the whole of people’s stories and invest the time and love in them so that they too can come to a living faith in Jesus?
After all, the reason this story was written down was not simply to show us who Jesus is (wonderful though that is) but to provide us with an example of how we too can be the presence of Jesus bringing forgiveness, transformation, healing even today. Learning from Jesus, listening to Him, and loving all He sends our way. And it is by making Jesus our still-point, our focus in a busy, rushing world that we will find He will equip us with all we need to serve Him, and to show others a different kind of life, where loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves come top of our agenda.