At Death’s Door

Mark 5:21-24, 35-43

The Rev. Helen Havlik   –   Lent 3   –   March 24, 2019

What are you most afraid of? What keeps you up at night with anxious thoughts racing through your head? What won’t you do because you’re afraid? How does fear get in the way of your loving God and loving neighbor? Lent is the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays, where we spend time thinking about where we may be falling short in faith so that we can keep moving toward God. This year we’re looking at what Jesus says and does about fear—so that we can “fear less.” As far as we know, we human beings are the only creatures aware that we’ll die someday. Yet we don’t like to think about it or talk about it—and we spend a lot of money trying to avoid it. Jesus, on the other hand, confronts death head on. He frees us from our fear of death as he brings us hope and peace and life. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 5, beginning with vs. 21.  Listen with me to God’s holy word.

My nieces and nephews mean the world to me—which is why I talk about them so much. Each one has given me more than I could ever give them—starting with the rush of unconditional love I had when Becky, the first of them, was born. When my sister called to tell me Becky had arrived, I knew, without even seeing her in person, nothing would ever diminish my love for her. And I’m just her aunt—I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for parents as they welcome a child into their lives. So it’s particularly heart wrenching when a child dies. I’ve presided at only a few funerals for children but I know close up that no parent, no grandparent or other caring relative wants to deal with this. It isn’t supposed to happen this way —kids are supposed to be carefree and happy—they’re supposed to live long, productive lives, raise families of their own, outlive their parents. When this doesn’t happen, it violates our sense of the way things should be. It violates our sense of justice—we have every right to be angry, we have every right to question why some children live and others don’t get a fighting chance.

So we can imagine all too well what must be going on in Jairus’ mind as he approaches Jesus. He’s a real VIP in his community—a leader of the synagogue, well-versed in Scripture, lives according to God’s law, sets an example for those around him. By that time, Jesus had become well-known in Galilee for his ministry of teaching and healing—and for directly challenging the religious leaders on their interpretation of the Law. Surely Jairus knows that Jesus is a questionable person? Surely Jairus has heard it said that Jesus is the ruler of demons? Surely Jairus knows that a man in his position, a leader in the synagogue, shouldn’t be asking Jesus for help? Jairus is a synagogue leader, but before that Jairus is a father whose daughter is dying. And he’s willing to do anything in the world for her—risk his reputation, his position at the synagogue, possibly even his livelihood—to make her well again. He’s willing, finally, to humbly trust a man who had been called untrustworthy at best and demonic at worst. He’s willing to kneel at his feet and beg Jesus to heal this daughter he loves.

Sometimes it’s faith itself that’s the miracle. A child dies and his parents still trust God. An earthquake devastates a city and the survivors still trust God. Floods wipe out a third of Nebraska and people still trust God. Cancer whittles away at your mother’s body—and, even at death’s door, she still trusts God. Jesus is talking about that kind of faith when he says to Jairus, “Do not fear; only believe.” Only believe that “the Lord has promised good to us, his word our hope secures.” Only believe that Jesus calms the storms, heals the sick and raises the dead. Given what some of us go through in this life, even a mustard seed sized bit of faith is a miracle.

So Jesus goes with Jairus and they are delayed as Jesus heals a woman who’s been at death’s door for a long time. If Jairus is upset at this interruption, it doesn’t say. But Jesus points to her faith and trust, maybe in effect encouraging Jairus, by saying, “See that’s the kind of faith and courage I want you to have. Don’t give up now!” What must it be like for Jairus to hear, then, that they are too late, to walk on to his house, to walk past the mourners who’ve gathered? What must it be like to keep his head up despite their laughter at Jesus’ preposterous statement, to take his wife’s hand as they approach their daughter’s bedside with only these strangers, one of whom, despite the reality of death, claims he can help? What must it be like to witness the resurrection of this beloved daughter, who blinks twice as she looks around the room and for the first time in days is able to keep down a piece of toast? Like Lazarus, she, too, will face death again—but she and her parents, I expect, will think about it differently than they do this time around.

It’s significant that we know the name of this leader of the synagogue. Because he’s named, we know he probably had a place in the early church, that his trust in Jesus continued from that day on. Through his daughter’s death and restoration, Jairus comes to faith in the one who is Lord of all. Through this little girl, we learn who Jesus is—the one who heals and cures and triumphs over death and so our fear of death, too. The one who has compassion on those who call to him for help does not leave us alone to struggle through whatever life throws at us. Through him we are brought together into his very body, to lift each other up, to take turns carrying each other as the need arises. Unlike those mourners who laughed at Jesus, we pray for each other, rejoice in the good times and grieve when we need to—together. As we gather together as Jesus’ own body, we’re reminded he promised that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he is, right there in the middle. His presence and his power are available to us, as they were to Jairus and his family.

Like many of you, I’ve read stories about people’s near-death experiences—where they’ve left their bodies and been enveloped in light only to return to life. It seems to be universal that these folks talk about the peace they feel and bring back with them. Having been dead, they aren’t afraid of death anymore. In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul talks about Christ’s victory over death—the literal good news of the gospel that we still proclaim. Some people may doubt the reality of it, Paul says, “but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died… Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting? … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Without Jesus, it’s easy just to be afraid of death. To deny its reality and do anything we can to avoid coming to terms with it. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose three year old son was kidnapped and later found dead, wrote many years later, “I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” And, we might add, trusting that “in life and in death, we belong body and soul to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.”  So at death’s door, be fearless.

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