Death Where is Thy Sting?
Mark 5: 21-43
JP in NJ
In her novel "The Living," Annie Dillard describes this scene from a funeral: "Hugh stood with stiff Lulu and supple Bert at the graveside. The Nooksacks stood together with their preacher. Before the funeral , in mourning for his father, they had shrieked and pounded on boards. . .
"At last big-faced Norval Tawes read Scripture and prayed. 'O death, where is thy sting?' Norval Tawes called out, and his little black eyes glittered on Hugh. Hugh thought, 'Just about everywhere, since you ask.'"
This week I've read the stories of the raising of Jairus' daughter and of the woman who could not stop bleeding--I've read them over and over--and I confess, I'm stuck in the sting.
Oh, I know Jairus was a bigshot in the synagogue and the woman was a lowly, anonymous face in the crowd. I know the traditional reading of these stories: that the kingdom of God shows no favoritism. I suppose I could expand on that point, but this week I've found it hard to see beyond the sting in the story.
After all, Jairus was a daddy. A daddy of a little girl who adored him, who crawled up on his lap, a little girl who sang songs to him, wanted nothing more than to play with him. Now she's grown to be fully 12 years old, not far from marrying age, not far from the age when she can have little boys of her own to delight grandpa Jairus. And now, on the verge of womanhood, she's dying. What daddy, what parent for that matter, what person who has ever lost a love, for that matter, who in this world can read the story without sympathizing with the sting?
And as for the nameless woman, remember that in that day and time a woman was only as good as the husband she married and the children she bore. So who would ever marry this woman who could not bear children? Furthermore, but she was religiously unclean, as outcast as a leper. For 12 years -- a long time on the biological clock -- for 12 years she had been going to one quack after another who was happy enough to take her money and leave her broke, and always, always, bleeding.
This poor woman didn't have the option of an alternative career path, she was most likely uneducated, and every day she faced the harsh reality of her hopelessness when she woke up and had to change her dressings. I wish I could tell you her story as one of those 'fortunately/unfortunately' tales, where every lousy break is the flip side of a stroke of good fortune. But everything about her is 'unfortunately.' Who can read the story without empathizing with this woman?
But Jairus and this woman have something more in common than just the sting of death. They have faith. Jairus came to Jesus in faith: 'Come lay your hands on her so that she may be made well." The nameless woman had faith, too; what did Jesus say to her? "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
Whatever kind of faith it was that Jairus and that woman had, I want it, don't you? I want it for myself and for my family, and I want it for everyone in our congregation who has a sick child or grandchild; for everybody whose marriage is breaking or broke up a long time ago; for everyone whose body is starting to give out or started giving out longer ago than they care to remember. I want faith for everyone who dwells in bitterness and spite, for everyone who sells himself short for the sake of the almighty dollar.
Jairus and the woman had the kind of faith that the writer to the Hebrews described: "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." God gave them the gifts of assurance and conviction: assurance that Jesus could help them, conviction that he would. Somehow in faith they were able to see beyond the sting of death, able to see more than what flashed before their eyes. Jairus saw his daughter well again.
The woman saw herself well again. That was faith: they could see that what they hoped for was really going to happen; they were convinced that what they saw in their hearts was a truer picture of reality than what they saw with their eyes.
Let's be very clear: this faith was a gift to Jairus and the woman. They didn't work it up on their own. I don't want anyone to leave with the idea that if your heart or mind or body is broken and it's not getting better, then it must be your fault because you're not believing hard enough or trusting God enough or seeing clearly enough. Faith doesn't work that way; it's a gift God gives us for comfort, and sometimes, even for healing.
Faith isn't wishful thinking, you see.
We all have all sorts of things we wish for -- at the moment a wonderful vacation high is on my list -- but that's not faith. Wishful thinking is nothing more than imagining what we, with our small minds, would like to have happen. Faith is what happens when God opens your eyes and you begin to see as God sees.
And you remember how the Bible describes what God sees, don't you? No more children dying young, every person filling out his days. Every person enjoying the fruit of the vine, the shade of the fig tree. The lion and the lamb lying down together. Swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. No more mourning or crying or pain any more. A table spread with enough food for everyone; hunger forever banished.
Those are Biblical images, and rich enough on their own terms, but sometimes I wonder if they sound utopian or pie-in-the-sky.
So let me bring it closer to home. Near the time our dear friend Claire Sciannimanico died, I had a dream. In my dream Claire was up, out of her wheelchair, her hair done perfectly, of course; she was dressed to the nines, and she was dancing. This is the same Claire who had had a stroke 2« years before and had barely taken two dozen secure steps since. The Claire of my dream was smiling that wonderful smile of hers, and lifting her arms; she was the knockout that Ed saw the first time he laid eyes on her.
I didn't plan this dream. I had no idea it was coming. And, to tell you the truth, I am by nature a bit of a skeptic about this kind of thing. But I believe that in that dream God gave me the vision to see her the way God was seeing her. God gave me, and through me God gave Ed, an assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.
Why did God give me that dream, not Ed? Good question. I don't have an answer. But I know that even in the hardest of moments, even when death stung the most, faith's vision has given Ed some measure of peace.
So, friends, when you look at someone whose body or spirit is broken -- ah, who are we kidding? when you look in the mirror -- don't let your eyes fool you. What you see is not necessarily what you get. Look again. Look with the eyes of faith, the same faith you share with Jairus and the woman in the crowd. Look and see that little girl cured. Look again and see your broken heart healed.
Take a second look, and see past problem to solution, to salvation, to wholeness, to the wholeness that God in Christ has already given you, just as surely as you have come here today to touch the hem of his garment.
Look where Jairus and the nameless woman looked: Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of faith. Look to Jesus, whose way reaches even the nameless ones who would but touch the hem of his robe. Look to Jesus, who speaks the truth: are you so sure you're dead? Or are you just sleeping? Look to Jesus, the bringer of life, life to Jairus' daughter, life to Jairus'
family, life to the nameless woman, and perhaps even life to her children.
Death, where is thy sting? Just about everywhere; that's true.
But (and surely this is the biggest three-letter word in all
the English language), but, with our eyes wide open to Him in whom there is no
darkness at all, but, looking to Jesus, the true light that enlightens every
one, but with all the faith and confidence that God has given us, we ourselves
can see beyond the sting, and respond to Jesus' command to rise and sing our
grateful hymn of praise: thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our
Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.