St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 14th September 2014
Reading – Mark 5:21-42
Does anyone here this morning have a particular chore they would rather not do? What are the jobs you’d happily put off until another day, or simply find too boring? Perhaps a few brave souls would like to share them now…
I was thinking about chores as I began to look at our theme this morning, which is prayer. Now I guess that we all know in theory prayer should be a wonderful experience of love and fellowship with God our Heavenly Father. But let’s be real – there are times, aren’t there, when prayer is an absolute chore? Of course we should stop and pray, but, oh look! there’s that new series starting on telly. Or there are the dishes to do out in the kitchen. Or, funny that, I never realised there was so much dust on the mantelpiece. Yes, we say we’ll pray later on, but after we finished watching the Great British Bake-off, or doing the housework, somehow there’s always something that seems more important, or maybe we just need our sleep.
So why is it we are so reluctant to pray? Maybe it’s because we feel prayer is a difficult and complicated process, and we don’t consider ourselves qualified. Maybe we’ve had experience of prayers that haven’t been answered, and we are not sure that our prayers will be heard this time. Maybe we see ourselves as unimportant, just an ordinary person really, and wonder if our prayers will actually make any difference.
Whatever the reason, if you find prayer a chore, then I want you to take heart from our reading in Mark’s gospel today. It’s quite a long reading with a fair few details, but in essence it’s about two main characters – Jairus the synagogue ruler, and the woman in the crowd. Now I warned you earlier that I was going to ask you to do a bit of work, so here’s what I want you to do. Just scan through the reading and see if you tell the main differences between these two characters:
Male, has a name and a status, wealth and respectability
Female, no name, no status, is unclean and poor
So as you can see, it is difficult to imagine two people who are more unlike each other. The question then is: which one will be Jesus interested in?
Now for the crowds who were gathered there that day, the answer was clear. Jairus had riches, wealth, status and, according to the wisdom of the day, that could only mean one thing – that he had been abundantly blessed by God. So it seemed to them only right and proper when Jairus approached Jesus for help, Jesus should respond so immediately to his request. After all, if Jesus really was from God, this was just the sort of person He ought to be dealing with.
And what of this unknown woman? Very likely she shared the crowd’s point of view. Yes, it was all very well for people to talk about Jesus being the Son of God, but what possible difference could that make to someone like her? She was unclean, she poor, she was a woman – so why would anyone care? She was a nobody, beyond the reach of respectable religion. And when she saw Jesus go off with the local vicar, it must only have confirmed her suspicions that God couldn’t be interested in the likes of her.
Yet twelve long years had passed since she had first started bleeding, and by now she was getting desperate. She had tried doctors, but they hadn’t made any difference. She had tried priests, but they only told her she was unclean. If she didn’t act now, what hope would there be left for her? So hoping nobody notices, she presses forward in the crowd. There shouldn’t be anyone looking because Jesus is busy talking with Jairus. Just another step now, she thinks, and yes, If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed. Then I can slip away and no-one will be any the wiser. Jesus will be free to carry on with the really important people like Jairus and no-one need ever bother me again.
There’s just one flaw in this woman’s plan. Yes, she touches Jesus’ cloak. Yes, she is healed. But no, she can’t simply melt back into the crowd. Because in some mysterious and wonderful way Jesus can sense that power has gone out from Him. And so Jesus stops and asks: Who touched my clothes?
Now as the disciples point out in some ways this is a ridiculous question. When you are in the middle of a busy, heaving crowd, it’s only to be expected that people will be constantly bumping into you. Jesus would have been pushed and jostled almost every day as the folk in Galilee swarmed round Him, hanging on His every word. But what the disciples fail to appreciate is that something miraculous has just happened. And Jesus wants to identify the person who has been healed, to discover who has been touched by His power.
I can only imagine how terrified the poor woman must have been feeling at this point. One minute she was a nobody, just a face in the crowd. The next she was a somebody, with all eyes watching her, as slowly, hesitantly, she comes forward, admitting it was her. And although Mark doesn’t tell us, I am sure there were not a few gasps of astonishment from the crowd, and loud mutterings of discontent. After all, how dare this woman touch the master? Doesn’t she realise who she is? Doesn’t she realise who He is?
It’s little wonder that Mark tells us in verse 33: Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at His feet, and trembling with fear, told Him the whole truth.
But at this point I want you to notice something extremely important about the way Mark tells the story. In fact, it is so important that even if you take nothing else away from this passage, I would like you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say next.
Take a moment, if you will, to go back to verses 22-23 where Jairus appears before Jesus. What does Mark tell us about Jairus? Let’s read those verses again: Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at His feet and pleaded earnestly with Him. Now let’s go back to verse 33 and remind ourselves what Mark tells us about the woman: Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at His feet and, trembling with fear, told Him the whole truth.
In other words, for all their differences, both Jairus and this unknown woman end up in the same position before Jesus. You see, Mark is telling us something extremely significant in this story, that in God’s eyes we are all equal before Him. God doesn’t judge us by how respectable or how rich we are, or whether we have a name or a job. He judges us by how willing we are to come openly, honestly and humbly before Him and confess our need. Because at the end of the day that’s what faith is all about. Faith is simply turning to Jesus and asking Him to become Lord over our lives. And whether you see yourself more like Jairus or more like this brave, unknown woman, what God wants from you is this faith. Because there is only one way any of us can get to God and that is through coming to Jesus. There isn’t one rule for the rich, and one for the poor. As John says in the most famous verse in the Bible: … And that includes you and you and me.
Why am I making so much of this point? Because while we are here in church this morning worshipping God there are plenty of people round about us who do not feel God could possibly interested in them. For whatever reason they believe that church or religion is really only for respectable people. Like the unknown woman in our story they would like to come to Jesus. They know their need for healing and peace and forgiveness, and may indeed be very open to the good news. But when they see a church building or pick up a noticesheet, it’s as if they’re convinced there’s a big “no entry” sign in front of them. Somehow as a church we have failed to communicate that God’s gift of eternal life really is for everyone, that no matter who you are, all He asks of you is a humble, simple faith. And that is something we need to work out how to change, so when people think about St Michael’s or St Barnabas, they think of welcome, acceptance and forgiveness, and they want to join us Sunday by Sunday.
Simple faith is all you need. But please note, that a simple faith is not necessarily the same as an easy faith. When we come to Jesus it is not true, as one song puts it, all our problems disappear. We mustn’t ever give out the message that as soon as you believe life will automatically sort itself out, or you will immediately feel blessed.
After all, imagine what it must have been like for Jairus. He had come to Jesus with an urgent and desperate need: My little daughter is dying. He had pleaded with Jesus to come, but before they had gone more than a few steps Jesus had stopped and dealt with this woman from the crowd. All the while Jairus knows that time is slipping away, and while, yes, it’s wonderful this woman is being healed, his daughter is at death’s door. In fact here are some of his servants pushing their way through the throng now, and he hardly needs them to state the obvious: Your daughter is dead. It is the worst possible news Jairus could have heard, and at this point it must have seemed like his world was falling apart around his ears.
And it’s all very well Jesus saying: Don’t be afraid; just believe. But is there in fact any point carrying on with Jesus now? Certainly Jairus’ servants don’t think so. Why bother the teacher any more? Yes, this Jesus may be a good person, a fine moral example, even a wonderful teacher, but what difference can he make now? Isn’t it time simply to accept the inevitable and recognise there’s nothing anyone can do?
Jairus, however, does not give up. Maybe he reckons that if Jesus could cure this woman in the crowd, then perhaps there is still hope even against hope. Maybe there’s something in Jesus’ voice or a look in His eyes that convinces him to carry on. We don’t really know. All we do know is that against all the evidence Jairus takes Jesus back home, not understanding, but trusting, willing to place even the very life of his daughter into His hands.
Of course on one level this faith is ridiculous. Someone from Jairus’ family has already called in the professional mourners and there they are standing out in the street, crying and wailing loudly, as they are supposed to do. They only stop their mourning when Jesus says: The child is not dead but asleep and for a brief moment their tears of grief turn into tears of bitter laughter. How can Jesus possibly know about Jairus’ daughter? And in any case what power could He have to change the situation? Death is death. Full stop. End of story.
Or is it? However much or little Jairus understands about Jesus, he believes enough to allow Him to be Lord over this terrible situation. So he welcomes Jesus into His home. He allows Jesus to throw out the groups of hired mourners. And he obediently follows Jesus, with his wife, and the three disciples, into the room where his daughter is lying.
I don’t know what Jairus was expecting to happen next. But what follows is one of the most heart-warming and most poignant scenes in the whole of the New Testament. Listen again to verse 41: He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Aren’t those most wonderful and most beautiful words? Take a moment to imagine Jesus gently touching the hand of this little girl. Take a moment to see the girl’s eyes opening and her getting out of bed. Try to picture the look of astonishment and wonder on her parents’ faces. Jairus’ faith has been rewarded in a way far beyond anything he could ever imagine. He may not have got what he asked for. But he received a far greater answer to his prayers that showed once and for all that Jesus really is Lord over even death itself.
And I want you to notice just one more thing about this story. When the unknown woman in the crowd came forward and fell at Jesus’ feet, do you remember those words He spoke to her? Verse 34: Daughter, your faith has healed you. Jesus does not treat her as a second-class citizen, or someone unworthy of His attention. Indeed as we have seen He commends her simple and brave faith.
And here in this room at the end of the story, what does Jesus say to his daughter? Verse 41: Little girl, I say to you, get up! Jesus could have performed the miracle without any words. He could have directed his words to her parents, if He chose to do so. But no, he speaks directly to this girl.
Again, I think this is just such an important detail. In the society of Jesus’ day children were not assumed to have rights. This girl was not yet at an age when she would have been given adult responsibilities. Yet Jesus addresses her as an individual, and reaches out with a simple, personal gesture. Jesus, in other words, sees value in this child, just as much as he does as in her influential father or in the brave, unknown woman in the crowd.
This is a lesson I believe we really need to take to heart. You see, there are so many children who live in our parishes, who go to our schools who have no idea that Jesus is interested in them. Religion is for old people. You don’t go to church if you’re cool. Yes, they may have a great sense of wonder at the world around them, and as they grow up they may have all kinds of big questions. But they have no idea that the answer to these questions or the source of this wonder is Jesus. Again, I believe we need to be thinking and praying about our work with children and young people so when they hear about St Michael’s and St Barnabas, they know here are places where they are loved in the right sense and properly valued for who they are.
Because, you see, one clear simple message of this passage is that, whoever you are, Jesus has the power to change your life. You don’t have to be rich or respectable. You don’t have to be a certain age. Just come with a simple faith and allow Him to take control. Confess your need of Him, and let Him be Lord of your life. That’s all you need to do.
Of course, as we have seen, this does not mean that the way of faith will be easy. Letting Jesus become Lord over your life involves trusting that He knows best, and on occasions we can find that immensely difficult. Sometimes He will not immediately answer our prayers in the way we hope or expect, just as He did not answer Jairus’ initial request for healing. Sometimes, like the unknown woman in the crowd, we may have to wait many years before our prayers appear to be answered.
But as the raising of Jairus’ daughter shows, in the end Jesus can always be trusted. Why? Because He is the one who has power over even death itself even today. And His greatest delight that we come to Him trusting in that power, the power of the Holy Spirit, to love, serve and obey Him.
So will come to Jesus this morning and trust Him with your life – whoever you are? Today I invite you to make a step of commitment, to dedicate yourself to His service, and may all of us discover the joy of following Him all our days. In His name. Amen.