What Kind of King?
This morning's beautiful gospel story is the third in a series of stories in which St. Mark is telling us about who and how Jesus is. This is a series about that very churchy word: Christology; about what it means to say that Jesus is the Christ (Greek), or the Messiah (Hebrew). The word means anointed. God's Messiah is the anointed One, the king after God's own heart. Biblically speaking, the Messiah is the One anointed to usher in God's reign; who will be King of kings, Lord of lords; the One who will be the hope of God's people Israel, and finally of the whole world. When Mark begins his gospel with the explosive claim that it is "the beginning of good news of Jesus Christ, son of God," it's a call to pay attention because we're about to catch a glimpse (at least the beginning) of God's dream for all things. What's going to unfold in the person of Jesus has everything to do, not just with who and how he is, but who and how God is for this broken and beloved world.
While there's a lot more to say about that, what we see in the three stories that culminate marvellously in today's passage is what Mark wants us to know about the kind of King, the kind of Lord that Jesus is. The first story is the calming of the storm. Jesus and the disciples are travelling across the Sea of Galilee, and their boat is suddenly caught in a terrible storm. It's a situation so dire that even the fishermen, men who have spent their lives in the unpredictable power of the sea, are terrified, convinced that this is it. Jesus is somehow asleep through the tumult, until they wake him up, accusing him of not caring that they're about to be washed away for good. At that, Jesus stands up and says, "Peace, be still!" And what was raging chaos becomes perfect calm. That part ends with the disciples stunned--even terrified--about this One whom even the wind and sea obey. There's a hint of Genesis here, as the chaos gives way to life with a word.
The next story is of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. They arrive safely on the other side of the sea, only to be confronted by a storm of a completely different kind. A man, possessed by a legion of demons, so tormented he couldn't be restrained, so wild he couldn't be with other people, a man naked and howling and living in the tombs, rushes onto the beach, raging at Jesus. "What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?!" That story ends thrillingly, with the man released from his torment, sitting clothed and in his right mind, as Jesus claims authority over the spirits.
Mark shows us Jesus' power and authority, his Kinship, his Lordship over these chaotic things--the unpredictability and force of nature; the terrifying power of evil--not in a kind of prescriptive way, but as a way of drawing us into the truth and overwhelming wonder of God's presence with us and for us. The point is not that storms never happened again, or that evil doesn't still rage, but that in the company of Jesus, God's power and reign embodied, these things aren't ultimate; they won't, they can't have the last word. And then, in today's story, we arrive on the other side of the lake again.
But first, let's pray.
I said that these stories culminate marvellously in today's passage. And mean that it's marvellous. This is the crowning claim about who and how Jesus is with us and for us, and it's not at all the way that I would have set it up. In the first two stories there's a kind of escalating intensity. The scope of Jesus' power expands, the action is more and more extreme. Jesus has authority over the physical world, and then the spiritual world! Where are we going to go next?! And where we end up is in the company of a sick woman and a dead girl. I feel like I might have started there. Compared to the two previous, the scenes we find ourselves in today are pretty understated. But St. Mark obviously thinks otherwise. This is the climax of Jesus' power; this is where he wants our attention to finally land; this is the highpoint of how God is. And the truth of it should make us marvel.
As we make our way through this passage, as we tend to the good news that Mark wants us to know, I want to pay attention to three things: 1) What does this say about the kind of Lord Jesus is, the kind of King he is? (What do these things tell us about God?) 2) How does he use his power? (To what end?) 3) What does that mean for us who would walk in his will and way, who claim him as Lord of lords?
So, what kind of Lord in Jesus? It's worth recognizing from the outset that some people, perhaps some of us, are resistant to the language of Lordship. It triggers negative emotions and associations. And there are good reasons for that. Experience has made us wary of lords, wary of ultimate authority. The title resonates with issues of patriarchy, of poisonous power, of oppressive rule. We're right to have our guard up about such things. And yet, Jesus is Lord is the foundational claim of Christianity; it's basic. It's always helps to consider what a fiery claim that is. When Jesus first followers said and sang it in the shadow of the Roman Empire, it was an act of rebellion. To say Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not; that any other claim to power and authority is relative to Jesus' power and authority. It still is an act of rebellion. The hope of the Church, of all those committed to his will and way, is that Jesus above all others, is the One who can be trusted to be Lord, to rule with love and justice and righteousness that we need.
