When Disease and Death Strike
So in 1964, theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, along with five other theoretical physicists put out a really complicated theory about this thing called the Higgs field that permeates the entire universe. And the fundamental particle of the Higgs field is something called the Higgs bosun. All of the mathematical equations in particle physics worked if you assumed that the Higgs bosun existed. They didn’t work if you didn’t assume that the Higgs bosun existed. That is, of course, my own really dumbed down explanation for it. I am NOT a theoretical physicist. I don’t even play one on tv. I can’t even understand Physics for Dummies. I need Physics for Dummies for Even Dummiers. What it boils down to is this: way back in 1964, physicists were realizing that all of the math and research results worked perfectly if you assumed it existed. They didn’t work if you assumed it didn’t exist. The Higgs bosun is basically the fundamental particle, the particle that isn’t made up of a bunch of somethings even smaller.
Here’s the thing – when Higgs postulated its existence in 1964, there was absolutely no evidence of it at all outside of it’s assumed existence making all of the math work. We couldn’t see it. We couldn’t directly prove its existence. In fact, Higgs’ first article about it was rejected by the journal he submitted it to. It was laughed off as a fanatical theory. Until others saw how well it made everything else that they knew about and had proof of fit together. So scientists were taking its existence on faith. Until July 4, 2012.
Now, in the elite world of world-class scientists in the field of particle physics, announcements this dramatic are rare. This announcement, made on July 4, 2012, was so big that 1,000 scientists stood in line all night long to get into the room where the announcement would be made. The head of the coolest new “toy” in the world of particle physics, the 10 billion dollar Large Hadron Collider straddling France and Switzerland, was about to give what many anticipated would be a ground-breaking pronouncement about the discovery of what is believed to be the Higgs boson particle. (Although one MIT scientist cautioned, “We [still] do not yet understand the nature of this new particle.”) This subatomic particle has been theorized for over fifty years but has never been seen, never measured, never proven. But it’s so fundamental in shaping the universe that some scientists have called it the “God particle.”
An article in The New York Times about the Higgs boson announcement had this to say:
Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it.
These scientists have believed in something they cannot see and previously had been unable to prove! They have believed in this unproven particle because what they could see had convinced them that it had to be there.[i]
Such is the nature of faith. The could see evidence of the particle. The standard model of particle physics pointed to the necessity of the Higgs bosun. It begged for it. It actually required it in order to be a complete system of explanation.
In Mark 5:21-43, Jesus encounters two desperate people. Two people could only say, “Help me Jesus! You’re my only hope.” And it was as they trusted Jesus even when it didn’t make sense that they found that placing all their hope in Jesus was the best thing they could have done. As we continue our journey through Mark’s gospel in a series of sermons called “J.E.S.U.S. – His Life, His Mission, turn with me to Mark 5:21-24.
Let me set the stage for you. Back at the beginning of Mark 4, we find Jesus teaching along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near his home base at the time of Capernaum. And the crowd that comes out to see and hear him gets so big that he gets into a boat and goes a little way off shore and teaches from the boat, while the crowds gather on the shoreline.
After Jesus finished teaching that day, in the evening, he and his disciples went across the Sea of Galilee to the non-Jewish territory on the other side. And on the way across, they encounter the great storm that’s so bad it pushes his sea-faring fishermen disciples beyond their limits, at which point he calms the storm, and they make it safely to the other side.
Where, pretty much as soon as he gets out of the boat, Jesus meets a man possessed with so many demons that they simply call themselves “Legion.” And Jesus casts the demons out, delivering the man, and then gets back in the boat and heads back across the Sea of Galilee the way he had come. And as he gets out of the boat there, a desperate man named Jarius comes down to meet Jesus and throws himself at his feet, begging for help. His daughter, either very sick or seriously injured, was dying, and her death was very near.
