The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 7 February 2021
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
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.
Elaine Pagels, in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent, opens our eyes to a cultural understanding that might help us as we deal with the Gospel for today. “Even those who resisted pagan culture had been deeply affected by it; yet they held to the customs that distinguished and separated them from their pagan neighbors.” Her observation is of Jews living at the time of Jesus and the Roman occupation of the Levant. Even so, what she says of that period of time would obtain for Jews living before that period. We can see the influence of Canaanite and Egyptian literature in the psalms, and the influx of Persian and Mesopotamian ideas in the description of events and characters in the Pentateuch. The forced Hellenization of Israel during the Seleucid period bore fruit long after the Maccabean revolt, and the restoration of Jewish values. Just as American/European culture has described the world in which we live, Hellenic culture and literature was infused in the cultures of the Mediterranean.
Demons in Greek literature were either good or bad, but not exclusively evil, and the notion of demons out of Mesopotamia was that they were the bringers of illness, and threats to health. It is in this guise that we see demons in the Gospels. They bring illness, madness, and an evil possession (which we recognize today as either mental or physical illness). Aligned with this understanding of “illness” and “health” was the whole Jewish concern with purity. Pagels describes the Essenes, the rebels who left Jerusalem and the Temple to form a “’pure’ community in desert caves overlooking the Dead Sea.” Perhaps that is what drove Jesus to the wilderness to pray and to be restored, to purify himself and the disciples from the demons of the prevalent culture. It might be helpful for us to really understand and review the images that come to our minds when we hear of these entities in the Scriptures and understand their true nature and provenance.
First Reading: 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.
This section of Second Isaiah really begins earlier at verse 12. You might want to read the entire section from verses 12 – 31. The entire section begins with a series of questions, “Who has measured with his palm the waters?” “Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord?” “Whom did he consult to gain knowledge?” The questions lead us to a description of the God of Israel. Another question is posed, and an answer, “To whom can you liken God? An idol? An artisan casts it…” And now this Isaiah leads us into his evidence about God, with further questions, that will be repeated in the text, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Brevard S. Childs, in his commentary on Isaiah proposes a structure to the selection that enables us to understand the oracle to a greater degree:
“Verses 12-17 No one can gauge God’s work
Verse 12 not in creation
Verse 12-14 not in counsel
Verses 15-17 not among the nations
Verses 18-26 No one can compare with God.
Verses 18-24 no one compares: proof given
Verses 25-26 no one compares: proof given
Verse 27 Israel’s complaint
Verses 28-31 Hymnic climax: God gives strength to the faint.”
The beauty of the argument in the verses leading up to the complaint in verse 27 do not prepare us for Israel’s plight. It is a condition that is similar to our own, a feeling of being abandoned by God. It is a situation with which many in our time identify whether they be liberal or conservative. Where is God in our time? That is the question that is really posed. The prophet, who began his oracle in the preceding chapter with the words “Comfort, comfort” now indeed supplies that comfort in the verses that follow 27. The question is again asked, “Have you not known?” The defeated people are returning from exile, moving back across the wilderness to the ruined lands of their fathers and mothers. Of course they were faint. However, the prophet sees the God of all creation as providing a recreation of the people, “as on eagles’ wings.”
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. How differently would this oracle read if you began at verse 27?
2. Where in your life have you been defeated and abandoned?
3. Where has God provided a recreation of your life?
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!
2 The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; *
he gathers the exiles of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted *
and binds up their wounds.
4 He counts the number of the stars *
and calls them all by their names.
5 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; *
there is no limit to his wisdom.
6 The Lord lifts up the lowly, *
but casts the wicked to the ground.
7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; *
make music to our God upon the harp.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds *
and prepares rain for the earth;
9 He makes grass to grow upon the mountains *
and green plants to serve mankind.
10 He provides food for flocks and herds *
and for the young ravens when they cry.
11 He is not impressed by the might of a horse; *
he has no pleasure in the strength of a man;
12 But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, *
in those who await his gracious favor.
Like Second Isaiah, the poet in Psalm 147 lists the reasons one ought to hymn God. God is pictured first as the builder of Jerusalem, the One who gathers a people from exile and returns and heals them in their own land. In verse 4, the author casts a wider gaze as he begins to look at God’s creative hand and work. There is provision for all of creation, for both beast and human. At the end of our reading, for not all the verses are used here, the poet returns to Jerusalem, the center of God’s place in the world. The verses that follow continue a listing of the blessings that are given, and the psalm ends with “Hallelujah!” Praise the Lord!
Breaking open Psalm 147
1. For what might you praise God?
2. For what might God praise you?
3. For what might your neighbor praise you?
Second Reading: I 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.
In this reading, Paul becomes a person for us. The question that just hides under the surface is, “How do I proclaim the Gospel, so that others might see it in my life?’ The salvation that Paul preaches is one of liberation from all kinds of rules and parameters, but yet, how does one live within that freedom and in the company of others? Paul is aware of what his rights are within this good news, but he is also aware of the obligation he has to others. He states it quite succinctly, “I have made myself a slave to all.” Paul is a Jew, he is outside the law, he is weak. He strives to become so that others might be in the faith and in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Breaking open I Corinthians:
1. What might you become in order to bring someone to Jesus?
2. What freedoms have you given up for the sake of others?
3. How have you become “all things to all people”?
The Gospel: St. Mark 1:29-39
After Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue, they 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.
Mark delivers to us a Jesus who is deeply involved with life. In our reading from the Gospel today, Jesus is concerned with spiritual and physical health. He is the healer, and as Mark and his time would have it, he is the exorcist. I would hope we would move beyond the idea of possession by evil to the idea of health and healing in this pericope. Mark has his own reasons for representing the demons with the capacity to recognize and announce Jesus’ name and status. For our purposes, in our time, it is important to see Jesus here addressing human need – to free them from the oppression that health issues bring. The world in which Jesus operated assigned these difficulties to demons, an idea that the culture had imported from other cultures (see the Background above). It isn’t helpful for us to have this same notion. What is helpful is to see Jesus besieged for his healing power and way with people. It is a call to us to do the same. We need to recognize the need that is around us. The disciples tell Jesus, “Everyone is searching for you.” We need to hear that in our time, and in all the situations in our lives.
One Sunday, a young woman come into our services and stationed herself at the Baptismal Font at the foot of the aisle up to the altar. She demanded to be baptized and she demanded attention. Was she possessed? No, she was in dire need. The question that pulsed through all of our minds at the time was, “What can we do to help her.” What wasn’t going to help was “magic prayer.” What wasn’t going to help was denial of the situation. What wasn’t going to help was our own fear. What was going to help were the gifts of healing and expertise that God had given some to care for people such as this.
The need that is expressed in Mark is seen and literally felt in the press of people, “And all the whole city gathered around the door.” Does this need sound familiar to you? Do you see it on the streets of your town? This reading leads us to understand and realize the gifts of healing that God has already put into our hands, and the need for us to make those gifts available to those who need it. “Bless me, Father”, a man cried as I crossed Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley one day. My body wanted to move quickly away, but the Spirit, pulled me to the man and put words of blessing into my mouth. Yes, casting out the demons of misunderstanding and being over sheltered -that was what Jesus wanted me to do.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Who among the people around you need to hear good news?
2. What are the demons of your community?
3. Who are the healers?
General Idea: Called to –
Idea 1: address the weak and faint-hearted (First Reading)
Idea 2: see those who await God’s favor (Psalm)
Idea 3: make my life a gateway for those who seek God (Second Reading)
Idea 4: not fear the demons (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller