Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – 02.04.18

Our gospel for today continues the story of Jesus’ first day of ministry in Capernaum, in Galilee, where he grew up.  In our gospel for last week he reached out to a man possessed by a demon, a man who others were probably afraid to approach, and out of his compassion he healed him.  Yet in spite of that dramatic event, the thing that impressed itself on the people was his teaching in the synagogue.  Through the authentic authority given to him by God, he showed people by word and action what the message of scripture really means.

After he finished teaching at the synagogue, Jesus went with his companions to the home of Simon, aka Peter.  Peter’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, which could have indicated a serious illness.  Jesus does not hesitate, and, as he will often do when he heals, he takes her by the hand and he raises her up.  Although it is translated as “lifted up” the actual word is “raised up,” the same word used in healing stories throughout the gospel.  Sometimes we joke about the fact that Peter’s mother-in-law had to jump right up and serve them a meal after being healed – no time to recuperate for her – the word for serve is diakoneo which we recognize as the root word for “deacon.”  It literally means she waited on them and is only found in two other places in Mark’s gospel. 

The first place is immediately after this story, when two of the disciples ask Jesus to sit at his right and left sides in heaven, and he reprimands them saying that he came not as a king to be served, but to “wait upon” others.  The only other place this word appears is when Mark uses it to describe the women who remain faithful at the foot of the cross when Jesus is crucified.   To serve, or wait upon, others immediately after receiving a gift of grace (such as healing) is to demonstrate an understanding of the gospel message and what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Our response to the unconditional gift of grace is to do good works.    Peter’s mother-in-law is the first person in Mark’s gospel to understand that.

Although the sun sets on what was a very busy first day of ministry, Jesus’ day is not over.  Word spread about his healing power and by sunset a crowd had formed at the door of the house where he was staying.  We are told “he cured many who were sick.. and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him.”  This first day of ministry is a foreshadowing of what Jesus does throughout the gospel – he teaches, he heals, and he insists on the messianic secret.  No one must reveal who he truly is until the time is right.

After what must have been a brief period of sleep, Jesus slips away before sunrise to a quiet place to pray.  Prayer is central to Jesus’ ministry in the gospel.  As will often happen, his disciples seek him out and inform him that “everyone is searching for you.”  Jesus will be hard pressed to get much rest because of the urgency of his mission.  Although he could have established himself at Capernaum and allowed the people to come to him for teaching and healing, he informs his disciples that they are going on the road.  His time of prayer has helped him to discern that he should be going out to bring his message and his healing power directly to the people. He is propelled by a sense of urgency and passion which will inspire a response in those who come in contact with him.  The purpose for his coming is as a mission of service.

Jesus came out among the people of Israel at a time when they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire.  As the people of a conquered land, they were heavily taxed without receiving the services and benefits that citizens of the empire were entitled to.   They were not entitled to the same legal protections that Rome established for its citizens and if convicted of a crime they were subject to brutal punishments, such as crucifixion.  Jesus brought a message of hope, justice and compassion to a people for whom those rights were in short supply.

Later, about thirty years after Jesus died and rose again, the Gospel of Mark was the first written account of four gospels we have today.  Mark was considered an interpreter of the disciple Peter, which is probably why the story about his mother-in-law is only in Mark.  This was at a time when, according to the historian Tacitus, a new group of people called “Christians” were being persecuted by the Emperor Nero.  They were arrested, tortured and executed by brutal means.  Except for the privileged, most people who lived at that time experienced the world as a dark and violent place, where there was immense poverty and ruthlessness.  The emperor was worshiped as a god, and so to many people demonic powers seemed to have the upper hand.  It was as if Satan was ruling the world.

Imagine when this book began to be circulated, a book called the Good News of Jesus Christ, which announced that a new beginning had taken place.  Its author insisted on the possibility of liberation, of freedom from fear and brutality, and the coming of peace.  At the heart of the book was the message that in spite of the mighty power of Satan, unleashed in demonic forces, Jesus triumphed over all of them.  The darkness that covered the world was being illuminated by a bright light of hope that promised a new way of living, a whole new way of being. 

Not only is Jesus the true all-powerful ruler of the universe, but he shows his authentic authority through his words and deeds.  Jesus, unlike the emperor of Rome – or any other despotic ruler – wants to save us, to heal us and to make us whole again.  Jesus wants to take us by the hand and raise us up to be with him.  We can understand how the message of this book, along with the other gospel narratives and the letters of Paul, captured the hearts and minds of those who heard it, and how it spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. 

In our first lesson the prophet Isaiah assures the people that even though they had been taken into captivity in Babylon, it did not mean that their God had lost the war to the god of Babylon.  God still sits, unthreatened, above the dome of heaven that they believed held back the chaos that would cause the destruction of the earth.  God is still in charge of creation and all its creatures.  This God, their God, will provide them with the energy they will need to return home from exile.  They can draw on God’s strength for renewal, just as the people of the Roman Empire many centuries later will draw on God in Jesus for strength to resist the forces of evil that surrounded them. 

Although in a physical sense the Israelites will return to Jerusalem, in a very real sense there is no going back.  They have to go forward and accept the adventure of re-establishing themselves in a new future.  The persecuted Christians of the Roman Empire will not go back either, they will move forward into a new faith in the God who saved them with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We of the church today cannot go back, either.  Some of us remember what are sometimes referred to as the “glory days” – which not perfect either.  But there is no going back, things can never be the same again.  We can only take the best of what makes us church together and, trusting in God’s promises, move forward into a new future.  Like an eagle, we will spread our wings to rise up and soar above the challenges that face us.   Amen.  

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