One might entitle this passage, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Miracle,” for our Lord’s focus was upon a young girl who was dying, the daughter of a prominent ruler of a synagogue. Jesus moves so resolutely to address the young girl in her extreme need that he paid very little attention to the jostling crowd that thronged around him – which was exactly the situation desired by a certain woman in that crowd. Because she wanted to sneak up on God.
Let us look at this woman for a moment. She is anemic, listless and weak. She has been suffering from an uncontrollable discharge of blood for twelve years, and she has spent her entire livelihood on doctors who promised they could heal her, but who could not deliver on their assurance. In fact, not only is she not any better, she is actually worse. She stands at a crossroads in her life. She can regard the universe as a cold, heartless, meaningless place. She can believe that God has abandoned her and cares nothing for her welfare. Or she can see this so-called Messiah named Jesus who walks by her as a representative of God’s healing power. This woman certainly needs the strength, needs the transformative energy that Christ offers, but she also desires to remain completely anonymous. So she has to decide what action she can take and still sneak up on God.
You may find this notion of sneaking up on God a rather strange concept, but I assure you, it happens in every church, every single Sunday. Every Sunday, in this church and others, people slip into the sanctuary like shoplifters, looking neither left nor right. They don’t want to speak to anybody or interact with anybody. They don’t want to be noticed. They want to slide into worship and slide out, completely anonymous. We even have church members who do this: they may be members on paper, but they slide into the sanctuary, encounter as few people as possible and make their exit out the door quickly. They have come to worship to risk little and reap little. Whether they know it or not, they are trying to sneak up on God.
Over the course of a long ministry I have encountered all manner of people who have tried to sneak up on God. Some of them do so in the most superficial and shallow of fashions. They only show up in communities of faith when things are fun. When there is a church fellowship, when there is free food, when there is some superficial activity, they are there. Our Charlotte church sponsored a church golf tournament – not as elaborate as the Vineville Baptist Tournament of Champions – but it was open to all members of the church family. Every year there would be a man and his two sons who came to play in the church golf tourney – but they came to nothing else. One year they were playing in the group behind us, and one of my partners asked me, “Who are those folks behind us?” I replied, “I don’t know their names. I’ve only been pastor here six years.” These people may not have been superficial and shallow folks, but, while they wanted to be in the midst of people who cared about each other, while they wanted to rub shoulders with those who enjoyed the community of faith, they fiercely controlled the angle of their relationship to God’s people, lest they be drawn into the orbit of Christ’s summons to intimate involvement in our church family. They may not have been superficial and shallow people, but their involvement in God’s fellowship was superficial and shallow – they risked little and reaped little. They may not have known it, but they were trying to sneak up on God.
Then there are those people who try to sneak up on God through morality and ethics. They embrace a lifestyle in which they are committed to living a life of high moral character, justice and goodness. Yet they want nothing to do with God, nothing to do with church. They may be carrying on a lifelong quarrel with one or both. Some of them are carrying on a lifelong quarrel with their parents, whom they regarded as too rigid and who forced church on them when they were younger, so that they had resolved, ‘When I’m older, I will never be involved in church again.’ And yet, as they try to embrace a life of goodness, ethics and justice, they do not realize that the virtues they are trying to embody are an echo of the spiritual upbringing of their youth. They are trying to live the ethic of Christ without benefit of the nurture of Christ – and that is an attempt doomed to failure. They are dissatisfied, but what they don’t realize is that by their commitment to ethics they are trying to sneak up on God.
There are those who try to sneak up on God through the path of intellectual questing. You will find such people browsing the religion and philosophy sections of the book stores. They are trying to think their way to God. They are scouring the shelves for “head knowledge” truths about faith that can only be found with the heart. One might think they are perpetually curious, but that would be too generous, for they are actually perpetual seekers who can never commit to spiritual resolution. They petulantly place insolvable questions before God, demanding answers from the divine before they are willing to risk faith. They have turned the fruitful spiritual formula of Augustine upon its head. Augustine, one of the world’s great intellects and a rigorous quester for truth in his own right, realized that the way to spiritual maturity was “faith seeking understanding.” These perpetual questers have put “understanding before faith.” Let God grant them perfect clarity in understanding the great mysteries of life and faith, then they will yield to the divine summons. Through their intellectual questing they are trying to find truths about faith from the outside that can only be learned from the inside. Yet, by their perpetual questing, they are trying to sneak up on God.
I think of a fellow pastor whose daughter grew up as an active participant in church, but as she aged, she fell away from participation in God’s community. But when she moved to Atlanta she started attending a megachurch. Her father asked her why, and she said, “Because I can go there and be completely anonymous. I can enjoy the music, endure the sermon, fellowship with people, then slip out of the crowd, and nobody will know my name. Nobody will ask me to do anything. Nobody will ask me to serve on a committee. I can go there and worship, and nobody will know who I am.” The father confided that he was glad that she was attending the megachurch, figuring that it might be her way of easing back into church participation. Yet he bluntly said to her, “You cannot remain an anonymous Christian. You cannot keep Christ and Christ’s fellowship at arm’s length forever. Spiritual maturity comes when you are willing to commit to a fellowship and be willing to be counted as an instrument of God’s Kingdom and God’s people.” Anonymity has its limits.
