Sunday, February 8, 2009

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.

A friend once told me a story about a time when he joined a new church. He was a fabulous singer, and would have been a welcome addition to any choir. His new church did have an active choir, but the singers had been together for a long time. Though the congregation was open to new members, they weren’t very welcoming, and my friend could not find his place in the work of the church. He was even told that they did not need his voice for the choir. He eventually found a place that appreciated his gifts and made his home there.

We tend to enjoy our closed communities and we do not do well with change. We would much rather that things stay the same. However, things can not remain static in the church. She is a living, breathing organism, moved by the breath of God. Living and breathing beings change. They move and grow. A butterfly starts out as a caterpillar and goes through many stages before becoming a butterfly. A person begins as an infant and changes in some way every day. We learn, we grow, and we mature. We have losses and deal with pain; we have successes and rejoice. Every experience moves us from one place to another, hopefully taking us toward the person God has created us to be. There are roadblocks and burdens along the way. The natural world is imperfect and we are challenged by the things we must overcome. Sometimes we even have to face the affects of the supernatural world.

The people in Capernaum were certainly facing some road bumps in their journeys of life. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus left the synagogue after healing the man with the demons and He went straight to Peter’s house which must have been near the synagogue. As a matter of fact, archeologists have recently discovered the remains of a synagogue close to a Christian church that is purported to have been built on Peter’s home.

Peter’s mother-in-law was ill with fever and lying in bed. Like the man with the demons, Peter’s mother-in-law could not live her life according to the vocation to which she’d 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.

I suppose there are some who are bothered by this story, especially from our modern world view. After all, the assumption here is that the mother-in-law’s sole purpose in life was to take care of the men. We believe that women are capable of so much more, and they are. We do not see the Jesus who frees women from stereotypical roles in this story. He heals her to serve them. However, we can not ignore the fact that she probably enjoyed her vocation. It was her calling. She was living in God’s grace by using her gifts to make life better for others.

I love being a mom, but I have to admit that there are times when I wonder what I could have accomplished if I had followed a career path. Someone recently asked the question, “If you could have done something differently in your life, what would it be?” My answer is that I would have pursued a different degree at college. Would it have made a difference? I hope not, because I love the life I’ve lived, but I can’t help but think that I might have had a much bigger impact on the world in which I live if I had taken some chances in my youth. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing greater than raising up two terrific kids. They are my legacy and they will accomplish great things, of this I am certain. But as an intelligent, talented individual, it is natural for me to wonder what might have been. I see myself as Peter’s mother-in-law in this story, and from that modern point of view wonder if there isn’t more to life.

She was a nobody. She has no name and is only identified by who she knows. She had no great job, and yet Jesus restored her to her place in her community, to her place in her home. He gave her the gift of life again to do what she was meant to do. It was not a special day or a special place. This story shows us how Jesus did extraordinary things for ordinary people in ordinary places on ordinary days. Jesus can, and does, the same for us as we live our ordinary lives in this world. This is comforting for those of us who are also nobodies doing what seems like nothing in a world filled with great people accomplishing great things. We don’t have to be extraordinary to make a difference in the world. As we live the life God has called us to live, His grace will spread in our homes, our neighborhoods and beyond.

“America’s Got Talent,” and reality variety show, did something different during their auditions in the most recent season. Instead of relying only on the opinion of the judges at that final step in the process, they filled the theater with an audience who were asked to respond to the contestants positively or negatively according to their opinion about their talents. They often stood up and cheered, especially when the people were really talented. They often booed and screamed things like “GO HOME!” to those who were terrible. This turned old very quickly even for the judges; you could see it in the way they were getting upset with noise of the crowd. They didn’t respect the crowd’s point of view because it was all too often unfounded, with screams of negativity being shouted even before the contestant began.

Yet, there were times when the crowds were able to change the opinion of the judges. Some people stayed who would have been sent away and some people were sent away who might have had the chance to stay, based on the opinion of the crowd. It was definitely a study on how a crowd can control the atmosphere and the course of events. It is hard for one man or even several people to stand against so many screaming people.

