How do you know it’s bad?

Revd John Freeman

Sermon delivered on 27 June 2021


Lamentations 3: 22-33
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 8:7-15
Mark 5: 21-43

Long ago in a village in China lived an old man and his only son. They were very poor. They were shack dwellers but they had a little piece of land. He was very proud of his son. He would look after his father when his strength was gone. Their most precious possession was an old horse. He pulled the plough—and the cart that took crops to market. One day the horse ran away. When the villagers heard about it, they came to share the family’s bad luck. They said “Oh! This is bad—very bad.”

The old man looked up from where he was working and asked, “How do you know it’s bad?”
Time passed. Now the son himself had to pull the plough; and the cart as well. They lived very hard. Then one day their horse came home. He didn’t come alone. With him was a whole herd of wild horses! The son caught many of them. Now the neighbours came to rejoice in the man’s good fortune, for horses meant wealth.

The son broke in the horses to sell them. One day a horse threw him, and he broke his leg. Again the neighbours came to grieve with the old man, “Oh, this is bad—this is terrible! This is so very bad!” they said. But the old man just asked them, “How do you know it’s bad?”

A few weeks later, the son still could not walk. A powerful warlord raided the village to take men for his army. His soldiers took all the young men—but not the son with the broken leg. Not one of the others ever returned; but the son did recover.

Many Bible stories also show God turning bad things to blessing

Let’s look at our OT lesson.
Jeremiah had spent his life warning Judah of bad things to come it they did not repent of their evil lives and idolatry. And when the Babylonians conquered them, it was very bad indeed, with mass deportations of all leadership and wholesale destruction and death. Wasn’t that very bad?

But what did we read? A prophet no longer warning, but assuring of the Lord’s great love and goodness. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consume, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning: great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him. (Lamentations 3: 22-24) He saw, not the evil that was past, but the good that stil might come. How do you know it’s bad, when the end of the story is a long way off.

Look again at St. Paul asking the Corinthians to decide: is it good or bad to give? They look back to the time when God came really close to his people—when he became man in Jesus our Lord. He says: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor8: 9)

It is confusing, isn’t it? Bad for Jesus? But that was what he was born for, and what he wanted to do! Bad for the Corinthians? Well, Paul wanted them to give money to the poor Christians of Jerusalem—a big gift that would hurt. The churches of Macedonia had just made a gift like this. They were much poorer than the Corinthians—St. Paul says it was ‘extreme poverty,’ a rendering of the Greek ‘abyss of poverty.’ That is to say, bad, very bad! But giving it had filled them with a joy that welled up into rich generosity! They didn’t think so.

Good or bad? In the gospel, some found it bad to be near Jesus! Jairus’ daughter was dying. I know how that feels. We almost lost our only daughter in her teens—poisoned by a faulty gas heater. It’s like ice round your heart. You’d do anything to save her. Jairus was ‘a ruler of the synagogue.’ So he was under the High Priest and the Temple people. They were trying to kill Jesus. Jairus would have been 100% against him! They thought healing was man’s work, not God’s; and that Jesus was a fake. He would hate to have him in his house! But he did what a father must do—this enemy was his only chance. He swallowed his pride and begged on his knees. (Mark 5: 22) This was bad—very bad!

And it got worse! On the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus got delayed. He met the woman with the bleeding. She was broke, tired and hurting—certainly in a very bad place. (Mark 5:25, 26) She had heard about Jesus, but she knew she’d probably never meet him. But for Jairus’ very bad place, she would likely have been right! She, too, had a problem with approaching Jesus. Her sickness was intimate and unmentionable—especially to a man! So she crept up behind him to touch his clothes in secret—but it all went wrong! Her bad place became worse, because he noticed her! In horrible shame she had to tell him her story—in public. Yet the bad suddenly became the best thing ever for her. She was healed and Jesus commended her faith.

Messengers from Jairus’ house came to say his child was dead. But really they were pleased that perhaps now they could stop Jesus from coming to their home. They said quickly, “Why bother the teacher anymore??” (Mark 5: 35) It didn’t work—this awful man would still come!

Then he insulted these holy synagogue people! He told them not to be afraid but to believe. As if they didn’t believe! They laughed when he said the girl wasn’t dead, but asleep! Did he take them for fools? This was bad, very bad! But you don’t know it’s bad until the story ends, do you? Jesus restored their daughter to life! (Mark 5: 41 43)

Our God is still among us! What looks really bad is often the place where God is at work to bring the greatest blessing. In our bad place, we need him, but in our hearts we know that if we fully open ourselves to Jesus, nothing will ever be the same again. We’re scared of that!

What might this mean for you? You are without a Rector—bad, very bad! You and I are also part of a Diocese somewhat shamefully without a Bishop. Even worse? But perhaps God had to take both away so that we can see Jesus again? Clergy can indeed get in his way: but it takes two parties to spoil a relationship. No one is guiltless. Might we not all be like Jairus and his family, needing Jesus but resenting it? How long have we been like this? Let’s ask our Lord so that we and our children may be healed!

You and I are called to take the Cross—to both make and accept painful changes in our lives—without any assurance that things will come out all right. Today, through these scriptures, God speaks about that. The corruption and idolatry of Judah are wiped from Jeremiah’s mind. There is now an opportunity to start from scratch. People may still mess it up, but the new opportunity wasn’t there before. The Corinthians had to learn about giving through the worse poverty of another Church. Yes, we have all failed: the returning exiles from Babylon failed to restore Judaism fully; that was left for Ezra and Nehemiah to enforce.

I have no reassurance for you today, no direct word from our Lord. But I have this: to those willing to accept his rebuke, God gives back the spiritual vision lost through sin, enabling full repentance, as he did for Jeremiah. He does call us to the most difficult things we have ever had to face or do – see John 21: 15 19. It feels like the end of everything; but it is also the beginning of new life in Christ. It means remembering to look at the Cross and ask, “How do you know it’s bad?” Amen.