Compassion for Grief

Text: Mark 5:21-43
Date: Pentecost IV (Proper 8) + 8/28/09
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

The last time I preached on this text was nine years ago. And it just happened that this Gospel followed the very sad laying to rest in death of a little seven-year-old of St. Mark’s congregation who had died in a terrible traffic accident. Though we do not normally spend much if any time thinking about death on a daily basis, sometimes we are forced to consider it and deal with it. No matter your age, when you allow yourself to think about your own death, the greatest fear is that of being alone. No one can go with you. Not mom or dad, not son or daughter. And especially at the death of a son or daughter, no one can know the incapacitating grief that literally seizes you, the pain as a part of you dies, unless you have gone through it yourself.

If you have never experienced it yourself, St. Mark, today, takes us to the bedside of a little 12-year-old girl, the daughter of Jairus, a respected leader of the synagogue. She is ill, near death. There is no Mayo Clinic, no modern medicines or life-support systems, no more that the best medical help could provide. Somehow Jairus had heard about Jesus, and maybe the report of how he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law when she lay sick with a fever, or of how he had healed paralytics and cast out demons from many. In this current emergency situation, Jairus anxiously went to find this Jesus as his last hope.

When he found him, he fell at Jesus’ feet and expressed his sad prayer, “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” (Mark 5:23). This was a bonafide emergency. Not knowing how Jesus could do the mighty deeds he had been doing or even what those signs might mean, the girl’s father literally threw himself at the mercy of Jesus. Notice, there was no hesitation on Jesus’ part. “So Jesus went with him.” And maybe Jairus finally saw a little ray of hope.

As they were going, while they were making their way through the crowds of people, a woman made a reach of faith as she touched Jesus’ cloak and was instantly healed of her illness. Jesus stopped and had a conversation with her. And maybe there were other interruptions. The thing we’re not told is how Jairus may have felt some frustration with the delays. Every second counts, after all. Nevertheless, the scene grows even darker as, while Jesus was still speaking, “there came from the ruler’s house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’” (Mark 5:35). It’s too late. Give up. That’s the sad end so many feel who do not know the rest of the story—the story of Jesus, that is.

But just then, when all hope was gone and grief wrapped its suffocating cloak around Jairus, the most amazing thing happened. Mark says, “But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe’” (Mark 5:36). Get that! Right in the face of the word of death, Jesus ignores the news. Now the only person that can ignore death is either one who is living in a dream world or one who has found a sure cure for it. “Do not fear,” he says. “Just believe.” Believe? Believe what? Jairus’ grieving heart may have found it hard to believe anymore the words of our Old Testament reading today, “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. …there may yet be hope” (Lam. 3:25, 29). Don’t be afraid? Just believe? Believe what?

Making their way to the man’s house, pushing his way past the professional mourners—the funeral preparations had already begun to be made—and then the mocking laughter when Jesus said the child was only sleeping, Jesus put everyone out of the house except the child’s mother and father, and Peter, James and John. Think of Jesus entering that silent room of death. No one said anything. There was just deathly silence as Jesus took the child’s limp, lifeless hand in his. Then—St. Mark wants you and me to hear the actual sound of the words Jesus spoke in Aramaic—as he says to the girl, “Talitha cumi!” “Talitha cumi!” “Little girl, I say to you, arise!” There was no waiting, for as fast as the eyes of mother and father and the disciples could switch from looking at Jesus to look with mysterious hope to the little girl, “immediately” she was getting up out of bed and began to walk around! Now, I don’t know about you, but the sight of that would be maybe even more scary than even death, fearful—“overcome with amazement” is Mark’s description. Then the strange command, strictly charging them not to tell anyone about this. Now just how are they to keep that command when the whole community, knowing that she was dead, now sees her running and playing again? Then the almost mundane command—“give her something to eat.” Who could think of eating at a moment like this? Which is precisely why they needed to be reminded! Life is happening here—real human, breathing, eating, sleeping, waking life!

What does this mean? Oh, there have been a few spiritual quacks, even to this day, who have dared to claim raising people from the dead. But for what purpose? And if Jesus could raise people from the dead, then where was he during that terrible traffic accident that took my child, or that terrible disease that claimed the life of my father, my husband? And if you can get to the point of asking that question, you are on the threshold of overcoming fear and believing. Because that’s the question: Where is Jesus?

Where is Jesus? Faith knows he is there. Where no one else can go to the grave with you, still, you do not go alone. Jesus is there. We have proof! For the same Jesus, who had the cure for and the power over death, died himself. And he went through death quite alone—all alone, forsaken by God and man—for us men and for our salvation. “Don’t be afraid; just believe!” Believe that the same Lord Jesus who died and shed his blood on the Cross so that you might be saved from death, the same Jesus who fulfilled God’s Law perfectly so that you might be freed from its condemning curse, the same Mighty God who bound Satan from his rule of death, the same Victorious Lord who rose again from the grave—this same Lord Jesus, Mighty God, Victorious Lord is with you and goes with you, even into the darkest places, even into the grave. You are no longer alone! And no matter where you go or what happens, with Jesus there life is going on—real human, breathing, eating, sleeping, waking life—deathless, eternal life!

Oh, it takes faith—a divinely given faith to overcome fear and believe. Just remember who is telling you not to fear and to believe. For it is none other than him whom we call the Way, the Truth and the Life. As with the words, “Talitha cumi,” Jesus gave the little girl the ability to get up and live, so when he commands us today, “Do not be afraid,” he gives the very faith, love and confidence that overcomes fear. And when he commands us today to believe, he gives the very faith he commands.

A prolific puritan writer, Richard Baxter (1615-1691) described how faith overcomes fear, especially the fear of death.

“Do not be afraid; just believe,” says him who promised in your holy baptism, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” And you shall be with him forever.
The Rev. Allen D. Lunneberg