Disciple – or Servant?

A sermon on Mark 1:29-39 and Isaiah 40: 21-31.

Isaiah reminded Israel in exile that no-one can go it alone. We try hard enough. Our culture says individuals can build themselves up. –We hear statements like: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; anyone can make it if they try hard; you don’t need handouts from Government or charity or anyone else, and certainly not from a God out there somewhere. But if we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that life doesn’t work like that. Relationships fail and hopes crumble. Women and men can be incredibly loving, and intolerably cruel. Mountainsides fall, and rivers flood, and fires destroy, new pandemics appear from nowhere. Untimely deaths haunt our ways. ‘Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.’

And then, several hundreds of years later, a voice was heard proclaiming a new way. And we’re still trying to work our way through that message. So today, we have a story about the beginnings of the new journey.  According to Mark, Jesus had a very long day. It began in the morning at the synagogue, when he preached a sermon that amazed and unsettled the congregation, and ended long after the Sabbath finished at sundown. And the different events of that day are set out briskly – no preambles, no elaborate descriptions, just the important event.

As I said last week, for Mark, Jesus is first and foremost a teacher. This theme sets the scene for the primary conflict throughout the gospel: whose teaching has authority from God – that of Jesus, or that of the leaders of the synagogues and the religious parties in Jerusalem? But of course, Jesus never stopped there. And Mark’s gospel sits there like a chunk of rock that we can’t go round, or a great tree in the middle of our path. It doesn’t go away, and, in the end the only way forward is to engage with it.

The stories of healing throw up challenges for us – all of them, and perhaps especially those involving casting out demons – are hard for us. We know both too much about illness and not enough. We know that fevers are often caused by infections, and we know how to deal with them – most of the time. We know that some mental illnesses are genetic in origin, and some are caused by chemical imbalances, and there are ways of treating them, or at least some of them. But we also know that some diseases are unexplained and uncontrollable, and we do know that wellness means more than physical wellbeing. There is a spiritual dimension to health, and there is a ministry of healing.

I’m not saying that God doesn’t heal. I think there are times when the veil between us and God – between what we see as reality, and what we feel as something other, or sacred, or numinous – whatever we call it – is thin. I think there are people who have a healing ministry – who can make themselves channels for God to act as God chooses to act. I don’t, however, have much time for people who claim that power for themselves. I also think there’s more than one sort of healing ministry. Maybe we need to look beyond our conventional ideas of healing ministries. We have people walking among us with gifts of reconciliation, or of mending the earth, or of recognising and calling out gifts in others. They’re all healers too.

But –there’s a danger if we go too lightly or too blindly along these paths. We all know people with degenerative and irreversible illnesses. Some of us know people who have been deeply offended, if not abused by suggestions that all is needed for cure is a true faith. Or else they’ve been damaged by well-meaning people who say ‘I’m praying that you’ll be healed’ – when ‘healing’ for the speaker means that the person will be bouncing about full of energy – and the reality for that person is that physical healing is not possible. Or, even worse, damage is done by suggestions that inborn disease is caused by sin. It’s true that we can bring some ills upon ourselves by our lifestyle, but they’re fairly clear-cut cases, and they’re a minority.

I was once asked to take a family vigil service before a funeral for the daughter of friends of mine. She was only 40, happily married, with two lovely children. And her cancer was seen as life-threatening from the very beginning. In the three years that followed, with serious operations and three lots of chemotherapy, she fought hard for a cure, and her family and church friends prayed hard for a cure. It’s hard for young children when those sorts of prayers aren’t answered for them in the only way they can think of answers, and it’s hard for family members to answer the children’s anger. It’s hard for all of us when these illnesses overtake those dear to us, and nothing we can do seems to change the outcome.

And yet, as the priest at the mass said, she came to the last days of her life in a place of peace, and the funeral mass was truly a time of hope and celebration for all there. Who knows what those prayers had accomplished for her and for her husband and children? Who knows what the love and practical care of her church family and the children’s school families had accomplished? Sometimes we can’t put words to what the true outcome of prayer is.

