“Miracle and message”

Mark 1:29-39 (February 4, 2024)

Christ healing woman.pngThese last couple of weeks we’ve been hearing stories from the Gospel of Mark about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: First he called some disciples by the sea. Then he entered the synagogue at Capernaum, teaching with authority and casting out an unclean spirit.

In today’s passage, Jesus leaves the synagogue and enters the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law is also there. She’s in bed with a fever, which could indicate a serious infection. The family was worried enough that they brought it to Jesus’ attention.

What follows is a story of healing which, I would like to propose, is a model for our healing.

But before we get to that, let me say that, with Jesus, miracle and message go together. They are not two separate things. We may be prone to split them apart. We think about verbal witness, with a focus on the spoken word. And then we think about acts of loving service, caring for our neighbours. And if we’re not careful, we can fall into one camp or the other, prioritizing either evangelism or social action. As if they can be separated!

In Jesus’ life, they are not. Jesus proclaims the Good News that the Kingdom, or Reign, of God has come near. And he acts in ways that demonstrate that Reign. He casts out unclean spirits. He heals the sick. And these actions are major features of his Gospel proclamation.

Some people follow Jesus because they are drawn to miracles. But they’re not so keen on his call to repentance and discipleship. “Just give me the gift certificate, Pastor, and hold the sermon please!” But what if the gift certificate is the sermon? In every healing story there is a message of Good News. Healings are enacted messages. They are demonstrations of God’s Reign.

So here we have Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, sick in bed with a fever. The disciples tell Jesus about it, and right away he goes to her.

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” There is so much in this one simple sentence! Each of these actions tells us something about who Jesus is, and the healing he brings to our lives.

The disciples shared their concern with Jesus. And, without any further hesitation, he responded. “He came.”

That speaks volumes to me! Jesus cares about us. Here is one single person, somebody’s mother-in-law he’s never met before. We may think it’s not worth mentioning these matters to God. Why would God care about me? And the answer is: simply because God made you and loves you, and will always love you!

“Jesus came to her.” The whole Gospel message is about God loving the world that God has made, and coming to our rescue. Coming to bring healing and hope and new life. In Jesus, God comes to us!

And now, look how he comes. He “took her by the hand.” What a powerfully human, physical thing for Jesus to do!

I was with someone not long ago. And at the end of our visit I asked if we could prayer, and they agreed. Instinctively, both of us reached out and grabbed each other’s hand. It was the most natural thing in the world. But when I think about what that represents, it’s astounding.

holding hands.jpgIt is, most importantly, a way of connecting. A way for us to be together, in solidarity with each other, as we bow before God in prayer.

Holding hands is always about relationship. Whether it’s shaking hands with a person you never met before. Or grasping the hand of a little child. Or holding the hand of a person who’s frail to steady them. Or sitting next to the one you love, giving their hand a gentle squeeze.

The Healing of Peter's Mother-in-law.jpgHand-holding can be full of support, tenderness, comfort, or strength. Even romance. Holding hands with someone overcomes the distance of isolation. It creates connection with another human being.

“Lend me a hand,” we say whenever we need a bit of help. And that’s what Jesus was there to do. He takes her hand and helps her up. She will no longer languish in that place, burning with fever, unable to participate in activities and be with the family she loves.

“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” How many of us have prayed for Jesus to take our hand?

“He took her by the hand and lifted her up.” The language here is striking. It’s not just “lifted her,” it’s “raised her.”

African Easter tomb.jpgIt’s the same word given at the end of Mark’s gospel when three women go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. But his body isn’t there. Instead they find a young man, dressed in white, who tells them, “he has been raised.” (Mk. 16:6)

Simon’s mother-in-law is being raised. Just as Jesus himself will be raised by the power of God. What we have here is a foretaste of resurrection.

The powers that take life away from us, that diminish us, that hold us down, that make us unhealthy and unwell – these powers are challenged when the reign of God comes near. Jesus, the light of the world, walks into the room and darkness recedes.

