Sermon for 5th Sunday after Epiphany

Readings for the day

Some passages in the Gospels all but preach themselves… today’s passage from Mark is not one of those passages… Some passages grab us with inspiring prose… and also, today’s passage is not one of those… I find this passage from Mark pedestrian at best. And as I looked around the internet at other people’s sermons for today, I discovered that I’m not alone. For many this Gospel passage seems to sit somewhere between dull and annoying.

To complicate things just a bit more, the Lectionary pairs this Gospel text with a portion of the letter to the Corinthians – a section that is all about the imperative to preach the Gospel… an obligation has been laid on Paul, and by extension, on all of us. So, what to make of this reading from Mark…

Jesus and the disciples leave the Synagogue and head on over to Simon and Andrew’s house. Everything is pretty ordinary except that Simon’s mother-in-law is ill, so Ill that she is in bed. She is described as having a fever. In pre-medical times, illness, especially high fevers, could quickly lead to death. There is cause for concern.

Jesus deals with it right away. He goes to mother-in-law (does she have a name… an identity…) and quickly heals her. And the very next moment she is up on her feet and waiting on the crowd of visitors. This detail bothers me – and from the commentaries it seems to bother others as well. Could she not have been given a little time for recuperation? Did Jesus heal her just so that she could wait on the disciples? And for that matter, could she not have been given a name? We’ll come back to this…

Presumably everyone eats and has a good time. Then all the rest of the sick people in town are brought to Jesus, who sets about healing and casting out demons. It is all so standard that virtually no details are given, except one – Jesus forbids the demons to speak because they know who he really is. This is another thing we’ll come back to…

Very early the next morning Jesus goes off for a chance to be alone – so naturally the disciples must track him down and make sure he is not alone… “Everyone is looking for you” they tell Jesus. It’s pretty clear that “everybody” wants something from Jesus. Presumably Jesus is keenly aware of this… Presumably this is why Jesus has gone off by himself.

Jesus seems to respond to the disciples indirectly. He doesn’t say “let’s go back and help everyone” or “I’m tired, can’t you please let me have some peace?” Instead, he says let’s move on to the surrounding villages.

And off they go so that Jesus can deliver his message to the folks in the region of Galilea. He preaches, teaches and casts out demons. Does he heal the sick as well – we don’t know.

And that is about all we hear this morning. It puts me in mind of the Valley of Dry Bones… no flesh, no sinew, nothing… just the dry bones of a story.

So, let’s talk about that anonymous mother-in-law. Stories of healing in the gospels have a certain formula – we learn that the person is not just a little under the weather, but is dangerously sick, at death’s door, sometimes even beyond death’s door. Then the healing takes place. And then there is a demonstration that the person is in fact healed – they take up their mat and walk, or other proof.

Mark has given us the ingredients – but in a most abbreviated way. Mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot greet important guests coming into her home – not only a major violation of social custom, but a great loss for her as her status and position as woman of this household is asserted in her right to welcome guests. The reality is that there were other people doing things like cooking the food and preparing the plates. Mother-in-law’s proper role is a ceremonial figurehead. She gets to preside – and it’s safe to assume that she is eager to be doing just that. Jesus has given her back not just her health, but her identity, her dignity. And Mark has followed the healing formula by showing us just how recovered she is. Immediately she is up and doing her job as presider over the house.

And what of those demons who are not allowed to speak. What do they have to say that is so terrible? They know that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. Why is that a problem?

A little over a century ago biblical scholars identified what became known as the Messianic Secret. This was the summing up of a theme that runs through Mark where Jesus follows some miraculous interaction with the admonition that nobody is allowed to speak about it. Various explanations for this secret were identified. But as a bit of scholarship, the Messianic Secret has been relegated to history – it is not viewed as an important concept anymore. And, in the history of secret keeping, the Messianic Secret has to be one of the worst kept secrets of all time…

Some suppose that the reason the demons must be silenced is because they know Jesus and, given the chance, will tell everyone. This is not the way Jesus would like his identity to be established.

We can also suppose that Jesus is fully aware that if his identity becomes public, his life will be cut short. All the powerful people in the Government and the religious institutions were invested in maintaining a fragile peace – and messianic figures were a tremendous threat to that fragile peace. We tend to think of Jesus’ crucifixion as a singular event, but in fact the Roman government was crucifying people by the score every day. The demons have the power to get Jesus moved to the head of the crucifixion que.

But Jesus has a purpose on earth – Jesus didn’t take on human flesh just to be crucified. Jesus is here to preach the good news of God’s love. Jesus has a message – and is highly compelled to share it. This is why he is up before dawn. This is why Jesus needs to move on to the next village… and the next after that… and the next after that. This is why Jesus needs to keep his true identity under wraps as long as possible.

Jesus knows all too well that his time is limited. Very soon the religious and civil authorities will be on to him. He knows that a cross awaits him. It is urgent that he share the good news, the Gospel, with as many people as possible. The truth is, I believe, that if the Gospel were left in the hands of just a few, then it would have died not long after Jesus.

While there may not appear to be much meat on the bones of this Gospel passage, it is a very vital witness. It defines our work. We know the good news – and we must share that.

It makes sense that the Lectionary compilers have pared this with the imperative from Paul – we are all under the same obligation as Paul. As faithful people we are all called to spread the good news.

How to do that? There is an old quote generally mis-attributed to St Francis. It is supposed that the Saint said: “Preach the Gospel always. Use words only when necessary…”

I don’t really care that St Francis didn’t say this… because he embodied it. His gentle, faithful, humble, simple life, at least as we remember it today, is the embodiment of living the Gospel – of preaching through act rather than through word.

But we don’t have to go back to Francis’ time to find this. We don’t have to leave the modern day. We don’t even have to leave Volmoed. Living the Gospel, embodying the Good News, has always been part of the Volmoed story. In the same way that living and embodying the Gospel has been part of the Monastic story. And it has been part of the story of all faithful people.

And then there are those who preach the Gospel in words, but not in deed. The word for such people is hypocrite.

Are there times when we fall short? When we droop into the land of hypocrites? Sure. We’re human. But God is loving and infinitely forgiving.

In sure faith we keep moving forward. If we stumble and fall, we simply get back up. We keep trying as best we may to live, to embody the Gospel – and we do that with God’s help.

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