Feb. 4, 2018: Epiphany 5B (English)

Epiphany 5B 2018. Zion, Baltimore.
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Pastor Eric Deibler

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited for the Olympic games. In particular, I’m a fan of the winter games. The skating, the skiing, bobsleds and luge. I’ve also gained an appreciation for some of the newer sports, like snowboarding. Although I must admit, curling still leaves me a bit cold. Get it?

Now, I would never compare myself to an Olympic athlete. But I’ll be quite honest, there is one endeavor that takes nearly the same kind of dedication; the same level of tenacity and drive. Trying to find a time to get together with people of my own age. It’s not for lack of desire that it’s such a difficult undertaking. Nor is it for lack of trying. The fact of the matter is that there really is no such thing anymore as having a spontaneous get-together. When trying to coordinate something, it’s pretty much a given anymore that you don’t even bother trying to find something in the current week. The default is to go two weeks out. Unless, of course, you’re talking to someone who travels a lot, in which case you start looking at three weeks out. Everybody is simply so busy, all the time.

I must admit that I harbored fantasies of things slowing down a little bit once all three kids were out of the house, but no. In fact, it doesn’t take much conversation with our older retired members to discover that many of them feel the same way. It feels as though we’re not even really living life anymore, but rather barely dealing with life as it comes flying at us. You finally get used to the super-computer you carry around in your pocket, which quaintly enough doubles as a telephone, and you discover that the technology is already out of date. You tell your computer to go ahead and upgrade the software, and suddenly things don’t’ seem to work quite the same. You bounce from one health insurance plan to the next, because it always gets more expensive, and suddenly things that were covered previously aren’t anymore. Or your doctor’s no longer a preferred provider. Or your deductible doubles…

And the news is certainly no help: Scandal, division, wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, celebrity divorces from every corner of the globe… Ask someone for a candid, honest assessment of how they’re doing, and nine times out of ten, they eventually use the word “overwhelmed” or one of its many synonyms. There’s the pervasive feeling that our existence has been ratcheted up to a permanent state of near-frenzy: It’s too much, and it’s too fast. Life, all too easily, becomes nothing more than an unceasing din. And rather than truly living our lives, we’re just barely managing to take care of a bunch of stuff; keeping all the plates spinning, as it were.

Enter Jesus, who apparently is simply bouncing from one thing to another, from need to need, from place to place. The reading begins with the wrap-up from last week’s reading, where he engaged in his first public ministry in a big way: out teaching the scribes and casting out an unclean spirit with a terse, simple command. That’s followed by ministry in a more intimate setting, where a personal encounter with Jesus results in the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. Then he goes big again, “they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And 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.” Then, finally, Jesus is able to get away for some down-time. Time to pray, reflect, and recharge. And then the disciples literally hunt him down again, and the whole thing starts all over. It’s a hectic itinerary, to be sure.

But for us it’s also an opportunity understand Jesus’ spirituality. We get to see how he lived his life and the faith he practiced in a world filled with overwhelming demands. We get to see what the intersection of the holy and the human looks like. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the demands of ministry and life in general and to burn out. And what Jesus shows us is what a balanced ministry looks like.

It’s the model that was actually part of the educational philosophy at Gettysburg Seminary, when I was there: It’s a model based upon action and contemplation or reflection. Like law and gospel, the two must go hand in hand. Action without contemplation is like a ship without ballast: It’s a setup for sinking from disappointment. On the other hand, contemplation without action is inert: It needs interaction with the world to be fed and to feed. Living a compassionate Jesus-led life means that there will be pressure and hard choices. It happened to Jesus, and it will happen to us. Don’t be surprised by that.

While every congregation and pastor is different, there’s also a lot that’s the same. We all tend to have the same kind of Sunday morning. We hear stories at the back of the church after the service: inflamed gall bladders, graduations, cancer, the expectant hope of a new grandchild. We attend committee meetings following worship. We spend time in private conversation with someone who’s going through a rough patch. Then maybe hospital visits in the afternoon. If nothing else, it’s a tremendous variety of experiences within the course of a typically busy day.

