Friday, July 20, 2012

How Do You Sleep At Night?

“How do you sleep at night?” That is a loaded question in certain contexts. Sure, it can be as banal as questioning the comfort of one’s mattress, the snoring of one’s spouse, or the fussiness of one’s infant child, but there are other things that keep a person up at night. No doubt we have also heard the question asked of someone who is particularly callous, cold-hearted, or whose deeds have just been brought to light.  It concerns an experience so common to most of us that we find it shocking when it is lacking in others, the call of that interior voice that convicts us of our sins, the voice of conscience that makes us toss and turn.  That voice is not easy to escape. Human beings seem to know instinctively that some things are wrong, and yet we still often choose to do those things. Christian theology identifies this tendency as our sinful nature. We all universally have the tendency to sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and what we leave undone. For this reason we all have experienced the persistent jab of a wounded conscience. J.C. Ryles writes,

“God has not left Himself without witness in the hearts of unconverted people. Fallen and corrupt as man is, there are thoughts within him accusing or excusing, according as he lives—thoughts that will not be shut out—thoughts that can make even kings, like Herod, restless and afraid.”

Indeed, this week’s Gospel reading reveals King Herod as precisely that—a man terrified by his guilt-ridden conscience. 

Despite Jesus’ lukewarm reception in his hometown, news of Jesus’ ministry has spread. Jesus’ disciples have been sent and they too are spreading his message and demonstrating it with power. The Kingdom of God is breaking in! People have begun to ask questions. Who is this guy anyway?!  Many people believe that Jesus is the promised second appearance of Elijah. The scriptures record that Elijah was carried away into heaven in a fiery chariot, and many—based on Malachi 4:5—believe that Elijah will return in the last days, before the time of the Messiah, when all things will be put right. Others think, if not Elijah, perhaps Jesus is some other prophet of old. Herod, on the other hand, is convinced that he is John the Baptist.  Herod believes that John, the man that he beheaded, has been raised from the dead.

Herod is of course wrong about this. It is difficult to understand how someone could even come to this conclusion given the fact that John’s life and Jesus’ ministry overlapped with each other. Herod’s paranoia, brought about by his guilty conscience, may have led him to draw an irrational conclusion, but his instincts are actually not too far from the truth. In an odd way his statements foreshadow the judgment that will be proclaimed later by the apostles after Jesus’ own death, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree”(Acts 5:30 ESV).  Herod knows that he has sentenced an innocent man--a great and holy man--to death. He recognizes that God is at work in the ministry of Jesus Christ, setting things right and calling him to account for his wickedness and tyranny. God has indeed vindicated John, not by raising him from dead, but by fulfilling John’s prophesies in the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is bringing about the very thing that John prophesized, the great day of reckoning and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Herod is living in the shadow of his father’s great legacy. Like his father, his greatest ambition is to be recognized as the true king of the Jewish people. He has been continuing the reconstruction of the Temple that his father started in order to commend himself to the people, but they are growing increasingly disdainful of Herod’s compromised Temple system. John’s prophetic ministry of baptism for the forgiveness of sins was a direct challenge to the temple establishment. He called Herod out as the phony and tyrant that he really was. Would God’s true king act in the self-serving and immoral way of Herod, taking his own brother’s wife and colluding with the Romans? No, there was a much greater king coming who would reign with justice and integrity. Deep down, Herod knows that John was right and so he is terrified of him even after his death.

Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Phillip, hated John and wanted him dead. She couldn’t stand to be told that she was a sinner for living with her husband’s brother. Herod, because he was afraid of John, kept the prophet safe. Herod was fascinated by John, even though John denounced him. Herod believed that John was a holy man and even “heard him gladly.” How many people today are exactly like Herod? Maybe you can even see yourself in him. It is possible to have a fascination with religion and spiritual things, even go to church and hear the preacher gladly, and yet still be unprepared to accept the consequences of such truth for one’s own life.  Such people—people like Herod—are like what was sowed along the path in Jesus’ parable of the sower, they receive the word but ultimately fail to understand it and so the evil one snatches it away.  They may also be like the seed that fell among thorns and was prevented from growing. Herod’s circumstances were certainly “thorny” and not particularly hospitable to the kingdom life. Herod lived in decadence among cruel and ambitious people who hated the truth, and they snared his heart.

One night, after a lavish birthday celebration for Herod where the wine flowed freely, Herodias finally got her opportunity to take vengeance on John the Baptist. Her daughter was dancing for the men, no doubt in a highly erotic and seductive manner. Herod was so enticed by her that in a booze-soaked moment he made a rash and ill-conceived promise to give her whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. The girl returned to her mother, who was perhaps the one who put her up to seducing the king, and said, “for what shall I ask?” When she returned to Herod she gave him her request, the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod was trapped. He didn’t want to break his oath in the presence of all of his guests, nor did he want to appear weak or afraid. Reluctantly, he gave the order and John was executed.  Afterwards, John’s followers took his body and laid him in a tomb, but unlike Jesus, there would be no glorious resurrection on the third day.

John’s death seems all the more tragic for the senseless way in which it happened. What a pathetic and unceremonious way for such a great man to die! Sometimes it looks as if those who speak out for what is right are the losers, while “all the criminals in their coats and their ties, are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.” The vindication of the righteous—like John—however, is in the resurrection and ascension into Heaven of Jesus Christ. Jesus was condemned to death and viciously executed by the powers that be, but God raised him up. Jesus was God’s own son in whom he was well pleased, and the world’s true lord. Through his death and resurrection, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15 ESV).  The rulers of this world were unmasked and their wickedness and corruption were revealed because they “murdered the author of life whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15).

When Jesus returns and the kingdom that he inaugurated will at last be consummated. Those who suffered and died for the cause of truth and justice, like John, will be the first to take their seat with him in glory. All of those who have aligned themselves with God’s son and God’s Kingdom—with truth and righteousness—will be glorified, but the proud, the cruel, and the oppressive—those who have rejected God’s kingdom—will be thrown down and suffer the judgment of God.

Herod had the chance to turn and repent. God spoke to him through his conscience, and yet he chose to listen to those around him instead. Herod made the tragically foolish decision ignore what he knew to be true and right. Herod sought to gain the world, but instead lost his soul. We may not be a tyrant or a murderer like Herod, but how often have we compromised our integrity by doing what we know to be wrong because of the pressure of those around us or for the sake of some advantage we hoped to obtain?  Despite Herod’s ambitions, he died in disgrace after being banished to Gaul. He has gone down in history as a tyrant and a fool. John on the other hand continues to honored all these many centuries later because of his faithful testimony to Jesus.  Despite how it may appear, it is those who obey the witness of God in their conscience who are ultimately honored.

So, how do you sleep at night?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Extraordinary Ordinary

In the part of the world where I live—the northeastern United States—one cannot go more than a few blocks in a populated area without coming across some kind of Christian church. Christianity is absolutely ubiquitous. Despite the fact that many are claiming we are entering into an increasingly post-Christian era, Christianity continues to play a fairly large role in our culture. Most people here in the United States, have participated in some kind of Christian worship such as a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Why is it then so common that church is the last place that people expect to find truth or spirituality?

            In the last few hundred years the West has enjoyed a flirtation, if not an all-out love affair, with Eastern Spiritualities such as Buddhism and Hinduism. The popularity of New Age authors such as Eckhardt Tolle and Deepak Chopra are evidence that this trend continues. While  I think that studying world religions is a very worthwhile thing to do, and I believe we can learn a lot in the process, it often seems like the spiritual treasures and wisdom of the Christian tradition are ignored or dismissed. No doubt this is largely due to the failures, hypocrisy, and downright spiritual dryness of much of the Church, but I think another reason is the very prominence of Christianity in our culture. Christianity is commonplace and ordinary. We are very familiar with its claims, or at least we think we are, and we are not that inspired by them. As the old saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. In contrast, Christianity is spreading like wildfire in places like Africa and China. The stories that I hear from friends in the mission field are astonishing, such as stories of entire towns converting the Christianity in a single day. Often these stories are accompanied by dramatic tales of miraculous signs and wonders that seem lifted straight out of the book of Acts. For the most part, Christianity doesn’t seem all that exciting here, and the preaching of the Gospel often runs into a strong wall of cynicism.

Last week’s Gospel lesson had us study the inspirational faith of two individuals who came to Jesus for help, Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood. It also had us look at the wondrous deeds performed by Jesus, including the raising of the dead! In this week’s reading, Jesus is back in his own hometown. The author of Mark’s gospel informs us that Jesus was not well received. The people were incredulous about his claims, offended even, and they scoffed. Why was Jesus such a flop in his hometown? I think it is for the very reason discussed above, that familiarity breeds contempt. The people of Jesus’ hometown thought they knew Jesus. They knew his parents and his sisters and brothers. “Isn’t this the same guy who used to play in the streets as a kid? Didn’t we hear him cry when he skinned his knee? Doesn’t he come from an ordinary family in an insignificant part of the world? How can we possibly believe that he is some kind of mighty prophet? Who does he think he is saying these things about himself? He isn’t fooling us!”

The fact is that Jesus really was an ordinary person from an ordinary part of the world. It is difficult to believe that God would use the ordinary in such extraordinary ways. When we think of a holy man, we are likely to think of a wise old hermit on a mountaintop, someone floating two inches above the ground shrouded in light, a wise king, or someone powerful and mighty. The last thing people expect of a holy man and a great savior is that he would be the son of a carpenter from a blue-collar town.

When the prophet Samuel went to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king of Israel, all of Jesse’s outwardly impressive sons passed before him. He thought, “Surely one of these is the one God has chosen!” The Lord corrected Samuel by saying, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel16:7 ESV). The one God chose was the one no one else expected; David, the youngest son out tending the sheep. Likewise Isaiah prophesized of Jesus in ages past,
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3 ESV).

Jesus was surprised at their unbelief and declared, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” Everywhere Jesus went, crowds of people wanting to get close to him swarmed him, but here in his own hometown he was snubbed. They thought they knew him already. They thought they had him all figured out, and he was nobody special. The author of Mark tells us that Jesus wasn’t able to do many mighty works in his hometown. This statement raises a few eyebrows. Jesus wasn’t able?! This is the same Jesus who raised a dead girl back to life just a few verses earlier? Jesus the Son of God? I think it would be a mistake to focus on what Jesus was not able to do. Much more important was what Jesus was able to do despite the resistance and the hostility of the people. The author qualifies his statement, “And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (6). Oh, is that all? Early Christian theologian and Bible commentator Origen explains,

“Matthew and Mark [reporting on the incident in question] wished to present the all-surpassing value of that divine power as a power that works even in those who do not believe. But they did not deny that grace works even more powerfully among those who have faith…Thus the power in him overcame even their unbelief” (Commentary of Matthew 19)
I invite you to look past the ordinary and mundane nature of the Church. I invite you to take a second look at Jesus. You may think you already know him, but there is so much more! I believe the truth about him is so compelling that it can change us from the inside out. This extraordinary truth is not on the surface, however, it needs to be sought through faith. Even a small amount of faith, a mustard seed, can begin to change us. As Origen says, there is power in Christ to overcome even our unbelief.

