The year was 1976, the month was March, and I was warming up on the track at Morehouse College, readying myself for the beginning of the collegiate outdoor track season. I noticed a tall, nerdy-looking black kid warming up along the backstretch, strutting along with an attitude I took to be arrogance. “Who does this guy think he is?” I asked a fellow runner, who replied, “I think his name is Moses. He is about to run the 400 meter intermediate hurdles – maybe for the first time.” Knowing the caliber of athletes who were gathered for the meet, we both laughed and said, “He is in for a real surprise.” But when the gun went off, we were the ones in for a surprise. This tall black kid sped around the track as if he had jets on his feet, and he left the field in his wake. I learned the kid’s name was Edwin Moses. And as I watched him compete in meet after meet the rest of the season, I saw him win every race, including winning the gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. In fact, Edwin Moses would go on to win every race for almost the next ten years! We thought Edwin Moses was in for a rude surprise, laughing at his arrogance. In fact, Edwin Moses envisioned a future for himself that none of us could have imagined.
So, too, Jairus, the ruler of a synagogue, a prominent Jewish leader, knew that many of his contemporaries could not see the potential of this young, untutored rabbi known as Jesus of Nazareth, whom people were identifying as the Christ. Jairus’s colleagues regarded Jesus as a blasphemer, someone who ignored the rules regarding ritual cleanliness, who rubbed shoulders with all manner of people the authorities regarded as unclean. Jairus’s colleagues thought Jesus should be shunned and avoided. But Jairus had a beloved daughter who was dying, and that concern superseded all others. Jairus loved his daughter more than he respected the opinion of his friends, so he went to Jesus and asked him to tend to his child. Jesus readily accepted the invitation, but along the way another unclean person, a woman who had been hemorrhaging blood for many years, secretly touched Jesus’ clothing. Jesus stopped to deal with this woman in her infirmity. Of course, while Jesus regarded this woman as equal in importance to the daughter of a ruler of a synagogue, Jairus certainly did not share this opinion. As we behold this passage we can almost see this father tapping his foot with desperate impatience as he waits for Jesus to become finished with this unwanted encounter, knowing that every minute was precious to his daughter’s life.
Jairus and Jesus continued on toward Jairus’ house, only to be met by messengers whose very expressions conveyed tidings of death. “She’s already gone,” they said. “You don’t need to bother the Teacher any longer.” The assembly collectively moaned, this great processional of sympathy turning instantly into a funeral cortege of grief. But Jesus seemed unaffected by the news. In the face of this devastating news Jesus turned to the father and said, “Do not fear! Only believe!”
Do not fear! Only believe! These are easy words to hear, but how hard they are to implement in real life! Odd isn’t it, that there are a variety of modern ad campaigns that advise us not to fear. Cars bear stickers bearing the words, “No fear.” But these modern ad campaigns never explain why they advise us not to fear. None of these modern ad campaigns identify where the source of our confidence should come. They advise us, “Don’t fear! No fear!” but they can offer no explanation as to why we should live with confidence. Jesus, however, says to this distraught father, “Do not fear! Only believe.” Jesus is challenging this man, ‘Trust in me!’ We as Christians have a reason not to fear, because we are summoned to live with absolute confidence in the living Lord. And yet, for all of our alleged faith, how much do we really trust in the providence of our God?
The truth is, some of us are eaten up with worry. Some of us always easily imagine the worst-case scenario. Some of our personalities are perverted and disfigured by perpetual anxiety. For all of our alleged faith, many of us really do not believe that God will provide for us, and that fear gnaws at our faith and erodes our confidence in the divine. Yet Jesus says to us afresh, “Do not fear! Only believe!” He summons us, ‘Trust me!’
Jesus walks into this household where the young girl has died to find that everyone is profoundly bereaved, weeping, moaning, creating a loud, mournful tumult. Hearing this great wail of pain, Jesus tries to assure them that things will be okay. He explains, “Relax. She is not dead. She is only sleeping.” They laugh. They laugh at our Lord! It is not a laughter of joy, spawned by his good news. No, it is the laughter of ridicule, the laughter of scorn, the laughter of disbelief, the laughter of skepticism. They deem their laughter the cold, hard rain of reality poured out on Jesus’ words. She is not sleeping. She is dead. That fact seems to them inalterable. But Jesus can envision a future that the crowd cannot imagine. And, indeed, when the crowd laughs at Jesus’ confidence, we must not judge them too harshly. For there are times in our own life when in response to Christ’s challenge to hold to hope amidst difficult circumstances, we laugh at God, too.
When Wilbur and Orville Wright began researching the idea of human flight, they found so little literature on the subject that they wrote the Smithsonian Institute looking for ideas. The Smithsonian directed them to a German engineer who was considered the world’s expert on the subject. This elderly German, now nearing the end of his frustrating career, shared with the brothers his calculations about what kind of craft would fly. The brothers quickly determined that the German engineer was wrong and they, a couple of bike repairmen, had a better idea. When Orville Wright managed to fly 101 feet at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, newspapers refused to print the story. They thought it was a joke. They thought that the very notion of human flight was absurd. Who could have believed that a couple of bike repairmen were about to change the world? Everyone told them they were crazy. Everyone told them they would kill themselves. Everyone laughed at them. But in their imagination, Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived a reality others could not see, could not imagine, and they brought that absurd dream into reality.
