A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
February 8, 2015
(Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39)
Israel is caught in the hand of Assyria.
The nation through whom God promised to bless creation now serves a violent war machine. The descendants of the ones Moses miraculously led from Pharaoh’s grasp are – once again – owned by another.
Their history tells the now uncomfortable, indeed, uncertain story of God’s call. Abraham’s vision of God’s blessing in order to bless seems distant. Certainly they now count themselves as a nation, but a nation whose freedom is a fading memory.
Fortune is not steadily on Israel’s side. The sting of the slave driver’s whip in Egypt made it difficult, to say the least, to see the hand of God at work. God’s plagues, surely, refocused their visionless faith as much as they challenged the might of Pharaoh. God led them out in a memorable, indeed legendary, fashion. Miriam’s song is still sung among them: ‘The horse and rider he has thrown into the sea’
But these are now old, ancient stories – and difficult to celebrate under their new dictators. Perhaps some try to tell them again, but these are a people used to the freedom that allows them to dream their own destinies. It is hard to adjust back to slavery.
Just prior to Israel’s captivity Isaiah began to prophesy among the people of God. The voice of God had a lot to say to this nation and the people who surrounded them. Much of it expressed of the anger and disappointment of God. No-one escaped these dire prophecies. The violence, the fighting, the plays for power: these things had become the culture – the accepted norm.
And God was not happy.
So Israel’s future now rests in power-mad hand of the Assyria. Or so it seems…
You see, even now God is not finished with this people. This angry list of consequences that Isaiah writes is not the final word. Even within the hand of Assyria Israel is not abandoned.
The change of voice and and emphasis at the beginning of the chapter we just read is so stark that many scholars have hypothesised a ‘Second Isaiah’. Surely these words so saturated in grace cannot come from the same mouth as the previous consequence laden chapters?
But be that as it may. The account of Isaiah – whether the work of one or more prophets – speaks the words of one God. A God who can brim with anger at our sin and still allow grace to win.
Our passage is very much a creation passage. There is a ‘cosmicness’ to the questions posed to captive Israel:
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundation 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 curtain to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
I wonder how it all went down. Can they remember the stories of the God above all? Can they believe in a God above the Assyrian ‘princes’ and ‘rulers’? Can this newly oppressed people believe in God’s freedom creating miracles again?
But this is exactly what God’s spokesman is asking: trust even now – for God has not forgotten. God is still the creator, beyond weariness, full of unsearchable understanding. Even more important, God’s character has not changed: ‘He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength’.
God is the same in strength and character no matter what the circumstances.
And therefore, Isaiah counsels a difficult, and courageous response: ‘…wait for the LORD.’ God sees the big picture. Rest in this reality.
I don’t know how these individuals responded to all this. I hope they embraced the invitation, found their failing strength renewed, soared on the wings of eagles, learned to run without weariness. I hope in their waiting they learned to sing the songs of Israel again – cosmic, personal songs like the Psalm we read together this morning:
He heals the brokenhearted
and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars;
he gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
his understanding is beyond measure. (Ps 147:3-5)
And I hope you can sing along too – even when you find it hard and don’t quite believe. Sometimes we relate all too well to captive Israel. Celebrating the God who heals and numbers stars can be very difficult.
But – sometimes – it is when we are at our very lowest that we turn to God. I think of our Gospel reading – all those people who were ‘sick and demon possessed’ seeking Jesus out.
When Jesus moved from the synagogue to gently heal Simon’s mother-in-law he did well to do it behind closed doors. It was still the sabbath and to heal was work. Jesus’ ‘secret’ healing is perhaps the first indicator that this trip to Capernaum was not without opposition.
Are we really to believe that Jesus cast out the ‘evil spirit’ in the synagogue and no one thought to ask him to speak into their lives as well? Probably not.
The amazement at the teaching and authoritative action of Jesus that we considered last week did not go unnoticed. Rather, the people are biding their time. The Jews measured a day from sunset to sunset – not midnight to midnight. This gathering of the whole city around the door at ‘sunset’ is not because the news of Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law took this long to spread. It is because the people are waiting for the sabbath to end. They watched where he went and turned up as soon as the scribal laws would allow.
The kingdom of God has come near – and the people are waiting on mere religion!
But Jesus says nothing of this. He simply works graciously with their reality. It is God’s mission heart: Jesus is not as interested in being right as he is in communicating into their world. The full truth is veiled in order to connect.
I find myself wondering at Jesus’ mysterious choice to leave Capernaum. The account is of such a successful ministry here. So many people are able to see Jesus authority in both the synagogue and in the multiple healing and exorcisms. Even the next day the people are seeking him out: ‘Everyone is looking for you’ (Mark 1:37).
Yet Jesus moves from this city into the towns of Galilee. There he continued to preach the kingdom in the synagogues and to cast out the demons.
Jesus clearly – even at this early stage in the Gospel of Mark – is living beyond the laws of the Pharisees. He has challenged the sabbath laws and indeed revealed an ‘unclean spirit’ in the midst of the community.
But Jesus is also living within the system. He is going to the established places of worship. He is quietly usurping the rigid laws surrounding the seventh day. Jesus wants this God-life to connect!
And I can’t help thinking that Paul is claiming – even learning – to minister in the same way. The great first century missionary preaches Christ out of the ‘necessity’ of his calling. He is accountable to God: ‘Woe if I do not preach the Gospel!’ Whatever strategy he adopts can not undermine this message.
But he, like Jesus in the synagogue, is trying to hold back on the full expression of his freedom. He behaves like a Jew around the Jews and like the weak around the weak. He is, for the sake of the gospel seeking to communicate the grace of God by putting up as few blockades as possible. He lives so graciously because he wants others to share in the blessing of God.
This is the gospel: that the God who flung stars became one of us – God’s kingdom so very near – and indeed, so very veiled. God’s is surely a grace and love we could not see any other way.
May we always have open eyes to the grace at the heart of God.