Mark tells us that Jarius was a leader of the synagogue. He wasn’t a rabbi or a teacher. He was a lay leader. A highly respected Jewish elder who, along with others like him, was responsible for supervising the synagogue and arranging for worship services. The synagogue in Capernaum was a prominent synagogue, so this was a man who had money, who was influential in the community, and who likely knew Jesus – if not personally he certainly knew about Jesus. But he likely knew him personally. Jesus taught often in and around the synagogue in Capernaum during his time there.
And so, hearing that Jesus had returned after a quick trip across the lake, he rushed down to see him, and makes an urgent plea. “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.” They’re the words of a desperate, distraught daddy. Luke tells us that this daughter was his only child. She’s his little girl, and that’s exactly what he calls her – “My little daughter.” He’s tried everything. He was a man of means. Every medical intervention and every spiritual intervention that he knew of, e and his wife had tried. And nothing worked. Nothing helped. She just kept getting worse. And now, she is “at the point of death.” The situation is dire. And he knows that many desperately sick people have found healing through the touch of Jesus. At this point, he didn’t care that Jesus had raised the ire of the religious leaders around Capernaum, and even in Jerusalem. He was desperate. The religious leaders hadn’t been able to help. But he knew that Jesus could. And Jesus leaves at once with him, the crowds pushing in around him, jostling him, as they move in haste toward Jairus’ house, where his daughter lay dying. Jairus’ wealth and influence and position in the community, each of which was significant, couldn’t do anything to help anymore. He has really, truly come to the end of himself.
I sincerely hope that you haven’t felt desperation that deep. Unfortunately, my family and I – we have. I can relate to Jarius, because I know what it feel like to have a highly trained medical doctor look me in the eyes and say, “There’s nothing more we can do. He is going to die.” We’ve heard those words twice. But maybe, for you, it isn’t the death of a child. Maybe it’s the loss of a marriage, knowing that there’s nothing you can do to change the mind of your spouse, who is leaving. Maybe it’s one of your children making horrible decisions, and you know there’s nothing you can do to help them, or even clean up the mess they’re leaving. Maybe it’s the mess you’ve made of your own life, and you know there’s nothing you can do to clean it up. Maybe it’s the pile of bills you can’t pay and the empty fridge you can’t fill. I really truly hope that there aren’t many Jarius’ in this room today, but I’ve been around long enough to know that, like me, you’re here. Without Jesus’ help, it’s over. You may not be able to relate to the circumstance, but you can relate to the feeling.
The 61-year-old grandmother was sliding her groceries across the self-checkout at the Woodbury Walmart. Scanner beeping, her total climbing, She pulled from her cart a package of steaks. She had counted the money in her wallet. “I just didn’t have enough.”
Holding the steaks she’d promised her family for dinner, she made a split-second decision, “I didn’t have enough for them and I just bagged them anyway.” She was walking out of the store when a Walmart employee stopped her. The phone call from Walmart to the Police Department was routine.
She had been taken to a room away from other Walmart customers. Her 18-year-old daughter who’d accompanied her to the store was sobbing when the officer entered. “She told me her daughter was autistic.” This 61 year old grandma had a lot on her plate. In addition to her 18-year-old daughter with autism, eight other children and grandchildren live with her. Her husband had been the family’s provider until his death 15 years ago. She said, “You get to a point where you’re drained, you can’t even think.” That’s Jairus. That’s been me. And it’s been you too.
Look now at the next paragraph. Look at Mark 5:25-34. Jesus and Jarius and the disciples and the whole crowd are on their way to Jarius’ house to do what Jesus had done over and over again – intervene and heal. But this time, there’s a delay. Someone else is desperate too. Unlike Jarius, we don’t get to know her name. She’s just a nameless person. A nameless woman who has been sick for 12 years, roughly the same amount of time Jarius’ little girl had been alive. Luke relates the same story, and tells us that Jarius’ daughter was about 12.
