Wings Like Eagles
Each year, as you may know, one of the three synoptic gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, interspersed with passages from John) are assigned to preachers who wish to follow a prescribed set of weekly texts. We have recently begun the year of Mark’s gospel, and I’m so glad. It’s my favorite. Yes, yes - each gospel is wonderful, and together they provide a complete picture of Christ and of his work, through his life and death, for our salvation. I resonate with the poetry of John, the economic justice of Luke, the pastoral mercy of Matthew, and then there’s Mark – low falutin’, written in “street Greek.” what he does but how he does it. He throws out of whack everybody who comes near him. He has ultimate integrity – he practices exactly what he teaches. He is frequently angry and impatient but he never dominates others or makes claims for himself. His project is both about him (he is the Messiah) and not about him (but rather the Reign of God that is about to be born). He has endless authority over all the non-human powers that oppress people – demons, leprosy, wind and sea, death – he raises others from illness and from death! He conquers hunger by feeding thousands in an arid, inhospitable place. He challenges all human powers that oppress people – certain religious laws, secular laws, prejudices and greed. He who has ultimate authority castigates those who misuse theirs. He becomes frustrated and feels vulnerable when there is not enough faith in a person for him to heal them. He can’t make the disciples understand. He can’t make the authorities understand. Like anyone else who strives to do God’s will, he submits to God’s will, and ends up losing his life to save it. Yes, each of these things transpires in the other gospels too, but Mark tells it with such a realistic, gritty, brusque human verve that it commands my attention like nothing else.It is spare, fast-moving, and brief. Jesus is not a divine being but a man from Nazareth in Galilee, the son of Mary; he’s an artisan, who has many siblings. He becomes God’s son as he emerges from the waters of baptism. God gives him authority and Jesus uses it spectacularly – not just in.
Our passage today from Mark’s gospel shows us the second half of “a day in the life” of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In the first part of this Sabbath day he went to the synagogue there in Capernaum, and he blew everyone away with his ability to interpret scripture with his authority in interpreting scripture. Now he goes to the house of Simon for a post-sermon lunch and rest (still a clergy favorite) but Simon’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever. Mark writes that “he raised her,” prefiguring not only what Jesus will do again for those with a common fever but even for those who are stone cold dead.
She rises, and immediately she begins to serve her relatives and guests. Mark uses the same Greek word for “serve” as he does when describing the angels “serving” Jesus while he’s tempted in the wilderness. Most literally, the word means “ministering” – that’s what Mark wrote – she ministers to them as the angels ministered to Jesus when he was sorely challenged. Like so many of the unnamed people in the gospels who have the faith to be healed, she is a woman. She may not understand yet that he is the Messiah, but she understands the ethic of servant-hood by which Jesus himself lives and that he teaches to everyone. She gets it right! Simon, simultaneously, gets it all wrong. He is very excited about the crowds. “The whole city is gathering outside the door!” he exclaims. Word of Jesus’ healing powers has spread and now every desperate person is there hoping for release from disease, infirmity, mental illness, pain. To Simon, this is like the Broadway previews going well – a star is born! “Jesus, you’re a hit!” is what he says. Maybe it’s a big relief to Simon; he had, after all, dropped everything to follow this iterant teacher. Jesus turns out to be really talented! But Jesus isn’t interested in popularity, but in servant-hood, and Simon’s mother-in-law is a model.
Everywhere and always, Jesus tells his disciples to be everyone’s servant, just as he is everyone’s servant. He serves from a position of strength, not weakness. He does not serve because of pressure from others or a sense of inferiority. He does not serve out of material necessity (as do so many around the world, and whose service is shamefully exploited). He serves out of love for every neighbor. We all minister to the people we love. Christ ministers to all. He serves them because he knows their humanity to be reflective of divine glory. He empowers all whose efforts have integrity or serve the common good. He does not empower James and John, for instance, when what they want is power and glory for themselves. Christ serves any with real need. He serves at the cost of his own life, all the way to the end. This servant who could literally lord it over people never does – except with the demons in his midst!
How about those demons? Mark writes that many who came to Simon’s door for healing were “demonized” – they were wracked with the psychological and emotional challenges that can divert lives of promise, torture beautiful minds and torture those who love them. It is the demons alone who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and so as he casts them out he forbids them to speak. The disciples don’t know who Jesus is; they don’t recognize the person in their very midst who has the power to save them. The demons recognize Jesus as the one who has the power to destroy them. I wonder if we might have something in common with both the demons and the disciples – which is living defensively rather than grace-fully. All our focus is turned to that which could possibly bring us down or cause us trouble, and so we miss an opportunity right in front of our faces to be lifted up, to be set free, to be liberated from what binds us, to be saved. There are mean people and elements in all our lives, and it will always be so, but these verses from Mark do make me wonder if I let them distract me from recognizing traces of Christ around me.
To the exiles languishing in Babylon the prophet Isaiah says, “Hold on, have hope. It is easy to see only the bad things around you and so to lose perspective. The evidence right now of God’s might and protection seem pretty slim. But you already know everything you need to know.” The prophet says, “Have you not heard? Don’t you know from the foundations of your being?” These are rhetorical questions, and the answer is yes – we have heard the promises of God to redeem us; yes – we do know and believe down to our DNA that God who created all is creating still. We know that if we can be patient we will be lifted up with wings like eagles. Isaiah wants the exiles to understand that they already know everything they need to know in order to move forward through any doubt or trial. “You know!” he says, and he says it to us as well. When attention to life’s real challenges makes us miss Christ in our midst, we are to turn our face toward grace and trust that what we know – the promises of our faith – are true.
Jesus himself needed to remind himself occasionally that he knew all that he needed to know. He stole away from the throngs at Simon’s door and went somewhere that Mark calls “a wilderness place.” He’ll do this repeatedly when he is stressed or tired or really needs to connect with God. He will do it the night before he is executed. Jesus goes back to the wilderness; that’s where he was tempted by Satan, that’s where he thus clarified his calling and mission, so that’s where he goes to touch base again and again and strengthen what he already knows. The wilderness is not a bad place. It’s a place to get his focus, a place without distractions. The disciples keep misunderstanding him – they now distract his prayer in the wilderness. They want him to keep on healing people since its going so well and making people believe in him. Jesus has found the clarity of purpose that he needed, though, and so he tells them, “No. I didn’t come to heal. I came to preach. We must move on so I can do this in new places.” Indeed, historians of this period note that Jesus was one of many itinerant healers. He alone, however, is the one given divine authority to preach the impending reign of God. Jesus already knows what he needs to know – this is what he must go and do, even if it will cost him his life.
I hope that you know that you already know what you need to know – that the promises of our faith are lodged in your heart and mind and spirit and so will sustain you in any trial or suffering, and lift you up with wings like eagles when circumstances are at their lowest or when, as with Jesus, you are faced with decision about calling or purpose or which road to take. I hope that what you know will help you daily to discern traces of grace in your midst, the Messiah among us, the only one with the power to destroy every demon and to lift us all with wings like eagles into salvation.
David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark As Story (Phil: Fortress Press, 1982).
W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., workingpreacher.org, Isaiah 40: 21-31, Feb. 8 , 2009.