SJF • Proper 8b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means Little girl, get up.+
Death is unavoidable. Each of us knows, even as we try to avoid thinking about it, that a day will come that will be our last. In a hospital bed after a long illness, in the sudden shock of an automobile accident, surrounded and supported by a loving family, or alone in a cold room — each of us will die one day. But before that day comes, each of us will very likely be touched by death in another way. Almost everyone first knows someone else’s death before our own day comes. Who hasn’t lost a loving grandparent, perhaps a distant relation you perhaps saw only rarely, or a father or mother, a beloved friend, a husband or wife — most of us will be acquainted with death before we experience it personally. And acquaintanceship with death, though it makes it no less painful, can blunt the edge of sorrow with familiarity.
Some deaths, however, will still find us unprepared. And of all such un-looked-for passings, the most keenly felt is the loss of a child. For while to an old man or woman rich in years death may come as a gentle and familiar friend, bringing easy transition to the next world, to a child death is a stranger, and to the parents a traitor and thief who has snuck in before his time.
This was true even in days long gone by, when the death of children was far more common than it is now. The blessings of technology and medicine have greatly reduced infant and child mortality. The Psalms, written some three thousand year ago, assure us that, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty” — about the same as today. But in those ancient times the death of children was so common, that they weren’t even counted in the average — to get to that seventy or eighty figure, which only applied to those who made it to adulthood.
And most of us need not look back that far to the past, to the times of the Psalms. Take a look through the front pages of an old family Bible. You will probably find as recently as two or three generations back the names of great-aunts and uncles whom you never knew, who died at seven or eight, or ten, all in childhood.
Still, however common such childhood tragedies might be, in biblical times or in the days of our grandparents, to the parents of a sick or dying child it would have all been as if nothing else had happened; it was something new, a hard sharp pain striking them then and there as keenly as anyone would feel it today. The knowledge that pain is common or widespread doesn’t really make it any easier to bear; and though misery loves company, it is no less miserable.
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So we can be sure that the ruler of the synagogue, Jairus by name, was fearful and in pain for the life of his little daughter. Though he may have had a dozen other children, that would not lessen the grief of this particular loss. For this was his little daughter, twelve years old, and at the point of death. When the others came with the news, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” it was easy for them to keep a “stiff upper lip.” “He has other children, a good wife and many years ahead of him,” they might have thought. “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But for Jairus, this was his little girl, just twelve years old, his little gazelle, his own dear little child. Would those sweet brown eyes never smile at him again, never twinkle with mischief, never glow with delight at the little gift of a beaded necklace from Sidon? “Why trouble the Teacher any further?”
Did Jairus shrug, nod, and turn away? Did he look at Jesus with hope, or with despair? We do not know. Because whatever Jairus did, Jesus did something as well. “Ignoring what they said, Jesus said... ‘Do not fear, only believe.’” A moment before the bottom had fallen out of Jairus’ hopes. He had heard of the wonders performed by this Teacher from Nazareth, the healings performed in Capernaum. His hopes had been high as he fell at Jesus’ feet, imploring his help, so that he might lay his hands on his little daughter and restore her to health. Then the word had come, the word he had dreaded hearing all along. “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” But then, into the midst of that empty, cold loss came a voice that said, “Do not fear, only believe.” And his hopes revived.
When they came to the house, they saw the crowd weeping and wailing, the cries of the professional mourners, still common in many cultures to this day. This was not the deep, sorrowful silence of heartbroken parents. The professionals and the neighbors were doing their part, weeping and wailing loudly, tumultuously grieving in the ritual style that is as ageless as human civilization, as the community expresses the grief that the family itself is too numb, and too drained to express. But such ritual mourning is rarely from the heart. And it does little to fill the empty void left by the loss of the loved one.
We see how conventional this formal mourning was by how quickly it turned into sarcastic laughter. When Jesus gave the great good news that the little girl was not dead, but only sleeping, the crowd laughed in his face.
But the father and mother, standing by in the silence of grief, too numb to put on the show of conventional mourning — did they suddenly look up, look into the eyes of this man from Nazareth, this wonder-worker? Was the silence of their grief broken by a sudden gasp of hope? “Not dead, but sleeping!” So Jesus took this father and mother, and his disciples, into the house where the child lay, dismissing everyone else.
Imagine how quiet it must have gotten. The laughter has died down; perhaps a few whispers are going through the crowd outside; perhaps one of the flute players is keeping up a somber tune. But in the house, there is an intense silence. The parents have their eyes fixed on Jesus; the disciples wonder what is going to happen next — they have seen so much these last few weeks.
Into that silence a voice speaks. It is a voice filled with power, a voice filled with command. It is the voice that called all of creation into being, the Word through whom all things were made, “God’s all-animating voice” who calls from above, as our hymn put it. But that voice, a voice from beyond all time and space, here is a voice speaking gently to a little girl. “’Talitha cum... Little girl, get up.’ And immediately the little girl got up and began to walk... and he told them to give her something to eat.”
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That voice still speaks to us today. We have all fallen asleep in the death of sin, and that same voice calls out to us to awaken, to get up. We are not dead... we are only sleeping, lulled by the siren song of the world, the flesh and the devil. And Jesus says to each of us, Wake up, Get up!
This startling command stills the weeping and wailing of merely conventional repentance, the excessive display of grief and breast-beating.
This startling command silences the cruel laughter of those who would rather keep us dead, just so they could be proved right, those of the sour looks, and the judgment of others.
This startling command shakes people out of that deep despair at the sense of their own sin, lost in the false belief they are beyond forgiveness.
This startling command brings us back from the edge of death, from the shadow of death and the valley of tears: Jesus assures us we are not dead but asleep.
And he tells us to get up. Just as he called that little girl from the sleep of death, he calls us from the death of sin. “Get up, little girl; young man, arise; woman, I say to you rise up; come, Mother, take my hand; stand up, Grandfather.”
He quiets the mourners with a blessed assurance. He touches us with forgiveness, and fills the depth of our empty grief out of the abundance of his love. He lifts us from the sleep of death, stands us on our feet that we may walk and follow him, and feeds us with the spiritual food of his own body and blood.
Touched by that love, awakened by that voice, healed by this forgiveness, fed with this food, we can face anything — even bodily death itself — in the sure and certain knowledge that nothing in the universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.+