A sermon on Matthew 9, Romans 4 & Genesis 12 by Nathan Nettleton
In the first few years of my theological studies, I had the privilege of studying under the late Dr Athol Gill. Athol was a biblical scholar whose particular speciality was the gospel according to Mark. While preparing this sermon, I was reminded how easy it is to remember some things a teacher taught you and forget others. One of the things that Athol taught us was that just because the same story appears in two or more gospels, it doesn’t mean that the two writers are using it to make the same point. You’ve got to read how they use it, and pay attention to the ways they vary it to catch on to the differences in what they are trying to communicate to their readers. But I am often inclined to forget that when I come across a story that I remember Athol talking about, and just remember what he said about the story. One of Athol’s favourites was a story that was included in tonight’s gospel reading. It is a double story actually; what Athol used to call a sandwich – a story with another story sandwiched into the middle of it. In this case, the story of Jesus healing the woman with the twelve year haemorrhage is sandwiched in the middle of a story about his raising the dead daughter of a local community leader. I can remember much that Athol said about this. Especially about how the suspense builds as Jesus delays getting to the powerful man’s dying daughter in order to respond to the needs of a social outcast. So when I sat down to prepare this sermon, I thought I was already to go. The sermon would come easily. But I was forgetting again. Athol’s teaching was based on Mark’s version of the story. What we heard tonight was not Mark’s version. It was Matthew’s. And although the basic sandwich structure is still there, it is different in a number of crucial ways. In fact the main differences deliberately downplay some of the features that are most important in Mark’s version. In particular, the suspense element is removed entirely because whereas in Mark’s version the girl is dying, in this one she has already died before her father comes to Jesus, so delaying or not delaying is of no consequence. Matthew is not disputing what Mark was saying; he’s just using the same story to illustrate an entirely different truth.
Mark used this story to illustrate Jesus’ teaching about the social politics of the Kingdom of God. Matthew uses it to talk about Jesus’ resurrection power over the forces of death. Now before any of you jump up and down to remind me that the resurrection hasn’t happened yet, you’re right, but it has happened by the time Matthew tells the story. The entire gospel is written from a post-resurrection perspective. All the stories of what Jesus did during his ministry look different after his resurrection. The faith of the apostles is grounded in the experience of the resurrection, and all the things Jesus did and said prior to his death are now understood in light of his resurrection. Signs of life conquering death are now seen everywhere. The Paschal mystery, the mystery of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection victory over death, is a dominant theme of the whole gospel, not just the last few chapters.
We are into the time of year when the three main Bible readings in our worship are each running in their own sequence, and they are not intended to have a common theme. But just as the Paschal mystery is a dominant theme of the gospels, so too it is a dominant theme of the Bible, and tonight it is apparent in these other readings as well. And in all of them, they are not just calling us to believe certain things about what God can do, they are calling us to trust in what God can do with us. They are not just calling us to believe that God can bring the dead to life, they are calling us to believe that God can bring us from death to life. Now!
One of the sad and tragic things about us, and it is as true of us in here as of anyone else, is that we are often only too ready to meekly succumb to the powers of death. I remember noticing it after the Christian peace activist, Cairon O’Rielly, visited us some time back. We were faced with a man who shows an uncommon courage when confronted by the awesome powers of deathliness. But many of us were quickly succumbing to those same powers, even as we listened to him speak. Some of us were rationalising to ourselves why we would never do anything like that, and others of us were beating ourselves up for never having managed to do anything like that. We wrote ourselves off and mourned our own passing. Too old. Too busy. Too scared. Too uncertain. Too much to loose. Too useless. Too screwed up. Too hopeless. Too dead.
We are in good company. The Bible is full of stories of people who responded to the call of God by saying, “You’ve got the wrong person, God. I could never do anything like that.” But when we do that, however good the company we’re in, we are denying our faith in the resurrection power of God. If we reduce the concept of the resurrection to nothing more than mere life after death, then we have parcelled it off into the future where we are safe from having to be challenged by it now. Putting our faith in it becomes nothing more than a mental exercise. But Christ is not just on about handing out tickets to heaven. Sometimes the most important question is not whether there is life after death, but whether there is life before death! Jesus wants to free you from the grip of deathliness now.
