The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Last time we witnessed the power of Jesus. This is a power that he wields in behalf of human beings against all the forces that damage and destroy life. In Jesus Christ is revealed that God is on the side of life. This is good news. Indeed, it is central to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims in word and demonstrates in deeds of power throughout Mark’s Gospel.


This good news was impossible to contain; news about this Jesus spread throughout the region. What this meant for those who heard it—and what it means for us today—will hopefully become clear in the course of our meditation on the gospel lesson for this Lord’s Day. But before the action there is rest; before the commotion, there is calm. For it is still the sabbath, the day set apart by Jewish people to rest and renew family ties. And so, Jesus and his followers do what we should only expect them to do: they visit the home of Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew, after the synagogue service.


This scene ought to be familiar to us. At my first church in rural Wisconsin, it was always a struggle to have the Sunday school hour after the worship service. The people always left after worship to meet with their parents or in-laws for Sunday brunch, either at a local restaurant or at their homes. This was an established routine among these church folks; to try to change it proved futile. We had finally to hold the Sunday school hour before the worship service for the committed few who still came.


The visit on this day, however, was not typical. Simon’s mother-in-law, who lived with him and Andrew–and presumably with Simon’s wife–is sick in bed with a fever. They tell Jesus about her at once. He enters into the room of the sick woman and heals her. It is worth noting how he performs this healing. Our lesson tells us that he extends his hand and raises her up. The woman’s experience appears to be like that of the Psalmist: The Lord lifted him out of the pit, out of the mud and mire, and set his feet upon the rock (Psalm 40:2). The image in both cases is that of a strong hand reaching down to grasp the hand of one in need of rescue. The image is a compelling one. We have in our own language the phrase “to lend a helping hand.” Perhaps we find it easier to lend a helping hand than to receive one. To refuse one is a common reaction. But in relation to Jesus and his power, we are always on the receiving end. When he extends his helping hand to us, we have always to be ready and willing to reach out and take hold. For her part, Simon’s mother-in-law did so. She can now make the testimony of the Psalmist her own: “The Lord sustains them on the sickbed; he restores them from their bed of illness” (Psalm 41:3).


There is a further detail that our lesson adds here, one that we cannot afford to miss. After the fever left her, she got up and began to serve them. In generations past, to prepare for confirmation, young people in the Reformed churches studied the Heidelberg Catechism. This was still the practice in my parents and grandparents day. The study of the Catechism is less practiced today, but it is no less worthy of study. The Catechism organizes its content under a threefold scheme: misery, deliverance, and gratitude. Or, as it also has been called, sin, salvation, and service. From deliverance flows gratitude; from salvation, service. The case of Peter’s mother-in-law illustrates this spiritual dynamic. There is healing, and then there is service. It is important that we have the order right: What God does for us always precedes what we do for God. The grace that heals and forgives and restores always precedes our gratitude, which finds expression in our serving one another in love.


To be certain that we have understood this truth, let us restate it: God’s love, expressed in acts of grace, makes human love, expressed in acts of service, possible. All Christian thinkers agree that love is the central focus of the Christian faith. The double love commandment that Jesus proclaims in the gospels sums up the teaching of the Old Testament:


You shall the love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27-28).


Returning to our lesson, we note that it is now evening. Because the Jewish people reckon a day from dusk to dusk, and not from midnight to midnight, the sabbath has ended. The new work week has begun. And Jesus has his work cut out for him. Great crowds of people who heard the news about him show up in Capernaum, at the door of Simon’s house. They come in search of healing of their diseases, of deliverance from their demons, and were not disappointed. What Jesus did for the man with the unclean spirit and for Simon’s mother-in-law, he does for them too.


