Sunday, February 4, 2018

Epiphany 5
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11
1 Corinthians 9:16-27
Mark 1:29-39

Havenít you known? Havenít you heard, yet? Havenít you been told from the beginning? Havenít you understood from the foundations of the earth?

I watched an episode of Dr. Phil this morning that included the story of three children who had not seen their mother for thirty years. The children did not understand why their mother disappeared. They had heard stories, but they had no explanation. Their father was horrific. He abused them in every way imaginable. The children, now adults, did not know whether to fear for the safety of their long lost mother or to be angry that she left them to suffer. A private detective found her and they were reunited on the show.

She explained what happened to her children; their father kidnapped them while she tried to get help. He had beaten her, too, and she knew she had to escape the relationship. She tried to get them back, worked with a lawyer and the courts, but his threats were too real for her and she feared for their lives. Whether right or wrong, she thought it was better to let them go than to risk the violence she knew he was capable of doing. It will take a long time for that family to heal, but they are going to try.

Sometimes our fears get the better of us. I think we have all probably been in situations when we have made irrational decisions because we let fear control our thought processes. There usually is no real reason for us to be afraid, but that does not diminish the reality of how we feel at that time: alone and in a position of vulnerability.

Martin Luther spoke during one of his table talks about the difference in how God and Satan use fear. He said that the Lord first allows us to be afraid so that He might relieve our fears and comfort us. The devil first makes us feel secure in our pride and sins, that we might later be overwhelmed with our fear and despair. The devil uses our security to his benefit by threatening to destroy the things we love. So, we become afraid and do everything we can to protect our lives, our homes, our families, our jobs and our things. We even willfully disobey the Word of God, living in anger, hatred, violence and war, justifying our actions as a way to overcome the things of this world that threaten our lives.

The fear of the Lord is much different. The Law provides insight into our own sinful nature. Through it we can see our inability to be obedient. We know of Godís power and justice, so we fear the wrath that we deserve. Yet, God comes to us through the Gospel, not with threats, but with love and mercy and grace. Jesus Christ relieves our fears and the Holy Spirit comforts us. We hear the promises of God that He will not destroy us, but rather He will give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Rather than reason for alarm, we are given reason for hope and peace.

In some cultures, of course, there are those who take a certain pleasure in fear. The man in the family on Dr. Phil was a man who enjoyed making his wife and children tremble because it gave him a sense of power and control. In those situations, they use your fear manipulate you to do whatever they want you to do. Youíll give them information, possessions or your service just to remain safe. It seems odd, then, that the psalmist would write, ďYahweh takes pleasure in those who fear him...Ē God does not pleasure in our fear the way an abuser might. In the case of God, we fear, not because we are afraid, but because we know God is awesome. He can do things that no one else can do.

The psalmist completes the thought, ď those who hope in his loving kindness.Ē Fear of God is not a fear that will make us cower and tremble. It is a sense of awe in what God has done and what God can do. He takes pleasure in those who put their hope in His lovingkindness. This is a much different type of delight. It is a delight that will do what is best for those who fear, to guard and protect, provide and bless. For this, He deserves our praise.

According to Isaiah, God is the ďHoly One of Israel.Ē This is an important title to Isaiah and appears twenty-six times in his book. This might have been hard to believe for some of the people to whom Isaiah ministered because they were facing such a difficult time in their history. They were defeated and exiled in a foreign land. It seemed that the nation of Israel would no longer exist. They had every reason to be afraid. Their troubles were caused by their own rejection of Godís Word through the prophets. They did not see God as He is: the Holy One. However, despite our failure God always provides hope.

When we are comfortable, we lose sight of God and forget the unmerited blessings of His grace. Throughout the history of Godís people, there were times when Godís people looked elsewhere for hope and peace and strength. They allied with neighbors for protection, sought encouragement from foreigners, all the while forgetting the God and King who provided them all they would ever need. They turned from Him, and in doing so lost touch with the One who could and would protect them.

Just as the people thought there was no hope, Isaiah called them to remember their God. They needed their eyes opened, to see that the things and people to whom they had turned would never be able to provide them with all that they need. Only God can measure the water or the heavens with His hand. Only God can weigh the mountains and hills. There is no one who has, or can, tell God how to be God. He did not ask for human advice in the creation of the world or learn from human teachers. There is no one like God.

We are reminded in this same passage that we are trivial. We are like grasshoppers compared to God Almighty, who created everything and whose hand drives it all. God can bring down princes and rulers and scatter them like a storm scatters stubble. He placed every star in the sky and He knows them all by name. ďĎTo whom then will you liken me? Who is my equal?í says the Holy One.Ē There is none like God.

And yet, we often try to be Him. We try to control the world in which we live, calling for God to serve us instead of bowing in worship to serve Him. Twice in todayís Old Testament lesson Isaiah asks, ďHavenít you known? Havenít you heard, yet? Havenít you been told from the beginning? Havenít you understood from the foundations of the earth?Ē Twice Isaiah asked why they were not hearing Godís Word.

