Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twelve Years a Patient: Sermon on Mark 5:21-43

Stiller of storms. Sanity of souls. Savior of the sick. In last week's story, Jesus brought salvation to Gentile shores when he tossed a few thousand demons out of a Greek man there. Being asked to leave those shores, Jesus and his disciples navigate their way back across the Sea of Galilee to the western side, Israel's territory. 

And in these next verses, Jesus goes out of his way to help two people who belong to another second class in the typical Pharisee man's eyes: women. The Pharisees actually suggested this prayer be made daily: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave.”

Jesus, in his teaching and his example, would have absolutely none of that superiority complex. Paul was only following in the Master's footsteps when he upended that very prayer, and the similar Greek boasts it was based on, by declaring that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no male and female” (Galatians 3:28). Everywhere we follow Jesus in the Gospels, he's giving attention and care to women – using positive female figures in his parables, even to represent God's actions; treating his female followers as full-fledged disciples; spending time ministering to women on no lesser basis than he ministered to men. The Gospels are trailblazing in the emphasis they place on including women.

So here we meet Jesus again, on the western shore of the lake. A massive crowd once more swarms him (Mark 5:21). Onto the scene bursts one of the local elites: “Jairus,” Mark calls him, Yair – a good Hebrew name, borne by one of the patriarch Joseph's grandsons, and one of the judges, and even Mordecai's dad. And in their illustrious company stands this man of means, a respectable elder in the synagogue, a civil leader elected to keep watch over local Law observance and to arrange for services to be conducted in an orderly fashion. He's both halves of Law and Order, is what I'm saying. And you'll find him in plenty of churches. He's the trustee with a fat wallet. When he talks, people listen. He's a pillar of the community – respected, and hopefully respectable. He's a synagogue chief, a church elder; you'll hear his measured, confident voice at board meeting and borough council (Mark 5:22).

But right now, that pales in the light of what's going on. In the backwoods of the Roman Empire, like many places today, half of all children born alive didn't make it past their teen years. And his precious girl, his pride and joy, his jewel, his little lamb, is at risk of joining their ranks. She's badly sick, you see. He says his little daughter is “holding on at the end.” A lawless disease has upended all the order of her life and his. And so he rushes and throws himself to the ground at Jesus' feet. Like the man freed from his demons, Jairus begs on his knees. He's got one request: “Come and lay hands on her, that she might be saved, and she will live” (Mark 5:23).

That is what he wants, and that's all it will take: If Jesus touches her, if Jesus sets her apart, if Jesus will have fellowship with this sick pre-teen girl, she'll have rescue, she'll have salvation, she'll have life! Because that's what it means to be saved, that's the result. The point of being saved is to live – to really and truly live. That's why Jesus came: that we “might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). Salvation isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card, it isn't just being snatched from the furnace. Salvation frees us up for life.

So Jesus goes, he accompanies Jairus, the crowd follows, and they just swarm all over Jesus, they squeeze him from every side. It can't have been easy to walk like that! But still, Jesus presses on toward Jairus' house (Mark 5:24). He's on the way to help, to do all he can – but then enter a new character, an opportunity intruding from the culture's margins: a very sick woman, a social outcast on one last desperate mission. We don't learn this woman's name, but we do find that she has a serious problem. She has a medical condition, a chronic illness, and not just any kind. For the past twelve years, her very existence has been defined by a recurring flow of blood, hemorrhaging from her womb. Doctors today might call it menorrhagia. I don't know if it was caused by ovarian or endometrial cancer, by uterine fibroids, by a clotting disorder, or what have you – but it was uncomfortable, even painful, maybe even agonizing, and beyond all that, it put her in a tricky spot (Mark 5:25).

See, the Law set out a symbolic world where everything was in its place. Anything that heralded the power of life or death – anything like blood – had to be treated with caution, kept in bounds wherever possible, to show that God is a God of order. It wasn't meant to be cruel; it was meant to be compassionate. But even the best laws can be twisted, even the best laws can be stretched to ruin the lives of those in exceptional cases. Satan's a master at that. And what God meant for compassion became for this woman a cause of greater suffering. 