Abraham was seventy five years old when God called him to migrate to the far end of the earth and start a family. He and his wife Sarah had been infertile even when they were young. Now they were past it. As Paul described them in Romans, their bodies were as good as dead so far as they could tell. All their life they had wanted children. Life without children seemed to them to be a living death. Sometimes they trusted the promise they had received from God. Sometimes they succumbed to bitterness and despair. But in the end, it didn’t much matter, because the promises of God barely depended on them at all. A mustard seed’s worth of trust was all God needed. Where all was dead and gone, God spoke the word of life, and there was life. Resurrection life!
Matthew the tax collector had succumbed to death too. He was a paid collaborator with death’s occupation forces. And if collaborating with a brutal military oppression wasn’t enough to suck the life from his soul, then the consequent hatred from his own countryfolk would have finished him off. This man was as dead as the still-breathing can be, and everyday when he went to his office, his odious work rendered him a little more dead still. There are lots of people who are trapped on a treadmill of meaningless work, or worse still, like Matthew, in work that participates in the cycles of injustice, exploitation and degradation. Matthew was probably quite sure there was no hope for him, and if he ever forgot it, there were plenty of people willing to tell him there was no hope for him. But being hopelessly dead is no obstacle to the resurrection power of Jesus the Christ. One day Jesus stops by Matthew’s office and says, “You’re not that dead, just asleep. Wake up! Get up! Follow me!” and Matthew rises from his tomb and follows Jesus into life.
The woman with the twelve year haemorrhage was pretty dead too. Not only was her continual discharge of blood uncomfortable and physically draining, but it made her an official social outcast as well. It made her ritually unclean, meaning that nobody was allowed to have close contact with her for fear of being cut off from everyone else. Twelve years of that and there would be little if anything left of her that was still really alive. She would by now regard herself as beyond hope, as an object of disgust with nothing to offer to anyone. She is certainly not willing or able to walk up to Jesus and ask for help. She creeps up behind him to touch his coat when he’s not looking, hoping that that will do the trick. But here in Matthew’s version, it doesn’t do the trick. In this version, she isn’t healed until Jesus speaks to her. “Take heart, daughter. You’re not that dead, just asleep. Wake up! This act of trust in me might have been the last grain of faith left in you, but it is enough. Trusting me has made you well.” And the woman rises from her twelve year tomb and begins to live.
In many ways, the little girl was probably the easiest of the lot of them to raise to new life. She’d probably been the most alive, but unlike the others, she’d stopped breathing. Jesus wasn’t trying to con anyone when he said she was only sleeping. He knew she was dead. They knew she was dead. But in the presence of Jesus the Messiah, death has no stronger hold on anyone than sleep. The crowd misses the point and takes him for an idiot, but Jesus sends them on their way and takes the little girl by the hand. “You’re not that dead, just asleep. Wake up! Get up! Rise to life!” And as occurs every time Jesus reaches out his hand and touches someone who’s dead, whether they are still breathing or not, life burst forth.
No matter how dead you are; no matter how hopeless and despairing and screwed up and pitiful your life is; you are not so dead that you are beyond the life-giving reach of Jesus the Messiah. You might not have the resources or competence or confidence within yourself to do anything significant for God and for the world, but who said you needed to? None of these characters had it within themselves either. As the Apostle said in our Romans reading, it depends only on faith, through grace. That means you don’t even need to find the faith within yourself. it is through grace. God gives you the faith as a gift. All you’ve got to do is exercise it. And do you know how much you’ve got to exercise it? About this much… (I offer a hand to someone seated and tell them to get up) You need to exercise about as much trust in God as this person just exercised in me. That’s all it takes to respond to the call of Jesus the Messiah. That’s all it takes to be raised to life. Just take the hand. Just put one foot in front of the other when he says follow. You see the people who do the extraordinary things for God are not doing anything more than that. They just exercise trust in God one mustard seed’s worth at a time. It has got almost nothing to do with what we are capable of; it is all about what God is capable of. But you won’t know what God is capable of doing through you if you don’t take the hand and take the first step.
“Come on. You’re not that dead, just asleep. Wake up! Get up! Follow! Live!”