Sermon on Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39 for February 4, 2018, Epiphany +5 B
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. 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.
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.
The Goal and How to Get There
At the vegan dinner last Thursday we were in a conversation about the ways we had changed over the years.
We used to think things, and believe things, that we came to think and believe differently about. We used to eat things we would never put in our mouths, now that we know how unhealthy they are for us.
And the reverse has also happened. There was a time not that long ago when most Americans thought the idea of raw fish was disgusting – but now lots of us enjoy good sushi. People can change, and do change, and that is a good thing.
Scientists tell us that our brains change too, and that is also a good thing. They call it neuroplasticity; based on our experiences, our brains change, not just in the early part of life, but all throughout our whole lives. This is great news if you have any goals at all; you can actually get closer to reaching them if you are willing to do the work.
My neighbor is in his 70’s. He just asked me to help him re-string a guitar. “Oh,” I said, “I didn’t know you played.” “I don’t,” he said, “but I want to learn.” That is excellent; learning a new skill will actually help him be healthier and probably happier.
But the question is, why would you want to change?
For some of us, the concern that our doctors express over our blood pressure or cholesterol levels and other health indicators motivates us to change our diets or the amount of exercise we get.
Changing our thinking and our beliefs is possible, but it is harder. One reason that changing our thinking and our beliefs is hard is the confirmation bias built into our brains; we take in information that confirms what we already believe, and screen out information that contradicts our present opinions. That is partly why arguing about politics and religion is so often fruitless.
Again, the question is, why would we change our thinking or our beliefs? Well, if you are like me, sometimes you simply reach the conclusion that something you used to believe is just impossible; it cannot be true; there must be a better explanation.
Sometimes you come to a moment of enlightenment, in which you realize that what you had been thinking or believing was harming you; to be healthy, or even to survive, you simply had to change.
People in recovery talk about the moment of clarity in which they realize that their addiction has driven them to an unacceptable point, and change, no matter how painful, is necessary. As every dentist tells us, it is usually pain that makes us willing to make changes.
We read two texts today, both of which are about changing. Both texts assume that change is possible. In both, change is required for the sake of both health and survival. So, let us look at them.
Isaiah and Changed Thinking
Isaiah begins with questions to his people:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
In modern speech he might say, “What part of this do you not get?”
He goes on to say two things that are paradoxical, but both of which are crucial for survival. The first is that we live in a created world, whose Creator is an infinite mystery beyond all human capacity, or even human comprehension.
That means that no matter how high and mighty a person may be, no matter how rich and powerful anyone on earth is, they, and their little life spans are negligible in the great scheme of things.
This is a comfort for a people under the domination of systems of imperial oppression. Kings, pharaohs, and domination systems of every variety will pass away and be forgotten.
But that raises an existential question: if even the mighty are so ephemeral, how much less does my little life matter? This is the paradox. The God of creation is not only infinite in capacity, but also infinite in compassion. You matter because you matter to God. Let us hear it again:
“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. 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.
Change your thinking! You matter to God. When you feel faint and powerless, God is there to renew your strength. “Wait for,” which could also be translated “hope in” the Lord.
To a people in oppressive circumstances, like the exiles in Babylon, or like the hopeless in any age – even our own – know this: you are the subject of infinite concern, infinite compassion. If you do not know that, change your thinking, change your beliefs.
Jesus and Change
Our gospel text is also about changes, necessary for health and survival. In Mark’s characteristic way of using stories to convey deep truths, he tells about a day in Jesus’ life, early in his public ministry. But in this tightly compressed narrative a lot is going on beneath the surface.
Let us review the setting. Jesus has just been in the synagogue on the Sabbath where he has found a man who was demon possessed, and Jesus cast out the demon, restoring the man to wholeness and full humanity.
Then we see him going to Simon Peter’s house, and healing (actually it says, “raising up”) his mother-in-law. Having been raised up, she immediately begins to serve. The verb “raise up” and the note about serving are the clues we notice to see beneath the surface.
