Does your suffering have meaning?
This is the infallible and the inerrancy Word of the living God in Mark 5:21-43:
And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “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.” And he went with him.
And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” And he allowed no one to follow him except Peter and James and John the brother of James. They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. And when he had entered, he said to them, “Why are you making a commotion and weeping? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But he put them all outside and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him and went in where the child was. Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement. And he strictly charged them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.
There is no greater question for a believer than the problem of pain.
Many of you know that I developed a chronic disease about eight years ago. As the autonomic illness progressed my world correspondingly shrunk. I cannot travel like I used to. I don’t even drive the distances I used to without my wife or son. The circumference of my habitation has down-sized. The good thing is that my wife can keep an eye on me a little more now! There are actually blessings to a smaller world. One benefit of staying closer to home is to more thoughtfully meditate on your limited space: the people, places, businesses, sights, and sounds of the area where one lives. For too many years I knew the streets of London better than I knew some of the backroads of Union County.
I frequently go to one of several coffee shops or even to the local grocery store. When I am faithful to my calling, I seek to pray, “Where today, Lord?” and “Who today?” The Lord then leads me to meet people and minister to them. This week I met a lady by way of her car; yes, her automobile. You see, I was ambling out of the Harris Teeter grocery store with a cup of coffee and a bag of British chocolates — both essential items for my condition, you know — when I spotted one of the most unusual looking vehicles I have ever seen. This little white car was painted with a garden scene. Black and bright-yellow bees were flying around blue and pink flowers, and all painted quite professionally on this compact foreign car. I thought, “Lord, this must be the one.” On this day I was arrayed with a wooden cane, because of some pain and weakness, a white short-sleeve-shirt with summer pastel bow tie, and blue and white seersucker pants. I either gave off a harmless if not downright approachable charm or she thought I was the ice-cream man! She [I have intentionally altered a few parts of the story to protect identity] saw me looking at her car, and she lowered the driver-side window. “Yes, Sir, can I help you?” I told her that I had never seen a car as pretty as hers. I asked what she did. Well, about twenty minutes later I heard the story of a 60 year old woman who had been laid-off from her big corporate job and found that a divorced female executive with kids in college can be a pretty frightening place. The vehicle was painted up because she had started her own business. I thought it had something to do with landscaping, but it had to do with helping geriatric patients with chronic pain find the joy of living again. She made house calls to her clients. She helps them start and sustain naturopathic ways to live with pain. Well, you can surely see where I was very impressed by her adaptability and her grit. I told her so. It was then that she began to reveal some tears. She told me just how hard it was, how lonely it can be, and how unsure of herself she is. But she said,
“I tried to trust in God to make sense of it all. But is was so hard.”
I assured her that she was ingesting the correct “naturopathic” food for her soul by taking her pain to God. I asked if I could pray with her. She wiped away a tear, suppressed the emotion that seemed to be caught in her throat, and just nodded, already closing her eyes to welcome the prayer. I held her hand as I leaned on the roof of the car (I was bigger than that little “play car”) and we prayed for understanding, and we prayed for strength. And yes I prayed for her success. It must have been a strange looking visage. A white-haired fellow on the cane in seersucker and bowtie praying with a nice lady in a little car with bees and flowers all over it. You just never know where the Lord will lead you.
That’s the real sovereign surprise of living: you just never know where the Lord will lead you. We are sometimes led to places we don’t want to go.
I surely didn’t know the Lord would lead me to a place of daily struggling with a chronic illness, albeit nothing in comparison to others’. Yet, it is my own cross to bear. And I can tell you one thing when you are married and have a family, your suffering affects your spouse, your children, and others. I believe my wife bears, with great compassion and dignity, more of the affliction than I do.
I am entirely sure that I am speaking today to those who are trying to make sense out of their own suffering. It may not be physical. It may be spiritual. It may even be circumstantial: a child or a grandchild who has been found to be using drugs; or, perhaps, someone here who is like the lady that I met. You are suffering an unexpected loss of a career, of income, of stability, and of meaning in life.
God knows what we’re going through. He assures us of this intimate knowledge of our lives in the gospel reading for today from Mark chapter 5 verses 21 through 43.