They have heard and they are called to remember. God is greater than their problems. He is above all creation. He can raise up kings and bring them down again. God is their strength. He is their hope. He is their refuge. He is the everlasting God, creator of all things. In Him they will find their comfort and salvation.

Our problems may differ, but we are the same as Israel. Have we chosen to believe that we have the answers, that we know how to solve the problems? Have we become too comfortable in our action and forgotten that it is His Word that truly makes a difference? Have we lifted up the false god of our own goodness and made it our priority, ignoring the real purpose of Godís grace? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago to remind us that our God is the Holy One. ďHavenít you known? Havenít you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesnít faint. He isnít weary. His understanding is unsearchable.Ē He is faithful and we will find our hope in Him.

In todayís Gospel lesson, Jesus left the synagogue after healing the man with the demons and He went straight to Peterís house. Peterís mother-in-law was ill with fever and lying in bed. Like the man with the demons, Peterís mother-in-law could not live her life according to the vocation to which sheíd been called. Though her dis-ease was not supernatural in nature, she was still not able to be who she was created to be. Instead, she was forced to lie in bed, unable to serve her family or enjoy their fellowship.

Jesus went to Peterís mother-in-law, reached out and took her hand, then lifted her up. She was cured immediately and was restored to her whole self. I suppose we might read this passage with a modern edge and be disturbed that the poor woman who had just recovered from what seemed to be a pretty horrible illness had to get up and serve the men. Yet, that was her role in the household. She was not only healed, but she was restored to her vocation, the care of her family.

As we heard in last weekís Gospel lesson, word spread about Jesus throughout the countryside. After the Sabbath ended, people began arriving at Peterís door with the sick and the possessed. It seemed as if the entire city was gathered around the house. Jesus cured many of the diseases and cast out many demons. He took care of their needs and restored them to their roles in their society. This was very important in Jesusí day. There were no laws which gave handicapped people help in overcoming the difficulties of their disease. There was no mobility between stations in life or the roles to which you were born. If you were sick, you were considered unclean. If you were a Jew or a Greek, you lived, worked and ate with only your people. There were not only stumbling blocks, there were walls keeping people inside and outside.

Jesus broke down walls. He brought healing, He cast out demons. He changed lives and restored people. But thatís not all He came to do. He also came to preach. Unfortunately, the people were so amazed by the miraculous things He was doing that they did not hear what He had to say. They were closing in on Him and expecting from Him only what they wanted. They were not giving Him the room to be who He came to be. So, after dark Jesus went out to a lonely place to pray. When the disciples found Him they told Him that everyone was looking for Him. He said to them, ďLetís go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because I came out for this reason.Ē He was not going to allow the people to dictate the work He was going to accomplish. The healing and casting out of demons was important; it proved Jesusí authority and power, but it was not the reason He came. It was time to move on, to share the message with others who might hear. Sadly, we learn in Luke 10 that Capernaum never came to believe. Strange, isn't it? They came to Jesus for healing, but never found wholeness because they didnít listen to Him.

Jesus longed to be heard, for the true healing from God is in His Word. Jesus continued to heal and cast out demons because the miracles were a sign of Godís power in Christís Word, but He moved quickly from one place to another so that the people would not focus solely on the miracles. He went to do what He was sent to do, preach the Good News.

So many things about todayís lessons seem out of whack to our modern way of thinking. But in these stories we remember that the Gospel is shocking, it is life changing. It is powerful. Most of all, it is for everyone. This week we saw Jesus heal a mother in a home with a fever. Last week it was a man in the synagogue with a demon. Then Jesus healed crowds of people and finally we see Him going throughout the countryside preaching, healing and casting out demons. The power of the Gospel is for men and women, for those in worship and at home, for those in our small circles of friends and for our neighbors far away. Thatís why Paul says that he has become all things to all people. Heís not wavering on the one thing that matters: the message.

Paul knew that not everyone would hear. He wrote, ďFor though I was free from all, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more.Ē He does not expect that all will be saved, but heís willing to do whatever he can to share the Gospel message with as many as possible. The Gospel brings change. In Christ we live and breathe and move and grow. But then, in Christ we are more alive than we have ever been, and the breath we breathe is from the Spirit of God Himself. The Gospel draws us into a life of praise and thanksgiving. It gives us a voice that canít help but proclaim His grace to the world. The Gospel gives us the power to bring the Kingdom of God closer to those who will hear, and it gives us the power to continue the work of Christ in this world.

Have you ever felt like you are living the same thing day after day after day? It is like every day is the same. You get out of bed at the same time, put on the same kind of clothes, eat the same breakfast. Then you get into your car and drive through the same traffic jams to the same office to do the same work over and over again. Oh, there might be minor differences during the day: a blue shirt instead of white, a cheeseburger instead of a chicken sandwich. At home after a long day of work is the same thing, too. Dinner, television, a newspaper filled with the same stories. Then to bed for another night of rest before it all begins again.

