Sermon on Mark 5: 21-43
There comes a time in the life of every human being – usually at about the age of eleven or twelve – when that person realises that he or she is going to die. Suddenly it hits you that death is personal. It’s not just going to happen to other people, it’s going to happen to me.
Some people seem to be able to take it in their stride but, speaking for myself, it came as a real, profound shock – in a way the biggest shock that it is possible to have.
And, if I’m honest, I still find the thought difficult to cope with. It’s not that I believe in personal annihilation when we die but the mere thought that it might be so sometimes has the power to knock me off my pedestal of composure.
But over the years I’ve come to regard the fear of death as one way that God can use to bring us closer to him. Far from being something negative or even something to avoid, it can actually be a creative thing spiritually.
The last time I was preaching here at St Matthias I quoted a poem by George Herbert – Love bade me welcome – one of his most loved poems. Now, I don’t make a habit of quoting Herbert or any other poet very often but, for some strange reason, I’ve felt impelled to quote Herbert again this morning – this time from a poem called The Pulley – not quite as well known as Love bade me welcome but a very fine poem nonetheless.
The poet imagines God, as he creates mankind, pouring out innumerable blessings upon us but he withholds the final blessing which is rest. God justifies himself by saying:
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me
And rest in nature, not the God of nature:
So both should losers be.
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.
If there were no sense of dissatisfaction or what Herbert calls weariness within us, we would have little motivation to turn to God. And we would be infinitely the poorer, for God is where our true well-being lies. It’s a similar sentiment to that well-known quote of St Augustine: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you’.
It’s the absence of peace in our hearts that often draws us to God.
And we can see a similar process at work in our gospel reading today. Let’s think a little about the character of Jairus – one of the leaders of the local synagogue.
Jesus had already been making himself unpopular with the religious authorities by healing on the Sabbath. We don’t know for sure, of course, but it wouldn’t be surprising if Jairus was a bit wary of this trouble-maker from Nazarethwith his disruptive teaching and disruptive actions. Jairus wouldn’t want to get into trouble with the local scribes and Pharisees. We know what they were capable of.
But his daughter gets ill and he doesn’t know where to turn. He has seen Jesus heal people – on the Sabbath, it’s true – but his daughter’s really ill. She might be dying. So he turns to Jesus. Fear drives him to Jesus. If his daughter hadn’t become ill, who knows, perhaps he would have continued to keep Jesus at arm’s length.
And the woman with the bleeding is also driven by fear to come to Jesus. In her case it’s the fear that her condition will just continue endlessly into the future, just as it feels to her that it has continued endlessly over the past twelve years. Fear drives her to Jesus. She has tried everything else. What did she have to lose?
A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by an ex-bishop of Kingston– Peter Selby. He was talking about the role of money in our lives and he said something about the National Lottery that really stuck in my mind. Everything the Lottery funds is in reality funded by the poor because most players of the Lottery are poor.
It’s not that poor people can’t see that the chances of winning are enormously slim. They play the Lottery because it’s the only way they can see out of their predicament.
I don’t mean to imply that the National Lottery is equivalent to God – that would be preposterous, but the fact is that God is the only way out of our predicament, which is the human predicament
Some people say that religious belief is emotionally driven – basically that religious believers believe what they do because they are looking for comfort and consolation.
Fear as it were overcomes their rationality. Emotion is no doubt a big factor and a big consideration in religious belief but to say that belief is sometimes emotionally motivated doesn’t actually constitute any kind of coherent argument against it.
The fact is that atheists, for instance, just as much as anybody else believe what they do partly because it fulfils some kind of emotional need for them. In fact, in my view – far more dangerously so because atheists usually think they are the very epitome of rationality and are completely unaware of the emotions working away under the surface of their convictions.
It can be misleading to generalise but religious believers are often – though not always – far more aware of the emotional side of their belief system.
Ultimately, I don’t think God is bothered too much why we decide to seek him out. As long as we do seek him. He knows perfectly well that we’re a rag-bag of different motivations – some good, some that we wouldn’t want to own up to and some we’re not even aware of.
But I do think that God can and does use our fears, our restlessness, our weariness to help bring us closer to him. Our role is to be open to the workings of God in our hearts and so transcend our natural restlessness and, in the end, find the peace of God that has no darkness in it and no fear.