The extraordinary truth about Jesus, the Gospel, is passed on by ordinary everyday people. The sending of the twelve follows the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown. Jesus warns them that they will not always be well received. He tells them that if anyone does not receive them, they should, “shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (11). I don’t know about you, but I find that a particularly difficult passage, especially given the fact that, in light of the verses before, the ones most likely to reject you are the ones closest to you. The people who know me best have seen me at my worst. They know how selfish and petty I can be. Jesus may have shared my ordinary and humble estate, but he was also without sin! Who am I that anyone should listen to me? Yet Jesus calls ordinary, sinful, human beings to be his representatives in the world. He sends us out understanding not only our sinfulness, but also the sinfulness of the people to whom we are sent. He knows we will not always be a success, but it is precisely because he became an ordinary human being like us that he can sympathize with us in our struggles and help us in our weakness. 

God delights to use the ordinary and the mundane for extraordinary purposes. Saint Paul writes,              
 “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29 ESV).

From the very beginning God has used the ordinary and downright disreputable to bring about his purposes in the world. Think of the less-than-sterling character of many of the Old Testament patriarchs. God has even gone as far as to use a shameful instrument of torture and political oppression to be the means of demonstrating his atoning love towards humankind. The cross is the height of foolishness to the world.

We might have contempt for the familiar and the mundane, but God doesn’t. God is not impressed by what we might consider wise and important. I think this may be one reason why God chose two such mundane, everyday, activities—washing and eating—represented in Baptism and the Eucharist, to be his chief sacraments. God wants to open our eyes so that we are able to see that the ordinary really can be extraordinary.

The Church around the corner might seem very ordinary. It might be the place where your grandmother worships. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is full of a lot of hypocritical backsliding people. Ordinary folks are like that. Can God use something so ordinary to do extraordinary things? Yes he can, and he does.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Marriage in the Age to Come

 A Sermon preached at the end of last year (2011) in a Morning Prayer service for Trinity School for Ministry.

          In today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus cofounding the Sadducees attempt to make him appear foolish. The Sadducees deny the resurrection and so their question is not asked in    sincerity, but is in reality an attempt to poke fun at what they believe to be absurd. Jesus responds ingeniously, confirming the reality of the resurrection. Those who have died are alive to God, and through the power of God, will share in the life of the age to come.

          In the process of doing so, however, Jesus says something that is disturbing to many: “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” What?! Marriage is one of our most cherished institutions and among the greatest joys of this life. How can it be that it should be excluded from the age to come? Doesn’t this suggest a rather dim view of marriage?

          I would submit to you that perhaps marriage will not be abolished in the age to come, but rather fulfilled. We have yet to know the fullness of what marriage is communicating to us. In this world we see “as in a mirror dimly” but in the resurrection we shall no longer live amidst the shadows of things, but like the angels who look upon the face of God, heaven shall be our natural habitat. We will see behind the veil to the true meaning of our life here.

         C.S. Lewis’ novel “The GreatDivorce” depicts a group of tourist visiting the outskirts of Heaven. The residents of Heaven try to encourage them to stay, but in order to do so each tourist must give up their particular form of idolatry. One of the tourists is an artist who immediately sets up his easel and begins painting. His heavenly companion informs him that this is simply out of place saying,

         “When you painted on earth it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

If we insist on marriage for its own sake as being our only hope for happiness and fulfillment, we will never learn to see through it to that heavenly country of which it is a foretaste.

I haven’t been married long, but one thing I have learned about marriage is that it is not primarily about me and my own happiness and fulfillment. Without that crucial insight, I would only be setting myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. Ironically, the true joy of marriage would elude me. Marriage instead is a foretaste and a preparation for the age to come. Through each day learning what it means to lay down my life for my wife, the dross of my selfishness is being purged. Through loving and being loved by my wife, God is teaching me what it means to love and be loved by him. Through forsaking all other partners, God is showing me what it means to love him alone with all my heart soul mind and strength. The Death to self in true matrimonial love, sets before us the cross on which the son of God offered his life for our life.

I believe it is no accident that Revelation describes the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband. This is the reality of which marriage is a sign. Just as the fracturing and ruin of creation begins with man and woman being put at enmity with one another, so marriage is meant to point us forward to God’s promised restoration, the New heavens and the new earth. Indeed, the Scriptures are full of references to the covenant-love of God and the life of his kingdom being like marriage. In Ephesians 5 Saint Paul teaches us that marriage is a profound mystery that speaks of the love of Christ for his Church. Indeed in the opening of the Chapter of which today’s reading is a part, Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matthew 22:2 ESV)

          Mike Mason, in his book The Mystery of Marriage insightfully suggest this about our passage,
“Considering the rich imagery of weddings and marriage throughout the Bible, it seems more probable that far from there being no marriage in Heaven, what Jesus must really have been getting at is that Heaven will be all marriage. Indeed, in earthly marriage we may detect the sign and promise that in eternity everyone is to be married to everyone else in some transcendent and unimaginable union, and everyone will love everyone else with an intensity to that which now is called ‘being in love’ and which impels individual couples to spend their whole lives together.”

Marriage is like a journey that a man and woman embark on together. In the age to come they will have arrived at their destination and obtained their goal. So does that mean that they will then part ways? Will the love be all used up? By no means! Think about it like this by way of analogy, children have a very special relationship with their parents, but when they become adults that relationship necessarily changes. I think we can all admit that there would be something dreadfully wrong if my parents still wiped my nose and cut my meat for me! As an adult, my relationship to my parents has changed, but my love for them has not diminished. If anything I love them more, because they helped me become the man I am today. On the other side of the resurrection, my marriage will have in a sense “flown the coop” but my love for my wife will not have diminished. No, we will have simply entered a more glorious and more mature place in our relationship.

In today’s passage Jesus points us forward to that day when marriage will have at last reached its fulfillment. Marriage is a picture of heaven and a preparation for heaven. We should treat it as such. We should love our spouses, and indeed everyone, with a commitment to the person God intends them to be in eternity. Marriage prepares us for eternity but it is not itself eternal. Although marriage finds its end at death, the love that married couples share does not. We cannot know what it will be like when Christ appears and we are changed but in the words of ElizabethBarret-Browning—“If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Jesus the Healer