Phil Connor experienced this to the extreme. In the movie ďGroundhog Day,Ē Bill Murray plays Phil who is an arrogant self-centered weatherman who is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog celebrations. He does not want to go because he thinks the whole thing is beneath him. The town is boring, the celebration corny. Punxsutawney is the last place in the world he wants to be. He does the report with distain and rushes his director and cameraman out of town. Unfortunately, the winter storm he swore would not hit the area closes the road home and heís stuck for another night in the small town.

The next morning, Phil wakes to exactly the same day. Everything is the same, literally. The same song is playing on the radio; the same banter comes from the DJs. The same people are walking around outside and in the Bed and Breakfast where he was staying. He has to go back to Gobblerís Knob and do the report again. Everything else that day is the same and he ends up in the Bed and Breakfast for another night. No one else knows that heís living it all over again. To them it is a whole new day. But for Phil, the day is new but everything about it has happened already. This happens over and over again.

He first responds with confusion and denial. He doesnít want to do the report again and tries to convince everyone that heís reliving the same day. They think heís nuts. Eventually he realizes that his actions have no consequences, so he takes advantage of the situation. He joy rides with a bunch of drunks, has a one night stand with a pretty woman, and steals a bag full of money left on the ground by some bumbling armor car guards. Then he becomes desperate for the day to be over. He tries to kill himself. He steals the groundhog (also named Phil) and drives them both over a cliff. He jumps in front of a moving truck and jumps off a building. Nothing works. He wakes up the next morning exactly the same.

He finally concedes to the idea that heíll be living the same day forever, so he takes advantage of the situation. He learns how to play the piano and how to carve ice sculptures. He reads great novels and learns poetry. He becomes knowledgeable in many different fields. He gets to know the people and his co-workers, learning the most intimate details about his pretty producer so as to win her trust and get her into his bed. Over and over, day after day, he fails as she ends each day with a slap on his face. All the while, Phil is watching the town and its people, learning every movement, seeing all their needs.

One morning Phil decides to tell the producer Rita that he thinks heís a god. He doesnít think heís God, but he tells her about his seeming immortality. He proves his incredible knowledge by telling her details about all the people in the town, and then tells her exactly what the cameraman will say when he comes through the door. They hang out together for that day and she tries to keep him awake until midnight, but they fall asleep and he wakes up to the same day, again. On that day he finally uses his power for good.

He spends the day doing good things for the people of Punxsutawney. He presents the most fabulous report about the groundhog celebration. He saves a boy who falls out of a tree. He changes the tire of a group of older women. He gives the Heimlich to a man in a restaurant choking on a piece of steak. He helps a young couple through pre-marriage jitters. Heís the hit of the party and Mr. Congeniality of Punxsutawney, loved by everyone. This time Rita really does fall in love with this terrific guy who is much different than she thought he was. They fall asleep in each otherís arms and when Phil wakes up, it is a new day.

It was when Phil started living for others that he found renewal and hope in a new day. The same can be said for Paul. He didnít preach the Gospel for his own sake; he preached it for the sake of others, so that they might know the hope and peace of Jesus Christ. For their sake, he also gave up the things that had made him happy, so that they would not suffer in any ways by his hands. In doing so, he found much greater blessing. And the same can be true for us. While our days may seem to be the same thing over and over again, we can live our life for the sake of others. In doing so, weíll see that it is a whole new day for us, too.

Perhaps there is reason to fear in our world. Perhaps we let our fear get the better of us. Perhaps we really do feel vulnerable and alone. Perhaps there is reason to believe that we are being manipulated by those who would use our fear against us. But we are reminded by Isaiah that there is One whom we should fear.

The fear of the Lord is much different, however. The Law provides insight into our own sinful nature. Through it we can see our inability to be obedient. We know of Godís power and justice, so we fear the wrath that we deserve. Yet, God comes to us through the Gospel, not with threats, but with love and mercy and grace. Jesus Christ relieves our fears and the Holy Spirit comforts us. We hear the promises of God that He will not destroy us, but rather He will give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Rather than reason for alarm, we are given reason for hope and peace.

As we look at the stories in the scriptures, we do see them through our own eyes. We see that poor women getting up to serve when she should be recuperating, but when we do that we miss the joy she has in her salvation. She didnít have to go cook dinner for Jesus and the disciples; she gave herself and her gifts to those she loves. Jesus healed her and lifted her to new life and she responded with joy and thanksgiving. Paul responded with his whole life to his call to ministry, willingly submitting himself to others for the sake of the Gospel.

Isaiah asks, ďHavenít you known? Havenít you heard, yet? Havenít you been told from the beginning? Havenít you understood from the foundations of the earth?Ē Have we heard? Have we responded to God with fear and hope? It is a new day. Jesus Christ has made us whole with His healing and with His Word. We have no reason to boast, because we are nothing more than grasshoppers. Yet, through faith in Christ by Godís grace, we are lifted up, given eagleís wings and the strength to use our gifts to do what God has called and sent us to do in our homes, churches, cities and beyond.

God is faithful and weíll find our hope in Him. He delights in those who trust in Him. He calls us to live for the sake of others, following Jesus to break down walls, heal the sick, cast our demons and speak the Gospel to those who are still chasing the wrong gods. We are called to share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.

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