Sermon: Putting one foot in front of the other

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of February 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
Mark 1:29-39

We woke up on Thursday morning to a new case of community transmission in Victoria. The covid19 journey is truly a wild rollercoaster of a ride. This week we swung from celebrating effectively eliminating covid19 by going twenty-eight days without community transmission, to once again masking up and reducing the size of our gatherings. It is exhausting.

The Book of Isaiah, that wonderful ‘fifth gospel,’ offers us perspective. The last time we heard from the prophet we know as ‘Second Isaiah’ was in the second week of Advent, when we were given the beginning of his words of comfort from the ‘Book of Consolation’. Whenever I preach from Second Isaiah I remind the congregation of the circumstances in which he was prophesying so, in case you have forgotten: Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; the Temple had been destroyed; two-thirds of the people had been deported to Babylon. The population of Jerusalem dropped from 100,000 people to 30,000. The people who had been relaxed and comfortable were taken into exile, and they did not know how to sing the songs of their God by rivers of Babylon. They asked whether their God could truly be with them.

In response Isaiah wrote the words we heard on Peace Sunday: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. Today’s reading comes from a little later in that same chapter, and it chastises the people even as it comforts them: ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning?’ Isaiah reminds the people of God of what they have been taught; that their God is without equal, great in strength and mighty in power. Isaiah reminds those who might have been tempted to believe that their God had been defeated by the gods of Babylon that it was the Lord who created the cosmos. And unlike the gods of Babylon, who are said to have created the world through battle and violence, God did it peacefully by stretching out the heavens like a curtain and spreading them like a tent. In the eyes of this God, Isaiah reassures the people, even the princes of Babylon are as nothing. God blows upon them and they wither and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

God’s utter transcendence is not necessarily a comfort, though. Does the Creator of the Cosmos, to whom the years of a human life are as brief as the weeks of a grasshopper, care about humanity? And so Isaiah rebukes the people of Israel a second time: ‘Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard?’ The Creator of the Cosmos is also the God who gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. The Lord who spreads the heavens like a tent is also the Lord who cares for every individual human being.

In case we doubt that, in case we think that a transcendent God has no time for us, God took on humanity and came among us as Jesus. Together the gospel readings from today and last Sunday describe a complete day in the life of Jesus. Last Sunday’s reading had Jesus going to the synagogue at Capernaum on the Sabbath and teaching with authority. Then he was confronted by a man possessed, and he rebuked the demon and healed the man. Today, we hear what happened next, and we see how the God revealed in Jesus loves and cares for each of us.

It is still the Sabbath, and Jesus returns with the four disciples he has called to the home of two of them, Simon and Andrew. There they tell him that Simon’s mother-in-law is sick. This early in their acquaintance with Jesus they are unlikely to be expecting him to heal her. It is more likely that they are offering an embarrassed apology for their lack of hospitality. There are two reasons that the disciples would not have expected Jesus to do anything. It is still the Sabbath, and if Jesus were going to heal then he would wait until after sundown. And Simon’s mother-in-law, as a woman, just would not be considered to be as important as a man. But, probably to the surprise of his hosts, Jesus breaks the Sabbath in order to heal a woman. In the worldview of the day her physical illness, like the demonic possession of the man in the synagogue, is a sign of the captivity of the world, its possession by evil. Again Jesus overcomes this evil. He raises Simon’s mother-in-law up, the fever leaves her as the demon left the man possessed in the Synagogue, and healing and new life demonstrate the coming of the Kingdom of God.

The woman’s response is the perfect reaction to the gift of healing and new life: she begins to serve. The word used for serving is diakonein, which shares the same roots as the word ‘deacon’. It’s the word that Jesus will use when he tells his followers that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’. (Mark 10:45) Simon’s mother-in-law has been raised to new life and she responds with service.

This day in the life of Jesus ends with the crowds coming at sunset, after the Sabbath, bringing those who were sick or possessed. Jesus cures them; the kingdom of God is among them. Just as today’s psalm reminds us that the God who names and numbers the stars is the same God who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds; just as Isaiah reminds the Exiles in Babylon that the Creator of the Cosmos gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless; so the actions of Jesus in this typical day in his ministry show us that the kingdom of God brings healing and wholeness to the outcast. Have you not known? Have you not heard? God loves each and every one of us, and wishes for each of us wholeness and healing.

