Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sermon for July 1st - Mark 5:21-43

He Touched Me and Made Me Whole

When I look around the church from where I stand on a Sunday morning, I must say I’m sometimes gripped by a sense of wonder. I find myself looking at all your faces and thinking, “Why are they all here? Why do they keep coming back each week? It’s amazing!” I know that years ago, going to church was ‘the done thing’, and if you didn’t go, you were somehow strange and suspect - but that’s not the case today! You folks come week by week because you want to, because you choose to come; you give generously and you work to help the ministries of our church. And that truly is a wonderful thing?

What is it that draws us all together week by week? What is it that we have in common, that is strong enough to overcome the many differences between us? Some of us were born in Canada, some were born in other cultures. Some of us were born in poor circumstances, some in wealthy. Some of us are ‘right’, and some of us are ‘left’. Some of us have been churchgoers all our lives, and some of us had no contact with the church at all when we were growing up. What other gathering could bring together such a diverse group of people and prompt them to build community together? Surely it’s a powerful testimony to the love and power of Jesus Christ. Some of us have a real sense of having been touched by Jesus in a way that has changed our lives; others of us are still searching for that touch. But wherever we are on our Christian journey, what we share in Jesus seems to be enough to draw us together week by week to worship in his name.

In the gospels, too, Jesus seems to attract a diverse group of people. In our Gospel story today, from Mark 5:21-43, we read about two completely different people who experienced his touch. One was a member of a prominent family in the religious establishment of Jesus’ day; the other was a woman who had probably been shunned by that establishment. But both were desperate, both came to Jesus for help, both received the help they were looking for, and both went away transformed.

Jesus and his disciples have been over on the east side of the Lake of Galilee. Now they come back across the lake, and immediately a large crowd gathers. One of the people in the crowd is Jairus, who we’re told is ‘one of the leaders of the synagogue’ (5:22) – in other words, a member of the religious establishment. The establishment is suspicious of Jesus, because he’s leading a Kingdom of God movement, and Kingdom of God movements usually lead to the Romans coming in and crushing the rebellion. The establishment wants to keep the peace with the Romans, so Jesus is bad news for them.

You see, Jairus is not naturally disposed to like Jesus! But then this new factor comes into the story – his little daughter is sick and at the point of death. Suddenly Jairus forgets all his hesitations about Jesus – he’s desperate, and desperation causes people to do what they have to do. So he comes to Jesus in the midst of a great crowd, all of whom probably know him as a respectable synagogue elder. He falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him repeatedly to come and lay his hands on the little girl. Jesus agrees, and off they go together.

So far, so good. But now a new element enters the story. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a huge crowd pressing in on them on every side. In that crowd is a woman who has been suffering from haemorrhaging for twelve years - the exact age of Jairus’ daughter! While Jairus and his wife have been enjoying their daughter, this woman has been desperately spending all the money she has on doctors to try to cure her, and none of it has done any good – in fact, she’s worse off. And this affliction, you see, would have made her ritually unclean under Jewish law; she had to stay away from public places, stay out of the synagogues, and anyone who touched her would be unable to enter the synagogue either.

She’s desperate, and so she risks going out in a crowd where she will touch people and risk their condemnation – and probably worse – if they recognise her. She’s even going to risk touching a rabbi and making him unclean. Probably she had to completely cover herself to avoid recognition. And she certainly didn’t want to risk a public conversation with Jesus where onlookers might recognise who she is. ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well’ (5:28). This is superstitious faith, but it is still faith. So she touches his cloak, and immediately she feels in herself that she has been made well.

But Jesus knows that healing power has gone out of him, and so he asks ‘Who touched me?’ – which seems a bit weird, given the closeness of the crowd! But he insists, and eventually, trembling with fear, the woman comes and kneels before him and tells the whole story. And he doesn’t condemn her as she feared; he reassures her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” (5:34).

All through this we can imagine Jairus getting more and more agitated; he knows the situation at home and he’s desperate for Jesus to get there on time. And in fact his worst fears are realised; as Jesus is still speaking, messengers arrive to tell Jairus that it’s too late. His daughter has died, why bother the teacher any longer? Jesus, however, reassures him; ‘Do not fear; only believe’ (5:36).

When they get to the house, Jesus allows only Peter, James and John to come in with him. He sends away the professional mourners and the weepers and wailers. ‘The child isn’t dead’, he says; ‘only sleeping’ – and of course they laugh at him because they know she’s dead. But Jesus, his three disciples, and Jairus and his wife go in; Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand and speaks to her in words of Aramaic: ‘Talitha cum’ – ‘Little girl, get up!’ Immediately the girl gets up, and begins to walk around, and Jesus makes a practical suggestion: ‘Give her something to eat’.

What’s the Holy Spirit saying to us in this text this morning? Let me suggest a few things. First, I’m struck by how Jesus reaches out to people in all walks of life and all life situations. Some of those people are faithful church people, pillars of the congregation. Others are people who’ve been rejected by congregations and somehow seen as unclean. You might even wonder if this woman would be asking herself, “What have I done, that God hates me so much?” – people tend to ask those sorts of questions when they live with chronic illness.

So Jesus is reaching out to people in all situations – church people and non-church people, law-abiding people and people at the Remand Centre and the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, straight people and gay people, politicians and terrorists, police officers and drug dealers – God cares for all of them, and no one is outside the scope of his love. They’re all needy people, they can all come to God and ask for help, and Jesus’ actions here show that God is more than ready to reach out to them and make them whole.

