[This is a sermon I delivered two years ago, in the last week of February, 2009.]
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While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. "Your daughter is dead," they said. "Why bother the teacher anymore?"
Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, "Don't be afraid; just believe."
He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, "Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
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In just a few hours I’ll be in the air flying to Austin, Texas. My wife Katelin is already there waiting for me. Katelin and I both grew up in Austin, and her extended family is there as well. The reason we’ll be in Austin this weekend is because tomorrow is the funeral for Katelin’s grandmother, Jinx, whom we call Granj.
Just fifteen days ago we got the call that Granj, who would have been 70 next month, had had a freak accident—and within hours we were in the hospital room, surrounded by weeping family and friends, with a comatose body lying on a gurney in the center of the room, countless tubes and wires and machines keeping her alive. The next day, after Granj was taken off life support, we gathered around and waited 11 long hours until she took her final, labored breath.
For the 30 or so hours between when we got the call and when Granj passed on, and especially when we were physically with her, all we could do was pray. All of us, silently, loudly, through tears, through laughter, together, alone, whatever—all we could do was pray.
But pray for what? A miracle, for one thing. O God, won’t you wake her up? Won’t you wake her up? O God, Lord of all, open her eyes and breathe into her lungs and wake her up. But Granj did not wake up.
The world we live in today is a world devoid of miracles. We simply do not expect them to happen, and our not expecting them to happen reveals our functional unbelief. We don’t expect miracles because we know they don’t really happen.
And why would we? James says the prayer of faith will heal the sick. Well, people in my congregation keep dying. People in families I know keep dying. And faithful prayers don’t seem to be changing much.
But that isn’t all. It’s not just that our world is devoid of miracles, or that we don’t believe they can happen: our world has ruled out any need for miracles. We have become much too efficient, much too knowledgeable, much too evolved, to need anything like a miracle.
A miracle presupposes four things: need; impossibility; lament; and the action of God. But, by the sweat on our brow and the ingenuity of our minds, we have met all needs, solved every problem, forgotten lament, and thus replaced the power and presence and action of God. Keep moving along if it’s needs you’re looking for. We’ve done taken care of that.
As for death? It’s only a matter of time. The experts and the talking heads and Congress and the UN committees and the stimulus bill—they’re all taking care of it. It’ll come. In due time. We need only be patient, and wait it out.
The people of Israel beg to differ. The people of Israel know better. The people of Israel know that life, and death, and everything in between—all of it is in the hands of the one true God of the universe. In sickness or tragedy or crisis or the very throes of death itself, there is only one to whom Israel turns in lament, in tears, in mourning, in petition. The Lord, the God of Israel.
Hear the opening verses of Psalm 30, “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, you restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.”
Mark tells us four different times that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. Jairus was a faithful member of the house of Israel. Undoubtedly Jairus knew Psalm 30 and other Psalms like it. In the grip of death-dealing forces, Israel turns to the only one capable of Exodus deliverance.
So Jairus comes to Jesus. His daughter is sick—and he has prayed the Psalms, offered the sacrifices, met with the elders, gone to synagogue. Nothing has changed. But this Jesus—people are saying he is the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. The stories have made it to his town, and everyone’s talking. This would-be Messiah is casting out unclean spirits, commanding the waves, teaching with authority, giving sight to the blind and causing the lame to walk. Jesus even just came from healing a Gentile possessed by a legion of demons.
So Jesus’ boat makes it to shore, and Jairus, leader of the synagogue, high standing in the community, faithful Israelite—he falls at the feet of Jesus and begs him to heal his sick daughter…and just like that, Jesus obliges, and they’re off.
But the crowd presses in and it’s hard going. Something happens—Jesus turns—he’s talking to…a woman. A sick woman. A bleeding woman. This sick woman has stopped Jesus. She has no husband, and Jairus hasn’t seen her at synagogue. No children either. What is Jesus saying? What could possibly be so important as to delay healing a sick young daughter of Israel?
Finally they move on, but messengers arrive and deliver the fateful news: It’s too late. She’s gone. Jairus’ daughter is dead. Jesus seems unfazed though; he merely says, “Stop being afraid—only keep believing."
When they come to the house and see the mourners, Jesus does not respond like he does in John 11 when he sees the people mourning Lazarus and weeps with them. Instead, he asks them why they are mourning, saying the child is not dead but sleeping…and of course they laugh at him! What kind of nonsense is this? Jesus goes further, though, and here Mark uses the Greek verb for casting out unclean spirits and exorcising demons—literally, Jesus casts them out, exorcises them from the house, and takes Jairus and his wife upstairs with a few others, including Peter, James, and John.
And now, in the deep darkness of death, in the pit of Sheol, Jairus watches as Jesus the Messiah takes the hand of his little girl, his precious daughter, dead and ready for burial and already being mourned, and Jesus speaks his terse Aramaic command—and immediately, she gets up and walks around. Jairus’ daughter is alive again. Jesus has done it. God has worked a miracle.
