July 1, 2018
Watch a video of this sermon here.
Early in my ministry, I was complaining about not being able to get anything done for all the interruptions – people in need, questions from people in the church, phone calls …. The senior pastor I called “boss” at the time smiled and said, “Interruptions are where real ministry begins.”
In today’s reading, Jesus returns to the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee, having driven a Legion of demons into swine on the Gentile side, having calmed a storm that raised holy fear in his disciples, and having taught about the Kingdom of God through a series of parables a couple of days before.
The parables Jesus used to describe the Kingdom of God had to do with exponential growth, something unexplainable and unexpected happening right under our noses, like mustard seed spreading. We will look into those parables in a few weeks, but right now, they are in the background of this larger story. We need to keep this bigger picture in mind as we hear today’s gospel lesson.
The larger story includes that trip across the Sea of Galilee, a trip that the disciples would have never embarked on if Jesus hadn’t told them to do it. It was the wrong time of day to head out across the lake, instead of hugging the safety of the shoreline. They weren’t really surprised to encounter a violent storm, but that storm certainly raised great fear in the disciples.
Then their fear of the storm was interrupted by a holy fear when Jesus stood and told the wind and waves to “be still!” There probably wasn’t much idle chit-chat in the boat after Jesus interrupted the storm, as they continued to the other side of the lake, into Gentile territory.
The R&R they had been anticipating is interrupted before it can even begin, by a demon-possessed man coming toward them out of the graveyard. Jesus throws the Legion of demons into a herd of swine, and they drown themselves in the lake, creating quite a disruption for the owners of the herd and the villagers who cared for them. So it’s back in the boat, and back across the lake for Jesus and his followers. So much for break time.
This is where we pick up the story.
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)
This isn’t the first time Mark uses a story within a story to get his point across, and it won’t be the last. For Mark, stories inside other stories explain each other, so let’s take a look at the stories of the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter, to see what they have in common.
First, there’s the number 12. The woman has suffered from her illness for 12 years, and the daughter of the synagogue ruler is 12 years old. Twelve is a significant number on many levels, but here it might simply be pointing us to two women at either end of their child-bearing years. One is just entering puberty, and the other has quite possibly been prevented from bearing children because of her hemorrhaging.
Both the girl and the woman are ritually unclean when they encounter Jesus. The woman’s hemorrhage sets her apart as unclean, and the girl’s death makes her unclean. But Jesus doesn’t flinch. In fact, the element of touch – something you would never do to an unclean person or animal – plays a big role in both of these stories. The woman touches Jesus’ clothing, and Jesus takes the girl’s hand. The barrier between clean and unclean is broken by a simple touch.
These two stories have something in common with the story of the demoniac and the pigs, too. Legion, Jairus, and the unnamed woman all fall at Jesus’ feet. They recognize his authority and they appeal to that authority, having exhausted all other resources.
There are some significant differences between the hemorrhaging woman and Jairus’ daughter, as well. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue. He enjoys a high social status, and is wealthy enough to employ servants. He’s used to having power.
The woman who approaches Jesus is just the opposite. As a woman, she has no social status, especially if she cannot bear children, and she holds zero power. She is poor, having spent all she has on doctors and treatments that did her no good. Because of her condition, she has been excluded from her community for as long as Jairus has been a father to his young daughter.
Both Jairus and the woman approach Jesus out of desperation. While Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet – exposing a humility that may have surprised those around him – the woman pushes through the crowd with a boldness that may have surprised those who knew her.
She takes advantage of an opportunity to steal just a little healing power from this man Jesus, who is suddenly within arms’ reach. ‘Who will know?’ she thinks. She is desperate enough to try anything. If we translate the Greek more or less literally, verses 25-27 read:
“And a woman—
having been bleeding for twelve years,
and having suffered greatly from many physicians,
and having spent all she had,
and not having benefited at all,
but rather having gone from bad to worse,
having heard about Jesus,
having gone into the crowd from behind…
–touched his clothes.”
The interruptions are where real ministry begins. Jesus knows immediately that power has gone out from him. His disciples think he’s got to be kidding when he asks, “Who touched my clothes?” In the pressing crowd, it would make more sense to ask “Who hasn’t?”
But the woman knows she’s been caught.
Now, she could have made her way out the same way she came in, and no one but Jesus would have been the wiser. She could have quietly gone to the priest and undergone the ritual purification that she had missed for twelve long years, and then gone about her business. But she didn’t. She falls at the feet of Jesus, and tells him “the whole truth.”
Here, at the heart of Mark’s story-within-a-story, we find the point he wants to make. Healing is salvation, and if we would be saved, we have to start on our knees at the feet of Jesus, confessing the whole truth of who we are, what we’ve done, and how Jesus has changed us into new people.
Jesus calls the woman “daughter” and sends her away in peace, but the story isn’t finished. There is one more interruption. James Boyce writes, “In mid-sentence, while Jesus is still mouthing his benediction on the woman’s faith, people arrive to say that the leader’s daughter has died. In the same instant one person’s hopes have soared; but another’s have been dashed to pieces. One has been claimed as a daughter; another’s daughter has been lost. Faith is clearly at risk. The people put it so clearly, “Why even trouble the teacher any further?” What hope is left?”
And just as surely as our response to Christ’s saving grace must be to fall at his feet and confess the whole truth, Christ’s response will always be the same:
“Do not fear, only believe.” Stop being afraid. Keep on believing. It’s what he told the disciples in the boat as he calmed the storm. It’s what he tells the synagogue ruler Jairus when the news of his daughter’s death threatens his faith. It’s what he tells you and me when our own uncleanness is met with his touch, and our souls are cleansed of all unrighteousness.
Jesus goes on to the house where mourners are wailing. He throws them out and takes only the girl’s parents and Peter, James, and John with him. “Little girl, get up,” he says, as he takes her hand. And she gets up. “Give her something to eat,” he tells her astonished parents. “And don’t tell anyone what you just saw. What happens in Jairus’ house stays in Jairus’ house.”
A woman pushes through a public crowd to touch Jesus in her uncleanness, and is healed. Jesus touches an unclean dead girl in the privacy of her home, and she lives again. Both touches should have made Jesus unclean, but instead, he makes them clean.
And that is what he offers to us.
Christ interrupts our daily routines and our attempts to stay in control, to hide the things in our lives that would make us ashamed if they were brought to light. Christ reaches into our uncleanness, and touches us with a kind of mercy and love we cannot begin to comprehend.
“Stop being afraid,” he says. “Keep on believing.”
Remember those parables Jesus was using earlier in Mark’s story, the ones about the Kingdom of God? This is what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like a weed that grows everywhere, whether you want it to or not. It’s like a seed that the farmer plants, and it grows on its own, bearing tremendous fruit.
The Kingdom of God is like a demon-possessed Gentile suddenly getting his right mind back, and telling everyone how much God has done for him. It’s like a woman who has run out of hope and options, reaching out to grab a swatch of cloth, then falling on her knees and telling the whole truth of what she has done, and what God has done for her. The Kingdom of God is like a young girl taking Jesus’ hand, and rising from her deathbed, feeling a little hungry.
So be on the lookout for the interruptions. When their strangeness makes you afraid, keep on believing. You can’t predict how God is going to act, but you can be certain that he will. It will be in the interruptions, the nuisances, the disruption of our best-laid plans. It will be when we fall at his feet and claim his authority over our lives. When we stop being afraid, and decide to keep on believing no matter what, we will experience the Kingdom of God at work in us, and around us.
 Mark 3:19[22-30]35; 6:6[14-29]30; 11:15[20-26]33