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Showing and Telling the Kingdom

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
February 5, 2012

The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:29-39

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.  32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And 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. A Preaching Tour in Galilee

35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He 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.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons (NRSV).

In the Preparation for Worship statement printed in your bulletin I tried to give you a sneak preview of what I would be preaching today.  I wrote: “Wherever Jesus goes in these early chapters of Mark’s Gospel he “shows and tells” God’s Kingdom. He shows it through his healings and exorcisms; he tells it through his preaching and teaching. He wants people to know what the world would look like if God were in charge so that they will begin to hunger and thirst for the Kingdom and work with him to bring heaven to earth.  In today’s reading he shows the people of Capernaum that if God were in charge there wouldn’t be any sickness.  Isn’t that something we are all hungry and thirsty for, a world like that?”

I am.

Can I tell you what it does to me when I hear that someone has been diagnosed with cancer?  It depends, of course, on how well I know that person, how close we are, but even if it is a complete stranger I feel that little stab of pain, just knowing that this old enemy has shown up again.  Cancer.  This sickness that seems to enjoy nothing more than crippling and killing the ones we love.  I think about my Uncle Bill, who was my first real experience with cancer.  I think about the twelve years he fought that beast while it slowly wrapped itself around his spine and squeezed the life out of him.  I think about all those church members I have known and loved in the last 25 years who have waged equally heroic battles against this monstrous illness and, in the end, also, lost.  And, of course, cancer is not the only illness we battle.  And so, if I really believed that if God were in charge there wouldn’t be any more sickness, I would be willing to do almost anything to help his Kingdom come. 

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright says that when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee he began by announcing that God’s Kingdom had come.  Through his words and deeds he said: “God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!”  But N. T. Wright also says that when he makes such statements people will sometimes ask him, “Wasn’t God already in charge?  Isn’t God always, all the time, in charge?”  “Ah,” he says.  “Now we’re talking.  Yes, of course, in one sense the average first-century Jew did believe that Israel’s God was already in charge.  But she or he also knew, with every bone and breath, that there were all sorts of ways in which God was not in charge—otherwise why was the world such a mess? Why were God’s people, the Jews, in such trouble?  Why were ruthless, coarse, blaspheming foreigners running the show?  Why were the Jewish leaders themselves such a corrupt lot?  And why—in the middle of it all—is my child so sick?  Why is my mother crippled?  Why did the soldiers kill my son, my cousin, my husband?  Surely if God was really in charge, then all of this, from as far as the eye could see to as near as one’s own family, should be put right.”[i]

We could say the same, couldn’t we?  We go around telling people that our God is an awesome God and that Jesus loves us, this we know, but someone might ask: if Jesus loves you so much and if your God is so awesome then why is the world such a mess?  Why does your own nation seem to be struggling so hard?  And why are your friends and loved ones dying of cancer?  As Wright says, “Surely, if God was really in charge, then all of this, from as far as the eye could see to as near as one’s own family, should be put right.”  True enough.  But Wright says that while Jesus was going about Galilee, “sorting out the near-at-hand stuff,” he was also talking about God being in charge on a larger scale as well.  “The close-up actions pointed to that greater reality.  They were the signs that it was starting to come true.”[ii] 

Take today’s Gospel reading, for example.

Mark says that after Jesus and his disciples left the synagogue that day in Capernaum—the same day he preached that powerful sermon and cast out an unclean spirit—they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, along with James and John.  “Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever,” Mark says, “and they told him about her at once.”  I can almost hear Simon apologizing: “Usually my mother-in-law would be back there in the kitchen, pulling a pan of hot rolls out of the oven, but she’s in bed right now.  She’s sick.”  And Jesus would say, “Well, let’s have a look.”  He would follow Simon to a back bedroom where his mother-in-law was lying on her bed, first huddling under the covers, shivering with cold, and then breaking out in a sweat so that she had to throw the covers off.  You’ve had a fever before.  To put it in a first-century kind of way, just as that unclean spirit had tormented the man who came to the synagogue the spirit of sickness was in that back bedroom, tormenting Simon’s mother-in-law.  But then Jesus walked into the room.  And here’s the thing about him: wherever Jesus is, the Kingdom is, and when he walked into that room that day, the Kingdom came. 

Perhaps you are familiar with the principle that “two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.”  That’s what seems to be going on here.  When Jesus walked into that room in Capernaum he walked in full of the spirit, and power, and presence of God.  And suddenly there wasn’t room, anymore, for the spirit of sickness.  It had to go.  Just suppose that you forgot to take a pan of rolls out of the oven, and they burned, and filled the whole house with smoke.  What would you do?  You would open the doors and windows, maybe even turn on a fan to blow fresh air into the house.  Eventually the smoke would be gone, and the house would be full of clean, sweet-smelling air.  I think that’s how it was when Jesus came into the room—as if fresh air and sunshine blew into the room with him and sickness and darkness were driven out.  Mark says that Jesus took Simon’s mother in law by the hand, and the sickness left her, and he lifted her up, and she began to serve them.

And don’t you know that in a small town like Capernaum, word got out.

