When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered round him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’ So Jesus went with him.
-from Mark 5
Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
This Thursday, at our USFW meeting, Theresa Rembert presented a program on writing memoirs. She offered a number of ideas to help people to think about how to frame their stories. One of those was the “fairy tale” approach, in which you imagine one scene from your life as if you are the hero in a mythic tale. You start off, then, by describing the hero- what do they possess that makes them a hero, and what do they need? Those two pieces of information will shape the sort of quest on which the hero is sent.
That’s exactly how Naaman’s story starts. He’s a great commander. He’s brave. He’s respected. God has used him on the battlefield. What our hero needs, though, is nothing he can rout with a sword and a chariot- he needs healing.
So, off he goes on his quest. An unlikely messenger appears, as is nearly obligatory in this kind of story. This time, it’s in the form of a Hebrew slave girl, serving in Naaman’s household. She speaks of a healer with great power – a prophet in Samaria – who she is certain could bring Naaman healing.
The king of Aram has nothing better to suggest, so he gives his blessing. Naaman gathers up silver, gold, and fine clothing, and leaves his kingdom bearing a letter from the king of Aram addressed to the king of Israel.
The king of Israel, to put it gently, was not thrilled by this news. He tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow (by which he means the king of Aram) send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
The kings of Israel were not, for the most part, known for their wisdom. This one has a good point, though! If the king of Israel fails to heal Naaman, even though rumor has it that he could have, then the king of Aram may interpret that as an act of aggression. What’s a mediocre king of a smaller country to do?
This king is a red herring, though. Enter Elisha, the powerful prophet that the servant girl was thinking of. Naaman’s glorious retinue finds itself outside the home of some cranky mystic who can’t even be bothered to step outside the door and meet him. Seriously- Elisha doesn’t even go say hello to the great and powerful warrior! He sends a messenger out, instead, to say “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
This is the point at which we can say that Naaman is completely over this adventure. It’s the part of the book where the hero, faced with a seemingly impossible task, chooses instead to simply throw in the towel.
In this case, though, the task at hand isn’t so much impossible as it is demeaning. Here Naaman has come, surrounded by servants and loaded up with rich gifts and bearing a letter from the king himself, and the messenger of a supposedly great prophet is telling him to go bathe in the Jordan River?
The Jordan River, I will remind you, is not a picturesque river. It’s muddy and kind of gross. Naaman isn’t wrong, when he rants that the rivers of his home in Damascus would be better to bathe in. How’s he supposed to get clean by washing in dirty water? That doesn’t make any sense. So he turned and went off in a rage.
Naaman is persuaded, eventually, to give this remedy a try. You won’t be surprised to know, given the setup, that his hero quest is successful. His leprosy is gone, and Naaman lives to fight another day.
I’m struck, though, by how human Naaman’s response is when offered healing in the first place. Because, sure, the river is kind of disgusting. But it’s just dirt, though! What kind of mighty warrior is afraid of a little dirt? He’s willing to be covered in the blood of his enemies, but can’t possibly wade into a muddy river if he hasn’t brought along his Tide stain stick?
I think, intuitively, we know that’s not the answer. It’s not that Naaman is afraid of getting dirty. It’s something else- something more human – something a little closer to home.
Consider, for a moment, the women who went on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, to prepare Jesus’ body properly for burial. Consider what they had been through, from the triumphal entry, to the scene at the temple, to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. When they came with him to Jerusalem, was this what they were expecting?
Most Messiahs failed, after all. The Roman province of Judea was littered with the bones of failed Messiahs. Perhaps the women foresaw that possibility, and followed Jesus to the cross and to the tomb because they wanted to be faithful anyhow.
Perhaps. What we know, though, is that they were unprepared to get to the tomb and find Jesus missing and meet instead two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning. The women had come to the cemetery to anoint Jesus’ body, but the two gleaming men call the purpose of their trip into question. They press this query: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why did they look for the living Christ in a cemetery? Well, because they thought he was dead- that’s a pretty simple question.
What if it’s not a question for those women, though? What if it’s a question for you? Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Jesus finally made his way to Jarius’ house. He would have been there sooner, but a woman grabbed his clothes along the way, and her healing and the ruckus around it slowed him down.
When Jarius asked Jesus to come by his house, his little daughter had been dying.
Sit with Jarius, here, for a moment. Sit with the helplessness of watching a child die, with the panic, with the terror that would push a respected synagogue leader like Jarius out the door and into the street in hopes that someone, anyone, might save her.
By the time Jesus arrived at Jarius’ house, the girl was dead.
Listen to the story: While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?”
Listen, Friends, because here is the whole point of my sermon: to ask for life is not to bother the Teacher. To ask for life, rather, is to demonstrate that you have understood the lesson.
Overhearing what they said, Jesus told [Jarius], “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
As Jesus and his closest disciples approached Jarius’ house, the wailing sounds grew louder. The house was filled with people grieving the death of this young girl. Jesus questioned their conclusion, saying that the girl was not dead but merely sleeping… and the gathered grievers laughed in his face.
Jesus, unwilling in this moment to be surrounded by mockers, kicked them all out of the house.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.
Jesus had done no less than he had set out to do, in coming to Jarius’ house to heal his daughter, but the people were completely astonished and rightly so. Who says talitha koum to a dead girl – little girl, I say to you, get up! – and expects to see her live?
Naaman is offered a new lease on life, and he turns it down. He could go bathe in the Jordan River, but he doesn’t want to- it’s beneath him to do such a thing. He’d rather ride away with his chin held high and his dignity intact than submit to an embarrassing ritual prescribed by Elisha’s messenger. He asks, angrily, why he couldn’t have bathed instead in the rivers of his home in Damascus.
When we seek salvation, Friends, what are we expecting? Are we willing to be thrown off course?
Jesus’ female disciples make their way to the tomb, embodying courage. If you had asked them, they would have said that they were simply doing their duty because women were in charge of preparing bodies for burial. They might not have admitted the obvious- that in committing to prepare Jesus’ body for burial, they were publicly aligning themselves with his movement. These women made a dangerous choice, when they packed up their spices and oils and headed toward the tomb, and their courage should be honored.
What they find, though, is nothing like what they expected. There’s no dead Jesus, and there’s no satisfying answer in the moment. What they receive, instead, is a question: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
In the story of Jarius’ daughter, the question is posed not in words but in laughter. Jesus approaches this house that’s filled with mourning, and he’s bearing good news. Jesus says Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep and the people’s wailing and crying melts into cackles and giggles- not the laughter of the joyful, but the snickers of the disbelieving.
This laughter draws into question all that Jesus has come to offer. Is he – stop and think – is he really capable of waking this dead child? Does he just not know that death is real?
Death is real, of course. But life, you might say, is realer.
I don’t think that doubt is a sin. I think, rather, that dishonesty is a sin- and so if you are experiencing doubt, then I think that you should candidly name it as such. I think that your integrity is more important than your willingness to offer an empty affirmation of a declaration of faith.
But doubt, in and of itself, has of no value. So I want to delve into the questions that we ask, when we doubt. And specifically, I want to challenge the questions we ask when faced with the possibility of new life.
Because isn’t that our pattern? New life appears before us, and we summon our questions. We ask whether or not this new life before us can be real.
I’ve told you three stories about doubters. Naaman had no faith in the healing properties of the Jordan River. The women at the tomb looked for the living among the dead. Jarius’ friends openly laughed at the bumpkin prophet who proclaimed that the child was not really dead.
I think we should have compassion for these doubters. Each of them could back up their questions with good reason. Perhaps, in their place, we would do no better.
Doubt is not a sin. Can I say that often enough?
Doubt is not a sin, but it is also not a resting place. It’s good to question, good to query, good to interrogate any claim that comes before us.
But it’s also good, now and then, to step out without being sure. Naaman didn’t know what would happen, when he dipped himself down in the Jordan River. The female disciples didn’t know what would happen, if they looked for the living among the living rather than in a cemetery. And Jarius’ friends couldn’t imagine that someone would say talitha koum to the dead little girl – little girl, I say to you, get up! – and then this precious daughter would be on her feet and looking for a snack.
Talitha koum, Friends. Rise up! You are surrounded, perhaps, by those whose laughter would fill the house if you spoke of the promise of new life. Speak anyway.
Refuse, Friends, to seek for the living among the dead. Refuse, Friends, to reject the grace of God that comes to you in the lowliest of forms. Refuse, Friends, to laugh at the promise of new life.
Talitha koum, Friends. Rise up! May you seek out the promise of new life, and despite your doubts, may you find it.