From time to time, we all tend to think of ourselves as being outside the circle of God’s concern. In the movie ‘Almost an Angel’, Paul Hogan plays a bank robber who has a near-death experience; he believes that God has sent him back as an angel to touch the lives of others. At one point someone asks him to pray for them; he replies, “I will, but it might not do any good; last time I talked to God, he called me a scumbag!” And maybe we feel like that, too; “Why would God take an interest in someone like me?” But the text reassures us; God is happy to hear our prayer, and no one is left out of the circle of his love.

What does the touch of Jesus accomplish for us? In the time of Jesus the belief was that evil was contagious, so you avoided touching an unclean person because their uncleanness would contaminate you; you stayed away from the company of sinners, because their sinfulness would rub off on you. But Jesus seems to have operated on the opposite principle; he believed that goodness and wholeness were contagious. He touched an unclean person and made her clean; he went into the company of sinners and their lives were changed, not his.

He says to the woman, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease’ (v.34). Forgive me for using the original languages here, but the words are important. ‘Made well’ in Greek is ‘sozo’ which we often translate as ‘save’. In the Old Testament it often has a military connotation; God’s people are being threatened by an army far too big for them, but God intervenes and saves them. It often has this sense of ‘being delivered from a peril too big for us to handle’. And of course ‘peace’ in Hebrew is ‘shalom’ which means far, far more than the absence of war. It means ‘wholeness’, life in all its fulness, life as God originally intended it to be.

So God is reaching out to us in Jesus today and wanting to bring these things into our lives. I may be facing an enemy that’s far too big for me; nowadays these enemies are often inside us, rather than outside. Perhaps it’s a sense of guilt because of what I know I’ve done. Perhaps it’s an inability to get free from bad habits that are poisoning my life. Perhaps it’s a fear that’s holding me back from being all that God dreams for me to be. Whatever it is, I can bring that to Jesus the Saviour, the one who saves and delivers and sets free, and ask for his help. It’s too big for me, but it’s not too big for God. As I get to know the God who Jesus reveals to me, he will lead me into wholeness of life.

Not that we can guarantee that our diseases will always be healed. It would be wrong for us to imply this. Sometimes, yes, prayers are offered to God and dramatic answers seem to come our way. At other times, the trouble in our lives is not taken away, but we seem to receive a sense of God’s presence, the strength to walk through our troubles with him, and the hope that in the ultimate future all will be well, on the day when God restores the whole of creation to the ‘shalom’, the wholeness, that was his original plan before evil invaded his good creation.

That element of hope for the future also appears in this story, in a subtle way. When Jesus goes into the house where the girl has died, he says to the people, “The child is not dead but sleeping” (v.40). Understandably, they laugh at him – they’ve been there, and they know that she’s dead! But Jesus is using a word that became very important for the early Christians. When they talked about a fellow-Christian who had died, they often used the phrase ‘She’s fallen asleep in Jesus’. And they did this, of course, because sleep is temporary, and the early Christians believed that death was temporary as well. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, one day we will be raised too. So when you read this story, it isn’t meant to be just an exciting miracle story for you; you’re meant to read it with a thrill of anticipation. “That’s me lying there; one day I, to, am going to hear the voice of the Son of God saying ‘Wake up!’”

Through Jesus, God is wanting to set us free from things that are too big for us; he’s wanting to restore us to wholeness of life and give us hope for the future. Now, finally, what attitudes do we need to cultivate in order to be able to enjoy these things? Three attitudes:

The first attitude is a sense of desperation. The first of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous reads, ‘We realised that we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable’. No one can begin to be delivered from their addiction in the AA program without first accepting that they can’t do it by themselves, and that this is a life and death matter. And as a Christian, I need to cultivate that sense of desperation too.

Jairus was desperate for his daughter to be healed; the woman was desperate to be made well after twelve years of chronic illness. What about me? Am I desperate, for instance, to be set free from the sinful habit patterns that hurt me and hurt the people around me? It’s when I cry out to God, “God, I’ve tried, I really have, but nothing seems to work!” – that’s when we put ourselves in a place where we’re really open to the power and love of God in Christ.

The second attitude is faith. Both of these folks show their faith – Jairus, by risking the condemnation of his peers to ask for help, and the woman, by risking everything to go out and touch the rabbi. Her faith is a bit superstitious, but Jesus honours it anyway. And I need to cultivate an attitude of faith, too – remembering that it’s faith in God that’s needed, not faith in the strength of my faith! It’s not about gazing desperately into my navel asking ‘Do I have enough faith?’ Rather, it’s about looking at my problem in relationship to the love and power of the God who made the universe: it may be too big for me, but it’s not too big for him.

We need a sense of desperation, and we need faith. Finally, we need a willingness to risk. Both Jairus and the woman risked being condemned by their peers, but they didn’t care what people thought of them; their sense of need was just too big. So often, Christians are paralysed by the fear of what others think of them. We have to be willing to let that go, and just step forward and ask for God’s help.

It’s a wonderful thing to experience the touch of God. It doesn’t usually happen every day – it tends to be a transformational experience, one that we look back on with gratitude and wonder for years afterwards. That gratitude and wonder is well expressed in the words of an old Gospel song that goes like this:
He touched me! Oh, he touched me!
And oh, the joy that fills my soul!
Something happened, and I know,
He touched me, and made me whole!”
May it be so for all of us today. Amen.

1 comment:

JanJen said...

Hi Tim
Have just discovered your sermons and am enjoying them. I'm a worship leader in a United Reformed Church in Dorset and hope to follow your talks regularly now.

Every blessing
Janet Jennings