The 5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
4 February, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Isaiah 40:21-31: Psalm 147:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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In the second lesson, St Paul speaks in defense, not just of himself, but of all preachers. A couple of verses before where we started reading today he says that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel,” meaning that it’s the Church’s responsibility to fund the proclamation of the Gospel. So it needs to be one of the biggest line items in the budget. Then he applies that to himself, and to me and all my colleagues across all denominations. “For an obligation is laid upon me,” he says, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!… I am entrusted with a commission.” People get a little upset with us preachers from time to time, and some of them will actually tell us that it’s because we’re not reaching them, we’re not connecting with them on a personal level. So we have to remind them that that’s not our job.
The preacher’s job is to proclaim the Gospel, to take the scriptures that have just been read and open them up so that the people of God can see what God has done and is doing in the Church and in the world. No preacher can tailor a sermon so that he/she speaks to the need of every individual listener. But God can, and does. People have told me about something they heard in a particular sermon that really spoke to their need or their situation. Now that’s not me bragging. I’m with Paul on what he has to say about that: “if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.” Quite often when people have told me what they heard, I had no idea that I’d said anything like that. What’s happened in those instances is that God was at work among his people, taking the Gospel that’s been proclaimed, and helping each of us to see what he wants us to see, to hear what we need to hear. I just do what I’ve been taught– “preach the propers,” the readings appointed for the day. And if the preacher is faithful in doing that, God will make it “all things to all people so that by all means [he] might save some.” So I’m not here to draw attention to myself and to build up a fan base. The preacher is supposed to be more like the wires that run through the walls of your house delivering electricity where it’s supposed to go. As long as your lights come on, you don’t think about the wire. I don’t do it for my own sake, Paul concludes, “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with [the people of God] in its blessings.”
In today’s gospel we see Jesus actually doing what St Paul is talking about. Some of you know what a carnival barker is, but for those who don’t, that was the person who used to go out and try to get people to buy tickets to a circus, or to a particular circus event, like the bearded lady, the two-headed sheep, or the big top. I think their modern successors are the ones who stand at a booth in a mall or an airport, trying to sign us up for a certain kind of credit card, or the people doing infomercials. Their job is to persuade us to buy into something we may not really be interested in, that we know very little about, and that we won’t know much about until we actually buy it. They’ve got to tell us enough about, and to do it in such a way that makes us want to buy in.
Those of us taking the Dave Ramsey course heard Dave the other night say that credit card companies are wonderful marketers, because they convince us that we can’t do without their product, even though what they’re selling is an absolutely horrible thing. For all it is, is debt packaged in such a way that we’re all convinced that we can’t live without it. Dave calls credit cards the cigarettes of the finance industry– they’re bad for you, and you know they’re bad for you, and once you’re hooked, it’s really hard to quit. And of course if we buy what the barker is selling, then we have to love it, because we’re invested in it. And when it doesn’t fulfill its promise, our disappointment is all the more bitter as we realize we’ve wasted our money and time.
Well Jesus took the opposite approach. He demonstrated his ability to deliver up front, in order to draw people in to learn from him, to learn how they can be part of this wonderful thing he’s proclaiming, this kingdom that is “not of this world” (Jn 18:36), where disease and death have no place. In the world of biblical scholarship they talk about something called the Messianic Secret, which is most prominent in Mark’s gospel. After healing a sick person or driving out a demon, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about him (e.g. Mk 8:30). And as we’ll read in next Sunday’s gospel, after he was transfigured he ordered Peter, James and John, “to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mk 9:9).
He’s the Messiah, the Christ, the One anointed by God to establish his kingdom on earth and to redeem the world from sin and death. And as Mark tells it, that fact was revealed in a very public way when Jesus was baptized: “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Mk 1:10-11). So it’s a curious thing that he ordered people not to talk about what they’d seen him do. But this was exciting stuff! Nobody had ever done the things that Jesus was doing. So of course they’re not going to keep quiet about it, as indeed, Mark says in last week’s gospel, “they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’” (1:27). And in the passage that follows what we read today, after healing a leper Jesus ordered him not to say anything, “But he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (1:45).
Last week I didn’t talk about the gospel reading at all, but it’s part of the same story we read today. Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the hometown of Andrew, Peter, James and John, and on the Sabbath day went to the synagogue. No one there knew him other than those four disciples, who most likely introduced him as a rabbi, in which case, he would have been invited to teach. With us, visiting clergy aren’t allowed to do anything without getting the bishop’s permission first. But in Baptist churches, for example, it’s the congregation who decides. That’s how it was in the synagogues back then. Mark says that “they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22). The scribes were the biblical scholars who had to qualify everything they taught by saying, “this is what Moses says,” or “this is what the prophet says,” or “this is what Rabbi So-and-so says about what the prophet says.”
