The Reverend John Allison, Celebrant
February 7, 2021 Christ Church, Hudson
Jesus is on the move. Again. Still. Always it seems in this opening chapter of Mark, which we have followed over the last two weeks. It began with Jesus calling the disciples and then last week his teaching in the synagogue and the exorcism of the unclean spirit. Our Gospel reading today picks up where we left off last week. It’s still the Sabbath and Jesus and his disciples have left the synagogue and gone to the home of Simon and Andrew. We’re told Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever and in Jesus’s time a fever was understood to be caused by a demonic force, not necessarily an unclean spirit as was present in the man at the synagogue in the previous verses but a force of evil that polluted her being, that held her. It’s in Jesus’s lifting her up and the fever leaving her that we have the next sign, the next epiphany, that continues to reveal who Jesus is and what he has come to do.
Now, it’s tempting to think that this sign is the healing itself but, in fact, acts of healing and exorcism were fairly common in Jesus’s day. Itinerant healers and exorcists roamed the countryside and people were accustomed to such displays. But in Jesus they had something different. In Jesus there was a promise of something new. This whole episode begins a few verses earlier in Mark and we heard it two Sundays ago: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus heals. Jesus casts out demons. Jesus brings wholeness, fulfillment, to a people who are living in brokenness, but it's in Jesus himself, not just the acts that he performs, that the time is fulfilled, that the kingdom of God comes near.
We know very little, essentially nothing, about Simon’s mother-in-law, only that she has a fever. We also do not necessarily know how Mark understands the cause of a fever but as a first-century Jew he would have likely known that fever is listed in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy as one of the curses that may befall those who break covenant with God. But Jesus comes. In Jesus the kingdom of God is at hand, the curse is lifted, and a new covenant is born.
We are told that this healing takes place on the Sabbath, which we know would have itself marked a transgression against the law of Israel. We are also told that in her taking Jesus’s hand and being lifted up, Simon’s mother-in-law begins to serve them immediately, again an act not in accordance with the command to rest on the Sabbath. But this woman has been raised to something new. She is called to serve. Indeed, she is sometimes referred to as the first deacon, in reference to the fact that the Greek word we translate here as “to serve,” diakonia, is the same used earlier in the chapter to refer to the angels who come to minister to Jesus, to serve him, during his time in the wilderness. Likewise, it’s the same word Mark uses later in his Gospel to indicate that Jesus came to serve and give his life for all (10:45). In lifting her up, in freeing her from the fever that had seized her, Jesus empowers this woman, and his proclamation is embodied in her actions. Ironically, the promise of freedom and rest on which the Sabbath is established is fulfilled in her service, in her ministry. The time is fulfilled.
We see this further in the healings that follow. The evening comes, the Sabbath is ended, and the disciples bring Jesus to all who were sick and possessed with demons and he heals them. As with the fever, the illnesses of those who came to Jesus for healing would have been understood as the result of sin or some act that had caused a break in covenant. In Jesus, each person who comes to him is renewed. The kingdom of God has come near and the people are called to repent, to turn and reorient themselves. That’s the wholeness to which Jesus calls us all. That’s the healing that Jesus brings about for us all.
Our reading today from Isaiah prepares us for this healing, for this renewal. “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 image of the eagle as a symbol of strength and grace that God makes available to those who wait for him would have been a great comfort to the people of Israel as they struggled in the aftermath of exile by the Babylonians. Driven from their homes and scattered, their temple destroyed, families broken, the Israel to whom Isaiah speaks are refugees from the land that had represented God’s promise. They are weary. They are powerless. In desperation, they cry out, “my way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”
It must have felt something like that to all those who came to Jesus for healing. I think it still feels like that to us sometimes as well. Isaiah sought to reassure God’s people that nothing on earth could surpass the power of the Lord and to remind them of God’s promise. This is the promise that is fulfilled in Christ. This is the good news that is Jesus, and it changes everything for those who turn to him.
At sunset on the beginning of Sabbath it’s customary for a Jewish woman to light two candles: one candle for freedom, to remember God’s deliverance of his people from enslavement in Egypt as referenced in Deuteronomy, and the other candle for rest in remembrance of our covenant with God. Simon’s mother-in-law would have likely had those two candles burning when Jesus took her hand. We have here, on our table, those candles as well. In Jesus we have freedom and rest. In Jesus God’s promise is fulfilled and when we come forward in a few minutes to share in the Eucharist we say yes to that promise.
When we come forward and open our hands to receive Christ’s Body and Blood we are lifted up, like the woman in our Gospel today. We simultaneously receive God’s peace and are lifted up to serve Christ. We are made new. We are made whole. As Jesus said just a few verses earlier—as we heard in our lectionary two weeks ago—The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. That’s the good news we are called to proclaim. That’s the charge I, or Mother Kathleen, gives us each week as we prepare to step forward from these walls. Our prayer book calls it the dismissal but really it’s a charge to go forth as bearers of God’s love. The rest and renewal we share here, together at this table, is embodied in our service outside of these walls. The perfect freedom we find in Christ is the blessing we bring to those who have forgotten God’s promise. That’s ministry. That’s our call to seek and serve Christ in all persons. In this, we are Christ’s epiphany. We are his love manifest. Amen.