Now let me pause here and say that as long as we remain in this earthly life, sickness will be part of what we experience. Just because Simon’s mother-in-law was healed doesn’t mean we have a free ticket to health, wealth and prosperity. Jesus himself was not exempt from suffering. And neither are we.

But Jesus embodies the Reign of God. Which means darkness – and ultimately even death itself – will not triumph, not in the end. And even now we have the comfort of his presence. He is always with us. We are not alone.

We pray to him for healing. And we know that he will give it. Though maybe not in the time or way that we might wish. Whatever happens, we hold on to the Easter truth that the power of life and love will triumph over sin and death.

Even now, we are invited to allow God’s grace to heal us. To be renewed and rejuvenated and restored. To be lifted up whenever we are down. To be part of God’s kingdom even as we live in this world.

In baptism every believer dies to what is old and rises to what is new. We anticipate God’s new world. We receive new life by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

And what does this new life look like? Well let me show you!

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Restored to life in her community, Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve. Once again, the word is significant: “diakoneō.” Does that have a familiar ring? It’s the same word we use for Deacons – people set apart for specific forms of service within the church.

Angels bring food.jpgIt’s the same word Jesus used to describe his life and ministry, “The Son of man came not to be served, but to serve,” he said. (Mark 10:45) A leader among you must be as one who serves. (Luke 22:26)

A few verses earlier, Mark has told us that angels “waited” on Jesus in the wilderness. They ministered to him in his hour of need. They served him. Again, it’s the same word.

So now Simon’s mother-in-law will rise from her bed of sickness. But it’s not like she’s going to sit around and do nothing. No, she’s been raised for a purpose. And that purpose is to participate in God’s ministry to the world.

Like all of Jesus’ followers we’ve been healed for a reason. We’ve been called to serve.

Our service can take many forms. The apostle Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services [there it is, that word again], but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them for everyone.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6)

Lemon and fish.jpgService and ministry take many different forms. For Simon’s mother-in-law it seems to mean preparing food and offering hospitality to visitors. What does this look like in your life?

What have you been saved for? Does your service find expression here in the church? Singing, welcoming, organizing, repairing?

Does your service find expression in your home – caring for others, praying for them, holding their hand sometimes, giving encouragement, simply cooking a meal?

Does your service mean working for God’s peace and justice in the world? Making God’s kingdom real, living for God’s reign? Bearing witness to what Jesus has done for us in both word and deed? They do go together, you know! These are not two separate things.

Miracle and message belong together. Sharing good news pushes back the darkness of our world. Healing others bears witness that the kingdom of God has come near.

“He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Look what happens when Jesus comes into our lives! It’s not just Simon’s mother-in-law, you see. This is us: He comes to us. He takes our hand. He lifts us up. He heals us and calls us to serve.

See what God has done? And this is what God is doing in your life too! May it be so. Amen.

“Teaching with authority”

Mark 1:21-28 (January 28, 2024)

I want to begin this morning by acknowledging the difficulty I have with our Gospel reading. Because, unfortunately, I am a scribe, or at least the equivalent of a scribe. I’m professionally trained and educated. I occupy a position of leadership in the religious community. I study scripture. And I interpret scripture to others, like I’m doing here today.

a carver.jpgIn Jesus’ time, scribes were part of the religious elite. Not only did they transcribe written texts by hand, (remember, there was no way of printing them back then), but they also determined the application of those texts in day to day life.

Some prominent scribes even had their own disciples. So you can imagine how it must have felt to these skilled religious experts when Jesus and his motley crew of simple, untrained, ordinary fishermen showed up at the Capernaum synagogue. On the sabbath.

There, in that sea-side village – hometown of Peter, Andrew, James and John – Jesus began to teach. And how impressive that teaching was! Mark tells us that the congregation was astounded. “For Jesus taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

synagogue.jpgNot as this scribes! Ouch! You do know that some scribes welcomed Jesus, even became his followers. So please don’t paint all of us with the same “unbelieving” brush.

exorcism.jpghttps://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Capernaum_synagogue_by_David_Shankbone.jpg " width="228" height="42" />Who is this Jesus, anyway? What credentials does he bring? What gives him the right to teach? By whose authority does he speak? Last week I said there was a kind of “magnetism” to Jesus, a charisma, a power that draws us to him. There’s no way any old scribe can compete with that!