We don’t know how it happened, but maybe someone stopped by to ask how Simon’s mother-in-law was doing and he said, “Well, you know, it’s the strangest thing!  She was really sick, suffering with a high fever.  But then Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up and the next thing I knew she was back there in the kitchen, whistling, and serving up the Sabbath day dinner!” 

“You don’t say!”

“I do say!  I saw it with my own eyes.”

You can guess, can’t you, that by the time the sun went down that evening, and the Sabbath was officially over, everybody in town had heard two things: 1) that Jesus had cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue that day, and 2) that he had cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever.  You can probably also guess that anyone who was sick, or who had a sick loved one, or who suspected that someone they knew had an unclean spirit, was gathered around the door of the house where Jesus was.  Mark says that the “whole city” showed.  One of the commentators on this passage says that sounds like a “typically Markan exaggeration,” but think about it:  Is there any one of us who doesn’t know somebody who needs some healing?  Isn’t it possible that the whole city did indeed show up at that door, and that every one of them was begging Jesus to do something for them or for someone they loved?  I’m guessing that Jesus worked late into the night, laying hands on people, curing their sickness, casting out demons.  Even then he wasn’t able to get to all of them, but Mark says that he healed “many.”  Where Jesus is the Kingdom comes, and when the Kingdom comes the sickness leaves.

But early the next morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place to pray.  I wonder what he was praying for, don’t you?  When we say prayers here at church we often pray for people who are sick, but that’s not what Jesus was praying for.  And when I say prayers at home I usually pray for friends and family members, but I don’t think that’s what he was praying for either.  I think he was asking God what he should do next.  Here he was, enjoying phenomenal success in his healing ministry, but was that it?  Was that all he was supposed to do?  When the disciples finally caught up with him they said, “Everyone is searching for you.”  And for most of us, that would be all the answer we needed.  If what we were doing was successful then we might also assume that it was right.  We do that in church sometimes, don’t we?  If everybody is coming to our worship services we continue to do exactly what we’re doing.  It’s only if they aren’t that we might decide to do something different, to try something new.  But listen to what Jesus says to his disciples at the height of his success: “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.”

Why would he say such a thing?

Let me remind you of an earlier quote from N. T. Wright.  He said that while Jesus was going about Galilee, “sorting out the near-at-hand stuff,” he was also talking about God being in charge on a larger scale as well.  “The close-up actions pointed to that greater reality.  They were the signs that it was starting to come true.”  In other words, the healings and the exorcisms weren’t the point: they were the pointers.  They were pointing to the Kingdom that was coming into the world, the Kingdom that arrived every time Jesus walked into the room.  And so he had to move on.  It wasn’t enough to bring the Kingdom to Capernaum.  He wanted to bring it to the whole world.  As I said earlier, “Everywhere he went he was showing and telling the Kingdom: showing it through his healings and exorcisms; telling it through his preaching and teaching. He wanted people to know what the world would look like if God were in charge so that they would begin to hunger and thirst for the Kingdom and work with him to bring heaven to earth.” 

And I think that’s where we are this morning.

It doesn’t happen every time, but sometimes we pray for someone who is sick and they get well.  It’s a little glimpse of the Kingdom.  A reminder that God is still at work in the world, and that when he is completely in charge there won’t be any more sickness, because sickness is never the will of God.  We sometimes say it is, when we can’t think of a better explanation.  We shrug our shoulders and say, “It must be God’s will.”  But isn’t the point of today’s passage just the opposite?  When Jesus walks into a room where sickness is he casts it out, because sickness has no place in God’s kingdom.  And I’ve got to say, when you’ve been praying hard for someone, and they do get well, it’s like the kingdom has come.  Probably every one of us has had an experience like that. 

Before our second child was born Christy and I went to the doctor for a routine ultrasound, and when he looked closely at the pictures he said, “There’s something wrong here.  This child’s cranium is full of fluid.  The brain isn’t developing.”  He diagnosed our unborn daughter with hydrocephaly and said he would probably have to do surgery as soon as she was born to put in a shunt, so he could drain the fluid from her skull and give her underdeveloped brain some room to grow.  It was the kind of news no expectant parent wants to hear.  For the next two months we prayed for Catherine, asking God to work a miracle, to heal her precious head.  When we went back to the doctor he did another ultrasound, and this time when he looked at the pictures he said, “This looks…normal!”  There was no sign that she had ever had, or that she ever would have, hydrocephaly.  On the way home I kept sighing with relief, and it was only then I realized that I had been holding my breath for two months.  When Catherine was born a few weeks later—beautifully perfect and perfectly beautiful—it was as if heaven had come to earth.

It doesn’t always work out like that.  Even in my charmed life it hasn’t always worked out like that.  But maybe instead of wondering why it doesn’t happen every time, instead of blaming God when it doesn’t and assuming that he doesn’t care, we could begin to see those occasional miracles as pointers—pointing to the Kingdom that is yet to come, so that we will stay hungry and thirsty for it, so that we will work for it until our bodies ache, and pray as if we were praying for life itself that God’s kingdom would come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 

 

—Jim Somerville, 2012


[i] N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 59.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 59-60.

 
 
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