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Sermon – Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Sermon Preached by Reverend Michael Hillier on Sunday, 30 June 2024.

Mark 5.21-43

My wife June and I arrived in Dubai around midnight in 2019 after a long flight from Adelaide. We were having a brief stopover to break the journey before heading on to the UK.

Later that morning, we were on a tour, and in idle chitchat, I told our Indian guide I was getting old and feeling exhausted after the long flight. He turned to me and said, ‘You should be proud! You have reached old age, and not everyone does.’ He was right, you know. He might have missed my point, but to have reached 70 is an achievement of sorts.

A good many of you would know what I mean. We’ve been around the block several times and back the other way. We have accomplished things, managed difficulties, struggled with problems. We have endured. And for all of us, there has been a degree of suffering in one way or another. None of us have escaped that. But we have survived or are surviving, even if just surviving.

Our Gospel reading tells of two individuals suffering profoundly and are desperate. One feels for that poor woman and her humiliation with bleeding. Leave aside any physical distress she was enduring. She was also considered, by her community, as permanently ritually unclean and therefore excluded from worship. She could not fulfil her obligations to God. She must have felt unloved and unwanted by God and her fellow humans — such deep isolation in life.

And then there was Jairus. He was desperate for his little daughter. He was a ruler of the local synagogue and, therefore, had standing in the community. Jesus was looked on with suspicion by the authorities, and yet here, Jairus was ‘throwing all caution to the wind’ and repeatedly begging Jesus to come and save her. You can feel his pain, anguish, and desperation, as we would have if it were someone we loved.

Where is God in a world of suffering? You and I have survived this long, yet we still ask ourselves this troubling question: ‘Where is God?’

I want to answer this in two parts, but not as a slick answer. You and I have been around too long to settle for that. It must be said, though, that we are dealing with Mystery at the outset, and on this side of the grave, we struggle to find entirely satisfying answers. And we have to live with that—all of us.

The first part: The psalmist tells us that God keeps our tears in His bottle (56.8), another way of saying they are very precious to Him. Even Jesus Himself said that God counts the hairs on our heads (Luke 12.7). Each of us is more precious to God than we can imagine. We can be overwhelmed by the enormity and volume of suffering and end up with ‘compassion fatigue’. Compassion fatigue never happens with God.

As Christians, we believe God has stepped into human history in Jesus Christ, accepting life and all that this means, just as it does for us. That includes suffering. He has not put Himself above this in any way; He plays by the ‘rules’ that exist for us all.

In His ministry, we see time and again Jesus reaching out with great compassion to help those in need and finally dying for us, a cruel and excruciating death on that Cross. He did not even put Himself above death, and a harrowing one at that. Let me
now push this a little deeper.

There is that story in Exodus of Moses and the burning bush. We are told that the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings …’ (3.7). That Hebrew word for ‘know’ is precisely the same word used for a man ‘knowing’ his wife in a sexual sense; sexual intercourse: Adam ‘knowing’ Eve (Genesis 4.1); Cain ‘knowing’ his wife (4.17). It is a word of great intimacy. Therefore, to use the word ‘know’ here in the story of Moses and the burning bush is to try and make the critical point that God knows the sufferings of His people in the most profound and intimate ways. He experiences their sufferings as His own. And that is true for us as well.

There is also another word, and for this, we turn to the New Testament and the Letter to the Hebrews (4.15): ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin’. Jesus, like us, has experienced life with all its joys and sorrows. He suffered rejection, loneliness, humiliation, pain and death. The word sympathise used in that verse is also translated as compassion, but the Greek word sumpatheo is much stronger than our English words ‘sympathy’ and ‘compassion’. In commenting on this word, Charles Wolfe says, ’It is entering into the suffering of another and making it one’s own rather than observing it from without. It is genuinely feeling another’s pain, temptation or failure’.

This is what Jesus does. He enters deeply into our lives to the core of our being and experiences our lives from the inside. When we suffer, He suffers along with us, and when we rejoice, He rejoices along with us.

Elie Wiesel’s small book Night is a profound and moving true story of Elie as a Jewish boy with his father in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. One of the camp rules had been broken, and the German guards decided as punishment to hang, among others, a 10-year-old child. After, as they hung there, all the prisoners had to file past, and they noticed the boy hanging, still alive – barely. Filing past, Elie Wiesel heard someone behind him say, ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And a voice within him answered, ‘Where? Here He is – He’s hanging here on this gallows’.

We don’t have a better answer to the problem of suffering than that. The answer lies not in words but in a person: Jesus Christ. Nothing is explained, yet everything is.

The second part of my answer: Another story concerning Elie Wiesel is told by Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State, in a book she wrote. They both appeared on a panel together and during the discussion, she said, ‘he recalled how a group of scholars had once been asked to name the unhappiest character in the Bible. Some said Job because of the trials he endured. Some said Moses because he was denied entry to the Promised Land. Some said the Virgin Mary because she witnessed the death of her Son. The best answer, Wiesel suggested, might be God because of the sorrow caused by people fighting, killing, and abusing each other in His name.’

Someone I know was living with personal problems and, on one occasion, felt almost overwhelmed by what was happening at the moment. They then had an experience that can only be described as mystical. Suddenly, they became aware that God was weeping and weeping, not with blame but for the situation. Later, they would realise that at that moment, those tears of God were also for all those living with pain and suffering. It explains nothing and yet explains everything.

Let me finish the sermon this way: Do you remember last week’s Gospel reading when Jesus and His disciples were out on the lake? The disciples were filled with fear as Jesus lay sleeping in the boat. They woke Him, and He stilled the storm, stilling their fears. There are many stories concerning Jesus that are not included in our Gospels. John tells us that. So why would Mark include this one?

Mark was writing for Christians in Rome during Emperor Nero’s persecution. They were deeply fearful. Mark writes to remind them that despite their suffering, Jesus is with them and in control despite all appearances to the contrary. Like us, they could fear what was happening to them, but Jesus was with them despite all.

It was a lesson they would have to learn again, for there is a similar story a little later in Mark’s Gospel. Like them, we can all be slow to know that God is always there with us, dwelling in our hearts, and our pain and suffering are His. So, keep working on it.