Now. We are tempted to read this story through the lens of cheap grace, with the eyes of sentimentality and popular religion, or even with the trusty tools of technical scholarship, so helpful yet so potentially dangerous.
We want to say, perhaps, that what this story tells us is about something that happened “back then.” We know big words like “cessasionist,” and take refuge in the fact that Jesus the wonder-worker did something amazing 2,000 years ago in the holy land. Good for him.
Or we want to say, perhaps, that the girl really was only sleeping, that Jesus was being straight up about it all. We analyze the text scientifically and comb through it for evidence that can stand up to the tests of modern intelligibility. A happy end for a misunderstood situation.
Or we want to say, perhaps, that oh my wasn’t that Jesus something, raising the dead and all. And he can raise the dead attitude inside of me and make me something if only I name it and claim it and trust that he’ll prosper me. A spiritual metaphor.
Or some of us want to say, even, that this text applies 100% to today—word for word, detail for detail, like a family recipe for resurrection, just apply the ingredients to any situation, and voila, you’ll have instant healing.
But this story is not about a random Judean wonder worker. It’s not about demythologizing the pre-scientific elements. It’s not about how God’s going to resurrect my career or my bank account. And it’s certainly not about how to have enough faith so that no one you love ever dies.
This story in the Gospel of Mark is about one thing: The power of God even over death made manifest in Jesus the Messiah of Israel. In Jesus the same God who created the heavens and the earth has power to create new life. In Jesus the same God who breathed the breath of life into the first human being has power to breath back new breath into lifeless lungs. In Jesus the same God who called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has power to call a daughter of Abraham out of the silence of death. And in Jesus the same God who delivered a people out of deathly slavery has power to deliver the departed from bondage to darkness.
This is the mighty hand and the outstretched arm of the God of Israel: in the birth and life and ministry and healing and teaching and suffering and death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah—the power to raise the dead and to give new life.
As followers of Jesus, we actually believe this to be true. We actually believe that the God we worship in Jesus Christ raises the dead. We might forget it, we might lean against it, we might shift uncomfortably in our pews…but our faith is, from beginning to end, a resurrection faith. And we are a resurrection people—the resurrection community of the resurrected Lord.
And that has implications. But the first implication is a question.
So what? So what if all this is true? Say Jesus did do something in that room with Jairus’ daughter, say Jesus was raised from the dead, say that has something to do with being a Christian—so what? People keep getting sick, people keep dying, and flapping our gums about coming back to life isn’t going to do anybody any good. Only more false expectations and superstitious hopes setting unsuspecting people up for failure.
I know these concerns intimately because two weeks ago Granj did not wake up. My belief that God could heal Granj, that she could return to life, did not seem to make a difference. She died.
So I know what it means to question the validity, the relevance, the import of these kinds of claims. I know that place. I know it because right now, it’s my home—and my wife’s home, and my family’s home. I know how vapid empty theology can be. Times like these do not call for Hallmark doctrine.
But the good news of this Gospel story is not that we get what we want when we want it, or that death has once and for all been abolished from the earth, or that Jesus having done it once should give us all the reassurance and comfort we need.
No, the good news is that God’s resurrection power in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is real, is alive, and is a promise that God is going to keep. Resurrection is not merely the cessation of death or a return back to “normal” life—resurrection is eschatological. Resurrection is new life, new creation. Resurrection is forgiveness and restoration and wholeness—shalom, God’s good and final and abiding peace. That resurrection power is a reality, it is alive and present today in the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of God’s people. And it has a face.
It shows its face in the fellowship of the Eucharist. It shows its face in the loving fidelity of marriage. It shows its face in the second and third chances of a homeless ministry like MUST or Genesis. It shows its face when civil rights pioneer John Lewis forgives Elwin Wilson for beating him 50 years ago in a Rock Hill bus station. It shows its face when African Christians beat machine guns and machetes into sculptures of life and works of art.
And it shows its face in the friends and family, tissues and tears, hugging and heaving, dropped off groceries, text messages and emails, prayers and support when a grandmother dies. God did not have to heal Granji or raise her back to life to display his resurrection power. That power was and is clear enough in the community that surrounded and mourned together, and it will be no less present tomorrow when we celebrate her life.
And finally, without cheapness or sentimentality or easy answers, we remember too the “not yet.” Resurrection has come but is still coming. We await the day when all things will be made new, when resurrection will be fullest shalom and there will be no more death. The Aramaic command of Jesus to the girl in Mark 5—talitha koum—is a promise, a small deposit for the day when we hear the talitha koum writ large and bellowed wide and far and to all creation. And on that day we will say with the Psalmist:
“To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication: ‘What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be my helper!’
“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”