Note: an updated sermon on this text is available here.
February 8, 2015
A kindergarten music teacher always introduced the first concert of the school year with these words to the parents: “Don’t blink, or you’ll miss a whole song.”
As we read through this first chapter of Mark’s gospel, I remember that advice. Mark wastes no time telling his story, and his urgency comes through, even when we try to divide his gospel into neat little passages that we can examine one by one. Don’t blink, or you’ll miss a whole story.
Spreading the events of a single day over several weeks gives us the opportunity to study those events closely, but we still get the impression that the people who were following Jesus had a hard time keeping up. Already, we’ve found Mark’s favorite word, “immediately” again and again – Mark uses it twelve times in the first chapter alone. So, just in case you need to catch your breath, or you made the mistake of blinking, here’s what has happened so far:
- Jesus called four fishermen to follow him, and they left their boats and nets immediately.
- They came to Capernaum, a small fishing village, where the four apparently lived.
- On the Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach with authority. A demon-possessed man challenged him, and named him as the Holy One of God – in other words, the Messiah – but Jesus told the unclean spirit to be silent and leave the man. It obeyed immediately.
It’s still the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples have just left the synagogue after this encounter. The next part of the story happens in four distinct scenes over the next few hours. Hear the Word of the Lord as the story continues in the first chapter of the gospel of Mark, beginning at verse 29. Scene One:
29 As soon as they 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. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
Maybe they went to Simon’s house because it was closest to the synagogue. Or maybe it was the largest home, with room for guests. Or maybe Simon just headed to his own house because he liked to take the lead. However they came to Simon’s home, we learn something about him that we didn’t know before. He has a family to support. And his wife’s mother is sick with a fever.
Simon tells Jesus this “immediately” – perhaps to explain why she does not come to greet the guests who have just arrived, or maybe to warn those guests that there is illness in the house they should avoid. Or maybe Simon has a hunch that this Jesus, who has just shown authority over an unclean spirit, might also have the authority to drive out a fever.
And that is exactly what Jesus does. He doesn’t say a word. He only puts out his hand and takes the hand of Simon’s mother-in-law. The fever is gone. Immediately. As Jesus brings her to her feet, the verb is identical to the one Mark will use in chapter 16 to describe Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. He lifts her up.
And the mother-in-law’s response to this miraculous healing is also immediate. She gets busy and serves them. Greta Ortega writes, “her service cannot be understood as a woman’s menial work under the domination of lazy males, but as a true messianic ministry.” In essence, Simon’s mother-in-law becomes Jesus’ first deacon, reminding us that Jesus saw himself as a servant, too.
Later in his ministry, Jesus will tell his disciples, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
And this brings us to Scene Two, beginning in verse 32:
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.
As the Sabbath draws to a close, we see that you can’t keep a secret in a small town like Capernaum. By now, everyone knows what happened in the synagogue, and many people will have already heard that Simon’s mother-in-law is no longer sick. As soon as Sabbath ends, a stream of people makes its way to Simon’s door, asking for healing, asking Jesus to do for them what they saw him do for that man in the synagogue.
Notice how Mark frames this story. Earlier in the day, Jesus performed a single exorcism in a very public place. Later in the day, he performs a single act of healing in a very private place, his friend’s home. Now the worlds collide. The private home becomes a public space, as Jesus heals and casts out unclean spirits for the many who come to Simon’s door.
And notice also that there is a clear distinction between healing and exorcism in Mark’s gospel. Mark will maintain this distinction throughout the coming chapters. The most important aspect of this difference is that Jesus never touches someone to expel an unclean spirit, but he often heals through the power of touch.
Many years ago, I received a complaint from a church member about the loud conversations in the narthex before worship. I was perplexed, until I talked with the dear woman who had taken it upon herself to greet every senior member of our congregation with a hug on Sunday morning. Some of those seniors lived alone, and this was the one time during the week when they could enjoy the human connection that comes with physical touch. Some of them were a little hard of hearing, and because of that, this woman would talk more loudly to them as she engaged them in the only conversation they would have all week. What had sounded like irreverent noise to one member was actually the caring ministry of another.
This woman’s ‘hugging ministry’ was an example of the intimacy of relationship that human touch in scripture represents. God created us for relationship, for nearness to himself, and that is why Jesus became human: to make God’s love real and tangible, to make God touchable. And this, as P. C. Ennis puts it, is what “makes it all the more demanding (if frightening) to realize that for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.” God not only calls us into service through his Son, God calls us into community with those who long for that connection we all crave, that nearness to God made possible through Christ.
The story continues in verse 35. Scene Three:
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark,
he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
This is one of only three times in Mark’s gospel when Jesus goes off to be alone in prayer. Luke describes several instances of Jesus seeking solitude, but in Mark, we only read about Jesus going off alone to pray here, then after he has fed the five thousand, and finally in the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed by Judas. These are pivotal moments in Mark’s story, and they all share one common element: darkness.
