The Message that Matters

Sermon for 5th Sunday After Epiphany, Year B, Feb 8, 2015, on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Isaiah 40:21-31

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

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 Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. 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. 

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 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.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


What do you take with you if you have to gather up the essentials and flee on foot?  Among your most necessary belongings, would you include your tambourine?

That question came up in bible study this past week.  The ancient Rabbi’s noticed that after the Israelites fled from Pharaoh’s Egypt and crossed the parted Red Sea, they sang songs.  Exodus tells us that Miriam led the women’s song, and

“all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing (15:20).

What would possess all the Israelite women to grab their tambourines when, for all they knew, they were fleeing for their lives?

The Rabbis say that they brought them because they were prepared for a miracle that would require a celebratory song and dance.  What gave them such confident hope?  Those women had experienced the miracle of God’s care for them when they had their babies, and so they were expecting redemption.

The babies they bore in Egypt were signs to them that the Creation blessing “be fruitful” was still in effect.   Not only the creation blessing, but for them, the blessing of Abraham and Sarah was being fulfilled as well.  They believed the promise “I will bless you and make you a great nation… and in you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  So, they took their tambourines, and were ready for the song and the dance.

So here is our question: would we have grabbed the tambourine?  How confident is our hope?

Maybe you are thinking that hope would be easier if, like those Jewish mothers, you had seen some miracles.

The Jewish Rabbis who gave us these reflections knew where the story was going.  The same people who sang and danced, the men and the women, would soon lose their hope when water became scarce in the wilderness.  They would lose their hope again when food got scarce, and even after the miracle manna, they would have other occasions of hopelessness in the face of trouble.  The path though the wilderness was a zigzag, and so was their spiritual journey.

For the Jewish people, hope or hopelessness was a question of which story, which narrative a person is living in.   The narrative we are living in tells us the answer to life’s questions: What kind of world am I living in?  What does this all mean?  Where is this going?   How will this end?  What then?

Some tell the narrative of hopelessness.  They have plenty of evidence.  Bricks without straw; a wilderness without water, Pharaoh’s approaching chariots; that was then.  This is now: ISIS, Putin, global terrorism, the economy (at least for normal people), health issues, family issues, politics, and the constantly ticking clock counting down our lives.

There always has been and there always will be abundant evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  A single news broadcast confirms it – if you can even believe the news anchors anymore!

Our Counter Narrative of Hope

We are here to assert a counter-narrative.  This is what it means to be a person of faith.  We are willing to believe that there is more to this world than meets the eye.    There is more than one possible way to tell the story; an alternative message.

To people who were beginning to loose hope, people who had plenty of evidence for hopelessness, Isaiah said, basically, “wake up and open your eyes!  Open your ears to an alternative narrative.”


“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”

Then, he begins to tell the God-narrative.  How do you think all of this got here?  Look around; start with the stars that fill the sky:

“Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name”

Isaiah wonders how people could have missed the message they proclaim:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”

Yes, there is evidence for the narrative of hopelessness.  But open your eyes to wonder and your heart to awe.  Every leaf, every turtle, every burning candle can tell a story of beauty, of artistry, of amazement.


My niece just had a beautiful baby.  Of course she has posted pictures on Facebook.  But not just pictures of the baby.  She has posted pictures of herself and her husband looking at that new life with the wonder and amazement of new parents.  Can anyone look at a newborn without getting the message?  Life is a gift.  A mystery.

So how do people who live in the context of real-life, of real problems, of zigzags, and of the full knowledge that none of us gets out of this alive, as mortals, internalize the creation narrative of hope?

Waiting as Spiritual Practice

This is the role of spiritual practice: to connect us with the source of hope.  Isaiah says:

“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Wait upon the Lord.”

Sit down for twenty minutes of silence daily.  Turn off the narrative the ego plays in the mind.  Consider only the breath that moves automatically in and out of your body, and simply let the moment be the wondrous gift that it is.

They shall mount of up with wings, like eagles.”

Soaring effortlessly is a beautiful picture of life lived in hope.

Creation, Evolution and Faith

The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen
The Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen

I need to complexify this picture a bit, because today, faith based on creation and its Creator has become a challenge to modern, educated people.  We actually know about evolution.  We know, for example, that feathers did not evolve for flying, originally.  We have fossils of dinosaurs with feathers on their limbs  that could not possibly be of use as wings. Feathers were probably for regulating temperature and for mate selection.

