When I was growing up, sleep was not something that I valued, much less enjoyed. From the time I can actually remember the experience, being told to take a nap was something I dreaded because I could never fall asleep in the afternoon. Instead it was a time of tremendous boredom as I had to lay there in bed – or risk getting in trouble if I got up and started to play with things in my room. In the same way, when I was the age that my kids are now, I didn’t want to go to bed. Instead, like them, I wanted to be able to stay up later so that I could watch something on TV.
I can tell you exactly when my attitude toward naps and sleep changed. It was February of my sophomore year in college. Baseball practice had started, and since the gym was being used in the afternoon and evening by the boys and girls basketball teams, we had to practice at 6:00 a.m. I got up every day at 5:30 a.m. in order to go to practice.
By the late afternoon I was feeling tired and sleepy. So one day I lay down on the couch in the dorm room and experienced the ever so pleasant sensation of drifting off to sleep. I awoke about forty five minutes later just as it was time for supper, feeling refreshed and revived. This became my habit during the rest of indoor practice and it was in this way that I discovered the joys of the power nap.
All through seminary and graduate school I enjoyed the delight of a brief nap to refresh me. In fact when I entered the parish it was a rude awakening that this was no longer possible. I didn’t think it would look good if a parishioner walked into my office and found me asleep. The opportunities to take a nap are fewer now, and so I enjoy them even more when I feel sleepy and have a chance to take one. As I get older, the feeling of lying down and drifting off to sleep gets better and better.
For adults, sleep is something that we treasure. I bet I am not alone in savoring a good nap. At the end of a long day, we look forward to going to bed. We prize a good night’s sleep, because as you get older there are more things that rob you of sleep during the night.
Generally speaking, sleep is a positive thing. It feels good to fall asleep, and it is sleep that allows us then to wake up feeling refreshed. It isn’t permanent and it certainly isn’t something that we fear. For this reason, the fact that our Lord describes the dead girl in our text as “asleep” should catch our attention. Our Lord shows that for him and his saving power, death is no more than sleep. And this fact calls us to an ever stronger faith in Jesus.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus has been reclining at a meal as he spoke with the Pharisees and some disciples of John the Baptist. We learn that while he was speaking with them a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
The man had status in his community. The act of bowing before Jesus showed the honor that he was giving to the Lord. It was an act of humility as he set forth his plea. His daughter had just died. Yet in the face of this he said, “But come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”
There is a certainty – a confidence – in the man’s statement that is difficult to miss. It matches the way that he approaches Jesus and bows before him. The father is sure that he has come to the one who can help. The matter is simple. If Jesus comes and lays his hand on the girl, she will live.
Now we never find the word “faith” used in our text in order to describe the father. But clearly, that is what is being described. This description is made explicit in the event that is sandwiched in between the father’s request and the healing of the daughter.
We learn that there was a woman who had some kind of chronic vaginal bleeding. Such a condition made her ritually unclean, and therefore unable to take part in the religious life at the temple. She came up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” The father asked for Jesus to come and touch his daughter. This woman came in order to touch Jesus. Present in both was the belief – the faith – that Jesus could provide healing.
Jesus knew what had happened. He turned and said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. The women had come in faith – in the firm confidence that Jesus could heal her. And that is precisely what the Lord did.
The father had come in faith too. When they arrived at the house, Jesus saw that the mourning rituals had begun. There were the expected flute payers and the crowd lamenting the death. When Jesus saw it, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And in response, they laughed at him.
In our text we find both the call and the challenge of faith. The Lord Jesus is present and proclaiming the kingdom of God – the reign of God – that is present in him. He is bringing this reign – enacting it – through his miracles of healing. It is a word that invites faith in him and the fact that the salvation he brings is for each individual. But it is a word that requires belief and trust. And it exists in the midst of a world that rejects it and makes fun of it. Jesus has just been disputing with the Pharisees who reject him and seek to lead others to reject him too. The crowd at the house laughs at Jesus when he says that the girl merely sleeps. Clearly they don’t take Jesus seriously.
So too it is in your life. You have had the Gospel proclaimed to you. You were baptized into the saving death of Jesus Christ. Yet because of the old man still present in you there is the ongoing struggle to believe in Jesus and what he means for your life. There is the ongoing struggle to trust in Jesus.
The devil tells you to look at your failures. You know what they are there – the hurtful words and deeds. He asks, “Can there really be forgiveness for someone like you?” As you experience hardship and suffering in this world, the devil asks, “Can Jesus really be someone you can trust, if this is what happens to you?” The world speaks for the devil as it laughs at your trust in Jesus and the life it prompts you to lead – a life which says that Creator has said how things are to work and not the creature.
These challenges are always there. And so we need to keep our eyes set on Jesus at all times. We need to keep our ears open and attentive to his words. At the ruler’s house Jesus encounters death. He encounters those who laugh at him. But none of that matters because Jesus is there. We hear in our text, “But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.”
Jesus said that the girly merely slept. He described death this way because his ministry was overcoming sin and death. When faced with Jesus, death is no more lasting or powerful than sleep.
Jesus can say and do these things because of who he is and what he is doing. He is God, of one substance with the Father, who has been incarnate by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. And he is engaged in a ministry that is uprooting the source of death. In the previous chapter we are told: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’”
The words of Isaiah are from chapter 53 in which the prophet describes the suffering Servant of the Lord who “was pierced for our transgressions” and “was crushed for our iniquities”; the One upon whom “was the chastisement that brought us peace”; the One whose wounds have brought us healing. Jesus is defeating sin and all that comes with it.
He did this as he died on the cross and then himself rose from the dead on the third day. He gave his holy life as a ransom for our sinful ones, so that we can stand before God as those who are righteous and holy in his sight. And in his resurrection from the dead he defeated death with a finality that will end it for his people forever. Eventually, the girl he raised that day fell asleep again in death. But in the consummation of his saving ministry, Jesus will return in glory and raise her up and transform her so that she can never die again. He will do the same thing for you.
The miracles of Jesus show that he was bringing the reign of God to a fallen people and world. He was turning back Satan, sin and death. They point forward to the ultimate saving work of Christ – his death and resurrection. And in the same way today they point us to the crucified and risen Lord. They call us to renewed faith in him – faith that trusts that because of Jesus we are forgiven and so can stand before God. They call us to faith in Jesus that trusts in him to love and care for us no matter what is going on in our life. In fact, they lead us to recognize that God is at work in the midst of the circumstances we may be facing – after all, the ultimate action of God for us took place on a cross.
Faith in the crucified and risen Lord gives us a living hope. Jesus died and Jesus rose from the dead! That means you are forgiven now. Jesus died and rose from the dead! That means you have the One who loves and sustains you in the midst of all that life brings. Jesus died and rose from the dead! That means death cannot be anything more to you than sleep.