But it’s no busier than being a parent, juggling work and kids’ schedules. Trying to get someone picked up from travel team soccer at the same time that you need to be at the HOA meeting. Not to mention the need to do laundry, make dinner, and pay bills.

For many of us, that’s the terrain we need to negotiate, and much of it feels as though it’s written in stone. That’s how life comes at you and so we learn to accept it. We can’t stop life from coming at us, but we can be attentive to the life that is given to us. That means attending to our relationship with God.

Isaiah reminds us:
28Have 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.
 29He gives power to the faint,
  and strengthens the powerless.
 30Even youths will faint and be weary,
  and the young will fall exhausted;
 31but 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.

One of the commentaries I read concerning this text made a very interesting point that modern translations don’t quite capture the essence of the first half of the final verse of that reading. The verse doesn’t depict an eagle spreading its wings to take flight and soar, but rather a molting eagle which exchanges old wings for new. My sense is that this is precisely what Jesus was doing as he sequestered himself away from the crowds and the disciples in a quiet place to pray. In nurturing his prayer life, he finds perspective above the fray. He discovers a new-found energy to continue in the exhausting work of ministry, like growing a new pair of wings, ready to take flight once again.
The lessons from Isaiah and Mark are a study in contrasts. Isaiah presents us with this grand, all-encompassing vision of the God of the cosmos.
21Have 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?
 22It 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;
 23who brings princes to naught,
  and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
 24Scarcely 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.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is bigger, and stronger, and more impossible to comprehend than you can possibly imagine! The God described here embodies absolute power. And that’s how most of us tend to imagine God: BIG So how do you comprehend a God who seems to be unfathomable? That’s what mark shows us. And here’s where the contrast is so striking. The unfathomable, incomprehensible God described by Isaiah is experienced in the simplest, most intimate settings. In the privacy of someone’s home, in the bedroom of a woman, who lies sick with fever. It happens with the smallest, simplest gesture: Jesus takes her by the hand and raises her up. The great big God of Isaiah is not above caring for us as individuals.

Jesus not only announces the coming kingdom (1:15), calls together his disciples (1:17), and casts out demons (1:25) – and all of this in the first chapter – but he also slows down to care for a woman suffering a fever and then to tend, one by one, all those in the region who were ill or possessed and came for his help. Our relatively small problems are not insignificant to the God who tends the cosmos. The all-powerful God whose praises Isaiah sings is unfailingly at work sustaining the cosmos, strengthening the weak, and restoring those who have fallen. And the most frequent way God does this is…? by working through those all around us. Jesus not only heals Simon’s mother-in-law. He gives her back her vocation which is, ultimately, the picture of discipleship: service.

Discipleship, serving in the name of Jesus, is hard work. If we don’t tend to our relationship with God by spending time in prayer and contemplation, it’s all too easy to become burned out. Because after a while, we fail to see God’s action. We see only our own business and exhaustion. Spending time apart gives us the fresh eyes we need to see God’s activity in our midst.

Where do we look to see the God who “sits above the circles of the earth…and stretches out the heavens like a curtain”? We look to the everyday acts of service, care, and sacrifice we see all around us. Which means that our seemingly ordinary lives at any moment can be the arena for the activity of the Holy One of Israel as God continues to love and bless the world… through us!

Have you not seen? Have you not heard? The Lord God almighty is at work in you, with you, and through you to care for the people and world God loves so much. The essence of Gods’ promise to us today is that God continues to work through us – all of us, women and men, young and old, of sound mind and body as well as those who struggle with illness or disability.
God will do marvelous things through us. Each of us has the opportunity to feel the creative, healing, and restoring hand of God and, like Simon’s mother-in-law, to respond in service. God is still at work through you and your every-day acts of service and sacrifice. Thank you for your fidelity to this calling. You, too, are Christ’s disciples. AMEN

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