The Gospel lesson for this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is a fascinating story within a story that creates a larger story. The two stories are interwoven, just like our lives are connected. Jesus has left the eastern shore of Galilee where He healed the Gadarene. He is now back on the Jewish western beach. There he is told about Jairus’ little girl, dying, in her bed at home. Jairus was a leader of the synagogue there. Unlike so many other prominent religious this man trusted in Christ as Messiah. Jesus was on His way to see the dying girl. But the Lord was interrupted, not only by pressing crowds but by the desperate faith of one woman. She is not given a name. She is part of the crowd. So many needs. This woman suffered for twelve years. Interestingly, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old. The pain was born in one woman’s life as joy was born in another’s. Yet, both, now, were at the end. Both were unclean, “untouchable.” Yet, the woman’s desperation surges past any reputation. She reaches out to touch Jesus. The power flows from Jesus to his woman with a hemorrhage of some kind, ostensibly a sort of condition that we used to call, “Women’s issues.” This woman, unclean, said, “If I can only touch the hem of HIs garment I will be healed.” What remarkable faith. She was healed. Jesus felt the power of the healing go forth. The disciples were incredulous. So many people. Yet, Jesus saw individuals, He felt the individual touch. And He knew when He had healed. The story that continues is the story of the religious leader’s daughter. It is too late. The crowds, the other woman, had held up Jesus. The lass was now dead. Jesus was late again. But the stillness of the dead child became the backdrop for a glorious prelude to resurrection. Jesus commanded the child to wake up as if sleeping. She did.
What do we say to this story? How do we appropriate the faith we need for our own suffering from this passage? Is it now this, “That our pain is in God’s plan.”
I am not saying that pain is good. It is not. Theologically, pain is a throbbing symptom of a broken, and fallen world. I am affirming that pain and suffering are under the sovereign control of Almighty God. If they are not, then God is not God. The passage confirms that our pain is part of God’s plan in at least three assertions.
The first assertion is this:
Our Pain has Meaning In the Glory of Christ
There are so many plots and subplots at work in this sacred text. Neither the woman or the little girl are given a name. Both female subjects in the story are ritually unclean.
Twelve years is an obvious clue to something more profound. This is not because of any myth of numerology but because at the very time joy was birthed in Jairus’ home, the debilitating pain was born in the woman’s life. Suffering and celebration grow together in this world. The persistent and problematic question of theodicy is most certainly at the forefront of this narrative. Theodicy is not as much a question as it is a framework to try and understand the presence of a good God and the blight of evil. The Book of Job is well-known for addressing the matter of theodicy. But this central existential question appears throughout all 66 books of the Bible. And that is because the problem of a good God and a suffering people arises throughout life. The plots and subplots, however, intersect in the presence of the protagonist of the story: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The touch of the woman in the crowd that led to her healing as well as the interruption of this woman and the masses that led to the death of the synagogue leaders little girl both find their nexus in the person Jesus.
God is glorified when his suffering people are sanctified. Sanctification is not only the theological and spiritual truth of growing to be more like Jesus. Sanctification is also the transforming power of God that brings wholeness. The word for healing in this passage is the same word that is used in other places for salvation. Indeed, both the woman with the issue of blood and the corpse of a little girl was “saved.” In one case there is a touch. In the other event, there is his voice of compassionate authority. In both cases, there is a reversal of affliction.
But is this a story for Jesus’ time only? In other words, does God still demonstrate his power in healing? The answer is that he not only continue his healing ministry among his children, but he also maintains his saving work among his saints. Jesus receives glory as we receive Him into our broken lives.
Perhaps, you are aware of a similar story in John’s Gospel involving a friend of Jesus named Lazarus. This man becomes sick. Jesus is called to bring a healing touch. But Jesus intentionally lingers for two days. Lazarus dies. He not only expires but he lies dead for four days. It is in this perplexing and intentional hesitation to go heal Lazarus, an act that causes Martha to chastise the Lord, that Jesus’ announcement comes true,
“Lazarus is dead, and for your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (John 11:14a NIV).
There are times in our lives when we reach out to touch the hem of His garment, and we do not have the immediate transformation that happened to the woman in Mark’s Gospel. There are times when our loved ones die. But there is never a time when Jesus is absent from our suffering. There is never a time when His promises are not fulfilled, albeit fulfilled in a way that best glorifies His name. And we do not understand in this life all that this means. But our suffering and our pain when laid at the foot of the cross bring glory to the Lord Jesus. Just as there can be delayed salvation, there is a delayed glory. For even the little girl who arose would later die. The woman who was healed from her affliction would meet another illness or accident that would not be reversed. When we pray, we must expect that God will be gloried in our suffering, in our pain. But the moment of healing is tied to God’s greater glory. Jesus said,
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this” (John 11:25,26 NIV).
Oh what an honor that our suffering and even our pain might in some way bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ! Like the little donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we take our burdens, and we bear our afflictions, but we are lifting up Jesus Christ in our lives. Even if we reach out and touch the hem of his garment, even if we call for Jesus to come to our house to heal our loved one, and the promises seem distant or delayed, fear not. For Christ will be glorified as God turns our heartaches to healing, our loss to gain, our ashes for beauty, and all for our good and for his glory.
Secondly, we read the text in Mark 5 and assert:
Our Pain has Meaning By the Gift of Faith
Without the backdrop of pain and suffering, there is no demonstration of the gift of faith. Jairus was a leader of the synagogue. Most of the religious leaders were conspiring to kill Jesus. But there comes a time in a man’s life where his desperation trumps his reputation. Jairus was willing to lose his position in the community with his fellow religious leaders if he could only have the Lord Jesus come to heal his little girl. He trusted in Jesus to heal her. He would be amazed that in fact, Jesus would reverse death. The woman with the hemorrhage would not have reached out to touch the hem of his garment unless pain had reached in and grabbed hold of her life.
In the study of leadership, we come to understand that the amazing feats of courage and self-sacrifice or only discern in the presence of crisis and conflict. We would not know about the heroic soul of the medal of honor winner from Tennessee, Sgt. Alvin York, had he not have been in the Argonne Forest in a death match with German aggressors. Would we ever read the story dignity and honor of a Gen. Robert E. Lee unless he had suffered the internal torment of allegiances and morality in the trial of a nation at war with itself? And would we ever know of the deep abiding faith of an alcoholic shoe salesman’s son from Dixon, Illinois if Ronald Reagan had grown up with privilege? Faith grows greater in the soil of affliction. It is not something we desire nor wish for another. But it is something we need. And it is often something that our heavenly Father allows. Our God is not only glorified in the suffering and pain of this world, but the gift of faith is magnified.
Thirdly, we assert that our pain is in God’s plan in this way:
Our Pain has Meaning as it is connected to a Greater Story.
I have said that this is a story within a story. It is the story of an unclean woman receiving her healing from Jesus as he is on the way to bring healing and resurrection to another ritually unclean female. It is a story with mixed allegiances. It is a story with perplexing questions that will have to be answered on the other side of the veil of tears. Yet, what is entirely clear is that it is not only a story within a story Mark’s gospel narrative in chapter 5 is a story connected to a more significant story. This is not merely about the woman with the issue of blood. Her story was related to the little girl’s story. And all of the stories find their nexus in Jesus Christ.
When I am teaching seminarians how to preach, one of my principle points is that the sermon must always be connected to the greater story of the gospel. I tell them, “Help your people to see how God’s story is connected to their story and how their story is connected to the greater story of a new heaven and a new earth.”
This passage tells me that when I suffer that suffering is connected in some way to others in our community. When I reach out to touch Jesus with faith, I must understand that Jesus is already on the way to bring healing to someone else. And when Jairus receives the gift of life for his little girl, we must realize that this perfect timing was connected to the hesitation that came from the healing of the woman. If there is anything I could do in this sermon, any singular goal that I could wish to accomplish, it would be to help you know the connection between your story with God’s story. I want you to know that your suffering and your affliction has meaning. By faith we come to see that our lives are lived by a seam, multiple pieces of sacred human cloth down together by the sovereign God of life.
The Lord’s healing to you, either in this life of the life to come, is a sign of the presence of the kingdom of God in our midst. Be not dismayed by the suffering and sorrow of this life as if God were absent. He is not. He is working all things — bad things and good things — all things together for the good of those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. Your story is my story, and our story is God’s story. And, my Beloved, That is the “old, old Story of Jesus and His love.”
Amy Carmichael, the British missionary to India, saved girls who were sold in template prostitution. The girls called her “Amma;” “mother” in the Hindi tongue.
In 1931 this remarkable young woman was involved in an accident that led her to twenty years in bed-ridden pain. She cried out to God for healing. Yet, she came to believe the message of Jesus to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” “Amma” Amy came to contentment that the Lord would withhold nothing good from her, so she embraced her pain and her suffering as a way to identify with Jesus her Lord. She had a simple note framed on her wall to remind her of the core of her life’s response: “Yes, Lord.” Her greatest ministry may have been her letters to those in pain during her twenty years in bed. Those letters are collwxted in a book, “Candles un the Darkness.” She wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to suffering saints. She used the letters to help others in the villages to be faithful in prayer, receive the promises, and trust Jesus as a candle in the dark. Even when healing does not come as we would hope, healing will come. And it may be that shaping Jesus in us is more important than being released from the bed. “Amma” did not receive that kind of healing. Amy Carmichael did not recover from the accident. She died in 1951 in India, the country that was so hard on her and the country she loved as “Mother,” the name that was given to this Anglican missionary. “Amma” was the mother of faith to so many in pain. She wrote a prayer for those in pain,
“My Father, quiet me, ’Til in Thy holy presence, hushed, I think Thy thoughts with Thee.”
We have learned in Mark 5:21-43 that our pain is in God’s plan. It may be a product of the devil, but it is under the power of the One who has crushed the devil on the cross. Thus, “Amma” Amy wrote,
“God hold us to that which drew us first when the Cross was the attraction, and we wanted nothing else.”
What we learn is that sometimes the thing that drew us first to Him was suffering or pain that forged a faith to reach out and touch the hem of his garment. Thus suffering can glorify Christ, accurate the gift of faith, and advance the Story of Stories. This is the mystery of suffering unveiled.
Jesus is the candle in the dark.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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