A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on February 8, 2015 (Fifth Sunday after Epiphany)
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
– Mark 1:29-39
(This sermon is reprised from February 5, 2012)
Most biblical scholars believe that this beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah was written about 2500 years ago to a faith community that was having a tough century. The people of Israel had come to believe that the God they worshiped was the only real god – the creator of the heavens and the earth (a radical idea). They believed they were God’s “chosen people” – a people with whom God had entered into a committed, covenant relationship — not because they were holier or better than other people, but because they were willing to entrust their future into God’s leading. This God had given them a land of their own in which they could live in safety and prosperity. When they fell into oppressive slavery in Egypt, God delivered them against impossible odds. They eventually came to have a kingdom of their own, and they believed that God would be with them always, protecting them and blessing them with abundance.
God was faithful to them, but they were not faithful in return. Prophets – like Isaiah and Jeremiah and others – warned the people that they could not worship other gods – that God would not be happy if they worshiped the pagan gods of fertility and fate and good fortune, and others, like other people did. They could not trust in their own military power or political shrewdness to maintain their security. They had to be faithful to God, or God would not save them from the consequences of their foolishness and faithlessness. And after repeated warnings, disaster struck. The kingdom of Judah and its great capital city of Jerusalem were conquered by the Babylonians. The beautiful temple – God’s dwelling place on earth – was completely destroyed. Many of the leaders of the community were taken into captivity in Babylon.
The people were stunned. They couldn’t believe God would let this happen to them. They began to think that God had abandoned them. Some began to suspect that maybe their God wasn’t really as powerful as they had thought – as powerful as the gods of the Babylonians or other people.
But after about 50 years, the powerful Babylonians were themselves conquered by the Persians. The exiles in Babylon were given permission to return home to Jerusalem if they wished. But the people were discouraged, and tired, and they knew their homeland was in ruins – the city destroyed, and farms overrun with weeds. Many of them were not sure they were up to the task – whether it was even worth trying to rebuild.
And so Isaiah tried to reassure them by reminding them of what they already believed. Because disaster had caused them to forget. It is God alone who has the power to create this world on which the human drama is played out. Rulers and tyrants may come and go, fortunes may be made and lost, but God’s love and power and faithfulness endure. Human strength may fail, but God’s divine strength keeps on working – like the Energizer Bunny, like a long-distance runner – for those who “wait for the Lord.”
The people of Israel believed this, but they forgot it in the crisis.
We, too, have been taught about God’s power and love. We may believe it, up here (in our heads), but in the daily crises and the weekly struggles to make a living, we can forget. We can lose our vision of “the big picture” – of eternity, of God’s heavenly Realm.
That is a part of being human. It seems it could even happen to Jesus. I think that is part of what this gospel story from Mark is about. Jesus began his ministry in the city of Capernaum in Galilee. He had an immediate impact there – teaching with great authority, casting out unclean spirits. He healed Simon’s mother-in-law so she could serve her honored guest, and then he healed many others who were sick, and cast out demons.
Jesus could have probably set up shop there in Capernaum and made a pretty good living, healing all the folks who came to him from around Capernaum. But the story says that Jesus went out early in the morning to pray in a deserted place. When the disciples found him and said to him, “Everyone is searching for you,” Jesus answered that they were going to go on to other neighboring towns so that he could “proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do.
In his time of prayer, Jesus was able to see beyond the immediate need to focus on his mission: proclaiming the message, and casting out demons. Healing is important work, but there is more to real healing than just making people feel better. Jesus came to change people – to turn their hearts back to God, and God’s ways. Jesus came to give his life for humanity.
It is easy for all of us to lose the vision of our mission as God’s people in the day-to-day struggles. That is one of the reasons that prayer and worship and rest are so important for people of faith. It is a chance to be renewed in what we believe; a chance to see the big picture of God’s efforts to save people and our world, and how we fit in with those efforts; a chance to be renewed in strength and courage and passion.
Most of you know that Jill and I lived in Colorado for almost eight years. We still enjoy going back, and we are thinking about making a trip out there again in March. One of the things that we find so enjoyable and so renewing is the sheer “openness” of that part of the country. You can see for 50 miles or more. It brings a renewed sense of awe, and of perspective. And then, on clear nights, the stars come out. We rarely get to see the stars where we live – not in their full glory. They inspired awe in ancient people, but how much more now when we know that stars are not living, heavenly beings, but rather giant suns and even entire galaxies — the light from which started its journey to earth before humans first walked the earth – or even before the earth existed!
Some of the most amazing images I have ever seen are the pictures sent by Apollo astronauts on their travels to the moon, more than 40 years ago. Those pictures of the earth reveal a beautiful planet in dark space, surrounded by a thin atmosphere that makes life possible. No boundaries are visible between states, or nations. It provides a necessary change in perspective after worrying about wars and terrorism, jobs, immigration issues, environmental issues, and our other daily, local crises. We see that our lives and our problems are small in the grand scope of the universe, and yet we are unique and precious in God’s sight.
Walter Rauschenbusch was an early 20th century minister and a respected pioneer in what was known as the Social Gospel movement. He believed that preaching and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ meant making real differences in the lives of other people – particularly those that were poor and the outcast of our society. He once wrote a beautiful poem about the power of prayer in his life. A portion of that prayer is reprinted in our hymnal. It begins:
In the great quiet of God,
my troubles are but pebbles on the road,
My joys are like the everlasting hills.
So it is when I step through the gate of prayer
from time into eternity.
(#232 in the Chalice Hymnal)
Churches, too, can lose their sense of mission and vision in the daily challenges of raising money, paying salaries, keeping a building maintained, and putting on fund-raising events. We need time in prayer and time away to remember that the church is one of the means that God has chosen to continue the work of Jesus – proclaiming the message of God’s self-giving love, and casting out demons that drive people to do unhealthy and unholy things (like believing that we have to do everything by ourselves).
This past week I have heard stories from several people experiencing fatigue and frustration. Some of them have been working hard caring for others. Some are pastors – trying to do ministry, and feeling overwhelmed by the need. I have had a hard week myself (so I “dusted off” this sermon from three years ago). So how do we “lift ourselves up” when we are exhausted, or feverish with all the activities of life? If you ever tried to lift yourself up – you know it is a physical impossibility.
Sometimes we can lift up others. Friends and community are vital for our health.
But the every-day miracle that our faith teaches us is that when we lift God up – in prayer and praise and priority in our lives; then God will lift us up – to soar like eagles in serving others for Christ’s sake.
Robert J. von Trebra