Sunday, May 4, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "A Man Called Jairus"

Mark 5:21-24

21 Jesus crossed the lake again, and on the other side a large crowd gathered around him on the shore. 22 Jairus, one of the synagogue leaders, came forward. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet 23 and pleaded with him, “My daughter is about to die. Please, come and place your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.” 24 So Jesus went with him. A swarm of people were following Jesus, crowding in on him. (Common English Bible)

“I Say to You, Arise: The Gospels’ Least-Known Resurrection Story,” Week One

The voice on the other end of the phone was a mixture of pure disbelief and sorrow.  It was the 3 am phone call that nobody ever wants to get, and that night, my family was receiving one from a family friend whose son—a year younger than me and coincidentally also named Eric—died in a car wreck.  He wasn’t wearing a seat belt, the crash was head-on, and he died almost instantly.

We got that phone call just over ten years ago to the day.  It was the pivotal moment of the most emotionally and spiritually trying weekend of my life, one that began with me looking forward to competing at the Kansas state speech championships and then awkwardly dancing the night away at my senior prom, and ended with me preaching at my childhood congregation on Sunday morning on grief and loss, only to have my microphone die (does that ever happen here?  No…); but then my very first God experience took place when the sunlight struck my tired body through the sanctuary skylights.  My body temperature erupted, my energy returned, and in spite of an uncooperative microphone, I made myself loud enough for all to hear...and hopefully understand.

It reminded me of the Pentecost story in Acts 2, when the flame of the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples.  But what has also stuck with me through the years was the sound of my buddy’s father on the telephone at 3 am that night.  The grief, the shock, the sheer unbelief of a parent who lost their child long before they thought they ever would…the memory of that will likely stay with me for eternity.  Seeing and hearing how much it hurts a parent who would move heaven and earth for their child to instead see their child die and to feel absolutely helpless to it happening, that has to be one of life’s worst moments.  And in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, it is a moment that is about to come for a man and a father called Jairus.

Easter is not just a day on the calendar for the church—it is a season on the calendar.  After all, according to Luke in Acts of the Apostles, Jesus walked the earth for forty days after His resurrection.  All forty of those days were about the victory of God over death, not just the first day.  And so the church traditionally has kept those 40 (to 50) days after Easter as a season called, appropriately enough, Eastertide.  And so as part of our ongoing celebration of Easter and of the empty tomb, I typically elect to create a sermon series for those Sundays specific to the themes of resurrection and new life.  Two years ago, if you’ll recall, we went through probably the second most-famous resurrection (after that of Jesus Himself) in the Gospels—the raising of Lazarus as depicted in John 11.  One year ago, we spent a Sunday apiece on the reactions to the news of the empty tomb by the different disciples—Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and so on.  This year, we’re returning more to the mold of two years ago in that we are going through another resurrection story, except this one is probably the least renowned of them all: the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5.  Why that is probably has to do with a variety of reasons, but we’ll be trying to increase our knowledge, appreciation, and love of this story as we go through it verse-by-verse through the month of May (and Sunday, June 1). 

Today, we simply begin with what appears on the surface to be only exposition—only scene-setting.  But Mark includes for us a few important details that paint the picture of Jairus’s relationship with his daughter, as well as of the nature of Jesus’ ministry and of how He was viewed by others at that particular point in time of His ministry.

The first detail is this: that Jairus is a leader of the local synagogue, which would identify him as a man of exceptional means.  Remember that there was almost no middle class in Biblical Israel—you were either part of the very small and powerful wealthy minority, or part of the vast impoverished peasant minority.  Jesus was a member of the latter, but most religious leaders—likely including Jairus—were a part of the former (so, clearly, I got into this line of work in the wrong millennium.  Wait, that came out wrong…).

Why does this matter?  Well, for two reasons.  One is that Jairus quite literally gets down on bended knees to beg Jesus to heal his daughter.  It is a scene of profound humility.  Simply getting down on your knees to beg to anyone is potentially humiliating unless you have a diamond ring in your hand and a particular question about marriage in your head, and even then, those situations can still end up humiliating if you’ve completely misread your audience.  But this is likely a rich man (or at least a man better off than the vast majority of the citizenry) falling down on his knees before a poor man.  In the rigid hierarchy of ancient Near Eastern society, well, that was practically unheard of.