“He taught them as one having authority.” In our world authority is a tricky thing. Especially in this time and place, in our society, when it seems that almost every authority we can imagine is being challenged. Oscar Wilde wrote, “Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is [also] a man who resists authority.”[1]

What authorities might we resist? Government? Oh yes, it’s not an easy time to hold public office. We are so critical! Just mention these positions, and the personalities associated with them, and you may get a hostile response.

We don’t easily trust authority figures of any kind. Politicians … police, the judicial system. Scientists, scholars, “experts” in any field. The medical establishment, mainstream news media. Even organized religion. Maybe especially organized religion.

It may actually be healthy for us to question authority. After all, we cherish our freedom, and want to think for ourselves, make our own decisions … And yet this kind of deep-seated mistrust of one another threatens to unravel our society. We can’t function without trusting somebody, can we?

If you were there, in Capernaum, in the synagogue, listening to Jesus teach, would you recognize his authority?

For us, authority may be tied up with integrity. Words and actions that go together. Teaching that’s consistent with a certain way of life. If I tell you something, then do the opposite, it’s not going to be convincing, is it? You’ll say, “He’s just another one of those hypocrites! Whenever there’s a scandal in the church, it results in disillusionment and even more distrust. “Why should I believe a word they say?”

So, yes, integrity is important. And Jesus had that in spades. In him, words and actions were one. Authority in the language of the NT means literally “out of one’s being.” Out of the very essence of who you are.

What else gave Jesus authority?

Was it the work of the Holy Spirit? When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit of God descended on him. And from that day forward, the Spirit was with him, directing and empowering his ministry. Did the folks gathered in the synagogue sense God’s Spirit moving in that place? Did they sense it particularly in the teaching of Jesus?

To speak of the Spirit is to speak of something intangible, invisible. Kind of like the wind, said Jesus in another place. You cannot see the Spirit. But you can hear the sound of its voice. And you can see the effects of its movement.

Speaking of effects …

There was a man in that synagogue with an “unclean spirit” which caused him to cry out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

What we have here is a clash of spiritual powers: God’s Holy Spirit confronting an unclean spirit. Jesus, preaching the reign of God, meets a power that would diminish God’s gift of abundant life and love.

“I know who you are,” says the unclean spirit. “Yes, you do know,” says Jesus. “Now be silent, and come out of him!

Look at this! “A new teaching - with authority!” gasp the congregants, stunned with amazement. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

cartoon.jpgSo now we get to the heart of the matter. What authority does Jesus have for you? In this time when every traditional authority we can imagine is being called into question … You’ve got to trust someone, don’t you? So who do you trust?

On the internet these days we have many so-called “influencers.” People who set trends, telling you how to live, what clothes you should wear, what food you should eat, what products you should buy.

crowd.jpgOh yes, and who you should vote for. There are so many folk willing to stir up hostility, anger. Nurturing grievance, targeting people, or groups of people. Trying to get us on their side, recruit us to their cause. No wonder mistrust and division rule supreme.

All of it is diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus and his kingdom of justice, love and peace! When Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he’s inviting us to enter a new way of life. “Leave that other stuff behind. Come and follow me. Let me be ruler of your life.”

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord” writes the apostle Paul, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) And “no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.” (1Corinthians 12:3)

Do you know the earliest Christian confession of faith? This is it: “Jesus is Lord.” It predates all other creeds and theological formulations, every historical accretion and denominational distinctive. It’s simple and to the point: “Jesus is Lord.”

He does not force this confession upon us. Rather, we freely say to ourselves, to God Almighty, and to anyone else who may be listening, that from now on, Jesus will be the one who directs our living. He will be the authority in our lives. Jesus, not Caesar, nor any other personality or power, influencer or opinion-maker.

Jesus teaching in a temple.jpgEven that unclean spirit must recognize a greater one who stands before him: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? … I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Here in this place, even now, stands One who reigns Supreme.

