The last laugh

The Podcast

Mark 5:21-43

“And they laughed at him.”

In all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the language is identical. Death had come calling. The jig was up. It was what it was. Except that Jesus said, “Not so fast . . . she’s just sleeping.” And they laughed at him—for the second time that day, I’m guessing. On the way to Jairus’ house, the crowd had been so thick, pressing in so closely about him, that when Jesus felt a touch and the healing power flowing from him, and asked, of no one in particular, “Who touched me?” all the disciples could do was ask incredulously, “What?” And I bet they laughed. People didn’t always know what to make of Jesus. Some of the things he said and did seemed pretty outlandish… even foolish. But I’m pretty sure he knew what he was doing.

Last week, we heard the story about Jesus stilling a storm on the Sea of Galilee. “Peace, be still,” he said. Remember? He and his disciples had been crossing the lake on their way to the eastern shore, which was gentile country, for a purpose that only God knew. It must have seemed kind of random, but when they arrived, the disciples began to get an inkling of what was going on: there was a crazy, out-of-control madman (the Gerasene Demoniac), full of unclean spirits, a whole legion of them, who came running up to Jesus, begging to be left… in peace. And Jesus obliged him by sending all of the demons into a nearby heard of pigs, which subsequently stampeded into the sea and drowned (Mark 5:1-20). You know the story. Not too much laughter there, I’m guessing, unless it was nervous laughter. It was a lot to take in. The former demoniac wanted to stay with Jesus and the disciples, but Jesus sent him home, to his friends and family, to spread the Good News of God’s mercy and salvation. Jesus had a plan. The evangelism of the gentiles had begun.

So, now we’re back in Galilee, in Capernaum probably, and Jesus’ fame is continuing to spread. Now Jairus, who was a “big man on campus” in the local synagogue, probably wouldn’t have hazarded his reputation by approaching Jesus had the situation not been really dire. But the situation was dire. His little girl, likely the apple of his eye, was dying… and no one else seemed to be able to help her. And so Jairus “came to Jesus.” Just like the woman with the hemorrhage “came to Jesus” after twelve years of trying anything/everything else to meet her need. Just like so many of us come to Jesus when there’s nothing else to lose. Man, wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring ourselves to come to Jesus before everything in our lives has fallen apart? Before we find ourselves beset from all sides by persistent misfortune, fear of temporal loss and abandonment, disappointment, heartache and utter hopelessness? Wouldn’t that be cool. 

But that’s not how we roll, is it? Nope. We’re gonna hold fast to our own pride and the illusion of self-sufficiency until the bitter end, aren’t we? We are going to keep on trying to protect our assets, find new doctors, new lawyers and new friends, sparing no expense looking out for number one until we bend the world to our will and get what we think we want. Any other course of action would be foolishness, would it not? Except that that’s a lie, spread by the Evil One to keep us separated from the ONE who made us, and who has loved us steadfastly and passionately and unconditionally, despite our unfaithfulness, since the dawn of creation. “Who touched me? Your faith has made you well; go in peace . . . be healed.” “She’s just asleep.” It was all foolishness! And they laughed at him. Just like they laughed and mocked him as he stood trial before the Sanhedrin (Mark 14:63-65), and after Pilate had flogged him (Mark 15:16-20) and even as he hung, dying, on the cross (Mark 15:29-32)

I guess it’s sometimes just easier for us to laugh at Jesus, and his seemingly foolish message, than it is for us to give in and pin our hope on the Good News of God’s salvation. And even when we don’t actually laugh at the message, we hold it at arm’s length—and do everything we can to keep ourselves from going “all in.” We might say, “Sure, Jesus was a good man. Even a great moral teacher. Certainly, he meant no harm. But this whole Son of God thing… and the miracles and the Resurrection. That’s crazy! It would be foolishness to believe all that.” But I’m reminded of writer and theologian C.S. Lewis’ logic in this regard when he argued (convincingly, I think) that a person who said the things Jesus said cannot, by any definition, be simply a great moral teacher. A person who claims to be God but isn’t, must either be “a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or a liar and a charlatan.” You must make your choice, said Lewis. And choosing to ascribe to the notion of Jesus as a great moral teacher isn’t an option that’s open to us. “Great moral teachers are neither crazy, nor do they seek to deceive others through their lies. So, either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse” (Mere Christianity, 55-6).

So, what if there’s a fourth choice, you might ask? What if the whole thing is a fabrication? Yup. What if Jesus never really existed at all, and the story was made up by a bunch of first century religious zealots intent on starting a new messianic sect? “Messiah fever” was pretty rampant in Jewish Palestine back in those days… just like it is today, in a sense. Don’t folks in this day and age sometimes hanker for the proverbial “man on a white horse” to come and fix all of their problems? So, it’s possible the whole thing was just a hoax… EXCEPT that the story of Jesus’ life and ministry is attested to outside of the New Testament. First century Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephusrefers to the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of Roman authorities in his work Antiquities of the Jews, written between 93-94 CE, so we have it on good authority that there was an historical Jesus.[1] Josephus doesn’t include a lot of content about Jesus, but the fact that he documented the execution of an itinerant Jewish rabbi by the Romans in Palestine, half a century or so after the fact, is remarkable in and of itself. 

So… Jesus might have been a real person, you concede, but maybe his followers kind of embellished the things he said and did just a bit. Maybe they started with a real person… but turned him into something more. Maybe it was all just a case of wishful thinking. How about that? Only this: we have three separate accounts of the Good News of Jesus Christ—written years apart, and in different places around the Mediterranean basin, by three different authors, a mix of Jews and gentiles who likely never met one another, and who (most Biblical scholars agree) did not collaborate with each other in the traditional sense—and all of these accounts agree, in the main, about the details of Jesus’ life and ministry… the things he said, the things he did. Even without taking into account John’s Gospel and the testimony of the author of Acts and the letters of Paul and the other apostles, the simple preponderance of evidence found in the synoptic gospels would seem to offer the openminded reader ample reason to take the leap of faith. 

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? If it’s true, it’s everything. But if it’s not, it’s just a monumental waste of time! It would be so much easier if the things Jesus wanted us to do and believe were more like the things we we’re already predisposed to do and believe, right? Are we really to love our enemies? Turn the other cheek? Give away our stuff? Associate with society’s cast-offs, on the street and in prison? Tend the sick and infirm, placing the needs of “the least of these” above our own? And, worst of all, are we really to cease our worldly strivings and place our trust in some ineffable entity that we can neither see, hear, taste, touch or smell? That’s counter-cultural. That’s foolishness! But that’s why God came down from heaven and stooped to become one of us, fully-human and yet fully-divine, so that we could know him, and know that nothing can separate us from his love. So, laugh if you want. Laugh at God’s foolishness. Laugh at the unexpectedness of it all. But most of all, we should all be thankful that in the end, it was God who had the last laugh when he redeemed us from the power of sin and death through the resurrection of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Foolishness indeed.

The song linked below is one I first heard on the AM radio in my police cruiser as I stood the watch early one Sunday morning when I was a young cop, back in 1985. It was the very first contemporary Christian song I ever loved. And the composer took a lot of heat from other Christian singer/songwriters about the language he used to describe Jesus. It’s by Michael Card, and titled “God’s own fool.”

Michael Card: God’s Own Fool

[1] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Para 3

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