Fifth Sunday of Pentecost
2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 13-15
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing; Thou hast loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness; To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Jehovah my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.
The book of Lamentations was likely written shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. It consists of five poems that express grief of the destruction that was brought by the Babylonians who were merely human agents of God's divine judgment. The book ends with a cry to God for His mercy to restore His people. The middle, of which today's passage is a part, focuses on God. The lamenter confesses faith in the God of hope, love, salvation and restoration, despite the fact that it seems God has abandoned His people. He had not; He was among them, doing what needed to be done to turn them back to Him. They knew God was faithful and that His compassion is never ending.
This is an image of God that we do not like. We do not like to think of God as a punisher who would destroy the lives of His people even if they were disobedient. Our Christian understanding is of a loving God of grace. Many reject this Old Testament God because it seems out of character for the God of forgiveness that we know and love. Yet, these songs of lament have been part of Christian worship, especially around Christ's passion because we are reminded of the very reason why Christ died: He took upon Himself the very wrath that we deserved. The God of the Old Testament took the final and permanent solution to our disobedience upon Himself by offering the final and permanent sacrifice of His own Son.
Though He has done this, we still recognize our own sinfulness. We confess our sins, we ponder our humanity, we regret our failures and we ask forgiveness. We still sing the laments, even if they aren't in exactly the same words as the writer of Lamentations. And, we are similar in another way: we recognize through faith the hope, love, salvation and restoration of God when it seems that we've been abandoned by Him in our suffering and pain, even when we understand that we've brought on that suffering by our own disobedience.
The Hebrew title of the book of Lamentations is the word 'ekah which means "How...!" The laments begin with this word in a statement of fact rather than question: "How deserted lies the city..." "How the Lord has covered the Daughter..." "How the gold has lost its luster..." These statements betray a boldness in the midst of the humiliation the people experienced. "See how much we have lost!" It is a cry to God to notice the state of His people, to remember them.
In the passage for this day we see that the cry was not one of arrogance but of trust in the love of God. The suffering was not unwarranted. Israel sinned and deserved discipline. "It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah." We know that the Lord does not intend His people for destruction, even when it seems He has abandoned us. The lament is filled with hope. Those that trust in the Lord will be saved from the dust, from the smiter, from the insults.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger?
That sounds almost too cliche for us today. We'd rather believe that we are strong enough or that we can grow perfectly well without having to deal with the suffering. We don't need discipline because we are pretty good. We're doing the best that we can, and besides we just can't grasp a concept of God that isn't all about love. God is love. God loves. How can we juxtapose the idea that God disciplines against a picture of a loving God?
Today's psalm is almost shocking in its boldness. The psalmist cries to God, "What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?" Can you imagine going to an authority figure of any sort with such a supplication? It nearly sounds as if the person thinks that God is dependent on him. Yet, what we are hearing is a psalm of praise for answered prayer. God has lifted him. God has saved him. God has defeated the foes and kept them silent. When the psalmist cried for help, God heard and answered.
Yet, the psalmist and the lamenter both juxtapose the disciplinarian with the redeemer. They do so because they recognize their own failure, and the failure of God's people, to be all that He has created them to be. Besides, we cannot equate the discipline received as consequences to our sin with the wrath of God. The exile was God's merciful way of saving His people from His wrath. If they had gotten what they truly deserved, they would no longer exist. But God's love is eternal. His wrath lasts a moment, but His love eternally. We may suffer for a moment, but He is never far away. "For though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses. For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men."
What we see in these passages is that we can be bold with God, crying out to Him in our suffering, because though we may be experiencing the consequences of our failure to be faithful, God hears our cries and answers our prayers. We may lament our circumstances because God is bigger than our moans. He is ready to transform us, to make us whole, to bring us back to life. If we truly received what we deserved, we'd receive His full wrath. Instead, we experience His love. Even while we are suffering we can rejoice and praise Him because we know that He is our salvation. There is hope.
Many people begin their relationship with Christ using this simple but powerful prayer, "God, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin. However, I am trusting in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I believe that His death and resurrection provided for my forgiveness. I trust in Jesus and Jesus alone as my personal Lord and Savior. Thank you Lord, for saving me and forgiving me! Amen!" It is a lament of sinfulness, a recognition of what we deserve, a confession of faith in the one who can save us and how He does so. It is finally a cry for mercy and a word of praise for what He has done for each of us. Amen.