Our Gospel lesson takes place early in the ministry of Jesus and His friends. The news of the exorcism of the man in the synagogue had quickly spread around the countryside because later that evening many people who were sick and possessed came to see Jesus. He healed many of them, but not all. He managed to get some rest, but woke while it was still dark and left the house to find a quiet place to pray and renew His strength. When the disciples found Him, they said, “All are seeking thee.” We expect Jesus to return to the house and continue healing the people, but He takes the disciples in another direction. He does not heal everyone.

The crowds could have easily dictated the course of Jesus’ ministry if He had answered every call for healing from every person who needed to be made whole. He might never have left Simon’s home, as the crowds would have come day after day looking for Him. But healing was not the focus of His ministry; it was only a part of it. Healing was one of the ways that God would verify Jesus’ authority. By the power of God, Jesus changed lives and the miraculous moments testified to Jesus’ real identity.

Jesus answered the disciples’ call, “Let us go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also; for to this end came I forth.” He came to preach, to teach, to change people’s spirits as well as their bodies. Jesus would not allow the crowds to tell Him what He should do or to keep Him from His work. He did what God had sent Him to do. That is the share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.

Jesus did not leave one town to go to another because one was better than the other. All the people to whom Jesus ministered were insignificant. We are reminded in Isaiah 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. “To whom then will ye liken me, that I should be equal to him? saith the Holy One.” There is none like God. Yet, we try to be like Him. We try to be the one in control, insisting that the world revolve around our point of view.

According to Isaiah, God is the “Holy One of Israel.” This title appears twenty-six times in the 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 brought on the troubles themselves, as had been warned by the prophets God sent, by not seeing God as He is, that Holy One. We find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle when we forget our God. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah brings the people a word of hope in the midst of their despair.

In chapter 40, Isaiah asks a number of questions about God. “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? Who hath directed the Spirit of Jehovah, or being his counselor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding?” And finally, “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?”

When we are comfortable, we lose sight of God and forget the unmerited blessings of His grace. Throughout the history of God’s people, there were times when she 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. He offered a word of hope that the God they have forgotten has not forgotten them. 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.

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 today’s Old Testament lesson Isaiah asks, “Have ye not known? have yet not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Twice Isaiah cries out to the people to hear God's Word. Jesus also 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 God’s power in Christ's 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.

What is the message that Jesus was preaching? It was good news! He may have even quoted our Old Testament passage, for in it is the Gospel. “The everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to him that hath no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait for Jehovah shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.”

Our problems are much different, but we are no different than Israel. Have we forgotten, too? Have we become too comfortable in the things we think would bring us comfort, losing site of the God from whom all blessings flow? Have we lifted up false gods and put them as our priorities, turning our back on the only One who can provide all that we need? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding.” He is faithful and we will find our hope in Him.

In some cultures there are those who take a certain pleasure in fear. They enjoy making people tremble because it gives them a sense of power and control. If you are afraid of them, they can manipulate you to do whatever they want you to do. You’ll give them information, possessions or your service just to remain safe. It seems odd, then, that the psalmist would write, “Jehovah taketh pleasure in them that fear him.” God does not pleasure in our fear the way a hoodlum or a dictator might. In the case of God, the idea of fear is not like it is for the horror movie makers. We fear, not because we are afraid, but because we know God is awesome. He can do things that no one else can do.

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 God’s 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.

The psalmist completes the thought begun in verse 11 with, “…in those that hope in his lovingkindness.” 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.

So many things about today’s 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. That's why Paul says that he has become all things to all people. He's not wavering on the one thing that matters—the message.

Paul knew that not everyone would hear. He wrote, “I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” He does not expect that all will be saved, but he’s willing to do whatever he can to share the Gospel message. 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 can't 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.

We have no reason to boast, because we are nothing more than grasshoppers. Yet, through faith in Christ by God's grace, we are lifted up, given eagle's wings and the strength to use our gifts in our homes, churches, cities and beyond to share the extraordinary Good News in ordinary ways.

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