We also know that our bodies contain carbon just like the carbon found in stars, formed at the moment of the big bang.

There are two more things we know now also: That scientific cosmologists admit to a whole series of conundrums when it comes to origins.  How was it that life exists, starting from lifeless matter?  And how does consciousness arise in living beings?  How do we account for anything being here instead of nothing.  No matter how far back you push the question, the question remains.  This is one thing we know.

The second thing is that we can, and we do, still feel wonder at the stars, and wonder at the sight of a bird in flight.  We were made to read an alternative narrative, a meaningful message that includes a non-material world.  We believe in things like justice, fairness, compassion, and love.  We believe in waiting in silence upon the Lord.  We believe it does renew our strength.

Jesus and the Message

This is what Jesus came to proclaim: the alternative message of hope.


I wonder if you found this morning’s gospel reading odd?  Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and she springs from her sick bed to serve people.  Jesus is met by a whole town full of sick people and possessed people and heals them, only to set out the next day for another place.

In the mean time, he disappears in the wee hours of the morning to go out and be alone in the dark.  When they found him, they said everyone was searching for him – presumably for another round of healing and exorcism, but he answers oddly:

“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.”

For Jesus, his message was more important than his healing ministry.  If we allow Jesus to say how he understood the purpose for his coming, we hear him say that the reason he came was to tell a story, to announce a narrative; to give a message.

What is the message?  What is the gospel?  So far in Mark’s gospel there has been exactly one message that Jesus has gone around proclaiming:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 

Let us unpack this message:

The time is fulfilled” meaning the present moment is the one that matters.

Repent;” meaning, change your thinking.

Believe in” – nor trust in – or commit yourself to the good news.

What good news?  The message is that “the kingdom of God has come near,” – is among you, is present.  God is king.

This is the narrative to live in.  You are not alone.  You are not unloved.  God is here and God is for you.  God is your source and God is your destination.   In God we live and  move and have our being.

And this is why Mark told the story in this compressed and symbolic way.  Jesus did not just heal Peter’s mother-in-law; he “took her by the hand and lifted her up.”  This was on the Sabbath when no such work was allowed.  Jesus broke with the old understanding of what it meant that God was present, and turned it upside down.

God was not present, for Jesus, like a line judge in tennis, announcing faults.  Rather God was on the side of healing and redemption.  And the person who gets the message, automatically starts living a life of grateful service, just as Simon’s mother-in-law modeled.

The Primacy of the Message

Yes, Jesus’ presence was a healing presence, and yes his ministry was a confrontation with evil on many levels.  But that was not primary.  The message was primary.  Why?

Because all the people Jesus healed probably got sick again, and all of them died.  No matter how many miracles you get along the way – water from a stone, manna in the desert, remission from the cancer – eventually we all go down to the dust.

So the question is, how are we going to live our lives?  Which narrative are we going to believe?  What is the message that will matter to us?

Jesus invites us to trust the narrative that says, the kingdom of God is a present reality.  God is here, not to evoke guilt and shame and fear of punishment, but to awaken us to love.  We are loved.  We are beloved.  We are sons and daughters of a loving heavenly father.

The Spirituality of the Hopeful

Partly because there are so many problems in the world, and in our lives, and in our heads and hearts, so many zigzags, this narrative, this message of hope is not the loudest nor easiest to hear.  That is why the person of faith is a person of spiritual practices.  Faith is sustained by “waiting on the Lord.”  Faith, trust, grows by doing what Jesus did – escaping for silent prayer.  Communion.  The experience of union with God.

And so Jesus’ goal was to go to the next town, and the next, and the next, and to spread the message that matters in every moment of our lives, and at the last moment of our lives.  The message that God is present.  The message that God is with us.  That God is good.  That God can be trusted.  The message that the  kingdom of God is at hand.

If that is not the narrative you believe, then hear the invitation to “repent;” to change your thinking.  What do you have to loose?  We may be wrong.  We may just be carbon in a soul-less universe that does not care one way or the other.

But we will risk paying the universe a compliment it does not deserve.  Because we may be right.  Look at the stars.  Look at the flight of an eagle.  Look at a newborn.  Believe the message of hope.




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