Epiphany 5 B: The Model Disciple

Mark 1:29-39
Isaiah 40:21-31

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Most of the time, I tend to focus on one passage when I preach because I enjoy exploring a passage on its own in greater depth rather than worry about connecting two or three passages and risk treating them more superficially. This isn’t a “right or wrong” kind of thing, of course, just my own preference. Most of the time. But not this week. Because the first reading from Isaiah and the Gospel passage from Mark work together to help me make sense of a question I’ve been mulling over of late: how do we mark God’s activity in our lives?

The passage from Isaiah offers something of a litany of the wondrous attributes of God. It is cosmic in scope and universal in significance. Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is bigger, and stronger, and more impossible to comprehend than you can possibly imagine! On the whole, the God described here seems to embody absolute power. This is the way most folks, I have a hunch, imagine God: as BIG.

By contrast, Mark’s focus seems nearly miniscule. If Isaiah paints the story of God’s nature and work on the largest of canvases, Mark instead focuses on a simple, single detail. Still very early in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mark tells the story of the healing of a woman, unnamed except that she is identified as Peter’s mother-in-law. The story is more intimate, almost private, and you may even wonder why Mark tells it. But though it is brief, it is far from simple. Indeed, Mark’s construction of the scene – and particularly the detail that, once recovered, the woman serves the male disciples – has been a source of frustration to many of us at it has functioned across the centuries to reinforce the notion that the woman’s role is not to lead but to serve.

Yet I find in Mark’s more intimate portrait two elements that are immensely helpful as I try to understand the nature of God’s work in the world and our lives and, perhaps more importantly, to see and participate in it.

First, the VERY LARGE God Isaiah describes is not above caring for us as individuals, as Jesus does not only announce the coming kingdom (1:15), call together his disciples (1:17), and cast out demons (1:25) – and all of this in the first chapter (whew!) – but he also slows down to care for a woman suffering a fever and then to tend, one by one, all those in the region who were ill or possessed and came for his help. Our (relatively) small problems are not insignificant to the God who tends the cosmos.

Second, the MIGHTY God whose praises Isaiah sings is indeed at work, unrelentingly and indefatigably, to sustain the cosmos, strengthen the weak, and restoring those who have fallen. And the most frequent way God does this is – wait for it, wait for it – by working through those all around us. When this woman serves after she is healed, she is neither being dismissed as somehow inferior to those she serves nor constrained to a lesser role. (That we interpret the story this way, I think, says more about us than it does either her or Mark.) Rather, Jesus has not only healed her but given her back her vocation which is, ultimately, a picture of discipleship. Indeed, the picture of discipleship: service.

Consider: a little later in the story, after James and John have asked Jesus to put them in places of honor and authority (and after the other disciples get pretty angry because of their arrogance), Jesus offers his disciples a lesson in greatness that aligns quite closely with the actions of this woman:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:41-45).

So where do we look to trace the actions of the God who “sits above the circles of the earth…and stretches out the heavens like a curtain”? By looking to the everyday acts of service, care, and sacrifice we see all around us. Which means, Dear Partner, that the seemingly ordinary lives of your people can become at any given moment the arena for the activity of the Holy One of Israel as God continues to love and bless the world… through us! And we have the opportunity this week to help them see, hear, and believe this. Might we might even dare to say, “Have you not seen? Have you not heard? The Lord God almighty is at work in you, with you, and through you to care for the people and world God loves so much.”

But perhaps our role on this day is to do more than inform or remind or educate, but also to promise. To promise that God is and will continue to work through us – all of us, women and men, young and old, of sound mind and body as well as those who struggle with illness or disability – and that, indeed, God will do marvelous things through us. Each of us, that is, has the opportunity to feel the creative, healing, and restoring hand of God and, just as did this early if also unnamed disciple, respond in service.

God is still at work, Dear Partner, through our people and their ordinary acts of service and sacrifice, and also through you and your ordinary words of declaration and promise. Thank you for your fidelity to this calling. You, too, are Christ’s disciples.

Yours in Christ,