“From Ailing to Serving”
Message preached on
February 4, 2018
I find it interesting that this
is the Gospel lesson in the lectionary for today, on the Sunday I return
to preaching following my surgery over two months ago… Pause with me for a
moment of quiet before we continue.
In Mark’s gospel, this episode lies at the beginning of the earthly
ministry of Jesus. In less than 30 verses, Mark tells of how that strange
character, John, prepared the way for the Messiah, and then baptized Jesus
of Nazareth in the Jordon river. “You are my Son, the Beloved,”
came a voice from heaven. “With you
I am well pleased.” All too quickly, our Lord is then driven into the
wilderness, where 40 days of wrestling with temptation is mentioned in one
Then comes the statement which –
according to Mark, defines Jesus’ mission. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;” this One
from Nazareth proclaims, “repent
(turn toward God), and believe in
the good news.” In quick succession, four fishermen are called as
disciples: Simon (later known as Peter) and his brother, Andrew, then
James and his brother, John. On the Sabbath, they all then do as good Jews
should, and go to synagogue. But on this day of rest, a “man
with an unclean spirit” jabbers at Jesus – something about knowing who
this “Holy One of God” really
is. “Silence!” Jesus says to the
inner demon, and with a word that man is set free. Thus, is inaugurated
the earthly ministry of Jesus, according to Mark.
On that very same day, the episode we heard earlier continues.
Actually, we received it in in three portions, with three readers – the
healing of a loved one at home, the healing of many in a crowded setting,
and a prayer retreat and moving on. As I would like to approach the first
portion of today’s Gospel story last, let me jump over it to what happened
As the sun was setting, lots people came to Jesus – a follow-up to
what happened earlier in synagogue, no doubt. Do remember that in the
Jewish measurement of time, a day begins as the sun sets. Therefore, this
evening part of the story is really taking place on the day after
the Sabbath. With the day of rest over, it is okay – according to the law
of Moses – to work. Carrying someone who is sick is work. Healing them is
also, but that is an issue for another day.
Note, as well, that people deeply care for their loved ones and
friends, enough so that they bring them to this traveling healer and
proclaimer from Nazareth. Perhaps a bit of desperation is in the air,
mixed with hope. Another word in our language for illness is “disease.”
When we are ailing, we are not at “ease.” Life is hard, not easy. It
operates at a different pace. We become more dependent on others. We set
aside control over our comings and goings, along with modesty. Others may
have to take care of our bodily functions, which is humiliating. Being ill
at ease, we are not sure we can handle this. Hope seems very distant.
Wonder of wonders, as night descends in Capernaum, the seaside
hometown of Simon, Andrew, James, and John, many are healed as the first
day of the week begins, the day after the Sabbath. The great physician is
at work. “He healed many,” it
says. Of course, does this mean that not “all” were healed? If so, why
not? Were there just too many persons in need? Was there not enough time?
I ask because there are some questions for which I have no good answers.
Still, on this evening beside the sea of Galilee, many are healed. And
there is no mention of a faith requirement, or some special action that
makes it so. There is just Jesus, and “many are healed.”
Along with those who were ill, others were brought to Simon’s home
– folks plagued by demons. We don’t talk much about demons today. Perhaps
that’s because we know how easy it is to blame some external force instead
of taking responsibility for our own actions – as in “the devil made me do
it!” Even so, some compulsions at times seem downright demonic, if you
will. It’s one thing to have a degree of control and power over your life,
something that flies out the window when your ill. It’s another thing to
have an overpowering unhealthy need for control and power over other
people. Might this lie at the heart of what we’ve heard in the news
recently about sexual harassment – which is less about sex and more about
power and control? Is this an inner demon? Sometimes it seems so. In our
gospel story, “many” demons are thrown out, but (again) not “all.” Some
may be harder to handle. We’ve learned, for instance, that healing - if
possible - is extremely difficult for those who habitually rape women or
sexually abuse children. Are they among the “not all”?
