Isaiah 40: 21-31; 1 Corinthians 9: 16-23; Mark 1: 29-39
It’s not just the celebrations of the birth of Jesus that seem such a long time ago, is it? Even the visit of the wise men to Jesus seems a distant memory. And yet the season of Epiphany which their journey kicks off is still with us and will be for one more Sunday yet.
Epiphany, the disclosure of God to the world. The wise men represent the world beyond the stable. And during this season, we are invited to reflect upon God and all that is summed up in God.
The wonder the wise men express as they present their gifts to the Christchild might lead us to be dazzled by God, intoxicated by God and the life of the church to be one long song of praise “How great thou art!”
That is certainly the tenor of the passage from Isaiah – one of unfettered praise. By comparison with this extraordinary God, other would-be gods are anaemic and dysfunctional.
But just as life cannot be one long party – and, goodness knows, we are all too aware of that in February 2021 – our response to God cannot be one of constant ecstatic praise that removes God from the realities of life as we know it. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in the city of Corinth, speaks of how the gospel drives his life and pulls him in many directions, becoming all things to all people.
And the breathless story-teller Mark wants us to see Jesus as the focus of divinity, plunging into the midst of human need. It is there that the wholeness and well-being at the heart of God are asserted and enacted.
We can’t sing songs of praise for long without stopping and thinking “But what does all this mean for us and the way we live our lives?”
As usual with Mark, every word he writes is packed with significance. Every action, every exchange of words, no matter how insignificant on the surface, is important to the message this Gospel-writer wants to convey.
His stories of miraculous healings are far more than just that. He sees everything he writes about what Jesus does and says as symbolic, filled with deep meaning.
One writer illustrates this by comparison with two great figures from more recent history. When Martin Luther nails his denunciation of the Roman Catholic church on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517, the meaning of his action extends far beyond the sum of its parts. A monk posts a note on a church door. So what? But this is not just any note on any door and history will show that this is not just any monk.
That one powerful act of defiance came to take on larger-than-life proportions which would become the founding myth of the Lutheran Church.
And the same can be said of the Black Rights movement in the United States in which that other Martin Luther – Martin Luther King Jr – was such a prominent figure.
When Martin Luther King knelt down in the face of police dogs and water cannons or when others sat in cafés from which they were excluded or sat at the front of the bus, they were engaging in symbolic actions the importance of which far outweighed the significance of the action itself. Those iconic moments are echoed loudly in the Black Lives Matter campaigns of more recent times.
These are not supernatural actions but that doesn’t make them any less miraculous. Their divine power lies not in the manipulation of nature but in the confrontation with the dominant order of oppression which witnesses to different possibilities.
To return to the gospel story… Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, a nameless woman in good gospel tradition… The story is told very briefly – this is the Gospel of Mark, after all, when everything is told briefly! In the scene which immediately precedes this one, Jesus heals a distressed man at the synagogue by driving a demon from him.
And the combination of these two miracles – symbolic actions – has the effect, not surprisingly, of bringing many physically and mentally sick people to Jesus – and it seems the whole population of the city of Capernaeum has turned up.
But, hidden away in the narrative, is an important detail which we should not overlook. The masses gather outside the house ‘after the sun has set and evening has come.’ Why does Mark use that phrase? It’s obvious, isn’t it, that evening comes when the sun sets..? But this is the Gospel of Mark, so this is no inadvertent repetition, you can be sure of that. ‘After the sun has set…’
Remember on what day this story takes place. Jesus and his friends have just left the synagogue having marked the Sabbath there. The Sabbath runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday.
The sun has now set – and it is therefore no longer the Sabbath. There is something being flagged up here which we are to note for future reference. The only reason to mention the setting of the sun is because healing on the Sabbath – before the sun has set – will become a controversial matter later in Jesus’s ministry. Yes, every word here has a purpose…
After the excitement, Jesus retreats to a quiet place. But he doesn’t get much peace. His friends come looking for him and demand that he return. There are so many more people who need healing. Jesus declines…
Why would he do that? Why would anyone with the power to make people whole refuse to use that power in the face of people who plainly need it? Is this the compassionate Jesus we celebrate?
As usual, Mark has a purpose in this mysterious rejection by Jesus. There is a bigger picture. However good and popular it might be for him to heal large numbers of people, his ministry lies elsewhere. His is a ministry of proclamation of the Good News in which individual healing has its place but is not the primary task.
That task is to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to tell people that oppression and marginalisation are not God’s way. Social justice and compassion on a large scale – that is the divine way.
Maybe Mark wants us to see that the excitement Jesus generates in Capernaeum is getting in the way of that broader message. So he presses on to the next place – and the next place and the next – in his urgent quest to invite those who hear him to re-imagine the world.
Therein lies our inspiration. I know how frustrating it can be when things don’t quite go according to plan or as quickly as we had hoped. I know many of you will be feeling that frustration right now. But the church experience – whether gathered on Sundays or separated as we inevitably are just now or through the myriad other activities that are embraced in the Christian life – is not about revelling in where we are. Neither is it about looking back and wishing things were as they used to be. It is about joining in the Jesus journey – no matter how frustrating, to press on to the next place – and the next place and the next – as we discern together where the Spirit is leading.
As in the case of Jesus, that won’t always make us popular with those whose journey is different from ours and to whose understanding of the faith we may seem a threat.
In our society which is so often called secular, there is, nonetheless, a longing for spiritual fulfilment – especially at this time of pandemic and consequent re-evaluation of our national life, when our place in the world is so uncertain, when old political certainties have been thrown to the winds, and when those at the bottom are paying a disproportionate price for the country’s ills.
Christians have an opportunity for prophetic ministry almost unparalleled in modern times. But the danger is that Christianity in its traditional forms cannot relate to these impulses because they speak a different language. If we so marginalise ourselves from society and life, then that is a tragic situation that prevents us from showing leadership in the rediscovery of God.
The Apostle Paul knows the importance of telling and retelling the story, interpreting and re-interpreting for every community he encounters. Only by speaking the language as our neighbours can the Gospel have impact.
I know that what you at Glenorchy are aiming at is a faith that encourages all of you to explore what it means to connect to the sacred within, to connect to nature, and to connect to your neighbours; a faith that is truly ‘progressive’ in the same way that Jesus was ‘progressive’, journeying on. We are all called to share that journey.
And we can gain courage and strength for this journey by finding in ourselves those powers that Mark sees in Jesus. The American theologian Walter Wink has said that Jesus was “not God in a man-suit, his every step predetermined from all eternity, but a human being seeking the will of God in the everyday decisions that shape life and living…”
We can do no better than to share in that journey and in that same discernment, in our own time and place. Now. The initiative on which the United Reformed Church is engaged – called “Walking the Way; Living the Life of Jesus Today” – has not endeared itself to everyone (something else those people in London have dreamed up!) but it is a response to exactly that call to journey on which is at the heart of the Gospel of Mark.
Can we summon up the courage to shed the accumulated baggage? If we are indeed to ‘progress’ and keep progressing, let us share a sense of expectancy, a glimpse of future possibilities and a vivid imagination.
As the season of Epiphany draws to a close – the season of God’s revelation to the world – and a season which, this year presents us with the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 – let us nonetheless share with Isaiah in the wonder that is a proper response to God; let us join Paul in engaging with the very real dilemmas our present situation places before us, and let us share also in the hard decisions with which life faces us every day. Today more than at any time many of us can remember, let us be prepared to leave behind things which may seem good in themselves for the sake of the bigger picture, for the sake of that vision of God’s New World to which, together, we are committed.
Thanks be to God.
Revd Iain McDonald