This is a matter of trust, knowing that God is with us and that He is faithful. He has promised redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness. He has promised that we will be His through faith by grace. We hear, we believe and we confess this trust in words and in hope as we wait for God to complete His work of salvation in our lives. Our laments are broken by words of hope, encouraged that those who suffer in faith merely have to wait patiently for the mercy of God, for salvation is never far from those who hope in Him. "For the Lord will not cast off for ever." We wait, alone in silence, covered in dust and accepting the discipline we deserve. Even though it seems we will perish in our shame and pain, God brings salvation and healing to those who seek His mercy and grace.
The Gospel gives us two very different stories. The first was an important man, a leader in the synagogue. Apparently he was like an administrator -- in charge of the property and organizing worship. Though most of the Jewish leaders were hesitant about Jesus, a few heard Him speak and believed. Nicodemus, whose story we heard just a few weeks ago on Holy Trinity Sunday, preferred to keep his interest quiet, approaching Jesus in the dead of night. He did not want to risk losing what he'd worked so hard to attain. Jairus was different, perhaps because he was spurred on by a different purpose. Nicodemus was seeking answers to his questions; Jairus was seeking answers to his prayers. Nicodemus was not willing to risk his life for his encounter with Jesus because he was not motivated by a higher cause. Jairus was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of someone else: his daughter.
Mark tells us the Jairus fell at the feet of Jesus and pleaded with Him to heal his daughter. He was a man of authority, yet he knelt before Jesus. There were great crowds around Jesus, pushing and shoving one another. Everyone wanted to be near Him. What was their motivation? Did they want answers to questions or answers to prayers? Did they just want to feed their curiosity or did they really believe? We will see, as we hear the telling of Jesus' story by Mark through this season of Pentecost that some had faith but many did not. They were not willing to follow Jesus when it became hard. Jairus boldly sought God's grace, crying out for mercy to the One he trusted could help.
The woman in the second story is not quite as confident but was equally as bold as Jairus. She is unnamed but she had faith. She had been bleeding for years, which was not only physically disabling but also emotionally and spiritually. It was also financially disastrous. She had been bleeding for twelve years. She must have been a woman of some means, for she had seen many physicians, but none could provide healing. There was no chance for atonement because she bled continually. She could not present her offerings, and so was left separated from the community. Now she had nothing left: her money was gone and she was an outcast. It seemed that she had nowhere left to turn. She should not even have been in the crowd that day because her very presence made everyone around her unclean. No one could touch her and she could not go into the temple while she bled. She was an outcast, deemed unclean by the Law. She wasn't even the one whom Jesus was going to heal. She was just one of many in the crowd pressing in on this miracle worker. She knew it was not right for her to speak to Him, to ask Him to heal her. She believed that she would be healed if only she could touch the hem of Jesus' robe. She didn't need to disturb the teacher; there were others far more powerful that wanted His attention.
But she had hope. She had heard about Jesus and knew that He would make her well. So she snuck through the crowd and touched the tassel of His robe. She immediately felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.
Jesus knew power had left Him. "Who touched me?" He asked. He didn't ask because He was annoyed or upset by her need, but because He knew she needed more than the physical healing she had experienced. She needed to be made well. She needed to boldly proclaim her faith before the people present so that they see the truth that Jesus had been teaching. The kingdom of heaven belongs to those who boldly approach God in prayer and seek His mercy.
In fear and trembling, she fell down before Him and told the whole truth. He answered, "Daughter your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed of your disease." Isn't it interesting that she felt she was healed, but she was not fully healed until Jesus said the words? Her faith was not enough. It was necessary for Jesus to complete the healing. What would have happened if the woman had walked away and not received that verbal touch of Jesus? She may have felt she was healed, but she would have soon found that the healing was incomplete. Her suffering was more than the bleeding. It was the life of isolation, of spiritual oppression, of fear and lack of hope. Jesus set her free. He was her salvation and gave her hope for the future.
In the meantime, Jairus received the news that his daughter was dead. One healing left another for death. The men told Jarius to leave Jesus alone; they didn't believe it would do any good for him to go to the house. Jesus told Jarius, "Fear not, only believe." Jesus ignored the doubters and went into the home where the child lay. He rebuked the crowd for mourning, saying she was merely asleep, but they laughed at Him. He allowed only a few people in the room: her father and mother, Peter, James and John. There He took her hand and told her to get up. Immediately she stood up and began to walk around. They were astonished, but Jesus ordered them to keep silent about the child's resurrection and told them to feed her.