It’s similar to what we do when we read Scripture in church. We introduce it by saying, “A reading from the book of __,” and when we’re finished we say, “The Word of the Lord.” The authority we have is from the Church and from the Lord himself, because it’s the Lord speaking through the reader to his gathered people. It’s like what Paul says about preaching: “Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel.” Woe to me if I adulterate the Word of the Lord, or put up any kind of obstacle in the divine encounter between the Lord and his people. But Jesus didn’t have to make reference to a higher authority, because he’s the highest authority; he is the Word of the Lord. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount he begins a particular teaching by saying, “You have heard that it was said…” making reference to something in Scripture that the scribes had been teaching on for generations; and then he opens up the fuller meaning of it by saying, “but I say to you…” That’s the authority that only the incarnate Word of God possesses, and that’s what so astonished the people in the synagogue that day.
And then, having established that authority, he alarmed the unclean spirit that had possessed one of the people there. Being from the spirit world he knew exactly who Jesus is and what power he possesses, and was terrified. “Have you come to destroy us?” he said to Jesus, “I know who you are, you’re the Holy One of God” (1:24). Jesus commanded him to be silent, and he was. Then he ordered the unclean spirit to leave the man, and he did. An ordinary rabbi couldn’t do that. Only someone acting on God’s authority could do that. “What is this?” they all said, “A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And they spread the news all over Galilee (1:27-28).
Then, as we read today, Jesus and the disciples when to Peter and Andrew’s house, where Peter’s mother-in-law was laid low with a fever. So Jesus took her hand and raised her up, and she was healed, and she served them. Some moderns get upset over this. They say that Jesus only healed her because she was a woman, and the men needed her to wait on them. But that’s reading something into the passage that isn’t really there, and in so doing, it misses the point, which is that Jesus came into the world to redeem it from suffering and disease, and that the proper response to his redeeming grace is to offer ourselves in service to him. They didn’t need that woman to wait on them. What she did in response to his healing is what we all do here every week in response to him speaking to us through the proclamation of his Word– we step up to the rail to offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to him, as it says in the Prayer Book (p.336). And it’s what we do when we go downstairs afterward to spend time with one another and serve one another, and when we go out into the world to share his love with everybody out there. And part of that sharing is that we tell the world about the astonishing things he has done for us and for others. Most astonishing of all is that he, the Word, became flesh and lived among us, that he took our sin to the cross and died for it, and that he rose again on the third day, opening up for us the way to be reconciled to God the Father and to enter into the kingdom that Jesus announced by all his actions and words.
By sundown that evening, when the sabbath was over and people could travel again, a large crowd had gathered outside the house, bringing all kinds of people who were sick or possessed, and Jesus healed them all. And just like in the synagogue that morning, he prevented the demons from speaking because they knew who he really is. That’s because he didn’t want people to believe in him just based on what was said about him. And he certainly didn’t want them to hear it from demons. Words are not nearly as persuasive as actions. He wanted them to see the power of God at work, and to understand that he is the power of God at work in the redemption of the world. He wanted them to know beyond all doubt that he is the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. Then, having gained that kind of trust, he could take them deeper into the things of God by his teaching, and lead them into the kingdom of God by his love for them.
The messianic secret was a sort of open secret to the people that Jesus encountered back then. Rather than just hearing about him, he wanted them to see for themselves, and therefore to know beyond all doubt that he’s the Holy One of God. It’s like that with us too. We know who he is. We also know that just going around saying to everybody, “Jesus loves you and so do we,” isn’t going to be all that persuasive. Instead, the world needs to see his love in action, working through his people who continue to be astonished by the things he’s done to join us to himself because he loves us that much. The world needs to see us lavishing that same unconditional love of Jesus on one another within the fellowship of the Church– something most of us aren’t totally proficient at– in order to be persuaded of the love that he has for us, and in order to be persuaded that his Church is the tangible, active expression of his love for them and for the whole world.
Standing at the door of the church like a barker trying to lure people in isn’t the way Jesus operated, and it isn’t the way he meant for his Church to operate. He went out and did things for people that were unmistakable expressions of God’s love. And the things he did were so attractive that people started following him to learn from him, both how to be part of the kingdom he proclaimed, and how to go out and attract others to it as well. That’s how we need to serve him in response to being healed and raised up by him. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+