Two certainties in life. Death and taxes.
So said Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, in 1789. “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe actually said the same thing 60 years earlier.
We’re currently surrounded by politicians of all colours claiming they can rescue us from one tax or another. Let me tell you this: None of them can do anything at all about death. That is so obvious, that not even the Loonies would put that in their manifesto.
Today, we meet the man who can. We watch him deliver us from the biggest enemy we all face – death itself.
Let me remind us where we are in the Bible. You remember Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount. At the end of that, the crowds were amazed. Jesus taught with such authority.
After that comes Matthew chapters 8 and 9, which we’ve been looking at since January. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus didn’t just teach with authority. He acted with authority, and he exercised great authority as he called people to follow him. Jesus’ teaching was impressive, but only because he is impressive.
We’ve watched Jesus heal people of various kinds of illness, and we’ve seen his authority over nature, over evil and over sin. He’s called people to follow him, and they have. He does this even for people whose lives are a mess. And he fully expects people to put him at the centre of their lives, to shape their time and their priorities around him.
It’s been an impressive tableau of scenes. But nothing quite prepares you for what happens next. Jesus, the man who can fix death. Jesus’ authority is so complete, he can even tell death where to get off.
It’s actually two stories intertwined with each other.
First we have a young girl who has just died. Mark tells us she was 12 years old. Verse 18: While he was saying this, a synagogue leader came and knelt before him and said, ‘My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.’
It’s your worst nightmare. No parent should lose a child, and I don’t doubt this man loved his daughter greatly. He was an important man, a respected figure in the community. He has great authority, but this is one problem he cannot solve himself.
But Jesus can. He comes, and either gets down on his knees before Jesus, or bows low in deep respect. Jesus is a far greater dignitary than he is. “Please come and put your hand on my dead daughter. She’ll live if you do that.”
If he’s wrong, he’s just made a fool himself for nothing. If he’s right, he’s about to get his daughter back. And so off they go.
Jesus believes he can help. If he’s wrong, Jesus is about to make an even bigger fool of himself. If he’s right, he can give this man the one thing he needs right now.
But on the way, we meet the second person to be healed today. A woman who has had some kind of bleeding condition for (wait for it) twelve years. Presumably that means it was incurable.
But not for Jesus. She crept up behind him. This was taking a huge risk for her. Bleeding was not just a medical problem back then. It was a religious one and a social one. In the Old Testament, God wanted to teach his people that we have unclean hearts. Deep inside, we are not the people God wants us to be. That means we cannot come and worship God. And it messes up our relationships with other people.
The people had to learn this. So God gave them some visual aids. Certain things would make a person “unclean”. If you were in this state, you couldn’t go to worship. And you had to stay away from other people, because if you touched them they would become unclean too. The only solution was animal sacrifice. The animal’s blood took away the uncleanness, and the person could meet with God again, become part of society again.
What kinds of things made you unclean? Well, remember God wanted to teach you that the problem was your heart. It was deep within you. So it was anything that got your insides coming out on show. We met leprosy at the beginning of chapter 8. That’s where you can see right through parts of your skin. There were a number of others, but bleeding was one of them.
So the one place this woman should not be is a crowded place. Anyone she touches would become unclean too. After 12 years, we can assume that most people knew who she was. That’s why she was so brave to do what she did.
Finally, she touched the edge of Jesus’ cloak. Verse 22: Jesus turned and saw her. ‘Take heart, daughter,’ he said, ‘your faith has healed you.’ And the woman was healed at that moment.
The word is literally “saved”. The woman was saved at that moment. Her bleeding stopped. She was not unclean any more. She could live a normal life again. She had her life back. It would need a blood sacrifice to make her fully clean again. But although this was a year or two early, Jesus had that covered as well.
This is why these two stories belong together so well. Yes, there are the obvious connections. Both were women, one twelve, one much older. Both were called ‘daughter’: One is the daughter of a local dignitary; Jesus calls the other one “daughter”. Both were healed with a touch.
As well as all of that, most wonderfully, Jesus brought both back from the dead. The girl was physically dead. But the woman had no kind of life. Not allowed to touch anyone, staying away from places where people gathered, not able to worship. It must have felt a bit like being in a total isolation ward at the Royal Free Hospital. Total isolation. Until the day Jesus gave her life back.
