Sermon for Epiphany V
Isaiah 40:21-31 Psalms 147:1-12, 21c I Corinthians 9:16-23 Mark 1:29-39
At first sight, this looks like a narrative all about the power of Jesus to heal and control the demon. And so it is. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and then he proceeds to heal all those in the town who are sick. He casts out and silences demons. The power of Jesus is unmistakable.
However, hidden in this text are two lovely details that really make you think. The first is Peter’s mother-in-law. Now you can’t have a mother-in-law without having a wife. So what was it like being the wife of Peter the apostle? This is the only indirect mention of Peter’s wife in the Gospels. The second detail is Jesus getting up early, while still dark, and goes to pray. The incarnation of God needed to stay in touch with God.
Even though the time of Epiphany, the time of divine revelation to the world, is not far behind us, today’s lessons remind us of another dimension of life and of the scriptures – keeping silence. Some experiences, even to the faithful, are difficult to understand. Isaiah 40 reveals the wonder at God’s majesty and marvels that God’s way is hidden. The psalmist praises the God who made all things and cares for the nameless and forgotten of the earth. Paul engages the Corinthians in a discussion of service and freedom. Mark punctuates his account of Jesus’ ministry with one of many statements about the secrecy of Jesus and the confusion that caused for the disciples.
“…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not grow faint.” As I age, maybe not so gracefully, I say sign me up for this - to not grow weary and to run with strength!
“To wait on the Lord” is to have confidence, to have faith, in the sense of committing ourselves to God in hopeful expectation. To know that God’s plan for each of us is so much better than we could ever imagine. The passage as a whole, puts forth an argument that the dispirited and the despondent exiles have good reason to be hopeful. The one who calls them to freedom is the God who created the earth, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, giving those who wait for God the power to soar and so much more. Sign me up for that!
The Gospel lessons for Epiphany, up to now, have been very open and clear about who Jesus is and what he was doing. After all, that is what Epiphany means: manifestation or revelation. But in today’s reading, we hear another aspect – secrecy. The idea of secrecy or silence about Jesus appeared in the gospel lesson last week, when Jesus rebuked the evil spirit that called him, “the Holy One of God.” Jesus ordered, “Be silent,” and cast out the spirit. The idea of being silent confuses the disciples. They want to shout it from the roof tops. Jesus’ call for secrecy and the disciples’ inability to understand are two of the most striking aspects of this reading.
We know that each of the gospel writers had a slightly different perspective as they wrote. We see that comparable stories often focus on different aspects of what is going on. In Matthew, Jesus touched the woman’s hand. In Mark, he helped her up. In Luke, he spoke to the fever and it left her. The accounts don’t conflict with each other. Each writer simply chose to emphasize different details to bring to light certain characteristics of Jesus they found important.
The people came to Jesus in the evening after sunset. This is the Sabbath, their day of rest, lasting from sunset Friday to sunset on Saturday. The Jewish leaders had proclaimed that it was against the Law to be healed on the Sabbath. That got Jesus into trouble more than once. The people didn’t want to break this law or the Jewish law against traveling on the Sabbath, so they waited until sunset. After the sun went down, the people were free to find Jesus so that he could heal them.
Why didn’t Jesus want the demons to reveal who he was? By commanding the demons to be silent, he demonstrated his power and authority over them. Jesus wanted the people to believe he was the Messiah because of what he said and did - because of what he said and did- not because of the demon’s words. Jesus wanted to reveal his identity as the Messiah according to his time table, not according to Satan’s. Satan wanted the people to follow Jesus around for what they could get out of him, not because he was the Son of God who could truly set them free from sin’s guilt and power.
In looking at the sequence of Mark’s gospel, we see that the first miracle takes place in the synagogue, where Jesus is teaching. Remember, this is at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. In Mark, it is Jesus’ first
exorcism. When a man appears, possessed by “an unclean spirit,” while Jesus is teaching, Jesus casts the demon out of the man. We read that passage last Sunday. We hear the crowd exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)
Jesus immediately left the synagogue to go to Peter’s house where they find his mother-in-law sick in bed with a fever. I was bothered for years by this passage. Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and she immediately gets up and serves. Was she being treated like property – like a servant? Was that the point…she was a good cook and they wanted something to eat? In recent years, I have come to realize that it is her response to her healing. It is out of joy and love that she serves, not out of duty or obligation. In that realization, I found a sense of peace, a sense of understanding and a sense of hope in what is to come. We don’t hear anymore about the mother-in-law, but I believe she kept her joy and she kept on serving. This is what Jesus did, always serving others. Even on the cross, he has compassion for his mother’s future and the future of the thief beside him.
Why was it that the disciples were impatient with Jesus when he went off to pray in solitude? Was it that there was so much to do, so many people to help, so many places to go? Was it because he was not following their agenda? I wonder how I would have responded, how you would respond? It’s easy to get so caught up with ministry that you neglect times of solitude, individual worship and prayer. It is at that point, we need to reschedule our time and find time for earnest prayer. I read some place, that if you don’t feel you have time to pray, then you should pray twice as long. It is so important to seek the Lord before our busy schedules pull us away and take over our thoughts. I continually find the need to withdraw from the busyness of my day and focus on God. I frequently sit in the empty church or the chapel to spend some time alone with God. Over and over again, Jesus gave us the example of regular communion with the Father.
If we look at Jesus’ priorities in his life, we see that special time with the Father was right up at the top. After spending time and energy with folks, healing and teaching, and then he must go off to renew himself, to be
that it is good to pray on a regular basis, from the prayer book, on-line resources, to pray for people we know and love. That communication builds a relationship with God, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Prayer is important, not just in times of crisis, but all the time, so the lines of communication are well formed and the bonds of love are strengthened with each encounter.
In thinking about prayer and preparing ourselves, Lent is a wonderful time to redesign our approach, to try something different. Being effective apostles involves looking at the dark corners within ourselves, to seek “the dark of the soul.” Parker Palmer refers to this process as “looking or reading our inner landscape.” While this is never easy, it is necessary. We can’t bring the light, and joy and love of Christ to others if we are unaware of where that light needs to shine in our own hearts. Living a life of faith requires looking at those dark places within, which will also help us understand others’ darkness. We need not fear this internal exploration. God is with us. Jesus’ light is within us. We are a part of a community of faith and our brothers and sisters in Christ will support us.
Finally, when we are there for others, present, compassionate and forgiving, we are more likely to fulfill the law as Jesus suggested: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul; and our neighbor as ourselves. Archbishop William Temple said, “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members.” We carry the church with us – we are the church. For God’s love to be seen, we must be willing to go where the need exists, to engage and walk through times of darkness, so that, in time, the light can overcome the darkness.
In practical ways, how is the community to let its light shine so people can see and experience God’s love? By doing good works, that is experiencing acts of love, mercy and justice. We know that our works do not buy our place in heaven. Our works of love are our response to God’s gifts to us, just like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. We love because we are loved. So, in responding in love, we must go into those dark places, bearing the light of Christ. The light is not given for our own personal enjoyment. It is given that we might share it, on the street, in our work, in our family, in the grocery store. We are called to be present, to be compassionate and forgiving that God’s kingdom may grow here on earth. Amen.