Rev'd Philip Heak
“I am prepared to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
Winston Churchill (politician)
Death is something that on the one hand we are intrigued with, but on the other horrified with.
For instance, if I want a long Vestry meeting – all I need to do is table something to do with the graveyards…
But, on the other hand, most of us know the sheer pain and hardship that the death of a loved one brings.
The Gospel reading today brought us face to face with one of the hardest types of death. The death of a child.
The story is so tragic.
A synagogue ruler named Jairus had a little girl who was dying. He begged Jesus to come to his house and heal her. Jesus agreed to accompany Jairus but was detained when he stopped to heal someone else. A woman who had been bleeding for 12 years.
Meanwhile the little girl died – she was 12 years old.
When Jesus arrived at the house he told the mourners that the little girl was not dead but just “asleep.” They laughed at him. Jesus sends them away and with the child’s parents and three of the disciples he gently raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead and heals her.
I don’t think I agree with Churchill about the Maker’s ordeal of meeting people. Jesus in this passage, not only meets people and walks alongside them, but he loves them and he heals them.
In that short passage from Mark 5, entitled in the NIV bible as a dead girl and a sick woman, there are multiple deaths or types of death:
- The girl
- The sick woman
- The parents
- The community.
The Little Girl
It seems that the girl had been sick – at the point of death – when Jairus goes to Jesus. She is 12 years old, so not quite a child, but Jairus’ words “My Little Girl” suggests a frailty – perhaps a long term illness. Perhaps she was an only child, but we know from Mark’s account that as Jairus is coming back to the house with Jesus, the beloved little girl dies.
The Sick Woman
This woman had been bleeding for 12 years – we’re not quite sure what the illness was but it did mean that she was ritually unclean and anyone who touched her was also unclean. Her death was to be one of shame, one of suffering at the hands of many doctors who made things worse.
Like the death of any child, the death of this little 12 year old girl is a death also to the parents. Death of dreams, hopes, aspirations, joy. In a recent article in the Irish Times the Taoiseach Micheál Martin, spoke in his own experience of the death of two of his children,
“In the aftermath of that you’re obviously knocked out: you’re very, very down. You feel for quite a while that your spirits will not lift. It was April 1st he passed away. The birds are singing, but you don’t want to hear that at six in the morning, and yet that’s what you hear. I thought I’d never say that I hate the sound of the birds singing. But that passes in the medium term.”
Jairus must have been desperate – who would leave a death bed to search out a doctor. Also, he goes himself – he doesn’t send a servant.
His child is dying. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, Mark tells us, dying, dying — and then he says, “Come and lay your hands on her, that she will be healed and live”
Death of hope in the community
As Christians we believe in life after death –
At the time of Jesus it was not so clear cut. People “weeping and wailing loudly,” as Mark describes it. This is unassuaged grief. Remember its not the the twenty-first century but the first century and people apparently hadn’t started yet saying things like “It’s really a blessing” or “She is in a better world now” because for the most part they didn’t believe in any better world but just some sort of limbo world under the earth where the ghosts of the dead drift like dead leaves.
Instead, they wept and wailed because they didn’t have it in them to pretend that the death of a child is anything but the tragic and unspeakable thing that it is, and Jesus didn’t say anything to make them change their minds, didn’t tell them that it was God’s will or anything like that. What he did instead was to say something that is difficult to understand.
“The child is not dead,” he said, “but sleeping.”
The crowd can’t possibly understand what Jesus means. Their hope has died with the death of the child and so they laugh at him.
So we have four types of death in this short passage
- The girl’s physical death
- The parents’ type of death caused by their unimaginable grief
- The woman shunned and dead to society because of her illness
- The community’s death of hope
Into this ordeal, in utter contrast to all of this death, we have the figure of Jesus. He is the one figure of hope in all of this tragedy.
He immediately leaves the crowd to go with Jairus.
He stops with the woman and heals her. He ignores the well-intentioned advice of the those who said, the child is dead – no need to come. He pays no attention to those who laugh at him. Instead, he disperses the crowd leaving only the little girl’s Mum and Dad and three of his closest disciples.
A key verse right in the middle of this passage are the words of Jesus to Jairus. “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” And it seems that Jairus, his wife and the disciples do just that.
Faith is the willingness to trust God when the pieces don’t fit.
“Don’t be afraid, just believe.” And look what happens.
Death is destroyed.
The little girl is raised from the dead. Not only that but she is fully healed from her sickness. Able to walk about the room and eat.
The woman, dead to society/worship for 12 years, is given new life. A life where again she can mix and socialise with people.
The community, who were so wrapped up in their grief that they laughed at the one who would bring life, are now forced to acknowledge that there is something even stronger than death at work here.
And the parents. Their grief – the grief for the death of a child is transformed.
“Don’t be afraid, just believe.”
For me, the enormously moving part of the story is when Jesus takes the little girl’s hand and says, “Talitha cum‘—”Little girl, get up”.
Suddenly we ourselves are the little girl.
Little girl. Old girl. Old boy. Old boys and girls with high blood pressure and arthritis, and young boys and girls with tattoos and body piercing. You who believe, and you who sometimes believe and sometimes don’t believe much of anything, and you who would give almost anything to believe if only you could. You happy ones and you who can hardly remember what it was like once to be happy.
“Get up,” Jesus says, all of you—all of you!—and the power that is in him is the power to give life not just to the dead like the child, but to those who are only partly alive, which is to say to people like you and me who much of the time live with our lives closed to the wild beauty and miracle of things, including the wild beauty and miracle of every day we live and even of ourselves. “Get up, don’t be afraid, just believe.”
It is that life-giving power in Jesus that is at the heart of this tragic story about Jairus and the daughter he loved. It breaks through the ordeal of the death of the little girl, the woman who had suffered with bleeding and social isolation for 12 years. It’s a power that transforms the grief of the parents and shows the crowd that in Jesus, there is something stronger than death.
The power of new life, new hope, new being, that whether we know it or not. It is the power to make it through the ordeal.
It is the power to get up even when getting up isn’t all that easy for us anymore and to keep getting up and going on and on toward whatever it is, whoever he is, that all our lives long reaches out to take us by the hand.
It is the power of God that helps us not to be afraid, but to believe.
To believe that when we are done with the ordeal of life and we die, that He will gently take us by the hand and say, “Child,” I say to you Arise.”