Mark 5:21-43        

              It is pretty hard to deny the prominence of healing in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The theme is especially prominent in Mark’s gospel – considered by many to be the earliest. Over and over again we are told how the sick and afflicted came to Jesus and were healed by him. Even the most skeptical critics and historians are forced to acknowledge this fact. For instance, Marcus Borg—one of the scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar who notoriously dismisses most of the material is the Gospel as later, non-historical, accretions— on the basis of the evidence concludes that Jesus must have been a remarkable healer. More healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in Jewish tradition, and the earliest historical sources connected to Jesus testify widely to Jesus’ remarkable ability to heal the sick and exorcise demons. Moreover, even Jesus’ fiercest opponents did not deny the fact that Jesus performed miracles of healing, but instead attributed his power to demonic forces (Mark 3:22-27, Matthew 12:22-29, Luke 11:14-23). Despite this fact, even for committed Christians, it seems easier and far more comfortable, to relegate Jesus’ remarkable healing to the ancient past. Recently, I spoke with a group of inmates at our local jail about the topic of healing prayer. When I asked the men whether or not they believed that Jesus performed miracles of healing they all enthusiastically agreed, but when I turned the conversation to whether or not similar miracles could occur today, many of them became visibly uncomfortable. I completely understand this reaction. Healing prayer in our day has become so closely aligned with the spectacle of faith-healers and manipulative TV evangelists that many people don’t want to have anything to do with it. In some cases, faith-healing encourages a dangerous disregard for medical treatment resulting in deaths or complications that otherwise could have been avoided. The grossest faith-healers often protect themselves from charges of fraud through the use of guilt. “If only you had enough faith,” they say, “your loved one might have been healed.” People have an understandably strong reaction against such charlatans and a great reluctance to embrace anything that might be associated with such antics, and yet when we are gravely ill, or someone we love is suffering, the natural reaction—even for the not especially religious—is to pray for healing. There is a longing in the human heart that searches for hope even in the midst of the most seemingly hopeless situations. As long as this human longing persist there will be prayers for healing. This week’s gospel recounts two instances of healing in the ministry of Jesus, one more remarkable than the next. Both stand as a testimony to the truth that God hears the desperate cries of those reach out to him when all hope seems lost. They testify to the fact that Jesus has the authority to banish disease and even death itself. Our Lord, in his great compassion, is not only able but also willing and eager to make us whole.
            One of the striking things about this passage from Mark is the vividness of the narrative. Many commentators have pointed out that this story has the distinct character of a reminiscence from an eyewitness. One can easily envision the desperate father Jairus throwing himself at the feet of Jesus and begging him to come and lay hands on his little girl. Jairus was an important man in the community, one of the rulers in the synagogue we are told. Jesus was not well loved by the religious establishment of his day, and so this was an extremely risky move on his part.  In coming to Jesus he was putting his reputation at stake by aligning himself with someone who was seen as a dangerous radical and—as we said above—whose miracles were suspected of being demonic. Jairus, however, had reached a place of absolute desperation. His beloved little girl was on the brink of death and there didn’t seem to be anything anyone could do for her. Jairus knew about Jesus, he had heard about, and perhaps even witnessed his amazing works. Jesus was his last hope.
            Jairus was not unique in seeking aid from Jesus, because of his reputation as a healer, Jesus was swarmed everywhere he went by the sick, the afflicted, and the wounded. Yet Mark tells us that when Jairus came to him, Jesus went with him. Jesus saw his broken heart and took pity on him. We are not told how far Jairus’ house was, but the crowds that surrounded Jesus no doubt made it difficult for him to go anywhere. Just imagine the mayhem that must have broken out whenever people heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood.  No wonder the authorities disliked him. A helpful comparison might be the crowds of hysterical screaming fans surrounding Elvis or the Beatles in old television footage. There was a chaotic mass of people shouting his name, grabbing at his clothes, scrambling just to touch him.  In the middle of all this confusion Jesus stops and turns to his disciples and asks, “Who touched me?” How would you respond? Probably much the same way they did. One can imagine the disciples glancing at one another and smirking, before one says, “Seriously? There are hundreds of people pressing in on you!” There was one individual in that excited mob of people, however, that touched Jesus in a unique way, because she reached out in faith that God saw and honored. Saint Augustine said, “Few are they who by faith touch him; multitudes are they who throng about him” (Sermon 62.4). Despite the hectic scene, his urgent mission, and no doubt the great frustration of Jairus, Jesus stops to call this one person out of the crowd. Like Jairus, the woman came to Jesus at some risk. According to the standards of Leviticus 15:19, this woman would have been considered unclean due to her continuous flow of blood. She would have been a social outcast because everyone and everything that came into contact with her would also be rendered unclean. She had suffered like this for twelve years and no doctor could help her. In fact her condition was just getting worse. Just like Jairus, she was desperate. Jesus was her only hope. She had heard about Jesus and believed that he could make her well. She came secretly, in fear that she would be turned away. If her condition were known, no one would let her get close, but such was her faith that she believed that merely touching the cloak of Jesus would heal her. For this reason she comes forward with fear and trembling, only reluctantly revealing that it was she who touched him. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her or get angry at her for rendering him unclean.  Instead, he addresses her in a remarkably tender way, calling her “Daughter” and telling her to go in peace because her faith has healed her.
