February 7, 2021 Fifth Sunday after Epiphany The text is Mark 1:29-39.
2 9As soon as [Jesus and the disciples] 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. 3 1He 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus is wasting no time in getting down to the business of his mission! We’re barely three dozen verses into Mark’s gospel, and things are moving so quickly that I think we should take a moment to recap what’s happened in the story so far. Verse 9; Jesus is baptized by John at the Jordan. Verse 16; he calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, his first disciples. In verse 21 last week, he cures the man with an “unclean Spirit”. And this morning, we’ve only gotten to verse 29 and Jesus has already left the synagogue and travelled to Simon and Andrew’s house.
Once inside he finds that Simon’s mother-in-law is suffering from a fever; which by the way, in ancient times could easily result in her death. Let’s not forget, there were no antibiotics and an untreated fever, depending on the cause could have serious consequences. Jesus “lifts up”, he cures this unnamed woman and by the time the sun goes down on the Sabbath, the entire city is at the door, in search of healing. Then, before first light Jesus seeks out a deserted place to pray. The disciples search him out telling him that just about everyone in the area was looking for Jesus. And here is the line that brings us up to date; in verse 38, Mark writes that Jesus’ response to Simon’s announcement that the local populace is seeking him out is, “Let’s go!”. Jesus asserts that there is no time to waste, he must move on to bring his message of the kingdom of God to a wider audience.
The Galilean locals who were healed by Jesus and those who witnessed these healings would provide sufficient testimony of the power of Jesus to heal the sick; so that the people in the vicinity of this first location where Jesus’ ministry was initially begun would come to believe in his authority. Word of his healing miracles would spread out from around the area of Simon’s house, and Jesus was now ready to move on to a larger geography. Mark writes that he travelled throughout Galilee, healing those he encountered in the many towns of the area, and proclaiming his message of the coming of God’s kingdom. And we can perhaps understand why Jesus felt the need to move so quickly into Galilee, if we take a glimpse at the size of this area, which included Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. We often assume that most parts of the ancient Middle East were sparsely populated and were not very large in comparison to modern Western cities. Contrary to this assumption, Galilee in the New Testament covered over 2,000 square miles and was home to between two- and three-million inhabitants. Jesus knew he had a lot of ground to cover, a great number of people to whom he must proclaim his message, and limited time in which to accomplish his mission.
Scripture tells us that Jesus’ ministry was one of service to God’s people. Later in Mark we will read that Jesus stated; “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve”. And just prior to his healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, when he was tempted by Satan in the desert for 40 days, we’re told that angels were “ministering” to Jesus. It’s interesting to note that the Greek verb for “serving” and “ministering” is the same in each of these passages.
It is “diakoneo”; a word that has evolved into the term we use today in the church to describe someone who aspires to a life in service to others, “Deacon”, (or, “Deaconess”). And, before we head off into wider Galilee with Jesus, we should note that this same Greek word is used to describe Simon’s mother-in-law’s actions after she was “raised up” by Jesus. She practiced “diakoneo”, she “served” or “ministered” to him. We’re not told exactly what she did after her healing, but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t just making Jesus a sandwich to thank him for the miracle he just performed, by simply taking her hand. Her later actions in telling others in the community about her healing aren’t shared through Mark, but we can assume she didn’t keep this to herself. This first use of the word for “service” or “serving” mustn’t be overlooked as we read that almost immediately afterward, Jesus begins his ministry to “serve” God’s people.
Here’s the thing about this short three-year ministry that was to be Jesus’ adult life. His mission to serve God’s people starts with several one-on-one encounters; the man with the “unclean spirit” in the synagogue, then Simon’s mother-in-law. Jesus’ life of servanthood then immediately expands to all of Galilee; remember, Jesus tells Simon and the others, “let us go”, so he might bring the message to the neighboring towns. His reason for reaching out to the wider world is explained simply to Simon; Jesus tells him, “for that is what I came out to do”. No fancy explanations of God’s purpose, no deep theological dogma, no lofty self-serving pontification; simply, ‘this is why I am here’…period! Jesus knows what his purpose is and he knew also that if it were to be accomplished, he would have to constantly keep moving forward toward the goal; that of acting as servant to all. So, in spite of all that conspired against him, Jesus was determined that his mission to bring the Good News of God’s reign to the world would not be hindered. Even the cross wasn’t able to defeat Christ as he ultimately “served” God’s people by overcoming death itself.
