Friday, 26 June 2009

What is going on when prayers are not answered?


We are looking at a subject today that for some people here will be very painful.

This is a story about the healing of a woman who had suffered greatly for 12 years, and the raising of a 12 year old girl from the dead.

The passage is answering a question that the disciples ask in Mark 4:41: We looked at it last week. The disciples see Jesus calm the wind and the waves, and they ask, 'Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him'.

In the next few verses (Mark 5:1-20), we read that Jesus has authority over evil Spirits, and today we read how Jesus has authority over sickness and death.

And I think that the key verse here is an echoe of a verse in Mark 4.
In Mark 4:40, Jesus says to the disciples, after he has calmed the storm, 'Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'.
In Mark 5:36, Jesus says to Jairus, before he raises his daughter, 'Don't be afraid, just believe'.

Two things are going on here.

1. We are being shown that Jesus is the person who has authority over nature, over evil spirits, over sickness and over death.
2. We are invited to overcome our fear and to put our trust in him

Last week one of our people went to Canada for the funeral of her granddaughter. Isabelle jumped up beside a wall at school; it collapsed and killed her. Her funeral was on the day when she should have been 15.
It is not unique. Quite a few of you have been to the funeral of your own children.

Where is God in all of that? And that is particularly important for us to ask if we believe the bible, and believe that Jesus has authority over sickness and death.

I am sure that people have prayed. I am sure that you prayed for your children, or for someone else, to be protected. You may even have prayed that God would bring them back from the dead. I am sure that you prayed with as much faith as you could muster. And I am sure you prayed with other people. And yet ...

We learn quite a bit about praying in faith from this passage

i. Faith in Jesus is simply about coming to him. It is not something that you have to whip up in yourself. ['Lord, I believe, help my unbelief'].

Jairus has the faith to believe that if Jesus puts his hand on his daughter, she will get better (when he comes to Jesus she is still alive).
The woman has the faith that if she just touches Jesus, she will be healed.

I like that. It doesn't matter if it is Jesus touching us, or us touching Jesus. It doesn't matter how it happens. Faith is about letting go of the situation and entrusting it to Jesus.


ii. I notice that faith perseveres.

Jairus, has asked Jesus to come and heal his daughter. But for various reasons, Jesus is slow coming to his house. He takes his time answering Jairus' prayer. And as a result, Jairus daughter is not healed. She dies.

Jairus is asked to take a further step of faith. He believes sufficiently to ask Jesus to heal his sick daughter. But when news is brought to him of his daughter's death, his friends tell him, 'Why bother the teacher any more?'. I suspect that there is really anger at Jesus in that comment. If he had come quicker; if he had not stopped for some woman on the way, and got her to tell him her life story, then he might have got to Jairus' daughter in time. But he didn't. And it is too late. Sickness is one thing - there is still hope. But death is the end. It is a bridge too far.

But Jesus says to Jairus, what he said to the disciples in the boat, 'Don't be afraid. Believe in me' - in other words, don't let fear overwhelm you - trust me. Go on trusting me'. And he goes into Jairus' home and raises his daughter from the dead.

In other words, what is needed is not faith in itself, not faith to believe that someone can be healed or someone can come back from the dead. What is needed is a very simple faith in Jesus: sufficient faith to believe that he has the authority over evil, sickness and death; and sufficient faith to place a situation in his hands - and to go on placing that situation in his hands, even after the worst thing that we can imagine has happened.


So what about us.

Sometimes we do see astonishing answers to prayer. People who are sick make amazing recoveries - whether dramatic or gradual. Very very occasionally we hear about dead people being raised from the dead. And our response is to be one of gratitude to God.

Indeed, just because we are surrounded by sickness and death, we must not lose the expectation that God does answer prayers that are prayed 'in the name of Jesus'. We can pray and we should be praying for people who are sick. It doesn't matter how we do it: whether we pray for them in our prayers in church, or on our own at home, or gathered around them laying on hands, or in a formal setting with the anointing of oil, or whether we simply invite the Holy Spirit to come. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is that, like Jairus and the woman, we bring the person or the situation to Jesus.

To have faith means that we do not simply talk about prayer. I read about prayer, I learn about prayer, I talk about prayer. But that is a world apart from actually praying. We put our faith in God not when we learn about prayer or talk about prayer. We put our faith in God when we pray - when we plead with God for the situation and we trust it and the person into Jesus' hand, when we reach out to touch the one who calmed the sea, who cast out demons, who healed the woman and who raised Jairus' daughter from the dead.

Sometimes, quite often, we do not see our prayers answered as we wish.

That does not mean that Jesus has lost his authority. It does not mean that he is not interested in us.

I notice something else that is going on here.

In both stories there is fear.

There is the fear of the woman. The fear that 12 long years of sickness, ritual uncleanness and isolation have brought to her. The fear that she is nobody, the fear that makes her creep into the background and pretend that she does not exist. So when Jesus calls her to come out publicly she 'trembles with fear'. But Jesus is so gracious with her: 'Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering'.

And there is the fear that sickness and death bring. In bereavement there can be an overwhelming feeling of emptiness, nauseousness and fear. It can be extremely physical. It is a fear that gets hold of us and grips us. It is the sense that something terrifying is hanging over us, is just round the corner. And what makes it so difficult to deal with is that there is nothing we can do.

And when the the news reaches Jairus that his little girl is dead, that his world has ended, Jesus says to him, "Don't be afraid; just believe"


I suspect that there are very very few times when Jesus will raise someone from the dead today. There are only three incidents recorded in the stories of the life of Jesus: the son of a widow from a town called Nain, Lazarus and Jairus' daughter. [St Mary's resurrection window]

In this case, Jesus gives strict orders that no one is to tell what has happened. Why? Well just imagine what would happen if a child dies, someone prays for them and they are brought back to life. That person would be besieged by people begging them to come and pray over other dead people.

Jesus did come to defeat death, but not by bringing people back from the dead when they die. If he does, that is incredible. But they, and we, will still have to die - again.

Jesus came to defeat death, by destroying the power of death itself.

We do not know why Jesus raises Jairus' daughter to life, when every other child at the time was not brought back to life. But Jesus very specifically asks for Peter, James and John to accompany him - the same three who will be with him when he is transfigured, and when he is praying in agony in the garden of Gethsemane - so that through them we might know that he is the one who will defeat death, and who will raise every little girl and every little boy and every man and every woman. It was to show them that he really was and is 'the resurrection and the life'.


And so when the fear overwhelms us; when we have been dropped into the pit; when it seems that we are overwhelmed with evil and that the powers of hell are released against us; when all the evidence points to the fact that that either God does not exist, or he is powerless or he has abandoned us, this passage reminds us that

Jesus does have authority over nature, over evil, over sickness and over death
The gift that he offers us here and now, through his Holy Spirit, to the person who is prepared to trust him, is the gift of peace

So may I encourage us to pray to Jesus for healing; and when that healing happens, to give thanks.

But if today, we look back at an incredibly painful event in our life, when our prayers were not answered in the way that we desperately wanted, may I encourage us to still trust Jesus. He is still ruler over nature, evil, sickness and death. He is the one who was crucified, and is now risen. And when we do face things that nobody should ever have to face, when we do face the gut wrenching pit of bereavement and loss, to hold on to him. 'Don't be afraid; just believe'.

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