According to the Law, an issue of blood meant becoming ritually impure for a full week (Leviticus 15:19). But what if it never stops (Leviticus 15:25)? What if there's no seven-day respite to recover (Leviticus 15:28)? Anything she ever touches gets marked as unclean, made a contaminant (Leviticus 15:26-27). How do you conduct your life like that? She became a social outcast. No one would come near her. If she'd ever been married, her husband would have abandoned her (Leviticus 15:24). She wouldn't have children. By Law, she shouldn't even live in town (Leviticus 15:31; Numbers 5:2). She's marked out, ashamed, spurned, scorned for twelve years. Can you imagine that?

In her situation, it's no wonder she was desperate. It's no wonder she spent everything she had on trying every treatment the doctors suggested. But none of them worked. In fact, she tried everything she could get her hands on, reached out to every specialist, but the only thing they did was compound her suffering, exacerbate her affliction. 

Medicine back then wasn't a pretty sight: “Wear this stone around your neck, eat these spices, inhale these cabbage fumes, drink this dove juice and some wine, and if all else fails, it's slice-and-dice time, and what a shame we haven't invented general anaesthesia yet.” Up until fairly recent history, trained doctors might have been more likely to do harm than good. And that's her story: not only do they multiply her suffering, but her condition just gets worse and worse, with crippling cramps and rising anemia making her woozy (Mark 5:26). Twelve years a patient, bound to the sickness that scourged her and the well-meaning thieves who took her money and left her worse off.

Our spiritual condition by nature isn't that much different from hers. When sin infects us, when sin thins our resolve and spreads like a cancer through our lives, we start hemorrhaging vitality, we bleed purpose, we get morally and spiritually dizzy and endure the harsh cramps of life in a fallen world, with shattered relationships. Even if we can't put our finger on the malady, we yearn to be made whole again, we long for something we're missing. 

So we try every remedy we can find to fill that void. Any treatment will do: “Wear this, eat this, smoke this, drink this, change yourself to be like this.” But it all comes up short, it's all empty. None of it addresses the real problem. In the end, looking back over a life spent trapped in worldly patterns of living, a life infected by sin and defined by our old nature, we can see that all of those so-called solutions only compounded our suffering and exacerbated our affliction.

In her situation, it would have been so easy for her to give up hope. I mean, everything possible had been tried. She'd made her list of options, and crossed them each out, one by one. It was done. Game over. For twelve years! Twelve whole years of living with this, twelve whole years of failed promises and false answers. But somehow, she hasn't given up hope. She's heard about Jesus. She's heard that this man is sent from God, that he teaches the arrival of God's kingdom and backs it up with more than words alone. She's heard that Jesus is the hope of the hopeless. And so she'll use every last ounce of her strength to reach him.

She slips into the crowd. Will anyone see her? Will anyone recognize her? Maybe she veils herself, wears a different set of clothes as a disguise. She breaks her way into this seething mob – breaking the Law that commanded her to keep at a distance and identify herself. She had to squeeze up against everyone to reach Jesus, and by the Law's standard (or at least the Law as they learned it in Sabbath School then), she corrupted dozens of people as she made her way to Jesus. What was she thinking? If only she could touch Jesus – no, if only she could even brush a finger against one of the holy tassels on his cloak, the tassels that represent the commandments of God (Deuteronomy 22:12; Numbers 15:38-41) – she'd find salvation there: “If I should touch at least his garments, I will be saved” (Mark 5:28).

So she crept up behind Jesus, hoping that she'd go unnoticed by everyone. Just one touch, and she can go back home (Mark 5:27). That's her plan. And it half works. If she's hoping to steal just a bit of the divine power rolling off of this man, well, he lets her – but not like a thief in the night. If she or anyone was tempted to see his work as magic, he's determined to stop her and reframe the situation. His power goes forth, immediately the fountain of blood dries up, and she can feel deep within her body that the ever-present plague that scourged her with sorrow and anguish is gone. She's been healed (Mark 5:29). What no doctors could do, what no potions could pull off, Jesus just accomplished!