This nameless woman was sick with some kind of bleeding disease. Most Bible scholars assume it was some kind of uterine constant bleeding issue, but we don’t really know for sure. What we do know was that this woman had been losing blood slowly for 12 years. With a bleeding issue, she was treated as ceremonially unclean. She couldn’t attend synagogue for celebrations and services and the Jewish feasts. When she went out in public, she had to cry out “unclean” just like someone who had leprosy. If anyone came in contact with her, they had to go through a cleansing process. If anyone laid on her bed or sat on a chair she sat on, they would have to cleanse themselves and launder their clothes before they went back out in public, because they were now considered unclean too. This woman was a walking contaminant.
And she’d tried to find healing. She’d gone to doctors, paid for every medical treatment that she could afford. And now she had nothing left. She had spent everything she had on medical treatments, and nothing helped. Her bleeding disorder persisted.
Desperation wears many costumes, doesn’t it? Jarius has money, he has friends, he has influence. People want to be like him. Heck, people want to be him. This woman has nothing. She doesn’t even get named in the story. Peter, who passed this story on to Mark, remembered Jarius’ name. He didn’t remember this woman’s name. He probably never knew it. Her name didn’t matter. She didn’t matter. She is impure, dishonored, and destitute, scratching out a meager existence at the bottom of the social ladder. She may have had money once, but her sickness had taken all of that away, and not one penny spent returned any healing. Jarius the synagogue ruler and a nameless woman – both desperate for help from Jesus.
And Jesus is rushing to help Jarius, the one who can do something for him, who can give some money in the group’s purse for them to buy food and supplies (remember Judas was the treasurer of the group). Maybe they could sleep in his guest room or at least on his property somewhere. This woman doesn’t even try to stop Jesus. She just wants to touch him. She thinks that if she can just touch him, she’ll be healed, and he won’t even know it. Her faith isn’t sophisticated, and it isn’t really correct. She holds many of the magical beliefs people in that day held. If I can just touch him, I’ll be healed. She doesn’t even believe the right things in the right way, but God honors her pursuit of Jesus. She at least goes to the right place. And when she touches him, she is healed.
There’s no reason for Jesus to stop. Her need has been met. She came to Jesus in need, didn’t even bother him, and her need was met. She knew immediately that she’d been healed. Whatever symptoms she was experiencing day after day that told her she was still hopelessly, helplessly sick went away – not when Jesus touched her, but when she touched Jesus. But to the horror of both Jarius and this woman, Jesus stopped. He felt the power go out of him, and he stopped. Even though there was no time for him to stop. Even though Jarius’ daughter was on the verge of death, no time to spare. Jesus stopped. He could have just kept walking. He could have turned and given her a quick smile and a wink and kept on going. But he didn’t. He stopped. To the horror of Jarius, because there’s no time to lose. To the horror of the woman, because she was unclean, and she’d broken every rule to get near Jesus. She had fought her way through the crowd, making everyone there unclean, and she’d touched Jesus. That would have made him unclean too. There was no way he could help the dying little girl now. Jarius would be angry. She would be terrified.
But Jesus stopped, and turned around, and asked a really stupid question. “Who touched me?” His disciples are like, “Who touched you? Everyone has touched you Jesus. The crowd is thick, everyone wants to see what you’re about to do. We’re all getting jostled here. In fact, it might be helpful if you’d part this crowd like you parted the Red Sea for Moses. We’ll get there faster.” But Jesus was insistent. “No, I felt power go out of me. Who touched me.”
And the woman comes and, just like Jarius, bows at the feet of Jesus, fearing a very stern reprimand, or worse, a beating. She got neither. Look at Jesus’ words in V. 34. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Social convention would be for Jesus to call her “woman.” Not in a derogatory way, the way we think of using the word “woman” as a title today. Today, if a man turns to a woman and says, “Woman, what are you doing?” he’s going to get punched in the face. It’s not a respectful way to talk in our culture. But in that culture, it was the equivalent of “ma’am.” That’s what Jesus would have been expected to say. But he didn’t. He didn’t call her woman, he called her “daughter.” He’s reminding Jarius that this woman is someone’s daughter too, not all that different from his own daughter. And it’s a term of affection from him. He speaks to her tenderly, gently, and in doing so, he makes sure that everyone there knows that she’s been healed. She isn’t a walking contaminant anymore. She has been restored to the community. Her need wasn’t less important than Jarius’ need because of who she was, or because she wasn’t immediately on death’s door. His need wasn’t more important than hers because of who he was, or because his daughter was on death’s door.
The great theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans, sending us people with claims and petitions. It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s “crooked yet straight path.”[ii]
Jesus allowed himself to stop, and the thing Jarius, and any of his friends in the crowd, and probably Jesus’ disciples too, feared most, happens. Actually, it had already happened. Jarius’ daughter died while Jesus was stopped, seeking the woman who had been healed. Look at V. 35. Death was, and is, the great enemy. As long as there was breath in her body, no matter how faint, there was still hope. Jarius knew it. He’d seen Jesus work. He’d heard even more stories. But now? Now that his precious little girl was dead, there was no sense continuing. “Why trouble the Teacher any further?”
Now, look at Vv. 36-39. Jesus looks squarely into the eyes of a man who’s just heard that his little girl died before they could get there – whose little girl might not have died if they hadn’t stopped – and says, “Hang in there with me just a little bit longer. Keep trusting me. That faith you had back down on the shoreline, hold on to it. Keep trusting.” But … she’s dead, what’s the point?
Truth is, we’ll all get to the point where we have to decide how far we’re really willing to trust Jesus. When the next step really is a step of faith, because Jesus is asking you to take it, and you aren’t sure you can. What’s the point? It’s over.
Until it isn’t. Look at Vv. 40-43. They laughed at Jesus because they thought he was nuts. They may not have been as medically sophisticated as we are, but they knew what death looked like. They knew how to tell if someone was dead. People didn’t die in hospitals and infirmaries back then, with society protected from it. People died in homes, where their families were. No one was protected from it. They knew darn well that she wasn’t just sleeping. Luke, a physician, emphasizes that her spirit entered her body again. She wasn’t in some deep unconscious state from which she could awaken. She was really, truly, gone. Dead.
So what is Jesus saying and doing here? He’s doing what he’s always doing – he’s revealing the nature of the Kingdom of God to them, and to us. And the Kingdom of God is a place in which death is not welcome in any form. Yes, we still die. This little girl who was raised to life in her father’s house would die again one day. Lazarus, who Jesus also raised from the dead, would die again. We still die, because God has not brought his Kingdom in its fullness yet. Death has been defeated, but it has not yet died itself.
Death still separates us from one another, but it cannot separate us from God. What Jesus was doing that day in Jarius’ house is giving us a taste of what we’ll experience when he returns and the Kingdom of God comes in it’s fullness. Mark tells us that Jarius’ parents were “overcome with amazement.” The phrase depicts an almost out of body experience. Our modern saying “they were beside themselves with joy and relief and amazement” would pretty accurately capture the meaning.
They thought that so long as she had breath, there was hope, and that’s how far their faith went. To be honest, that’s pretty far. That’s farther than our faith goes sometimes. What they found was that in Jesus, death itself could be defeated. They found cries of despair and desperation transformed into shouts of joy and amazement and relief. Getting your dead child back, even if she would one day die again – there aren’t many things that could compete with that.
How far does your faith go? Do you trust him only when it’s easy? Can you trust him when it gets hard? And can you trust him when, by all accounts, it doesn’t make any sense anymore? Because with Jesus, the clock doesn’t matter, the challenge is insurmountable, and death itself doesn’t matter. How far do you trust him? Let’s pray.
[i] Dennis Overbye, “Physicists Find Elusive Particle Seen as Key to Universe,” The New York Times (7-4-12); Steve Bradt, “3 Questions: Physicist Christoph Paus discusses newly discovered particle,” MIT News Office (7-4-12)
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Martyred Christian. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 1.