Darkness and wilderness are closely linked here. Jesus goes off to some deserted location, reminding us of his time in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, when he was preparing to withstand Satan’s temptation. After learning of John the Baptist’s death and then feeding 5000 (plus women and children), Jesus will send his disciples off in a boat so he can spend the night in prayer (6:46). On another night, in a lonely garden, Jesus will pray, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (14:32-42) The darkness associated with Christ’s times of solitude is the very darkness where he questions God, where he faces fear, and where Jesus submits to his Father’s will.
Even Jesus struggled to find his purpose at the beginning of his ministry, but he knew how to discover it. He prayed. The one who knew God’s heart better than anyone still set aside time to be alone with his Father in the darkness, to seek God’s will in extended times of prayer.
Called to service, called to community, we are also called sometimes into the darkness. It is here that we meet God, and sometimes our fears, face to face. It is in solitude and darkness that we find our purpose and learn to trust completely in God’s will.
Keep in mind that going out alone, in the middle of the night, in unfamiliar territory, would have been a very dangerous thing for Jesus to do. There were no streetlamps to light the way, no motion activated floodlights to scare off the wild animals. There were no cell phones to notify others if something went wrong. There was no GPS to help you find your way back to town if you got lost.
Being alone in the dark wilderness wasn’t the safest place to be in the first century. For Jesus, though, it was the only place where he could talk one-on-one with his Father, without interruption. Well, almost without interruption.
The story concludes, beginning in verse 36: Scene Four.
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.
Simon and his friends must have expected that Jesus would just keep on doing what he had done yesterday – healing the sick, casting out demons, meeting the needs that were presented to him. So far, the plan had seemed to work pretty well. They had given up fishing, but fishing for people wasn’t so bad, if all you had to do was control the crowds that kept coming to see Jesus perform his miracles. They could work from home, instead of from the boats. It would be great! Come on, Jesus, let’s go watch you do all the heavy lifting! The crowds are clamoring. You don’t want to disappoint your public.
But Jesus tells them something they weren’t expecting to hear. “Let’s go to the neighboring towns so I can preach there, too. That’s my job.”
The disciples may have been thinking, “What, leave Capernaum? Leave the comfort and security of what we know? When you said, ‘Follow me’ we weren’t expecting to follow you that far, Jesus.” They may have thought it, but Mark doesn’t indicate that they said it. This was a moment of decision for the disciples. There would be many more like it. Each time, they would have to decide, “Do we keep following?”
And that is the choice we face each day, too. The people of Capernaum had missed the point. They showed up for the miracles, but they failed to hear the message Jesus was preaching to them. Repent, turn away from your old ways, and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God is now present with you.
Jesus never went out looking for people to heal. That was never his primary mission. People came to him, seeking his healing touch, asking for his help, and he had compassion on them. Some of them did believe. Some did repent and follow Jesus, and their lives were changed forever. These were the ones who, like Simon’s mother-in-law, responded with gratitude and devotion.
But Jesus had to choose between becoming the local healer and reaching as many people as possible with the good news of God’s love for them. The disciples would probably have preferred for Jesus to stay in Capernaum, healing from his home base, and theirs. But Jesus leads them out into their own dark wilderness: the unknown territory of introducing others to the Kingdom of God and leading them to repentance.
The disciples learned that you can’t be a true follower of Jesus by sitting in the comfort of your own living room. You have to get up, as Simon’s mother-in-law did, and join with others in the work of the Kingdom of God. Because for some people, we are the only Jesus they will ever meet.
We may not be the only ones who will satisfy their urgent, physical needs, but we are the only ones who will introduce them and welcome them into the family of God. We are the only ones who will help them recognize their need for a Savior. We are the only ones who can show them what it means to be transformed into Christ’s image through the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible study, service and sacrifice. We are the only ones who can show them what it means to decide every day to keep following Jesus. We are the only ones who can love them as Christ loved us, who can make that love tangible and touchable for them.
We are the only Jesus they will ever meet.
Let us pray.
O Lord, healer of our every ill, we come to you in our weakness, in our uncertainty. Just as your friends in Capernaum looked to you in expectation and hope, we come to you now, asking you to heal us, to free us from the unclean spirits that haunt us.
Because we know that you can, dear Jesus. we know you are able to do more than we can imagine. We know you can fix what’s wrong in us. So stretch out your hand and touch us, Lord. Heal our brokenness of body, mind, and spirit. Make us whole.
And then, Lord, help us to keep following you. Don’t let us turn back to our old ways of trying to cope. Help us to keep trusting you, even when you lead us into the dark unknown territory of going wherever you go.
Because we want to serve you, Lord, with the same gratitude and dedication Simon’s mother-in-law showed. We want to join with you, Lord, in the work of establishing your kingdom here on earth. And we want to stay with you, Lord, showing others the way through their own darkness, leading them to you.
We pray these things in your precious name. Amen.
 Greta Ortega, Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 1, 334.
 P.C. Ennis, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, 334.
 Ennis, 336.
 R. T. France, NIGTC: The Gospel of Mark, 109.