Her hopes to escape unnoticed are in for a rough patch, though. He turns around and calls out the person who touched his clothes, whoever that may be (Mark 5:30). The disciples think it's silly (Mark 5:31-32), but Jesus knows what he's doing. Whenever you think Jesus is just being silly, give him some space and watch: he's up to something more clever than we've got the sense to put together save maybe in hindsight. Though he's in a rush, this kingdom-bringer makes time for her, thrusts her into the spotlight. And so the woman fesses up, she admits everything, she tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And she doesn't do it boldly; she does it with immense fear and trembling. What's going to happen when the mob realizes who she is, how she touched them all? Will they tear her to shreds, will they stone her on impulse? And will Jesus resent what she did? Will he undo his healing, will he snatch salvation away, will he call down fire from heaven or command the earth to swallow her whole? Does she fear divine prosecution for magical theft? 

And Jairus is still here watching. He's a synagogue chief, responsible for enforcing observance of the Law. He's the man whose job description includes keeping women with her condition in their place. He's supposed to make sure to exclude her, to quarantine her, to protect the community from the danger she brings. He may be the man she fears most – and is he happy? As he feels the seconds counting down, as he frets over his baby girl's last raspy breaths, someone – not just anyone, but this pitiable woman – has distracted Jesus, has held up this emergency rescue operation, has maybe even corrupted Jesus with her defilement and ruined his last chance. After all, “anything an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean until evening” (Numbers 19:22). And doesn't this woman know there's no time for all that? That his little one comes first? That after living with this for as long as his baby's even been alive, she could at least have the decency to wait until the return trip?

No wonder she's afraid. But even so, she steps forward and takes responsibility and waits for the worst (Mark 5:33). The worst never comes, though. Jesus names what motivated her. It wasn't superstition, as she herself could have easily decided in retrospect. No, it was faith – the same faith that makes her confess it publicly now, instead of running away and losing out on all Jesus has to offer. (How often do we let our fear be a reason to not confess faith?) 

She wasn't looking for a secret burst of power from any two-bit holy man who passed by. Even in her desperation, she reached out in faith, knowing that it wasn't magic she was looking for; it was a messiah. The person of Jesus himself, the kingdom he reveals wherever he goes – that was the salvation she was seeking. And she had faith enough to disregard the normal niceties, faith enough to break through the crowd, faith enough to risk everything to touch what's touched Jesus. Faith enough, if not to hope to lay a finger on him, then at least to grasp his fringes – because they've been in contact with the Master, the certain cure-all.

In other words, she trusts that the power of Jesus is more contagious than her problem. She trusts that Jesus is so vital, so exuberant in his eternal energy, so bubbling over with authority and hope, that even the tips of his tassels have life to spare. Now that's faith! And I wonder if maybe one of the faults with the American church today is that we've broken the newborn faith of our neighbors. See, if we've been in contact with Jesus, if we've brushed up against his holiness and his love and the wholeness he radiates, we should be just like those tassels. Couldn't we at least be known as his fringes – having no boast of our own, nothing to claim on our own merit, just yarn, except for the fact that Jesus has touched us, has let his presence rub off on us? At our very weakest, couldn't we at least be that?

But so often, people reach out to touch the church in their desperation, hoping some of Jesus will rub off on them – and we give them nothing but another hopeless remedy, or worse, our own squabbles and judgment. Is it any wonder that a rising number of Americans, while still claiming to believe in God, still thirsting for something spiritual, still practicing individualized versions of prayer, nevertheless miss out on the gospel because they've been burned by the church – they've reached out and gone away empty or even hurt? Is it any wonder that the gospel sounds to them like one of the many doctors' potions – eye of newt with a bitter flavor – and they write off Jesus because when they touched us, they found that we were lousy conductors of his power? 

But we can be different. We can be those tassels, those fringes, and so much more. And it isn't something hard: all it takes is to be in touch with Jesus and to not let ourselves get in the way of transmitting him to those who touch us.

That's what this woman confesses to having done, even though her every step was illegal. She's touched his tassels, she's gotten a taste of what Jesus can do. And how does he react? Does he cast her out? No. She's the one and only woman in the Gospels he directly addresses as “Daughter.” See, Jairus is worried about his little girl, one tied to him by flesh and blood. He sees this woman as an interloper, a distraction, a nuisance. Jesus sees her as his own daughter, one every bit as precious to him as that little child is to Jairus. So no, she can't wait.

Jesus proves himself eager to help and heal and restore. He's no stingy Savior! He doesn't chastise her for subtracting from his power – because she hasn't. He's the same Jesus, yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). She hasn't stolen; she's been given God's gift. And Jesus proves himself eager to welcome: he names her as his daughter and says that her faith has saved her. Not magic. Not even the act of touch itself, in purely physical terms. It was the faith that brought her to Jesus. That's what opened salvation's gates to her. That's what restored her health. He tells her to “go in peace, and be healthy, far removed from your scourge” (Mark 5:34). 

But she still has one lingering problem. According to the Law, she still has to wait seven days to be certified as clean (Leviticus 15:28). Though she's got no money left, she has to make the prescribed atonement offering (Leviticus 15:29-30), and the townspeople are still going to look at her as, you know, “that woman,” the one with the problem, the untouchable one.

But Jesus is eager, not just to welcome, but to stand with her. He doesn't care if people view him as somehow polluted by what she's done. He's with her anyway. He names her as his daughter publicly, claims her as one of his own. He redefines her. She's not that woman with the problem; she's that woman who's under Jesus' protection, the woman who belongs to his family, his clan. He is who he's always been, and that's all the defense she needs. She's been cured, she's been saved, and he publicly calls her his own. 

That's what he offers to us too. Jesus was willing to let her impurity touch him, because his holiness is all the more contagious. Jesus let our sin, our spiritual impurity, latch onto him on the cross. He took it, he carried it down to the grave, he blew it to smithereens. He's willing to be publicly identified with us, to call us his spiritual sons and daughters, to name us as his family. That's our identity now. And that's all the defense we need. 

Even after repenting, people may be tempted to still name us by our past sins, to still define us in terms of the impurities we bore. But Jesus redefines us. He claims us as his own, even if it means him being associated with all our old sickness. That's who he is: a Savior who shares in our sicknesses, bearing the burden, so by him we can be saved. He's no stingy Savior.

Now, while this is all in progress, messengers come from Jairus' house and deliver the worst news ever: Jesus' daughter may be all well and good now, but Jairus, your daughter is dead and gone. Why keep harassing the Teacher any longer? Can you imagine the sinking feeling that gripped Jairus' stomach? The way his blood drained from his face, the way everything suddenly felt cold and distant except the frantic pounding of his broken heart? Some in this congregation know exactly how Jairus felt. Some of you have done what no parent should ever have to do, and buried a child. I'm not going to tell you I understand. No one understands that pain unless they've been there. But at this moment, Jairus is there, losing his last shred of hope, facing his worst nightmare (Mark 5:35).

Jesus hears, and he inserts himself into the conversation. Jairus came to him in hopeful, desperate faith – don't give up now! Don't give up when all is lost! Don't be afraid, don't let fear win. There's only one thing Jairus needs to do here: keep having faith. When everything is broken, keep having faith. When all that matters is dead, keep having faith. When hope is invisible and darkness is everywhere, keep having faith! Not an abstract faith, not just some glimmer of optimism, but a resolute attachment to Jesus as the hope of the hopeless (Mark 5:36). 

So Jesus and his innermost circle of three disciples leave the others behind to manage the crowd. For all their insistence on squeezing Jesus, he refuses to let them come. How he stopped them, Mark doesn't say, but I imagine when Jesus raises his voice and makes it sharp, they know better than to take one more step (Mark 5:37).

Jesus reaches his destination, the synagogue chief's fine estate, and Jesus beholds the customary riot, with all the professional hired wailers doing their job as usual, crying and howling and thumping their chests and causing a ruckus (Mark 5:38). Jesus insists all isn't lost: “The child is not dead but asleep” (Mark 5:39). No wonder all their pretense of grief quickly turns to mockery as they laugh him to scorn. 

But they miss what he's saying. To Jesus, death isn't the end of all hope; death isn't the outermost limit of recovery. Death is sleep – a mournful sleep, a kind of sleep that never should exist, but a sleep from which there's hope of waking. Jesus enters the house. Should Jairus stop him? I mean, as far as Jairus' eye can see, Jesus is now a carrier of the pollution that woman had. By law, he's unclean. But Jairus has faith beyond the law, faith to see that something more is possible, something beyond the mundane. He's willing to listen to the one voice of Jesus over the voices of his household staff, over the voices of the professionals (Mark 5:40).

Jesus kicks them all out of the house; he exorcises the residence from their faithless, discouraging presence. He admits only a few: his three followers, and the little girl's mom, and Jairus. From here on out, Jairus isn't called “synagogue chief,” he isn't known by his title. He's only known as that little girl's dad. Because that's what matters, second only to the fact that he has faith in Jesus. He has faith enough to take him to the body, already losing its color and warmth. He takes her by the hand, he touches her just like Jairus had asked. Is he about to do some magic, is he about to chant some funny words and cast a spell? 

Mark gives us those incomprehensible words: “Talitha koum!” But then Mark does what you don't do with magic: he translates what looks like an incantation of arcane syllables and demystifies it. All Jesus said, using his ordinary, everyday language, the one that Jairus and Mrs. Jairus spoke too, was: “Little girl, precious lamb, rise, stand on your feet” (Mark 5:41). And just like that, she does (Mark 5:42). Jesus touched a corpse, he risked catching the worst kind of ritual impurity (Numbers 19:11-13) – but instead, the body contracted a case of Jesus' own contagious life! Because of the delay, his power is even clearer. All she needs now is to be fed, to be maintained, to have her basic needs met (Mark 5:43).

Just like that, Jesus proves that he really is “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). And Jesus is the same Jesus, yesterday, today, and forever. He's hope for those who've spent all they've got, and he's hope for those who have more than they could ever spend. He's the hope of the hopeless, and he's never asleep on the job. When all avenues are dead-end roads, there he is: he's the Way. When all remedies prove to be vain lies and pointless pomp, there he is: he's the Truth. When it's too late, when everything's lost, when the grave's the only certainty in a sea of change, there he is: he's the Life (John 14:6). He may not be safe, but he's all that saves. He's what the kingdom looks like, because he's the God who gives the kingdom.

The kingdom means salvation – not through works, not through what you can pay for it, but through your faith bringing you into contact with Jesus. The kingdom means life, a life that's more contagious than all the impurity the devil can muster, a power that infects the sick with health, the defiled with holiness, and the dead with life. The kingdom is the “perfect love that casts out fear” to make room for faith to flower and bloom (1 John 4:18). 

The kingdom enthusiastically embraces rich and poor, young and old, white and black, Jews and Gentiles, men and women on fully equal terms, cherishing them all. The kingdom means solidarity, sharing: Jesus stands with you in your darkest places, names you as his own, redefines you, and sends you out in peace; we stand with those in need in their darkest places, name them as God sees them, pray Jesus to redefine them through the gift of faith, and work to share the peace and healing of Jesus with them. Because he's mercy and compassion, he's matchless grace, he is the resurrection, he is contagious life, he's the kingdom's king. Rise from your sickbed, go in peace, be fed, and live free to the full!

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