Jesus ushers the crowd who laughed at him out of the house. He takes only the child’s mother and father, who want desperately for their child to live, and he takes his trusted disciples with him into the child’s room. He assures them that the power of God is the power of life, and this power of life is even greater than the power of death. He then takes that child by the hand and says to her words of summons, “Talitha cumi.” He says to her, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.” And the little girl rises, vibrant again, hungry again. Give her something to eat, Jesus advises. How often in our own lives we need to hear those words of summons from our Lord, “Talitha cumi.” Arise! Arise out of your despair! Arise out of your fear! Arise out of your anxiety! Arise out of your grief! Arise out of your gnawing doubt! Arise out of the narrowness of your perspective! “Talitha cumi!” Little one, arise!
It was absurd for that mother and father, and even the disciples, to believe that this young, untutored rabbi who lacked any seminary training could enter the room of that lifeless little girl and instantly restore her to life. But sometimes it is precisely the absurdity of our faith that underscores its courageous nature. Think about the promises that serve to undergird our faith: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus assures us, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” Jesus promises, “Nothing, not death, not life, not principalities or powers, not things present nor things to come, not heights nor depths, nothing can separate you from the love of God found in me, your Lord.” The world laughs at such promises! The world scorns such assurances from Jesus as his promise, “I go to prepare a place for you, and where I am you will be also. If that weren’t so, I wouldn’t tell you where I am going.” The world ridicules such divine pledges. And sometimes we allow the world’s laughter at our God to undermine our confidence in our Lord’s divine promises. From the world’s perspective, the divine promises of our God seem absurd. Yet it is the very absurdity of our belief that proves the foundation of our courageous trust in our Christ.
Having rubbed shoulders closely over the last several days with our church’s younger generations, I can state with confidence that the movies, books and music with which I am acquainted are not the movies, books and music that the younger generations know. Yet I am sure that some of you out there have seen one of the greatest movies ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, the story of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who was instrumental in galvanizing the Arab people to throw off generations of Turkish rule. As a consequence of his work, T. E. Lawrence was a marked man, the most wanted man in Arabia. The Turkish military would have paid millions for his capture or death. One day they had that opportunity. T.E. Lawrence was planning to blow up a Turkish railroad when he heard the sound of a train coming around the bend. He was hiding behind a flimsy little bush with his plunger in hand as the train came into view. No problem, thought Lawrence, he would wait behind his bush until the train crossed where the explosives were buried, then he would push the plunger. He did just that. But there was no explosion. The explosives failed. Lawrence then realized that the train was full of hundreds of Turkish soldiers. The most wanted man in Arabia stood bare before a firing squad of hundreds. But his options were limited. If he showed the least fear, they would stop the train and send out a party to capture and interrogate him. If he tried to run, a firing squad of hundreds would have cut him down. So he opted for an absurd action. Dressed as he was in native Arabian clothing, the most wanted man in Arabia stood up and began waving at the train like a grinning idiot, giving the impression he was nothing but a simple Bedouin Gomer Pyle – Gollee! — just happy to be there, struck with amazement at the sight of such a wonder as a long train. By this absurd action, T.E. Lawrence saved his life. In the face of seemingly inalterable circumstances, sometimes only the absurd act of faith leads to deliverance and connects us to the power of God.
The most famous political photograph in American history is a snapshot of presidential candidate Harry Truman holding up a Chicago-Tribune whose headlines announced in bold print, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” Truman displays this headline that trumpets his defeat while wearing an ear-to-ear grin. Why? Because he knows that in the morning the headline will have to be revised. He laughs at the headline heralding his defeat because he can already envision a future that others cannot see.
Jesus is not disheartened by the laughter and the ridicule and the scorn of the crowd. He already envisions a future that the others cannot imagine. He already envisions the power of resurrection bringing about a new future to this child. In his mind, this child is only sleeping, and he is about to raise her to laughter and hunger and movement and newness of life. He envisions that soon the people who were laughing at Jesus will be laughing with him. “Talitha cumi!” Little girl, arise!
How many headlines of our lives need to be revised? How many people have written a headline over your life, “She never really found happiness.” How many people have already written the headline, “He never broke his addiction.” How many people have composed the headline, “She never really found faith.” “He was never able to take good advice.” “She never found peace.” He never found forgiveness of himself or others.” “She never trusted God enough to make use of her many talents.” How many headlines do you write about your own life that are infected with anxiety? How many headlines in your life need to be revised in response to our Lord’s injunction, “Do not fear! Only believe!” Our Lord beckons us, ‘Trust me! Trust that I can pull you out of yourself into a new future, a future that maybe you cannot envision, but I can.’ How many of us need to hear the words of Christ in the depths of our own souls: “Talitha cumi” Little one, arise! How many of us need to hear those words of Christ afresh. “Talitha cumi.” Take hold of the hand of Christ and be lifted to a new level of faith and life. “Do not fear! Only believe!”