Sunday, 1 July 2018

Reaching out to Jesus through our fear

Mark 5.21-43

These are a fascinating couple of stories.

I’m sure some of you will have played ‘spot the difference’. Two photographs that are almost identical but that have a number of differences. Well, in this case, it is more a matter of spot the similarities.

The woman has suffered for 12 years. The little girl is 12 years old
Both Jairus and the woman fall at Jesus’ feet
Jairus asks Jesus to touch his daughter. The woman touches Jesus
Jairus pleads for the life of his daughter - and Jesus calls the woman ‘daughter’

But I think that the big similarity is that they are both about fear and faith.

The woman comes to Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’. But Jesus commends the faith of the woman: ‘your faith has made you well’.
And when Jairus receives the news that his daughter has died, Jesus says to him, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

There is the fear.

For the woman it is the fear of exposure, of ridicule, abuse and shame. She suffers from bleeding. That makes her unclean in the eyes of the law. The last thing that she should be doing is touching a rabbi, a religious leader. By touching him, she would be making him unclean. And there was no such thing as health insurance or a health service, and this woman has been ripped off - by the first century medical profession.

So when Jesus stops and says, ‘someone touched me’, she is terrified. She has lived in the shadows so long. She is the unnoticed one. She has got away for so long thinking that she is naked, nothing. She thought she had got away with this. And now someone has noticed her - and not only noticed her but brought her out into the public.

And so she falls at Jesus’ feet.

In Ravenna, in Northern Italy, there are some amazing mosaics. They date back to about the C5th, making them some of the earliest surviving Christian images. In the Church of Apollinare Nuovo, there are a series of mosaics depicting events from the life of Jesus. One of them is this moment – in fear and trembling the woman falls at the feet of Jesus.

I think many of us are like this woman. Maybe we have never had that confidence. Maybe we have tried to get up but been knocked down time after time – whether by people or by the circumstances of life. So we prefer to live in the shadows. We’re terrified of being exposed in public and of being shown up, or shamed and ridiculed. And so we hide. We might hide behind a role, or dress down so that we are not noticed. And we certainly don’t put ourselves forward.

But the thing that I love about this story is how Jesus brings this woman to the front in order not to push her down, but to lift her up. He does not rebuke her. He commends her for her faith. He reassures her that she has been healed. He tells her to go in peace. And – and this is possibly one of the most significant words in the whole encounter – he calls her ‘daughter’. Daughter of Abraham, Daughter of God.

And in this image we see how the woman is holding out the garment covering her arms as if it is a receptacle. She is stripped of all self-reliance. She is at the feet of Jesus, but she is open to receive from Jesus. And Jesus is beginning to stoop down in order to lift her up.

And perhaps this is where we should be, a little more often!
‘Humble yourself before the Lord’, says James, ‘and he will exalt you’.

And what about Jairus?

He has also come to Jesus and fallen at Jesus feet.

That was a big thing for a leader of the synagogue to do. He was an important man. Could you imagine a VIP doing that?
But he was desperate. He asks Jesus to heal his daughter. And now – because Jesus has spent time with this woman - the news has come to him that his daughter has died.

His heart must have broken in two.
Those of you who have lost a child, when you got the news, will be aware of what that feels like.

In my parish ministry in the UK, I spent a great deal of time with people who had been bereaved. And one of the more powerful emotions that people can experience is fear. Fear of facing a reality that is so much bigger and more powerful than they are, of something - though they are not quite sure of what: fear of what happens next, fear of isolation and separation. Fear of being alone in a hostile world. Fear that they will be found to be naked and nothing.

And in the face of that fear, Jesus calls us to believe, to exercise faith.

To believe in him. To put our trust in him.

That is important.

It is not simply about having faith.
We have faith in many different things: in people, in yoga, in experts, even in ourselves.
But when you have been sick for 12 years or ripped off by the very people in whom you put your trust, or when you have lost a child, you realise that that is a misplaced faith.
We are called to put our faith, our trust in Jesus.

We are to put our faith in his power to act

He does have the power to heal, as he healed the woman.
We must not let go of that. Wonders can happen when we call on Jesus.