“They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? … He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”

Jesus Teacher.jpg

So here am I, a mere scribe. I can’t compete with this teacher. Nor should I.

But if I stand here today and point you toward him, then perhaps I’ll have accomplished what is faithful. Maybe that’s what every scribe is called to do. Just point the way to Jesus. Then, step aside, and listen with the whole congregation. What new teaching, with authority, will he have for us today?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

 

[1] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/75354-wherever-there-is-a-man-who-exercises-authority-there-is, Accessed January 27, 2024.

“The call to be disciples”

Mark 1:14-20 (January 21, 2024)

Now that we’re here, in the middle of January, can we say that Christmas is finally finished? The tree is gone, the decorations are put away. So what now? Who is this child? What does it mean for us that God has entered our creation?

Today the Gospel of Mark takes us to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: His proclamation of the kingdom, his calling of disciples.

Fishers of men.pngThere they were: Simon (who would later be called Peter) and his brother Andrew, doing what they’d always done, casting a net into the sea.

I can imagine the sun shining down upon them. A gentle breeze. The net splashing in the water. The shimmer of fish as they pulled it up. The anticipation of selling the catch. And maybe taking some of it home for dinner. Thoughts of rest at the end of a long day.

And then this stranger came along! Came to interrupt their lives, however idyllic they may have been. Or maybe their lives were a struggle. Or a long monotonous grind.

Whatever they were, Jesus came to them right there on the beach, by the Sea of Galilee. And he said to them: “Follow me.”

What we have here is a cosmic interruption. A tearing of fabric. Like a thunderclap, or a lightening strike. An epiphany, actually.

Jesus appears to us, and suddenly everything changes. He calls to us and we cannot ignore him! He meets us in our Galilee.

Lovely Landscape.jpgAnd what I’d like you to think about this morning, to begin with, is what your Galilee looks like? In other words, what is the landscape of your life?

Where are you living? Who are your neighbours? When you get up in the morning, are there places you need to be? Appointments, responsibilities, tasks to be accomplished?

They don’t have to be big. Plugging in the kettle, preparing breakfast, reading a paper, going for a visit, waiting for someone to call.

What is your Galilee? Where is your beach? What is your boat? What’s the net you have to hoist? Who is there with you? Is it hard or easy? Is it always the same every single day?

And now, think of this: how has the landscape of your life changed over time? Because I’m willing to bet things are different now than what they used to be. Our lives never stay the same. The Galilee we live in today is not the Galilee that used to be.

And so the question is, when the call of Jesus comes, how do we answer it in our present time? How do you live out your call to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, in the landscape of today, not years ago. Because although the voice is the same, the surroundings will look quite different. And so our life of discipleship will have to change as well.

Over the years, we go through many Galilees. We switch jobs, we change careers, we may stop working altogether – at least for money. Relationships change, families grow, loved ones die, new friendships are made. Our bodies and minds, interests and abilities – none of these ever stay the same.

But Jesus still comes to us, right where we are! In the midst of our day. We hear that voice that will never leave us. The voice that keeps calling us, lovingly, persistently. “Come, follow me!”

Woman listening to seashell.jpgThe call to be a disciple is life-long. Jesus doesn’t stop calling us. We still listen for his voice. In the life of faith, we do not retire.

But discipleship may look quite different depending on what stage or season of life we are in. We should not expect to keep on doing what we always did before. Instead, we should be open to new opportunities, new ways of expressing faith and following our Lord.

“The kingdom of God has come near,” said Jesus, “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

u-turn.pngRepent means to change your mind and, by implication, a whole lot of other things as well. Change is the first step on the path of discipleship. Jesus tells the fishermen to leave what they’ve been doing. “Drop your nets. Step out of the boat. I’m going to teach you a new way of fishing.”

Wow, did the disciples have any idea what Jesus had in mind for them? Where he would take them? What they would experience and learn along the way?

Do we have any idea what Jesus has in store for us? In the broadest of terms, of course we do! His desire for us is good, not ill. That doesn’t mean that discipleship will be easy. Only that it will be worth it!

