Sunday, February 8, 2015

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

Jehovah taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his lovingkindness.

The passage from today's Psalm is an odd juxtaposition of phrases, isn't it? We don't attribute loving kindness to someone we fear. Children who fear their fathers do so because the men have an iron fist; they use physical means or threats to control those in their care. There is no hope for loving kindness because it is beyond their understanding. Those children often grow up without seeing that a man can love and be kind, so they continue the pattern of fear through threats and violence. They can't identify with a passage like this one. Fear means trembling and dread; the only hope is to get away.

Now, fear can be useful. There are those who suggest that fear is necessary. We take action when we are afraid; fear brings us to the point of running or fighting back. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. 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. Sadly, not everyone is attune to the cues of fear and they freeze in those harmful situations or make excuses, like the woman who refuses to leave an abusive situation. Their lives often end in tragedy because they let the fear control them rather than use it to make a better life.

It seems odd us that the psalmist would write, "Jehovah taketh pleasure in them that fear him." God does not pleasure in our fear the way an abuser, hoodlum or dictator might. In the case of God, the idea of fear in this passage is not the kind of fear that manipulates people for control. We fear God not because we are afraid, but because we know that God is awesome. He can do things that no one else can do.

The verse completes the thought and establishes the reality "…in those that hope in his lovingkindness." We fear God and hope in His loving kindness. This fear is not the kind we feel when someone uses threats or violence against us. The fear of God is a sense of awe in what God has done and what God can do. This fear causes us to worship God with praise and thanksgiving, in it was see the reason for hope because we know and trust that God can and does what is good and right. He takes pleasure in those who trust and worship Him because He has done great things; He delights in them and does what is best for them.

We are troubled by this juxtaposition of fear and hope, but we are also bothered by this idea that God takes pleasure in us. Who are we that the God of Creation would even care? I suppose that goes back to the idea of that fearful father. We know that they use force as a means of control; they don't really care about the needs of the child. They demand their needs are met and do so by any means possible. God, however, does care. He cares about the ones who are great and the ones who are invisible. He cares about the religious leaders and He cares for the mothers who are busy raising their children.

I love being a housewife and I am so glad that I was able to stay at home to raise my children. I have to admit that there are times when I wonder what I could have accomplished if I had followed a career path. Someone once asked me 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 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.

Today's story from Mark is very comforting for me in several ways. First of all, we see Jesus ministering in a home. In the previous story, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man after preaching and teaching the scriptures in the synagogue. He was seen and heard by many who were amazed at His authority over the word and the spirit. He was just beginning to accomplish the great things that we still remember today: the miracles, the crowds who followed Him, the willingness to give himself wholly for the sake of the world. These are great acts. Yet, we follow the story of healing with a much simpler experience. A friend's mother was ill. Jesus touched her and she was made well. And we see in this story that she wasn't healed for some great purpose. She was healed so that she could continue to live in her vocation: serving those she loves.

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. I don’t have to wonder so much about whether or not I could have accomplished something great. God has been in the ordinary experiences of my life.

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." They expected Jesus to return to the house to continue healing the people, but He took the disciples in another direction.

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 an important part of it as it revealed the power and character of God in Jesus. Healing was one of the ways that God verified Jesus' authority. Jesus told the disciples, "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 dictate His ministry; He did what God sent Him to do: to share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.

I think sometimes as we read the story of Simon's mother-in-law and we are shocked that she got up to wait on them so soon after her illness. Didn't she need time to recover? Didn't she need time to get back her strength? The point of this story is not just that Jesus healed Simon's mother-in-law, but that He restored her to her place in the community. Jesus' ministry went beyond healing; He changed lives and transformed people.

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?"

Fear causes us to lose sight of God but so does comfort. Fear creates in us the fight-or-flight response and we focus on fixing our own problems and comfort makes us believe that we have no problems. Both cause us to lose sight of God's grace. God's people have always tried to take control; we have always sought hope and peace and strength from the wrong places. Israel 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. So do we.

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 God’s grace? 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." We stand in awe of the great things He has done and we live in the hope of His loving kindness.

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.

That's why we can't compare our God with the father with the iron fist. He can create both fear and hope in us, fear that brings us to our knees in praise and thanksgiving and hope that lifts us up to experience His loving kindness.

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. 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.

When we initially read this passage from Paul, it almost sounds as if he's wishy washy, unwilling to commit to anything. But that's not what he's saying. Paul stands on Christ, the foundation of everything he believes. However, the people he meets are diverse. As a matter of fact, the people we meet are diverse. Some people are in a time and a place of comfort, others are afraid. Some are happy; others are in mourning. Some are healthy and some are facing dis-ease. We meet people from different cultures, from different perspectives. They have different needs and opinions. Paul is prepared to meet them where they are, to touch them in a way that will shine the light of Christ into their life. We are called to do the same.

Paul's message never changed; he always preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, he shared that Gospel in a way that would be understood and relevant to the people to which it was being given. To the Greeks he spoke as a Greek, to the Jews he spoke as a Jew. He was weak so that those who are also weak might find the courage to receive God's word for themselves. He took the extraordinary Word of God to ordinary people in ordinary ways. God's Word is meant for all, the Gospel was given for the salvation of the world. We are called to take that message to all who will hear and to give it to them in a manner which will be received with joy. Paul did not expect that all would be saved, but he was willing to see the world from someone else's point of view to help them see God in a life-changing and transforming way. He was willing to let God work through his life in a way that would heal people and make them whole. This is frightening because it means we have to give up control. But it is only in letting God work through us that anyone will be saved, and it is there we have hope.We must be willing to let God work through our lives in a way that will heal people and make them whole.

The Gospel brings change. The change comes from the Spirit of Christ dwelling within, and it is in Him that we live. In Christ we are more alive than we have ever been, and the breath we breathe is from the Spirit of God Himself. This awesome reality leads us to a life of praise and thanksgiving, a life that can’t help but proclaim the message of Grace to the world no matter how much we might be afraid of the world. The Gospel gives us the power to take the Kingdom of God to those who will hear, for those who hear will be saved.

We will have to act. We’ll heal our neighbors and cast out their demons. We’ll feed the hungry and clothe the poor. We’ll act for justice and work for peace. But in the midst of these ministries let us never forget that ultimately our purpose is to proclaim the message to all people, so that they too might experience the transforming power of His Word. I might not be needed as a mother in the same way, but that was never really my purpose anyway. Raising my children was just one way that I lived out the work of proclaiming the Gospel which Christ has called me to do. Now I must go to the next town to share the message with others and trust that God will finish the work He began.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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