In my previous parish, God met one of our younger mums in a very powerful way. Her faith came alive. Her mother had a painful leg. So Maaike prayed for her leg. And Maaike’s mother spent most of the following day in tears. Not only was her leg healed, but Jesus had touched her.

And Jesus has the power to bring people back from the dead.

There is evidence that it happens – not very often, and usually at particular places at particular times when the people of God are going through dreadful suffering. God uses it as a sign to encourage the church.
My own adopted half-cousin, who is Indian, and her husband, Krishna, work in Orissa in North India where many Christians have been martyred for their faith.  They tell of someone who they knew who had died and who their church had prayed for. His body was in the mortuary. He sat up, and the terrified mortuary attendant ran out of the mortuary and locked the door. Make of that what you will.

But when we speak of such healings and when we speak of people being raised from the dead, we need to remember that Jesus is sovereign in all of this.
He works in his way and in his time.

This woman had to wait 12 years before she was healed.
And Jesus in his ministry on earth only brought back three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus. And in each of those cases none of the people left behind asked Jesus for the miracle of resurrection.

So this passage is not only about putting our trust in Jesus; it is about persevering in that faith.

That is why Jesus says to Jairus, when he hears that his daughter has died, ‘Do not fear, only believe’.

Jairus had thrown himself at Jesus feet. He had trusted Jesus that Jesus would heal his daughter. But his daughter had died. Jesus had let him down.
And Jesus says to him: ‘Don’t fear – don’t give up on me. Just keep on believing’

I guess many of us need to hear this

We have prayed for healing and not seen healing. Maybe we have lost a child or someone close. The job has gone, all our efforts are futile, a relationship is on the rocks, there is no money, our team have gone out of the world cup, the church continues to struggle, the political situation gets worse, we have got no resources left. And Jesus has gone AWOL, or at least, if he is there, he is doing wonderful things in other places with other people – but not with us.

Remember that Jesus didn’t heal Jairus’ daughter. Because he spent time with this woman, the most awful thing that Jairus could imagine did happen. His daughter died.

But Jesus then went and did something even more astonishing, something that Jairus could not even imagine would happen. He raised her from the dead.

Jesus is showing us that there is nothing beyond his control. He is saying, ‘Look. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Keep on trusting me. Because I am bigger than the worst thing that can possibly happen. I am bigger than death.’

And God promises that he will answer our prayers, in his way, and in his time, and ‘he is able to accomplish abundantly – through his power at work within us – far more than all we can ask or imagine.’ (Ephesians 3.20)

These are two stories with a similar theme: faith and fear.

Believe in Jesus. Put your trust in him.  And go on putting your trust in him. Even in the face of terrifying, rational or irrational, overwhelming fear, even when the worst thing you can imagine happens, even in the face of death.

We cannot physically reach out and touch the hem of his robe like this woman, but we can in our mind and in our imagination reach out to him and touch him. We throw ourselves at his feet.

When I was at theological college, we were attached to local churches. One of my fellow students spoke about one Sunday, when after everybody had received communion, and the service was meant to continue, the vicar was nowhere to be seen. So he went up into the sanctuary behind the large altar and saw the vicar lying flat on the floor. He asked, ‘Are you OK’, and was greeted with the words, ‘Go away. I am praying’. 


Or I remember going to a service in the St Petersburg theological college, when a student became a monk. He lay flat out on the floor with his arms stretched out in the shape of a cross. It is a symbol of our absolute dependence on God. 

Can I suggest you try it - when you are on your own – throw yourself at Jesus’ feet: Physically prostrate yourself before Jesus.
But don’t do it when you are tired, because you’ll just fall asleep!

In our fear, in our emptiness and brokenness, we reach out to him.

He is the one who lived and who died and who rose from the dead.
We cannot see him, we cannot hear him. He is beyond our five senses. And yet, in some completely incomprehensible way, he is present. He is present in this world. He is present in his people. He is present here as we listen to his word and as we eat the bread and drink the wine.

He bends down and he lifts us up. He calls us Son or Daughter. And he gives us eternal life.

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