(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 7, 2015)
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.”
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 ignoring what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear; have faith”
(Mark 5:22-23; 35-36).
Have you ever been desperate to save someone or something that you love? Maybe it was a loved one suffering from a serious illness. Maybe it was your family. Maybe it was your marriage that was hanging by a thread. For Jairus, the leader of the synagogue who approaches Jesus in the text of Mark 5, it is his 12-year-old daughter who is gravely ill. One can sense his desperation. Up until this point in the gospel of Mark, all of the depictions of religious leaders have been antagonistic towards Jesus. They are threatened by the healings, the wonders he performs, the crowds that follow him from town to town. Yet here Jairus falls to his feet and begs Jesus repeatedly to help him. When we are desperate, we do things we might never have done before. Sometimes we make bad decisions out of desperation. Sometimes, our desperation leads us right to the solution to our problems.
For Jairus and all his desperation, however, a complication arises. A change in circumstances finds him at the end of the path of desperation, where the road to despair begins. Some messengers come to him and tell him that his little girl has died. There is no need to bother with this Jesus anymore, they say. It is time to give up and come home to mourn. Have you ever been there? At the end of a desperate search for a miracle cure, the doctor tells you your loved one has succumbed to the disease. After trying everything you can think of to save the marriage, divorce papers arrive in the mail. After praying that your child be delivered from addiction, a messenger brings news of an overdose or car accident.
When Jairus gets the news, Jesus does an interesting thing. He ignores the messengers and leans over to Jairus. Jesus tells him not to pay any attention to them. “Do not fear; have faith,” he says. And at that moment, Jesus opens up a new option that didn’t exist before. The end of the desperation road is not the beginning of despair; it is actually a fork in the road. You can despair or you can take a different road: the road of faith.
When they get to Jairus’ house, Jesus announces to those who are weeping and wailing that the little girl is not dead, but merely asleep. When they laugh at him, he throws them out of the house, goes into the bedroom where the little girl is with only her parents and his closest disciples, and touches her hand. “Talitha koum,” he says. Literally, this Aramaic phrase means, “Little lamb, arise.” And she awakens from the dead.
When you are confronted with the call to despair, when the messenger brings you news of a changed circumstance that announces the end of hope, this text from the Bible gives us good news in three points:
Do not fear; have faith. When the messenger comes to tell you the family is shattered, that the marriage is over, that the lost child ain’t coming back, do what Jesus does: ignore them. Just believe. Have faith. Trust Jesus and lead him right into the center of the place where everyone else has given up hope, and see how quickly Jesus can bring back to life things that are seemingly dead.
Jesus redefines death. Of course, there are times when people really do die. But lest we think that Jesus is delusional or is making a mockery of us who grieve when he says that the little girl isn’t dead but merely asleep, keep in mind that Jesus did not mean that the little girl was literally asleep. In fact, she really was dead. What Jesus is doing is redefining death. In other words, Jesus is saying that in the context of all of God’s work, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, through the redemption of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, death has been rendered no more permanent than in an afternoon nap. That the dead merely sleep means that while your loved ones are dear to you, they are loved infinitely more by God. And when the final trumpet sounds, God will touch the place where they have been laid and say, “Talitha koum!” Death is not the end of the story. You will be reunited with those who have died in the kingdom of God at the end of time. The resurrection robs death of its power and sting.
God’s not done with you. Perhaps you would like to have the hope and faith I describe, but truth be told, you have been mourning so hard for so long, you have been in such depression and despair, you are not so much like Jairus in this passage but rather like the little girl on the bed. When that is the case, here is the good news: messengers have come to tell us about you, that you are too far-gone, that there is no hope. But we don’t believe them! We have ignored the messengers and chosen faith! We believe that God is not done with you, that you will love again, laugh again, know joy and purpose again. And for that reason, we are gathered around your bedside with Jesus himself, until he reaches down and touches your hand, and says, “Talitha koum!”
And who are the “we,” of which I speak? Come to church this Sunday to find out. We call ourselves, “Christians.”