This sense of always moving forward, always recognizing that there was more to be done, this was a hallmark of Christ’s ministry; he knew there would always be those who needed to hear his message of God’s love for all Creation; and that the world would always yearn for people to serve “the least of these”.
Which brings us to this morning, this February in 2021. We find ourselves living over 2,000 years after Jesus took Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and “raised her up”. She responded by serving him, and he spent his life in service to the world. Our call to serve, to be “diakoneo” to this tiny portion of the world that surrounds us, here in the “Village” is the command issued by this same Jesus to us. When we met for the Annual Meeting a year ago, the outlook for Emanuel Lutheran Church to be able to continue to “serve” God’s people was rather cloudy at best. We discussed the potential actions that might have to be taken, the decisions that would likely need to be made, as we moved forward into what looked like a rather bleak future. It was not certain, in fact it was most likely not going to be possible, for the people of God in this place to move forward in service, as is our calling.
And then it appeared that things were going to get even worse. In addition to the financial woes that Emanuel faced, the world was stricken with the onset of a global viral pandemic. Masks, “social-distancing”, virtual everything, no Coffee Hour, and the suffering and loss of life that has impacted millions. Yet, God has blessed the people of Emanuel in ways that didn’t seem possible a year ago. It seems that the work of serving as Christ served isn’t finished yet in our community. And, in spite of the all that has turned the world upside-down, we’re still here! And this can only mean that God is reminding us that the serving work that Jesus started in Galilee needs to continue; by us, in the here and now. By trimming our expenses, wonderful volunteers, and especially through the continued faithful giving of her people, the future looks so much brighter for Christ’s church in this place. The sustainability of Emanuel Lutheran is anticipated to be several times longer that the timeline we faced just a short year ago. By the grace of God, it appears that we are being called to continue to “serve” our people, our neighbors, and our community for a bit longer.
Now, the ability for the people of Emanuel to answer this call to serve is by no means guaranteed. While the negative factors that impact our ability to continue in service to God and Christ are many, the engagement, participation, faith, and trust of the people who call Emanuel “home” are the means by which our longevity will be assured.
The myriad events detailed in the Annual Report are indicative of the ways that Emanuel has answered the call to serve. These have all been worthy endeavors and they should all be continued. But, as Jesus showed us in his reply to Simon, saying, “let’s go”, we too must always be looking toward expanding the ways we serve our neighbors. As much as the initiatives that were started this year had positive impact on the needs of our people and our community, if we are not moving forward, we’re poised to go backwards. Jesus’ mission is ongoing and we’re called to serve (there’s that word again!) as his hands and feet, doing so in thankfulness for the blessings we have received over this last deeply challenging year.
Churches throughout the country are finding themselves dealing with financial woes, a lack of participation, apathy, an increasing number of people who feel there is no need for God in their lives. Add to these, the negative impact brought about by Covid, and more and more of our sister congregations are finding themselves in situations like the one Emanuel has struggled to overcome in 2020. How immeasurably blessed are we that we are able to meet this morning and not have to look forward to making decisions for the future that, a year ago were all rather grim? The one factor that those churches that find themselves vital, vibrant, and thriving have in common, is that they have determined their purpose, their reason for existing. And this is always connected to how their people respond to the need to serve others outside their walls. Emanuel has made great strides in reaching out to our version of the region of Galilee that we serve; if we are to continue to be vital, vibrant, and thriving we must not only continue in these, we must expand how we serve others. Only by moving forward can we avoid becoming stagnant; and if we stay as we are, we’re sure to meet the same fate as others who don’t continue to look for ways to move forward.
We’ve been blessed by God with the time and resources to continue to serve. Let us honor this blessing by redoubling our efforts to bring Christ’s message of grace, love, and especially service to those in need. “Let’s go!” There is much to be done if we are to express our thanks to God for the bright future that has been set before us.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, guide your people here as we strive to move forward in service to others. Help us to remember that it is only by moving forward that we avoid falling behind. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who first admonished his followers to be about the business that “he came out to do”. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.