Maybe what we need to do when we read this passage, is to go beyond the obvious, and ask, what is Mark saying to us, here and now. Is this a story about Jesus’ healing ministry, or is it something quite other?

Let’s look at the story as we have it. Mark doesn’t waste words. He stated his agenda in the opening words– ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,’ and then set about demonstrating it. He wasn’t just any passing faith-healer, or prophetic messenger, he’s the Holy One of God. But it must have been draining for him, and he hardly ever had time to debrief, as we would say, before another challenge appeared. Mark always leaves tantalising gaps in his narrative. Simon and Andrew could have told Jesus about the mother-in-law’s fever to warn him not to go near. Contagious diseases in tropical countries can spread with frightening ease. Or they could have been hoping for another instant cure – which is the way we usually read it.

Whichever way you take it, Jesus set about attending to the immediate need. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about the sick woman – we don’t need to know. All we need to know in this story is what happened. And her healing is only part of this story.

Jesus spent the evening healing more people. Word gets round quickly in small communities, and as soon as the Sabbath was over, the crowds gathered – hoping for more miracles. It still happens, whenever a healer hits the headlines. Probably some of the crowd had minor snuffles, but some would have been desperate. Maybe, some went home and spent the rest of their lives telling children and grandchildren about the wonder-worker. Most probably remembered what happened to them. But how many of them recognised the source of their healing?

Mark’s point was that this episode was yet another demonstration of where Jesus claimed his authority from – of who Jesus claimed his authority from. Jesus never lost sight of the source of his powers. The God who never abandons those who answer God’s call and accept God’s commission.

We’re called to be part of God’s mission of healing the world. Jesus did more than cure Simon’s mother-in-law. He lifted her up and empowered her for mission. Forget the image of a woman scurrying around doing woman’s work.  Simon’s mother-in-law got up and served them. That’s diakonia – service. It’s not about making lunch for a bunch of healthy young men. It’s not about going back to doing what you’ve always done before, in the same old way. When God calls out our gifts of ministry it’s a call to forward action. No, actually, it’s more about being than doing. Sometimes the actions might look much the same, but we are not the same.

After all how can we be the same, if we can say God knows us by name? We matter to God. We make a difference to God. We each change God’s creation in a unique way. What we have to learn, all our lives, is to hear God’s call and allow God to empower us for it. We live and move more freely when we’re whole people

There’s more yet to Mark’s story. The heart of it comes in verse 35. Early in the morning – before daybreak – Jesus got up, and went to a deserted place and there he prayed. He made a space for himself to be open to God. He was wise enough to acknowledge his need to ‘wait for the Lord and renew his strength.’

How many of us are wise enough? Do we move into an heroic mode and go from one thing to another, until each new request becomes a burden and a duty? Ministry is costly. It drains energy. We need to make time to re-connect ourselves with God. Everyone will have a different way of doing this, and it doesn’t even need to mean that you disappear from sight for a while. Congregations are always looking for members to do things. We need to remember that for some, ministry beyond the congregation is draining their energy. What they need, is the act of worship. Maybe part of our ministry is to provide that source of renewal – and stop badgering people to run around with notices on Sundays, chair committees or be on rosters.

Jesus never forgot that God had empowered him for mission, and that God would continually renew his strength for that mission. But he needed time and space to be by himself, with God, for that renewal. Jesus’ way was to remove himself physically. He had problems with that. It was never easy to get away from that small crowd of devoted disciples, or from the rather larger crowd of fans. Something else we need to remember is that we don’t just have responsibility for our own well-being – we also have a responsibility to care for others.

We’re all in ministry together, and we have to watch out for each other. Some of us are better than others at recognising signs of strain in ourselves, and some are better at recognising those signs in others. But we can all be alert about the risks, and we can learn how to manage them, both for ourselves and for others. We all need those times when we go back to the source – to God who will give us strength, and pick us up when we fall.