The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 8 February 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
I Corinthians 9:16-23
St. Mark 1:29-39

Background: Healing
The healing stories in the Bible give us pause, given our perspective from two centuries of medical advancements and discoveries. The question faces us in spite of that scientific outlook. What do we do, as believers when confronted with these compelling stories? Perhaps the answer is found by stepping outside of our scientific context and taking on the perspective of humanity. Such stories are not unique to the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures. The stories of Heracles, Asclepius, Isis, and Elisha, along with stories from other ancient near eastern cultures remind us of not only the popularity of such stories, but of their importance in the lives of those living at that time. The healing stories of the Bible are told in the setting of this cultural context.

It is interesting that Jesus approaches these situations not so much as a deus ex machina, but rather as a fellow human being – a person with compassion and connection. In the synoptic Gospels we see a Jesus who meets real life situations and addresses them with both connection and interest. In addition to healings (see today’s Gospel), we are also aware of exorcisms, and resurrection. Sometimes these healings are accompanied with other actions that attempt to define the action in a more profound manner.  At times Jesus draws in the sand, or uses spittle, or just words to direct the attention of the one to be healed, and the audience that surrounds the action. Although the outcome for the one to be healed is important, of more importance is the meaning and message attached to the healing itself. Healings of the blind, the raising of the dead, the cleansing of lepers, the freeing of paralytics, unique cures for women, deaf-mutes, all have something to say about the role that the Kingdom of Heaven plays in the lives of those healed, and of those observing.

Perhaps what Jesus declares in St. John can be helpful to us as we attempt to understand these texts, most especially these human stories:

"Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father."

In other words, understand the connection with God and God’s presence in Christ’s works amongst us. I think that the healing story that affects me the most and underscores this understanding of Jesus’ works is the story of the woman who touched Jesus’ garment, and “power come out of him.”

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the LORD,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

As I attempted to say in the background above, one of the issues that prophetic writing or acts needs to deal with is the issue of perspective. In this pericope the second Isaiah endeavors to comment on the might of God, the God of the exiles, in the midst of powerful images that stem from the Assyrian and Babylonian imperium, the exotic images of the gods, and the panoply that accompanied the kings of the land. Along with that the Mesopotamian understanding of the power of stars, planets, and the zodiac brought additional obstacles to seeing the faithful image of the God of Israel. In this oracle Isaiah makes it really quite clear, “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. It is a word of promise and continuance. It compels the reader and hearer to understand that the grass isn’t greener, that their own God is a protector and power for them.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What are the powerful images of our culture that occur to you?
  2. Is God among them? Why or why not?
  3. How does God reveal God’s self to you in creation?
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c Laudate Dominum

How good it is to sing praises to our God! *
how pleasant it is to honor him with praise!

The LORD rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.

He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.

He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.

Great is our LORD and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.

The LORD lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.

Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.

He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;

He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.

He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.

He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;

But the LORD has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.

The psalmist here underscores the thoughts from the reading from second Isaiah (above). Here it is from the perspective of the people that have returned and rejuvenated Jerusalem, rather than from the mindset of the prophet. The emphasis is the same, however, God rises above the powers of this world (God’s creatures), and raises up those who have become the victims of the world’s powers. Both creature and creation come together in a mix of God’s providence and protection. On the basis of this experience, the psalmist bids us to praise God.

Breaking open Psalm 147:
  1. What’s your favorite hymn?
  2. What does it say to your about your God?
  3. How is your power used in the world to share God with it?

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

This reading speaks to us about sacrifice, most especially the sacrifice that Paul embodies in his own life. In the initial paragraph of this pericope, Paul explains both his intentions and that which motivates him. It is not his apostolic privilege but rather his call to proclaim the Gospel through his self-sacrifice. What Paul sets up is a series of paradoxes that underscore this theme of self-sacrifice. Freedom and Slavery, Jews and Gentiles, those under the law, and those living in freedom, strength to weakness, all example the lively exchange that becomes the Christian life. “I have become all things to all people.” Why? “For the sake of the Gospel.”

Breaking open I Corinthians:
  1. What have you given up in life for the sake of someone who is either family or friend?
  2. What were your emotions around this self-sacrifice?
  3. Has someone done this for you? How?

St. Mark 1:29-39

Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And 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.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." He 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." And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Here Jesus manifests what Isaiah and the psalmist have spoken about in the readings above. Jesus is the master of all of creation, and exhibits God’s ongoing care of creation. The first example is the healing of the mother-in-law of Saint Peter. It should be noted that the emphasis here is not on the healing of this woman, so much as the restoration of her dignity, which she exhibits by getting up and serving them. Of interest are the actions of Jesus “lift(ing) her up,” (the same verb is used in the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection) and the fever leaving her (the same verb as a demon leaving the victim in an exorcism).

The second paragraph continues these actions a Jesus continues to connect with the people in their life situations. Not immediately evident but certainly noticeable is the silence that is requested of the demons by Jesus, “and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” This so-called “secrecy motif” in Mark silences all language about Jesus until we are prepared to meet him a Savior and Lord. This is a theme and device that will be used throughout the Gospel.

The final paragraph is profound. To read it well, we need to picture its images in our minds: the early morning, the deserted place, and the constant companion prayer.  Jesus refreshes himself, and soon the disciples come to disrupt this refreshment. Like Paul, Jesus takes the challenges of more healings and presence, leaves behind his spiritual refreshment, and moves out in mission.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do the healings of Jesus mean?
  2. What kind of healing do you see in your life and in your world?
  3. What can you do to heal our world?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller


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