We all know that there’s more to being alive than just having a heart that beats. Certain comas leave someone what we call “brain dead”. They’re alive, but they can’t do anything. Other times, a terrible accident leaves someone with vastly reduced mobility. Some people get used to it, and would even reach the point where they don’t mind. But even so, they’re not the skiing, popping round your house for a drink, person they used to be. We don’t want to demean them as a person, but even so – they’ve lost something. They’re somehow less fully alive than they used to be.
Or perhaps we quote John Lennon: Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday. Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be. There's a shadow hanging over me. Oh, yesterday came suddenly.
In this passage, we watch Jesus’ authority over death. But we must not think that Jesus is only interested in making sure that we have hearts that beat and lungs that breathe. In John chapter 10, Jesus said this: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. Jesus came to give us life. That’s Life with a capital L. He came to make us fully alive. Relating to God. Relating rightly to each other. Enjoying God’s good gifts. Some of that has to wait until Jesus returns, but that’s what he can do for us.
On with the story. Finally, we arrive at the leader’s home.
Funerals today are usually hushed, solemn affairs. People file in quietly. At the wake, people talk in low voices.
But not in Jesus’ day. You had to show you were upset by the amount of noise you made. Professional mourners would be hired to cry noisily. Flute players would play sad tunes to help create the melancholy atmosphere.
Into all of that commotion comes Jesus. Verse 24: “Go away. The girl is not dead, but asleep.” “Back home, the lot of you. She’s only asleep.”
She wasn’t, of course. She was dead. The family wouldn’t have made such a terrible mistake. The mourners did this for every day, and laughed in Jesus’ face for failing to diagnose a corpse. Jesus at this point only knew what the father had told him, which was that she was dead. And Matthew recorded only this one instance of Jesus raising the dead. He thought it was the best example, of the many he could have picked.
No, the girl was dead alright. But the mourners were not needed, and Jesus called her asleep, because Jesus was about to wake her up from the sleep of death.
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of traveling with a friend on a train. You dose off in the sunshine, and as you pull into the station where you get off, you realise you’re friend’s still asleep. You shake them gently, and they wake up. You both get off the train, your friend blinking slightly in the sun.
Not a terribly dramatic story, I grant. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of traveling on a train without a friend. But let’s not go there. Someone I know was woken by the cleaner in the sidings just outside Orpington station.
The point is, it takes Jesus no more effort than this to bring this girl back from death. Verse 25: He went in and took the girl by the hand and she got up. Easy as that. It’s no more challenging than waking her from an afternoon nap.
In fact, remember she was twelve years old. Now I’ve never had a twelve year-old daughter. But friends who have would tell me that it is substantially more difficult than this to wake them from sleep.
Verse 26: News of this spread through all that region. Well it would, wouldn’t it? A dead girl raised back to life. Everyone would be talking about it.
One day, this girl would die again. She’d get ill, she’d have an accident, she’d die of old age. Jesus had pulled her back from death the same way she went in. She was still mortal.
But we know how the story ends. We know that Jesus would die on a cross, only to bring himself back to life. Only he didn’t come back from death the way he went in. He came out the other side. Given a glorious new body. Never to die again.
Jesus raised this girl to life. It shows he can do it. And he whets our appetite for the day when he does it for us, and does it so well we never die again.
Death feels so permanent for us. Here, we watch Jesus take death, and turn it into sleep. Into something we wake up from. Into something that he has the power to wake us from.
The crowds were impressed with the authority of his teaching.
We’ve been impressed with his authority in what he does, as well.
But this story is the best one yet. Curing Peter’s mother-in-law’s malaria is one thing. Curing death itself is quite another. There truly is nothing impossible for Jesus.
The question is: How do we respond. As he calls us to follow him, do we say yes or no?
In this story, we see some amazing examples of trust in Jesus. The grieving father somehow believes Jesus can raise his dead daughter. He sheds all dignity to fall at Jesus’ feet, to articulate what he believes can happen. He risks being laughed at for believing Jesus can do something so amazing. And yet because he trusts Jesus, he’s reunited with the daughter he thought he’d lost forever.
The bleeding woman somehow believes Jesus will heal her, if she can only touch him. She risks the hostility of the crowds. She risks being seen in public in company that would send her away. She risks Jesus’ rebuke for her presumption. And yet, because she trusts Jesus, she’s given her life back.
Jesus calls us to trust and follow him.
He calls us with great authority.
Following Jesus may not be the dignified thing to do. We may be laughed at. It may not be the socially acceptable thing to do. But if we follow his call, we are putting our life into the hands of the one who turned death into sleep. The one who came to give us life, life to the full.