And we hope that, we trust it, because Jesus turns lordship as the world knows it on its head. What are the marks of Jesus' lordship? We might begin with intimacy, real presence. Jesus doesn't stand behind the intimidation of his security detail, or the power of his army, making claims on us from a distance. Jesus is surrounded by the crowd, pressing in on him. And when the masses flock to him, he tends to them--he's not too busy doing other more lordly things. His is not just a kind of vague presence, glad-handing and posturing, making an appearance for the press. In both parts of the story, we see his particular attention, his specific, intimate care. With Jairus at his feet, desperate for his little girl, and with the bedraggled woman we see a Lord who is not too busy, or too lofty for us.
One of the things that has begun to really stand out to me about the healing stories in the gospels is how different they are. Sometimes there's healing at a distance, today it's all about touch; sometimes Jesus is wiping spit on people, sometimes it's just a word; sometimes it works on the first shot, and at least once it takes two tries; sometimes inner healing precedes outer healing, and sometimes it's the other way around--sometimes it's your sins are forgiven, take up your mat and walk; today the woman is physically healed and then she gets what her heart needs. None of the healings are quite the same. I think this tells us something really important about how Jesus is. Jesus doesn't work in generalities. There isn't a kind of one-size-fits-all approach to how Jesus cares for us. Jesus' way is specific, it's personal, it's intimate.
And it's generous and self-giving. Jesus is the Lord who comes when his people call. His is the kingdom of the One who hears the cries of his people; his is a power that stoops, that meets the poor and broken in the ash heap, that raises the humble, that doesn't grasp but gives. Jesus goes with Jairus, when he's asked. Jesus wants to know who touched him, so that he can bless her. Particularly in his interaction with the suffering woman, we see (as theologian Wendy Cotter puts it) that Jesus is "astonishingly free from the need for public honor." He doesn't use the situation as an opportunity to draw attention to his power, but to lift up the daring and desperate faith of an outcast woman. He doesn't take acclaim for himself, he gives grace in abundance.
And let's notice that his Lordship messes with our categories and expectations. I think there's a pretty good reason that over and over again in the gospels we see the obviously broken people streaming to Jesus, while the self-satisfied and apparently together folks tend to have a harder time with him. His reckless love breaks down barriers that are really important to the lords of this world and their allies. That he goes with Jairus might not seem like much of a surprise. But Jesus has as much time and concern for Jairus, a man, named, important, religious and esteemed, as for the woman, unnamed, outcast because of her illness, ritually unclean, poor, of no consequence in the world at all. If we have any commitment at all to the kind of power wielded by the Caesars of the world, this is deeply unsettling.
These two stories, told together, remind us of the ways that Jesus uses his power: to come near--close enough to touch; to give lavishly and generously; to overcome our brokenness and our broken ways. He uses his power for the sake of the unnamed and inconsequential. Again, let's pay close attention to the fact that the climax of these power stories is not Jesus' ability to command the wind and the waves, or his capacity to make the demons tremble; it's Jesus giving of himself for the sake of an unnamed woman and an unnamed girl--two people who are pictures of vulnerability and insignificance, in their time and place. What's more, touching or coming in contact with either of them--a bleeding woman, or a dead girl--would render him ritually unclean. Contact with them would make him like them. And yet, there's no anger at the woman's audacity; there's no hesitation to take the little girl's hand and raise her up. Jesus uses his power not to avoid human frailty, as we so often do, but to embrace it--even to become like us that we might become like him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus uses his power to comfort and console, to bind up the broken hearted; to speak love to the loveless, and grace to those who could never expect it. This King is good news to the poor! Jesus uses his power to order chaos into new creation, to bring life out of death. And not in general, but specifically and intimately. In Jesus we see the face of the God who cares about our going out and coming in (Psalm 121:8), about the details of our lives. Consider all the particular details that we get in these stories. Do we need to know how long the woman has been sick for, about her history with ineffective physicians, or her dire financial situation? Do we need to know that the girl is twelve years old, or what language she spoke, or that she needs a snack? We don't. None of that is important, if all that matters is the miracle. A sick woman healed and a dead girl raised to life, is a good enough headline. In other healing stories we don't get so much detail. But here, where we're meant to be paying particular attention to who and how Jesus is, to the shape of his Lordship, Mark - not known for wasting ink - wants us to know that the details matter.