We have already mentioned that the power that Jesus wields is divine power. But Jesus not only represents and reveals God relative to us; he also represents and reveals us—or rather who we are called to be—relative to God. Let me explain. In this scene we see in Jesus a living portrait of the fulfillment of the twofold command to love God and neighbor. Jesus reveals himself to be the man for others. He does not greet only those who greet him. He does not love only those who love him. Rather, his love extends beyond the tight family circle in which he is enclosed in the home of Simon and Andrew to embrace the many who come to him. He is indiscriminate in his acts of healing and exorcism. He lavishes compassion on all those who come to him.


But he does not neglect the time that he has to devote to God. When the day was long spent, and the crowds dispersed, he retreated to a deserted place where without distraction he could enjoy fellowship with the God he loved, with the God he loved all his heart, and with all his soul and all his mind. Thus, does Jesus not only teach the twofold command to love God and neighbor; he models it in his own life.


But there is more. The divine power that Jesus wields heals, to be sure. That emerges when we contemplate it from God’s perspective. But that same power also sustains. That emerges when we contemplate it from the human perspective. Simon’s mother-in-law need not serve Jesus and his disciples in her own strength. We need not serve God by serving one another in love in our own strength. If we do, we soon grow tired. And if we stay at it for too long, we totally exhaust our reserves. Then our fatigue turns to burn out. We need the rest, the recharging, that spending time alone with God provides.


Our Old Testament lesson gives us encouragement here. The words of the prophet Isaiah are addressed to God’s people Israel. They have languished in captivity in a foreign country for seventy years. God sent the prophet to comfort them. God’s message to the people is that their years of hard service were about to come to an end. He sought to reassure them that he was still their shepherd, and that he was going to restore them and settle them in their own land. But the people were weary. They’d lived in exile for a long time. They did not know if they could go on any longer. The way had been long; and they are now without strength. They can press on no further. 


Isaiah reminds them of God’s power, which is limitless. He impresses this truth on us by directing their attention to the stars. “The Lord brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (Isaiah 40:26). In view of what modern astrophysics has discovered about the sheer magnitude of our universe, this statement is awe-inspiring. Since the launch of the Hubble space telescope in 1990, researchers now estimate that there are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy, which, of course, we call the Milky Way. And this is only one galaxy in a universe that is estimated to contain 100 billion galaxies. And most researchers consider these figures to be very conservative. They anticipate that the further knowledge advances, the greater the need will be to revise these numbers upward.


If God has this limitless power, then he certainly can afford to give the relatively little that those who serve him need. And he does. “he gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (40:29). The words of the great English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon are relevant in this regard:


Let us hear the [Lord] speak to each one of us: “I will help you.” “It is but a small thing for me, your God, to help you… If you had need of a thousand times as much help, I would give it to you; you require little compared with what I am ready to give. It is much for you to need, but it is nothing for me to bestow. Will I help you?’ Fear not! If there were an ant at the door of your granary asking for help, it would not ruin you to give him a handful of your wheat; and you are nothing but a tiny insect at the door of my all-sufficiency. I will help you.”


The power that God gives to us sustains us in our weariness. When we feel depleted, when we can no longer move forward on the path of service that providence has marked out for us, then the power of God intervenes. Our response in this case is to wait: “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 (40:31).  


We can be sure that the time that Jesus spent with God in prayer renewed his strength. Simon and the others go out to find him to tell him that everyone is searching for him. Having been recharged, he responds that he is ready to move out and continue to do what he’s been doing. Spending time with God in prayer gives him new motivation to continue in his mission, which he reaffirms in the presence of his disciples. They will go out to the neighboring towns to continue his ministry of teaching and healing.


In First John, the author addresses his readers: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought to love one another (1 John 4:11). In Jesus Christ, we see the power of God expressed in love. God is on the side of human beings. In Jesus God expresses his love in acts of deliverance and of healing. When we are the recipients of these acts, when God extends his hand to us too to raise us up, we respond in acts of service, just as Simon’s mother-in-law did. And God continues to make that power available to us, that we may continue to serve him by serving others. For the power that heals is the same power that sustains. Let us then always look to him and his power. Amen.

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