Power and control are hard demons
to heal – in persons as well as (by the way) in nations. I find it
interesting that Jesus in this first chapter of Mark’s gospel does not
allow demons to speak. “They knew him,” it says, they recognized who he
was. Did Jesus silence them simply because it wasn’t yet time to reveal
the secret that he was the Messiah? That’s what some commentators say
about this passage. I’m not so sure. I wonder if it doesn’t have something
to do with power and control. One of those ten commandments given to Moses
speaks of not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which is not really about
saying bad words as it is about trying to control God. To call down
damnation in the name of God is an act of power. Remember what God told
Moses beside the burning bush? Give me a name, Moses had asked, so I can
tell folks who sent me. A tempting moment. “I am who I am,” came the
answer. “Tell them: ‘I am’ sent you.” In other words, tell that demon to
Well, in our Gospel story, Jesus himself needed silence. He snuck
away from the clamor of that evening crowd for a deserted place. If even
Jesus needed to do this, what makes us think we can avoid it? Last week,
with our children, I mentioned certain muscles that we need to exercise –
ones that help us to be still and to quiet ourselves. Is this a silencing
of our inner demons? “Be still and
know that I am God,” the Psalmist sang. “They who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength,” Isaiah
Jesus got away to pray, but not for long. Simon and the rest hunted
for and found him. “Everyone is looking for you.” There was so much need back at Simon’s
home. So many were ill at ease - ailing, possessed. However, instead of
saying, “Okay, let’s return to Capernaum,” Jesus pointed to the next town.
“I’ve a message to share, which is
what I came to do,” he said. That is, “the
time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand;
repent, and believe in the
good news.” And they head off as the sun rises.
Let me return now to the first portion of our morning Gospel story.
In it, by the way, we learn that Simon (also known as Peter) has a wife.
Why? Because he has a mother-in-law. Mark doesn’t name her. Why not? Maybe
by the time Mark (who wasn’t among the original twelve disciples) wrote
all this down, her name was forgotten, and Peter wasn’t there to ask. Or
maybe, like elsewhere, we’re invited to write in the name of someone we
know and love. I could stick in “Doris,” the name of my mother-in-law. Or,
how about “Edna,” who read to us these words?
Here is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, suffering from some ailment.
And here, also, is Jesus, who has entered her space. On the screen you see
Rembrandt’s drawing of this scene, with Jesus reaching out to her. “He
came,” it says, “and took her by
the hand and lifted her up.” A healing scene. What you may not know is
that the Greek word Mark uses for what Jesus did: “lifted
her up,” is the same Greek word used at the end of Mark’s gospel for
when the angel tells the women, who came to anoint the body of Jesus in
the tomb, that “he has been raised”
– he has been “lifted up.” We’ve
got a big word for that: “resurrection.” But remember, its simple meaning
involves being lifted up – which is what Jesus does here at the beginning
of the gospel with “Doris” or “Edna” or whatever this mother-in-law of
Peter’s name was.
She is lifted up from her ailment. Jesus empowers her to stand.
I’ve got to tell you that from my perspective as someone recovering from
major surgery on my leg, standing up is a marvelous action. But that’s not
the biggest good news, my friends. It’s what comes after this
uprising that is a significant.
Now, I know some translations say that she got up and fixed them food or
did some other domestic stuff. However, words matter, and the Greek word
chosen by Mark for what this woman did after Jesus raised her up is:
“diēkonei.” If you heard the word “deacon” in that, ring a bell. One might
say that this woman Jesus raised up is the first deacon.
This story is thus about lifting up someone for a purpose. Before
Jesus stepped into her home, this woman was just a sick person, ailing
from some illness. But with an outstretched hand, Jesus did more than heal
her. He empowered her to take care of others. Where once she needed others
to take care of her, now she could stand up and serve. Just so you know,
in the Jesus way of doing things, being a servant is the most important
calling. It’s not about power and control over others, putting them down.
It’s about helping others up. Whatever ails us, Jesus reaches out by hand
and raises us up, so that we might serve. That is health. Even if we are
not cured of a disease or freed from a demon, we can be well by the hand
of the One who lifts us up, and commissions us to go and serve others in
his name. From Ailing to Serving.
On the back of your bulletin, also projected
upon the screen, is a prayer of commissioning. Please rise as you are
able, and let us pray it together, hearing our own voices sending us
Remain standing and join in our final hymn,
hearing God speak a benediction to us through the words.