The Real Miracle
Text: Mark 5:21-43
“He took her by the hand and said to her, . . . ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the little girl got up and began to walk about.” Mark 5:41–42 (NRSV)
In her book of sermons, Bread of Angels, Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by. Not everyone who prays for one gets one . . . Jesus’ miracles remind us that the way things are is not the way they always will be . . . Every healing, every banishment of evil is like a hole poked in the opaque fabric of time and space. The kingdom breaks through and for a moment or two we see how things will be— or how they really are right now in the mind of God—and then it is over. The disciples go back to their rowing, the once-blind beggar walks off to look for work, the little girl stretches her arms and takes the bread her stunned mother holds out to her.
(The Problem with Miracles)
“The problem with miracles is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own.” Just ask Jairus. He was the leader of the synagogue, the most respected and powerful Jew in town, the one who under most circumstances would be leading the charge against Jesus as a reprehensible pretender, a would-be Messiah of God.
In the fifth chapter of Mark’s Gospel, one thing we learn immediately is that these are not normal circumstances. Jairus’ daughter is dying and he is feeling anything but powerful. He needs a miracle and he needs it right now. As soon as Jesus’ boat docks back in Jewish territory, Jairus, the religious leader of the town, does not send for Jesus. He goes to find Jesus himself. He stands on the dock, clear to the public eye, waiting, not to ask, but to beg Jesus to come with him, just the opposite of the earlier story in Mark 5, when the crowd begged Jesus to get out of town because he was messing with their income.
With all eyes set on Jairus and his highly inappropriate appeal to Jesus, the story gets abruptly interrupted. A new story begins, taking us from the most well-known man in town, Jairus, to an unnamed woman in the crowd. We do not know her name, but we do learn that she has been bleeding for twelve long years and no doctor has been able to stop it. As a bleeder, she has been ritually unclean for twelve years. Her condition has taken away all her resources and left her even more powerless than a healthy woman in a patriarchal society. Her condition has left her unable to step into Jairus’ synagogue and restricted from being in public places with fellow Jews. Her condition, though, does not define her. Even though she knows the rules forbid it, she joins the crowd pressing in on Jesus.
A quick aside: it may not make much sense in the 21st century, but ritual cleanliness was a big deal in the day of Jesus. If you were ritually clean, then you were welcome in the worshiping community. If you were not, then there was a huge barrier awaiting, informing you: DO NOT ENTER. And, the rules and regulations were quite clear about what made you clean or unclean ritually.
According to Jewish rules and regulations, Jairus was ritually clean. The bleeding woman was not. The two of them have little in common, except that in their desperation, rules and regulations can take a hike. Like Jairus, this woman needs a miracle and she needs it right now. Her courageous faith is such that she does not ask Jesus to touch her. She needs only to touch Jesus, so she maneuvers through the crowd until she does.
So, reading this story strictly by the book, when the unnamed, bleeding woman touches Jesus, he is rendered ritually unclean. The rules are clear. Stop, remove your clothes, take a bath, and have no physical contact with anyone.
Like this woman and like Jairus, Jesus, refuses to be defined by rules and regulations. Jesus knows faith when he feels it. First, he tells his disciples that he wants to meet the one who has touched his garment. His clumsy crew bursts into laughter, “Jesus, have you noticed the size of this crowd? And, you want to meet the person who touched you? Jesus, EVERYONE is touching you.” The courageous woman identifies herself and Jesus celebrates her faith and announces her well.
Next, the now unclean Jesus goes with Jairus into his ritually clean house. “Jesus takes the small hand of Jairus’ daughter in his,” writes John Buchanan.
“. . . So, a second time, Jesus is unclean, this time because of his own action. And he takes her small hand in his and lifts her lifeless body and for the second time says something so intimate and affectionate, something so startling that Mark gives it to us untranslated, in the very Aramaic Jesus spoke: ‘Talitha Cum’: ‘little girl’—actually, ‘little lamb’—'get up’.”
Frankly, I get nervous when I preach from Mark 5. My friend, Barbara, is right. “Not everyone who prays for one [a miracle] gets one.” My first pastoral visit was to a woman who was desperately ill and wanted a miracle. She had gathered friends from a nearby mega-church to come pray for her to receive a miracle. They did so for over an hour. When the woman did not improve, her newfound friends fled because clearly this woman lacked enough faith to deserve a miracle. Too many zealous Christians read Mark 5 and conclude that if you have just enough faith, a miracle awaits you.
I wonder if the real miracle in these two interwoven stories is more than that a daughter lives and a bleeding woman no longer bleeds. I wonder if the real miracle is the tenacious, rules and regulations busting, faith of one man and one woman, who refuse to laugh at the transformative power of Jesus, who refuse to be defined by what society tells them to do. I wonder if the real miracle is as old as the faithful cry of the Psalmist, “Out of the depths, I cried to you. O Lord, hear my prayer.” I wonder if the real miracle here is that there is nowhere we can go where God does not go with us.
Buchanan goes on to preach, “There are no depths to which we can descend that the love of Christ cannot reach us. There is no earthly condition, no sickness, no debilitation, no alienation, no isolation, no loneliness, no self-imposed guilt, no depression that can prevent Jesus Christ from finding us and gathering us in and welcoming us to his kingdom, to our place at his table, to our true home.
“Sometimes you pray and the miracle doesn’t happen. What does happen—always—is God’s love, and that makes all the difference in the world. If that father knew that and trusted it, as he obviously did, Barbara Brown Taylor says, ‘he could have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus had walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Trusting that she was still in God’s good hands, even though she had slipped through his’ (Bread of Heaven, p.139). The real miracle: God’s love in Jesus Christ.”
So what if you and I were to stop trying to sort out the miraculous calculus of God, some claiming that everything is a miracle with others claiming that there is no such thing as a miracle? What if you and I were to pause at the feasting table just long enough to taste the food of freedom and to drink from the cup of welcome? What if you and I were to dare to trust that our lives are claimed by the ongoing love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord?
What if that were the real miracle?
(special thanks to John Buchanan for his sermon of the same title, preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago in 2006)