Of course, we know now that Jesus was and is far more than simply a man, but at this point in Mark’s Gospel, there’s no indication that Jairus would have known that.  Up until this point, the only people to recognize Jesus’ true nature as the Son of God are, ironically enough, demons whom He exorcises.  Seriously.  Flip through the first four-and-a-half chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and it’s true.  Nobody except the personifications of evil seems to have picked up on this yet.

So what Jairus is most likely doing is flinging himself at Jesus’ feet is signaling his abject desperation in his quest to save his daughter.  Because of his means, he has most likely already tried all of the conventional channels for treating a sick family member—taking them to a Greco-Roman phyisician, taking them to the synagogue or temple healers in Israel, and probably lots and lots of prayers and sacrifices to God.

But none of the traditional methods of treatment have worked.  So, when Jairus hears (presumably simply by word of mouth) of this itinerant Galilean peasant who travels the country performing miracles, he probably thought to himself, “What do I have to lose?”  And aside from any social sensibilities he may have had about class, the answer to that question is, “Not a lot.”

And that part of his decision-making calculus is perfectly fine, completely understandable, even.  But for him to have gotten this desperate still likely would have required him to exhaust more orthodox remedies for whatever was ailing his daughter—after all, desperation often doesn’t tend to set in until after you have tried that which you have been taught to do in a situation.

In other words, Jairus’ one misstep in his parental devotion to his daughter doesn’t come in presenting himself to Jesus, or even in casting himself down at Jesus’ feet.  No, it’s that Jairus likely came to Jesus as a last resort, not a first resort.  Jesus wasn’t the first-down play for Jairus, He was the fourth-down Hail Mary pass (“Jeez, Pastor Eric, talk about mixing religious idioms here…”).  Jairus is more than willing to completely cast aside his social standing and his dignity for the sake of his daughter, and for that, we can and should hear in his voice here the anguish and pain of a parent losing their child to death’s clutches.  As New Testament scholar Ralph Martin concisely put it about this passage: “Death is still the number one issue in many people’s minds and secret fears.”  And one of the things I learned from that terrible night in my youth when my friend Eric died was that this fear is doubly, triply, infinitely true for parents when they think about their children.

On that night, my buddy’s father’s worst fears came to pass.  And here, in this passage, Jairus is terrified of his own worst fear coming to pass.  This is a child he has raised against a lot of odds—infant mortality was obscenely high in ancient times, and the mortality rate for girls was even higher than it was for boys.  Jairus is not about to give up on this girl, nor should he ever.

This impulse means that Jairus eventually does do the right thing for his daughter in coming before Jesus and asking Him to heal her.  But are we, too, like Jairus?  Not only in our commitment to our family—I would hope that all of us could be like Jairus in that regard—but in our reluctance to not always go straight to Jesus first when we are most in need.  Put differently: do we go to Jesus first with our greatest needs, or do we look elsewhere for solace and strength and then only later turn to God when those other avenues don’t pan out?

Because there really are a great many avenues out there for us to channel our desperation into if we are searching for comfort and consolation.  Money can corrupt us, addictions can warp us, and exploiting and abusing others to make ourselves feel better by comparison is only destructive.  We turn to other people not to fall at their feet and be humble towards them, but to expect them to be subservient and secondary to ourselves, and all for what?  That sort of status doesn’t help Jairus one lick when the chips are down, and he casts it aside if he thinks that it will help his child.

We cannot hear the anguish in his voice as he beseeches Jesus.  All we have are the words on a page.  But we can probably imagine that anguish.  We might have even been there ourselves once upon a time.  And if you have, you know that all the desire, all the desperate longing in the world cannot erase the feeling of helplessness when death comes to do its thing.

But in God, and in Christ, we need not feel that desperation.  We need not hurt the way that Jairus is hurting now.  He would move heaven and earth to save his daughter, and Jesus, despite probably not being the first asked to help, shows His own humbleness in return and decides to help anyways.

So it is with God.  Even if you did not ask God for help first once upon a time, God will still hear you when you pray to Him now.  And I love how Mark’s exposition of the scene ends in verse 24: So Jesus went with Him.

Simply because Jairus asked Him to.

God is ready to go with you anywhere.  God is ready to walk with you, alongside you, around you.

Today, three of our beloved church members asked God to do precisely that by choosing baptism.
Will you follow their lead and example?  Are you humble enough, brave enough, and dare I say it desperate enough to ask Jesus if He will walk with you as well?

Because if you are, I can tell you this: if your heart is sincere, the answer to that question will always be a resounding YES. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 4, 2014

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