When Jesus raises a person to wholeness who had been knocked down by unhealthiness, that raised up person takes up the mission of Jesus who came, as he said,
“not to be served but to serve.”
So the next thing that happens in the story is that at sundown, meaning, when the Sabbath day was over, and it was possible to journey, people came out and flocked to Jesus. He healed many and cast out many demons.
Now, we could just read this literally: that Jesus was a great healer of the sick, and I am sure he was. But if that is all that is meant, then we are left thinking – too bad for us, that he is not here to do for us what he did for all of them. But maybe more is meant beneath the surface.
Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ message, I believe, is powerfully healing to all kinds of sicknesses that knock people down and make their lives miserable. For example, Jesus can heal us from believing that our money will save us. He has plenty of teaching about that kind of healing in Mark’s gospel.
Jesus can also heal us from the sickening notion that God is against us, holding over our heads all our mistakes and failures and ready to smite us.
I just spoke with someone who told me of the overwhelming series of bad experiences she has had, and she said she was ready to fight whomever was sending them to her. She meant God, of course. I told her I did not think it worked that way. When they bought the suffering man to Jesus, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Jesus came to bring a message about God that was healing.
The Demons of Internalized Evil
And, Jesus did more than heal people of sickening conditions, he also cast out demons. Demons are internalized evil. This goes way beyond a condition of sickness that we may recover from. Internalized evil is crippling. I believe that Jesus can set us free from the evil we internalize, but it is a change that requires our willingness to change.
We internalize all kinds of beliefs and values – and this is necessary and important. Good parents spend a huge amount of energy and time trying to get their children to internalize the values they hold. We want our children not just to know that we love them, but to internalize the idea that they are lovable, that they are precious and valuable, that they are worthy of respect, that they are made in God’s image.
We do all we can to help our children internalize the value of compassion. It goes way beyond, “don’t hit your brother” and “remember to share.” It is a whole way of looking at other people in the world that we want them to practice their whole lives long, whether they end up as someone’s spouse or someone’s boss, or neighbor, or simply fellow human being, we want them to internalize the value of compassion for other people.
But we also internalize a lot of negative messages. We internalize messages about how the perfect person should look or dress or how much they should weigh, or what the perfect person should be able to accomplish in life. And in every way that we are not that perfect person, we internalize messages of shame. Shame is a destructive evil which, when internalized, cripples and dehumanizes us. Its power is demonic.
That is not all we internalized. We also internalize guilt. All of us make mistakes. All of us say things we should not say. We have, at times, treated people in ways we would not want to be treated. We have done things we regret doing. We have made bad decisions and poor choices. We have made excuses for ourselves that no one but us would accept as valid. And as a result of knowing this about ourselves, some of us have internalized messages of guilt. We think we are bad people, or people who are being, or will be, punished by God.
Guilt and shame are precisely the kind of demons Jesus came to cast out. Internalized guilt and shame keep people from being fully human and fully alive.
Spiritual Practices and Change
This is why we need the next scene in Mark’s story of this one day in Jesus’ life. Mark tells us,
“while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
This is crucial. Jesus was a person of deep spiritual practices that connected him with God. If Jesus needed this, how much more do we? It is in our spiritual practices, especially of prayer and meditation that we experience a growing understanding of our union with God. We become more aware of God’s love for us and constant presence with us. In prayer and meditation, we change: we internalize our own beloved-ness; we become centered in God’s infinite compassion for us.
For Jesus, the result of his prayer practice was a strong sense of mission. He wanted to spread the message as far and widely as possible. He said to Simon,
“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.”
The message is that whether we have been sickened by believing destructive things, or whether we have internalized guilt and shame, change is possible. Change is necessary.
To be fully human and fully alive, and to become a part of God’s mission to heal and restore, we are invited to embrace Jesus’ trust in an infinite Creator God who loves us more than we could possibly comprehend. So we are invited to practices of waiting on the Lord to renew our strength. We do not have to be weighed down by guilt and shame, we can be raised up to serve, and to fly on wings, like eagles.