Small Christmas envelope.jpgLeave your nets and follow me. What does that look like for you? What might you have to leave behind? Because Jesus has something else in mind for you now. As our Galilees change, our calling changes too!

A friend of mine sent me a Christmas letter this year. It was great to read all the news about him and his family. But nothing is the same as it used to be.

He lost his first wife, the one I knew, several years ago to cancer and has since remarried. His children, contemporaries of my own, have grown up. (Who knew they’d do a thing like that?) Now they have children of their own. He’s retired from his work and has had some amazing travels.

At one point in the letter he paused to reflect on his role as a father, saying that it had shifted. He’s no longer the provider. He sees his role more as one who stands in the background, offering support as each of those adult children live their own independent lives. And new grandchildren begin to find their way.

That observation resonated with me, because I can see that my role is changing too. And I find myself asking those same questions: Now, who am I to be? What does it look like for me to be faithful in this present time?

“Repent and believe,” says Jesus. “Leave your old ways behind. Move into the future. Trust my promise that the Kingdom is near.”

As difficult as it may be to leave and let go of things that have long been part of our lives, there remains this call, this opportunity to learn new ways – following Jesus, welcoming the new life he brings.

As we move through the landscape of our different Galilees, we discover that there is life in every stage. There is always something more for us to be and do. More for us to learn.

Open Bible.jpgOr do you think you know it all? At what age do we know it all? Can we be humble enough to admit there may be things we actually have to unlearn? Habits and opinions for example: You had your mind made up, and everything (you thought) was settled. You used to think one way. And maybe that way has served you well. But now you see through different eyes.

There’s no shame in that. In fact, it’s crucial if we want to be disciples of Jesus. That very word “disciple” means a student, a learner of Jesus’ way. The more we follow, the more we learn. At each turn there is something new. A door that opens before us.

As we move through the lives we have been given, discipleship may be less about doing things. And more about being. Being open to the moving of God’s Holy Spirit. Being there for others. Being more loving. Being ready to forgive. Being generous with the gifts and resources that we’ve been given. Growing in our desire for God each and every day.

“Repent and believe!” Are you open to the presence of God’s Kingdom? Jesus is calling to us. Always calling. He never stops, never goes away. Can you hear that voice?

The amazing part of our scripture reading today is how quickly those fishermen did follow Jesus. “Immediately,” Mark tells us, they left their nets. Without any hesitation.

And then, just to make sure we got the message, Mark tells us about two more of Jesus’ disciples: James and John, the sons of Zebedee: “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”

Can you imagine the shock of it? Old Zebedee watches his beloved sons turn around and walk toward Jesus. They’re willing to drop all they have, right then and there, for the sake of the Kingdom. So the pattern repeats!

And now it comes to us. This persistent call: “Come, follow me.”

There’s a kind of magnetism to Jesus that speaks to us, compels us. A voice that draws us forward into God’s new life, wherever we may be. A force we cannot deny. A tug, a pull. A lightning strike.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship,” which was published in 1937 just as Nazi power and influence was growing. Bonhoeffer wrote, “We are not expected to contemplate the disciple, but only him who calls, and his absolute authority.” An authority that, for Bonhoeffer, compels obedience, even in the face of dark forces.[1]

“Come and follow me.” Jesus calls to us in all our many Galilees. Where is yours? What might it look like for you to follow Jesus today?

There’s a striking verse at the end of Mark’s Gospel, which provides a kind of “bookend” to our scripture reading. In chapter 16, Jesus has been crucified. And the disciples must have wondered if their journey was over. But standing by the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, receive a message from a mysterious young man dressed in white.

“Tell his disciples and Peter (that same Simon Peter who first heard the call while casting a net by the sea) …tell them “He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” One stage of the disciples’ journey has finished. But a new one is about to begin.

The call to be disciples comes to us always fresh, always new, in the Galilees of our daily living. “Come, follow me.” Amen.

 

[1] Chelsea Harmon, https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2024-01-15/mark-114-20-4/, Accessed Jan 16, 2024.