That’s exactly what this diseased woman realized as she stood amidst the crowd thronging around Jesus. Anonymity could only take her so far. Here she stood in her need. Here she stood struggling with her twelve-year infirmity. Here she stood in her desperation. And there walked Jesus, representing healing, wholeness, a new existence of freedom. Between her in her need and Christ in his healing strength stood a chasm. The only way that chasm could be breached was if this woman took the initiative. She realized, anonymity has its limits. If she stood pat, God’s representative of healing would pass her by. So she moved forward and touched the edge of Jesus’ garment, risking intimacy of contact with Jesus. How many of us are somewhat like that woman? We stand apart from Christ in our need, in our frailty and desire for community. We want to remain anonymous. We don’t want to risk too much. We feel the summons of Christ to be involved in Christ’s fellowship. We feel the benefits that Christ can offer us, the peace, the assurance, the strength, the mercy, the ability to deal with our guilt or our grief. Yet how often are we willing to cross the chasm and set aside our anonymity and come into intimate contact with our Lord?
Jesus immediately stops amidst the jostling crowd and asks, “Who touched me?” The disciples respond, “Are you crazy? We are all getting bounced around here. How can you ask if someone has touched you?” But Jesus observes, “Power . . . power has gone out of me.” Power – dynamis – dynamite! – had gone out of him! Isn’t that what faith is all about, my friends? Is that not why we try to connect to the living God? Faith is not just about intellectual assent to a series of principles. Faith is a relationship of intimate connection. Faith is a relationship to the divine who offers us dynamis – dynamite – spiritual power, to deal with our anger, to deal with our resentment, to deal with our frustration, to deal with our despair, to deal with our guilt, to deal with our grief, to deal with our pain, to create within us a spirit of patience and joy. How often do we really connect to the dynamis of Christ? How often do we allow the power of Christ’s Spirit to enter us?
My Charlotte church did not have Wednesday night activities from May to August, but there were a group of men who held their own “prayer meeting” every Wednesday night during that interim – and to this “prayer meeting” they were devoutly faithful. This particular “prayer meeting” took the form of a poker game. In truth, a lot of prayers were said during this prayer meeting, and a lot of prayers were answered, though not necessarily in the way the pray-ers had hoped. This, I should add, was not high-stakes poker. A few of the guys kept a handy notecard in their pocket to remind them of whether a straight beat a flush. More laughter and insults were exchanged than money. But here’s the thing: after the cards had been dealt, and the usual moaning and groaning and sighs and posturing subsided, the dealer asked a question that everyone at the table had to answer: “Are you out or are you in? Are you folding your hand or are you going to ante up?”
That is what Jesus was asking when he turned around and asked the jostling crowd, “Who touched me?” Jesus wanted to know who had received his power, his dynamis, and he was asking, “Are you out or are you in?” Jesus wanted to know, ‘Are you going to remain anonymous and remain estranged from the source of healing power, or are you willing to claim your relationship with me?’ The woman resolves not to remain anonymous. She comes forth and falls at Jesus’ feet and tells him the whole truth. How often do you and I tell the Christ the whole truth? Is it not true that even in our private devotional time and communion with God we posture ourselves as being a little better, a little more faithful, a little more generous, a little more loving, a little more gracious than we know we actually are? Even though we know Christ knows us better than we know ourselves, do we not sometimes withhold from Christ the deepest and darkest and most empty corners of ourselves, despite knowing that only Christ’s light can transform those deep, dark, empty corners? Are we truly willing to tell Christ the whole truth about ourselves?
Notice that Jesus did not treat this woman in the same way he had treated others that he had transformed and healed. For example, when he looked up in the tree and saw Zacchaeus, Jesus said, “Come down out of that tree! I’m dining with you today!” Not in this instance. Jesus does not seek this woman out. He makes her take the first step. He calls her to decide, ‘Are you out or are you in?’ Christ realizes that in this situation, only allowing this woman to take the initiative will allow this woman to open herself completely to healing and wholeness. Only when she emerged from the crowd and surrendered her anonymity could Jesus say to her,
“Go in peace. Your faith has made you well.”
All around us there are a host of people trying to sneak up on God. It might be the neighborhood kid who seems to have lost his way in life. It may be the business associate who teases you about spending so much time at church. It may be your best friend or neighbor whose life seems to be falling apart and all of the self-help books in the world have not made a positive impact. It might even be you. The question is, ‘To what degree are you willing to risk? To what degree are you willing to risk intimate involvement with Christ and Christ’s fellowship?’ For your answer to that question will determine how much dynamis, how much genuine spiritual power, how much genuine peace and fulfillment, you will experience in your life. For there comes a point where sneaking up on God is no longer a viable option for living a spiritually vibrant life.