Our text for Sunday finished out Mark’s narration of Jesus’ first day on the job. He had a busy day! Audio is below and text is after the jump.
Our text for today is a bit of a potpourri. There are at least four vignettes here: Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, then healing crowds of people in the evening, praying alone at dawn, and then a conversation with the disciples about his work. I’d like to walk through them backwards, from end to beginning.
But first, let’s pull back and get a bit of context. We’ve picked up where we left off last week, and what Mark’s doing here is narrating a day in the life, plus a little extra the next morning. With this day, Mark begins to answer the central question, who is this Holy One?
He is one with authority, who comes bringing news and teaching, announcing a new state of affairs in the world. He has power to beat back the forces of death and destruction that threaten life. He is not solitary, but one who draws others in. All of this we see in one day.
With that context, let’s jump in. We’re going to start at the end and move to the beginning.
The last, or fourth, vignette begins when the disciples go looking for Jesus. “Everyone’s looking for you!” they tell him. You’re the talk of the town! The people love you! Let’s get back to it!
Jesus’ response is something of a non sequitur. People love me here? Time to move on. My task is to proclaim this message in every little town, village, and hamlet. “That is what I came to do,” he says.
We don’t think about Jesus in terms of strategic visioning—too jargon-y. But we do see here that Jesus had clarity about the work to which he was called, and he stayed focused.
That’s harder than it looks. Daily life has a way of pulling us in a million different directions. We want to put our energy into this good thing and this good thing and this and this and this. A wise friend reminded me this week that there is time enough for all that is of God. The rest? It’s just gravy.
But how do we know what is of God? How do we—as individuals and as a community—know what shape love should take in our particular lives right now?
Jesus had spent the evening before healing dozens of people. That was worthy work. But Jesus knew it was not his work. His task was to go, to go into the neighboring towns and share the message that the kingdom of God is at hand. How did he know that that was his task, and not any of the other very worthwhile things he could have done?
For that answer, we move back to what he was doing just before the disciples showed up clamoring for his attention—the third vignette:
He went to a deserted place, alone, to pray. First thing.
So very simple. And so essential.
It hearkens back to the greatest commandment. We love God first, with our whole selves, and the rest flows from there.
That’s lovely, you might be thinking, but there’s not a single spot in my life that’s deserted. And I’m so worn out that if I went and sat somewhere before dawn and tried to pray I would fall asleep.
Our manner and time of prayer will vary. What matters is not what it looks like, but that we give ourselves the time and space to let our hearts put down roots in the rich ground of God.
As we try to figure out what is the important work for this particular time as people of God, and we try to sort that out from the merely urgent, there’s only one way to do that. It is to love God first, to center ourselves in prayer, to have it be a habit that forms us. Nothing more, nothing less.
When we are tethered in this way, it is a whole lot easier to discern what is important.
But not only that, we will also have the freedom to attend to the needs at hand.
Did you notice how that’s balanced in this story?
In the second vignette, the night before, the crowds had come streaming. And Jesus had compassion on them. He healed them and cast out many demons.
We see here that quality of attention that is a spiritual gift. Jesus looks at the people and sees them. He sees all the things that threaten to destroy life.
We might also note that there are socio-economic implications in these crowds.Then, as now, illness and poverty walked hand in hand, each making the other worse. If you earned your living through subsistence farming, or today through minimum wage service work, and you get sick, you do not get paid. And if you do not get paid, or you do not get paid enough, and you get sick, you do not have the resources to get good care, or to have prevented that illness in the first place. Rain may fall on the rich and the poor alike, but cholera does not. Disease is not democratic.
We tend to miss that element of Jesus’ healing. It is not simply a restoration of physical health, or a spiritual renewal; it is also a response to economic need. We’ll talk more about that in weeks to come.
Regardless, we see here that Jesus, though he had clarity about who he was and what he was about, was not too busy for compassion. There is time enough for all that is of God.
As he served those folks, as he stopped and looked at each person, healed them, served them one by one, I wonder if he thought of Simon’s mother-in-law.
That’s where our passage began, the very first vignette. Jesus’ first healing was of this unnamed woman, known only by her relationship to one of the disciples.
Jesus, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, come to Simon’s home after the morning in the synagogue and find that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. The text, in typical Mark fashion, tells us little. We read only that they tell Jesus she’s sick with a fever. He heals her. And she gets up and starts serving them.
Which always kind of rankled. Did Jesus heal her so that they’d have a maidservant to wait on them? That seems not so great.
But then, this week, I learned that the word here, served, is the same word Jesus will use later to describe both the task of the disciples and his own task. It’s in this very house in chapter 10 when James and John—who are here this time, too—ask Jesus what they have to do to be the greatest. And Jesus tells them the greatest of you will be the servant of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve—like Simon’s mother-in-law.
James and John don’t really get it. Not right now and not later. They still want all those things we want, too—power, prestige, perks. What we don’t much want is to serve others. Maybe from time to time, but not as a life ethic. It’s inconvenient, and not so fun. It’s a struggle, to shush the ego that’s telling us to be greater and better and more.
Those who serve—they aren’t noticed. Maybe that’s why James and John didn’t get it. Maybe they didn’t even notice Simon’s mother-in-law.
But Simon’s mother-in-law, whatever her name was, she got it. She knows precisely what to do in response to the presence of Jesus. She serves, just as Jesus has served her.
Jesus has healed her. He saved her. He lifts her up from her fever, and, from her old life—whatever it was. The word here for lifts up is the same as resurrected. Jesus brings a new life to her—right here, right now, in the midst of this life. The kingdom of God has come near.
And she cannot help but respond. She enters into the life that he came to announce. She is loved by Jesus, and in turn she cares for those around her, and in so doing, cares for Christ himself.
This, friends, is who we were made to be. We are loved by Jesus—as individuals, as a body. We are loved. We are healed, and we are being healed, even now, of all that would seek to to darken our lives. In love, Jesus lifts us up, like Simon’s mother-in-law, saying Rise, be healed.
And so we rise—maybe a little shaky, but growing stronger, leaning on those arms. And we set about the work to which God has called us in this time—the work of love, of serving God and neighbor, of leaving self behind and learning to follow this One, this One who teaches with authority, who heals and casts out demons, who prays, who suffers and dies, and who, yes, leads us into life.
Thanks be to God.by Sarah W. Wiles February 5, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA