5 February 2012
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As most of you know I am now in the process of job hunting for my first parish as an incumbent. The powers that be have written to me reminding me that my curacy must finish by the end of June and the archdeacon has now met with me to make sure that I am taking steps to ‘move on’. I told him the truth, that I am looking at jobs all the time, I have applied for some and I am certainly not burying my head in the sand and pretending that the end is not looming. But when you have been very happy somewhere and when your family is settled and thriving moving on is not always easy.
I am therefore both challenged and enthused by today’s gospel in which Jesus renews himself not by being comfortable in his surroundings but by drawing on his deep internal relationship with the Father, and having been thus renewed he is eager to move on, to share the message of the kingdom with new people in new places.
Taken together, last week’s Gospel reading and the one for today, make up a kind of “a day in the life of Jesus.” The action takes place in Capernaum, or Kfar Nahum (Nahum’s Village), the town of Peter and Andrew, James and John, and also of Matthew, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Capernaum is important in the story of Jesus. Here he calls his first disciples, teaches in the synagogue, heals and casts out demons. Of all the places Jesus frequented, Capernaum, more than any other, was considered to be his home town. Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but when he was in Capernaum he was said to be “at home.”
The day began in the synagogue where Jesus taught and where the people, as we read last week, were astounded at his teaching and his ability to cast out demons. After synagogue that morning Jesus and his friends did what we do – they went home for dinner. Some of us rush home for dinner because the sermon went on for too long and they can smell burning. The home they went to was Peter’s. And here, in this short passage in Mark, we learn something about Peter’s personal life that we would not otherwise know, that Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the Church, was married. For when they arrive at the house they discover that Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever.
It says here – please insert your own mother-in-law joke. “Take my mother-in-law. No, honestly, take her.”
So the poor woman is in bed with a fever and here comes Peter bringing all his new friends home for dinner! But when Jesus learned of her condition, he “took her by the hand and lifted her up” and “the fever left her,” and, get this, “she began to serve them”
I don’t know about you but I feel slightly uncomfortable that Jesus healed this woman, whose name we are not even given, and the first thing she does is start to wait upon the visiting men. Perhaps I am more politically correct than I realized. Why don’t they bring her some chicken soup in bed while she recovers? But then, when I pondered it a bit more deeply I realized two things – first, that when Jesus heals he really heals – she did not need to recover because Jesus had made her whole. And the second is that when we are healed we are released to be the people we were meant to be – to fulfill our calling and vocation. By making her whole and healthy Jesus released Peter’s mother-in-law to fulfill her vocation which was to offer hospitality to her guests. Those familiar with middle-Eastern culture will know that hospitality is of huge importance and that to either refuse to accept hospitality or to be unable to offer it is a huge dishonor. Therefore, looking after your guests, especially for the Sabbath meal, does not mean subjecting yourself to lowly service but is actually a most honourable calling – one that Jesus released her into by making her well.
We don’t know what happened after dinner. Sabbath afternoon naps? Picking apart the sermon from the morning? By evening, however, people suddenly began showing up at Peter’s house. At first it was just one or two sporadic visitors. “I saw what you did this morning at the synagogue with that man who had a demon, and I brought my son who can’t walk. Could you pray for him?” But soon it became almost a mob. Mark says, “the whole city was gathered around the door.” Probably an exaggeration, but we get the idea. And he says that Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. All in all you would have to say that it was quite a day there in Capernaum. Not a bad start for a country boy from Nazareth with no prior experience, just starting out. Pretty heady stuff.
If the reading ended there then the tone would be one of triumph. It would almost feel like one of those mega-church pastors that you see on Sky TV, if you take a wrong turning on the remote control, who are healing people left, right and center and its all rah, rah, rah with no space for reflection and nothing but sheer up!
But, I am pleased to say, that the reading does not end on that note because we are told:
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 still only the first chapter of Mark. We are only 39 verses into it, and already Jesus has spent 40 days alone in the wilderness, and now, again, he seeks solitude in what Mark describes as “a deserted place.” Why?
Several possibilities come to mind. First, for me personally, what comes to mind is that after spending a full day sort of dealing with the public, so to speak, Jesus may have needed to be alone.
As one who tests pretty strongly as an introvert, I could certainly understand if that was it. Some of us are like that. We get our energy from solitude, from being alone. It’s not that we don’t like being with people. We do. But it drains us. And in order to regain our energy, to get recharged, we need solitude. In an age which values extroversion, availability and sociability above most other traits it can feel quite counter-cultural wanting and needing to be alone and to be quiet and I am therefore hugely comforted that when I am called to a place of solitude, that Jesus is there as much as he is in the crowds.
In any case, Jesus arose early the next morning, while it was still very dark, slipped out of the house, through the darkened streets of Capernaum and out into the countryside to a deserted place. And there he prayed. The word “prayed” can take in a lot of different meanings. Some might read that to mean that Jesus knelt down and said prayers like many of us pray: “Dear God, please be with Peter’s mother-in-law so that her fever doesn’t come back, and bless Peter’s wife for you know how difficult it must be to be married to that man…” and so on.
Somehow, though, I don’t think that is what is meant when it says that he prayed. I could be wrong, but what I think Jesus went out to that lonely spot to do early that morning was to get himself oriented again. Some people might call that getting “centered.” He had just had a fabulous day and he was experiencing, perhaps for the very first time, what it meant to be lauded, praised, what it meant to be popular, a success. Handling success is as difficult as handling failure.
I think Jesus went out there that morning to get his head straight, to remember who he was and what he was about. And that, too, is praying. And, apparently, it was worth the effort. He discovered something in that time that he had alone. He figured something out about who he was and what it was he should be doing.
Meanwhile, of course, back at Peter’s house, people are rising, washing up, and other people are starting to knock at the front door again, just as they had the night before. And then someone discovers that Jesus is nowhere in the house. He is gone. And so a search begins. The word Mark uses is that they “hunted for him,” and it means literally that they “tracked him down.” And when they finally locate him, their annoyance is evident when they say, with some amount of exasperation: “Everyone is searching for you.” In other words, “What’s the matter with you? You are keeping people waiting. You are needed. You have to perform. Why are you out here in the middle of nowhere when your public is clambering for you?”
But, although he could have been annoyed at having his quiet time with God disturbed Jesus was ready. He had his answer. It seems quite possible to me that here, near the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he made a decision about the shape of his ministry, what form it would take. He could have chosen to stay there in Capernaum where he was obviously well received. He could have been settled down, put up a sign, set up his headquarters there and let people come to him. But if he considered that, he didn’t choose that. Instead he decided on an itinerant ministry, going from town to town, always starting over again with new people, always on the move.
“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.”
I don’t know about you, but when I hear those words I feel something of a stirring inside. Where is God calling us? What is God calling us to do? We’ve got our sign out front. People can come if they like. We’re pretty settled. But there are other villages, other towns, other people, other needs.
Yes, moving on is hard but we move on because Jesus calls us on. As a family we will be moving on physically but even if you intend to stay living here until your dying day never doubt that Jesus is calling us all to move on. Like Peter’s mother in law Jesus wishes to heal each of us in order to release us more fully into our calling, whatever that calling may be. How is Jesus calling you to move on, how is Jesus calling this church to move on as it enters into a new era?
I know that there are no quick and easy answers to those questions but as we draw close to the season of Lent perhaps we could also learn something else from Jesus today, and that is the value of approaching God in solitude and silence in order that God may point us in the right direction and send us back out into the world ready to proclaim the message that called Jesus on:
“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”