            I’d like to make a couple points about the healing the woman with the flow of blood. The first is in response to a question. Does this imply that anyone who comes to Jesus in prayer to be healed and continues to be sick is somehow lacking in faith? Isn’t this the same kind of guilt mongering discussed above in connection with phony faith-healers? It is undeniable that Jesus taught that one’s faith plays a role in healing. He even rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith when they fail to heal an epileptic (Mt.17:14-21). It does not then follow, however, that all unanswered prayer is a result of lack of faith. There may be any number of reasons why God chooses not to respond in the way we want him to. We should remember that although God loves us and desires our health and joy; sickness, suffering, and death are still very much a reality in this age. When miraculous healing does occur, it is a sign of things to come and a token of God’s love received by faith (more on this later). It would be wrong to think that we could somehow manipulate God into granting our wishes by mustering enough faith. Faith is not a work that we can perform to earn God’s love or indebt him to us.
            The second point I’d like to make about this episode concerns the scope of Jesus’ healing. Jesus does not only heal this woman physically. In liberating this woman from her condition, Jesus also reconciles her to the community and restores her to full participation in the people of God. The Old Testament purity code was meant to teach God’s people about his holiness. God is so holy that no unclean thing can be in his presence, but despite the sin that makes us unholy, he has made us pure and holy through Jesus Christ. It is through faith that we receive God’s grace through Jesus Christ, are reconciled to him, and restored to fellowship with his people. Reconciliation is available to all those who reach out to Jesus, believing in his power to save.
            The interlude with the woman with a flow of blood ends when messengers push through the crowd to tell Jairus not to bother bringing Jesus. He is too late. His daughter has died. Jesus’ response is shocking in the confidence it shows. He turns to Jairus and says simply, “Do not fear, only believe.” What must have been going through Jairus’ mind at this point? Dare he believe that even now there is reason to hope? He chooses to trust Jesus and, together with a select group of Jesus’ followers, they press on even past the scorn and disbelief of the mourners gathered outside his home.  What follows is one of the most vivid and remarkable of all the accounts of Jesus’ many miracles. Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and says. “Talitha cumi,” a transliteration of an Aramaic phrase that means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” Although the Gospels are written in Koine Greek, it is generally believed that Jesus spoke primarily in Aramaic. This is one of the very few instances that the Biblical authors give us Jesus’ exact words. What is significant about this scene that the author should preserve Jesus’ precise words? Here is the place in the account that it becomes most clear that we are dealing with an eyewitness account. Perhaps it was because of how memorable and dramatic the moment was, or the tenderness and authority with which Jesus spoke. His words must have seemed almost like magic words, because no sooner does he command her, then does the little girl get up and begin walking around! Was this young girl actually dead, or only sleeping as Jesus suggests? Could it be a diabetic coma that we are dealing with? Mark is somewhat ambiguous, but the other accounts of this story clearly state that the girl was dead before Jesus arrived. The people are absolutely overcome with amazement. The word that the author of Mark uses to describe the people’s reaction is ekstasis. The only other place where this word is used in the Gospel of Mark is to describe the reaction of the women after they hear the news of Jesus’ resurrection. It appears that the author of Mark is creating a literary link between these two events through his description. The Gospel suggests that we read this particular act of Jesus as a foreshadowing of his resurrection. In raising the girl from death to life, Jesus demonstrates to his disciples that he is lord even of death. In Jesus’ life and ministry the long awaited Kingdom of God is being inaugurated and the reign of sin and death is being overturned. Jesus’ acts of healing and restoration should be understood as previews of the final victory that will be accomplished through his most amazing miracle of all, his atoning death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus restores our broken world, beginning a glorious new creation.
            What then does this have to do with how we should understand healing prayer? In the fallen world, the world that is perishing, there is disease, death, pain and suffering, but in the age to come, there will be no disease or death. For us who have put our faith in Jesus, all our wounds and infirmities will be at last be healed when Jesus raises us to new life. That new creation has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection, but we still live in the overlap of the age where all things are not yet new. It is not God’s desire that we be sick or in pain. God desires our health and endless joy, and has acted to accomplish this through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In those remarkable times when incurable disease or irredeemable brokenness are miraculously and inexplicably healed through faith and the intervention of prayer, we are given a glimpse of what is to come. Whether we are healed in this time or in the age to come, we will be healed. When God shows us signs and wonders, it is as if he is calling to us from the future, “Do not fear, only believe.” 

Below is a beautiful song by the great Sam Cooke inspired by the story of the woman with a flow of blood.