A Sermon for 4 February 2018
A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:29-39. Listen for God’s word to us as we continue to hear of the first day of Jesus’ public ministry, as told by the gospel of Mark. Listen:
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 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. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 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.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Do you wonder what Jesus saw? As he walked the few feet on the Sabbath from the synagogue in Capernaum to Simon Peter’s prominent house next door, what did his eyes behold? . . . I’ve been to the remains of Capernaum –along the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. I’ve walked through the gate of what once was considered the city at the crossroads of the world – with routes in Jesus’ day leading from Capernaum to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and beyond. There, in a once thriving, wealthy Jewish city; it is believed those of many faiths at least were encountered, if not found living side-by-side industriously beside the sea. It also is believed that Jesus made Peter’s house in Capernaum his home-base during much of his public ministry. Located right between the synagogue and the seashore – just a stone’s throw from each; when needed, Jesus took up residence there with Peter and the others. Whether he already knew the family before calling Simon and Andrew to follow; Jesus is welcomed to make their home his own. Which might explain why Jesus did many miraculous things in Capernaum – more than most anywhere else in the land. The gospels record that in Capernaum Jesus “healed Peter’s wife’s mother of a fever, brought a child back to life, cured a leper, healed the centurion’s servant, ‘cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick’ (Mt. 8:16) [The Holy Land: the Land of Jesus, Palphot-Printed in Israel, pp. 37-38].
On that first Sabbath day according to the gospel of Mark, after teaching with astounding authority in the synagogue, then casting a destructive spirit from a man; Peter takes Jesus and the gang back home for Sabbath brunch. What they find as they enter is of distress. Instead of pre-prepared Sabbath preparations, the woman of the house is ill. Likely the eldest female of the family – with defined Sabbath roles to fulfill, Peter’s mother-in-law lies fevered in the bed. The gospel records that at once, they told Jesus about her. He must have seen the deep concern on their faces. The helpless glimmer in their eyes. That pleading catch in their voices – perhaps a hint of heighted anticipation; for the One who just has entered their home proved his gifts minutes before at the synagogue.
We don’t know much about the woman in the bed. Connected through marriage with the celebrated Apostle Peter, history never tells her name. As if just a mother-in-law no one really sees. Her story nearly is lost between the other events of that day. . . . Perhaps it would be of benefit to imagine what Jesus saw. When they took him to her bed, surely, he beheld a wonderful, wizened woman. An elder saintly Granma, who scooped children up on her knee telling tales of the ancestors of old. This was the woman who had prepared her daughter to be Simon Peter’ wife. The one who assisted when time came for motherhood. She knew how to work the little plot of land on the family compound and kept the fires tended for preparing the family’s meals. Even taught the wee ones the prayers their families had been saying for years. Here was the woman – a gritty Jewish grandmother, who was not about to let herself get pushed around. I suspect Jesus stood at the bed of a woman who was a mighty contender – one who would not have it for a little fever to take her down.
You might think the description stems from an overly active imagination. But we know that’s just not so. The Greek of the gospel gives the clue. For when Jesus took her well-worn hand, he lifted her up. With the very same word the gospel will use 15 chapters later when three other women go to visit a tomb, only to find the crucified one had been lifted up. Foreshadowing the day when Jesus will do likewise, Peter’s mother-in-law is raised by Christ himself to new, restored life. . . . What’s more, this foretaste of the resurrection takes place on the Sabbath. The day set aside by the ancient commands for God’s people to follow God’s lead. To complete the work of six days by resting to look with joy on it all. To stop in order to consider the goodness of it all and delight in the abundant diversity of what grew. Thus, God blessed the seventh day, making it holy, setting it apart. . . . It was clear: service was NOT to take place on Sabbath. Rituals of gratitude, restoration, thanks. All that is a part of Sabbath. Anything akin to work is not. Lest one forgot their place alongside the whole creation. Another marvelous making of the Sovereign of the Universe – beloved of, but NOT God.
Nonetheless, with one little word, we learn that the wise ole’ momma Jesus lifts up, gets up. And, without hesitation, she begins to serve. Clue number two and three: on the SABBATH, Peter’s mother-in-law immediately takes on a ministry the Twelve later will fight not to embrace when they quarrel about which one of them is the greatest (Mark 9:35). The restored woman becomes Christ’s first deacon – at least according to the Greek used in the text. “A servant of the church gathered in her son-in-law’s house” (Ofelia Ortega, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, p. 334). As one commentator writes, “Service is a key topic in the call and pursuit of Jesus. This woman gets up and turns the Sabbath into a paschal day of service to others. Jesus does not command her. She is the one that assumes the initiative and awaits the consequences, discovering the value of mutual service above the sacredness of the Sabbath. . . . This woman is Jesus’ first servant and joins him in the radical announcement, in action, of the kingdom of God” (Ibid.). Wow! What a woman – returned to wholeness, she is ready to give of herself like Christ, in service to those gathered round.
That’s what Jesus sees. Likely why he lifted her up in the first place. For when he looks at us, he sees us restored. Whole again. Able to be in service for the kingdom he has announced in our midst.
It’s the point of salvation – Christ’s work of healing in our lives. Many of us have been steeped in the paradigm of punishment for sin. It’s been drilled into our heads that we’ve done something wrong as individuals, and as a collective; and for that we deserve to be punished. We neglect other views of Christianity found throughout scripture around Jesus’ ministry of healing. His work to restore wholeness. . . . Since the time of Job’s friends, who did everything in their power to convince Job that God’s punishment for sin was the source of all that ailed him, the people of God long have wondered what to do with illness. Jesus takes up a ministry of healing as a way to return wholeness. He sees the brokenness that comes in body, mind, and spirit from daily life in this world. But that’s not all he sees. As the hands and feet of God on earth, Christ sees us lifted up. He reclaims the health in us that somehow gets broken. Embracing his vision of us as whole – here and now, and in full some day after death – we too can step into new life. We can nurture the Life Force in us with care and sensitivity and vigilance so that the spirit of God within can animate us for service in Christ’s name. We can look in the mirror to see what Jesus sees: citizens of the kingdom in which joy and peace and love reign. Whole again, we can get up. And without hesitation, we can serve in Christ’s name.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2018 (All rights reserved.)