We might start there, in considering what all this means for us. We have a Lord who cares about the details of our lives. Not just what we can do for him, but about us. Not just about our spirits, but about our bodies, too. It's worth spending some time wondering about that. It means, among other things, that there's nothing that we need to keep separate from Jesus. The division between sacred and secular gets all confused in Jesus' presence--a fact underlined by the juxtaposition of Jairus, the synagogue leader, and the woman who wouldn't have been allowed into the community's worship. If we have a Lord who cares about all the details of our lives, then when St. Paul tells us that we're free to do whatever we do in the name of Jesus and to the glory of God (and free not to do anything than can't be so done), that's true. If we have a Lord who cares about the details of our lives, it means that what we do out there has everything to do with what we're doing in here, and vice versa.
What's more, if we have a Lord whose default is love and grace, compassion and consolation, it means that even the broken parts, the messy parts, the parts we'd rather no one knew about, even the parts that no one does, can be brought into Jesus' presence. We can trust him with that stuff. I find the woman such an amazing and startling example of faith. Think of her, secretly, daringly, audaciously coming to touch the hem of this holy man's cloak. Think of her boldness to bring the mess of her life into contact with the One she hopes might save her, restore her, make her whole. She has no business doing that, by any standard other than heaven's! I don't know about you, but I'm way more likely to offer Jesus the good stuff. This heroine of faith reminds us that we can be bold to bring our whole selves to Jesus. She obviously didn't know that: she thought she had to sneak into his presence; she trembles when she's found out. But we're the beneficiaries of her bravery, because we see that she gets way more than she bargained for. Not only is she healed, but she's raised out fear and trembling, and sent into the world made new. She doesn't just get the hem of his cloak. She gets his face, himself. Her desperation becomes hope for us all.
That Jesus' power is the power to stoop, to join us, to meet us not only when we have it all together, but particularly when we don't, means that we can be audacious. We can be daring in our reaching for him, bold in our prayers. We can trust that when we come to him, he won't turn us away; that when we reach out, he won't leave us in disgrace.
We may not always get the miracle we want, but I really do think the miracles are secondary. After all, both the woman and the girl died eventually. This didn't fix everything, for all time--the girl's is not a resurrection like his. The miracles are simply a reminder that in the presence of Jesus, in the company of the One by whom and for whom all things are made, even death will not have the last word on us, brokenness will not have the last word on us. Jesus is Lord, even in the face of death. Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The miracles tell us something about the lengths to which God will go to be with us and for us, to be the hope, the healing, the love that we need. These stories remind us, insist for us, that in Christ, God will go to the point of becoming like us by his touch, so that we can become like him by his Spirit (as Paul puts it): the righteousness, the healing, reconciling presence of God for the world.
In the end, that's at least part of the reason for Mark to tell us these stories--not just so that we would know, surely and certainly, that we are sufficient to come into Christ's presence, to offer him our whole selves, to be audacious in asking for what we need; but also that those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, who claim him as Lord, would see how he is, and let ourselves be transformed by grace into his likeness. This is not just information about a great miracle worker, but an invitation to get in on what God is doing in the world, to join in the work of healing and hope, to offer ourselves--our time, our energy, our reputations, our stuff--for the sake of love and grace, for the sake of a life that not even death can stop, a light no darkness can quench. As we watch Jesus follow a broken-hearted and desperate father, as we see his tenderness and generosity with a vulnerable woman, as we witness his passionate care for a hopeless child, we're seeing the pattern of his kingdom, the focus of his power.
May his kingdom, his power find shape in us.