As I was studying this text recently I noticed something interesting: the woman had been bleeding for twelve years and the child was twelve years old. Although we can only speculate by the text, I wonder if there was some connection. Could the woman have been the child's mother? If so, Jesus' healing not only restored the woman to health but also to her family. I don't know why Mark would not have made this clear if this was true, but we do see a connection between the woman and the child. Though she was alive the woman was -- in the sense of community -- dead for twelve years. Yet she had hope. She found no healing in that community and was left with nothing but hope. And faith.
The child was alive for twelve years, but just as she died just as she was reaching the age when she would have life in the community. She was a child, she was a female; despite her important father she was no more than the bleeding woman in the crowd, but she was loved. Her father loved her. He was willing to sacrifice everything for her sake. In faith he went to Jesus. In faith he waited as Jesus met the needs of another nobody. In faith he took Jesus to his daughter even though she was dead. In faith he had hope that God would do something.
While it was faith that brought Jesus to the problem, it was trust in Him that completed the work. The woman would not have been healed if she had not trusted in Christ's mercy when she revealed herself. The child would not have been raised if Jairus did not trust Jesus' words. They had faith and trust.
It is easy to believe in God, to have faith. It is much harder to trust that God will do what He has promised. It is harder to follow through on the promises, to let Him complete the work He has begun. We are not very patient. We pray in faith, but we don't follow through, trusting that God will complete the work. We even feel as though we have been healed, but we steal back into the crowd without allowing Christ to finish the work. There is more to healing than just overcoming physical dis-ease. We need to be reconciled to the community, made whole by being welcomed back into the fellowship. That is why Jesus told the girl's family to feed her. She was alive but she needed to be restored to the community to be whole.
How often do we begin a work in faith that we fail to complete? We pray but when it does not seem as though God is answering, we settle for less than wholeness. We don't have patience to wait for an answer so we move on. We begin a work for Christ but easily become distracted by other things such as our doubt and our worries and our fears.
Jairus was concerned about his daughter, but he does not rush Jesus; he waited while He met her needs. Then he trusted Jesus' words and took Him to his home. How often do we act like the bleeding woman, stealthfully approaching Jesus in the hope that He won't notice us, receive His power and then hurry off into the crowd? We don't want to be noticed. We want just enough to get us through. However, if we allow Jesus to complete His work we might just see the true healing take place. We might just see how His words bring wholeness and reconciliation. We might just see that there is more to living in Christ than just surviving.
We would certainly live more fully. We would see that "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" is not the credo by which we are called to live. We will be able to live rejoicing even in the midst of our suffering. We will be humble before God, singing His praises even while we are experiencing His discipline. We will trust His time and His way, knowing that He is faithful. We will complete what we have begun. We will live according to the example which Jesus has set for us.
The Babylonian exile was a type of discipline meant to restore God's people. In today's second lesson from 2 Corinthians, we see a different type of disciple: the testing of the hearts of the believers. Paul writes, "But as ye abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all earnestness, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also." The Jews had done a lot of talking about God and His promises to them, but they weren't living their faith. That's why God sent the Babylonians as a form a discipline, to help them turn back to Him. The Jews who were mourning the death of the little girl surely knew all the right things to say and do, but they had no faith in Jesus. The Corinthians were excelling in many things, but they were not living their faith.
Paul reminded the Corinthians how much Jesus gave up for their sake but he wasn't expecting them to sacrifice everything so that others might become rich. He simply wanted them to complete that which they began: to share their incredible blessings with those who were suffering. The gift given in faith, whatever it might be, is the gift that is acceptable to God.
All too often we withhold our blessings and hide our faith, because we are afraid of what tomorrow might bring. We find it nearly impossible to sing hymns of praise like the ones found in Lamentations or the Psalms when we do not know what the future holds. We are even afraid to go before the Lord for healing and peace, not wanting to be disappointed. "It's over, don't bother the Lord with this one." So, we say all the right words about religion but we do not live our faith. Jesus blessed Jarius, who went to Him for help. He blessed the woman who knew that even his cloak would be enough. He blessed David and those who lamented the destruction of Jerusalem. They may have failed in flesh, but they looked to Him in faith and He was never far away.
Though we might have reason to lament, let us do so with thanksgiving and praise, for God's love is greater than His wrath. God calls us to be bold. God welcomes our perseverance. "For though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his lovingkindnesses." God listens to our cries and answers our prayers. He finishes His work and He calls us to do the same. Life in Christ means more than just having faith, it means living in the hope of God's promises, actively completing the work He has called us to do. He turns our mourning into dancing and sets us free to sing His praise now and forever.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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