I said that the illness of Simon’s mother-in-law was a sign that evil had captured the world, a captivity from which Jesus is freeing it. As we live through a global pandemic that has now killed more than two million people in a single year, we could join the Exiles in Babylon in asking whether our ways are hidden from the Lord, and our needs disregarded. I can preach about Jesus’ teaching, healings, and exorcisms as a sign of God’s love for us all, God’s desire that we live free from every form of captivity, but the world is still held captive by illness and painful and premature death. I still live with a mental illness; each of you will have your own reasons for asking whether God truly heals the broken-hearted and binds up all our wounds.

So we remember that Isaiah was offering his comfort to a community in exile, a community that had lost everything that identified them. Isaiah knew that even ‘youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted,’ but he reassured the Exiles that ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’. I have always read the last three lines of today’s reading as an example of ‘parallelism,’ a pattern that we see again and again in the psalms, the repeating of a single point in different words. C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms warns that: ‘If this is not recognised as pattern, the reader will either find mares’ nests (as some of the older preachers did) in [their] effort to get a different meaning out of each half of the verse or else feel that it is rather silly.’[1] Despite the risk of finding ‘mares’ nests’ I am going to read the last three lines as having different meanings.

‘They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’. Sometimes when we wait on the Lord we feel that we can fly. I feel like this when I take funerals. I know that I am able to take a funeral service, able to hold the grief of a community and provide them with a space in which to say good-bye to someone they love, only because God gives me the strength and skill I need. And when I do it well, when my words and actions comfort the grieving, I feel the joy that comes from doing what God made me to do. I mount up on wings like eagles.

Sometimes, though, holding fast to God does not lead to moments of flight. It leads, instead, to endurance, to the ability to run and not be weary. It enables us to continue, to keep going, even when we are surrounded by darkness and danger. I do not know many human beings who are naturally patient, but as we wait on the Lord we are given the patience not to give up. This may be what most of us need during this time of covid19, the endurance to continue to follow the restrictions, obey the lockdown rules, wait until vaccines become available. It is not as exciting as mounting up on wings like eagles, but it is just as important.

But there are times when we cannot even do that, when long-distance running is beyond us, when we are utterly weary. Then, when we are at our lowest, when we are exhausted, we have been promised that the Lord will give us the strength simply to continue to put one foot in front of another, to walk and not faint. This may be the strength that God offers medical staff who have seen hundreds of people in their care die from covid19, the encouragement God gives the elderly in aged care facilities who have spent so much of the past year isolated from their family and friends. Sometimes we cannot fly; we cannot run. In those times God offers us the much less impressive power of walking without fainting.

Have we not known? Have we not heard? For thousands of years people have found that amid suffering and anguish, through experiences of exile and famine and disease, they have been cradled in the hands of the God who made the entire cosmos. Even when we ourselves struggle to feel this, we can rely on the testimony of our ancestors and siblings in the faith who reassure us that the Lord does lift up the downtrodden, that God does give power to the faint and strength to the powerless. And so we continue our journey, wherever it leads us, knowing that we are held close in God’s loving embrace. Amen.

(Now go and watch the scene in which Eric Liddell (played by Ian Charleson, who died at the appallingly young age of 40 from AIDS) reads the Isaiah passage in Chariots of Fire.)

[1] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms. Fontana, 1961, p. 11.

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3 Responses to Sermon: Putting one foot in front of the other

  1. fnmyalgia says:

    Much as I love your work, the Mark reading is troubling – what of the concept that Jesus’ sideshow roams from town to town? Kazaaam, a healing, then gone. BTW Southpark dealt with this incredibly well in the Y2K (2nd coming) episode. Tho’ is somewhat less irreverent.

    • I’ve just realised I never responded to this. Oops, sorry. Yes, the idea of Jesus as the travelling miracle-worker is troubling if read as straight history; if read as Mark’s evidence for who Jesus is – the one who frees those held captive by illness and demons – I think it’s better. My trouble is when people take the gospel writers’ stories of what Jesus did as Messiah and use them to claim that human beings today can perform miracles of healing, because that gets into horrible realms of people not going to doctors, not accepting treatment, or people with illnesses and disabilities being blamed for not having the faith to be healed. I’ve been told that occasionally about The Depression, that if only I had enough faith I wouldn’t have a mental illness, and amazingly enough being told that NEVER actually helps.

  2. Reblogged this on A Traveller's Tales and commented:
    “Sometimes we cannot fly; we cannot run. In those times God offers us the much less impressive power of walking without fainting.”

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