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The Kingdom is at Hand

Mark 1: 29-39

February 4, 2024

Since the beginning of this sermon series on celebrity sightings, I’ve asked myself…have I had any celebrity sightings? Like most people, I’ve been to some concerts and I’ve gotten signatures from some of my Duke Basketball favorites like Grant Hill and Christian Leitner, and I’ve seen Doc Watson play the guitar at Merle Fest, but have I ever really met a celebrity “up close and personal?” Then, this week it finally hit me. In 2007, I took a group of students and adults on a mission trip to Highland, California – just south of Los Angelas. We stayed at Highland Baptist Church and worked painting and roofing houses all week long in 100 degrees so on our days off, we did everything you are supposed to do when you travel to the other coast…from going to Disneyland, to the Hollywood sign, driving down Santa Monica blvd, Gramin’s Chinese Theatre, going to muscle beach, eating at California pizza kitchen, and even taking time to stop at the famous Hollywood stars where I could could put my hands in the handprints of Shirley Temple and Julie Andrews. With all of that, I imagined we would have run into someone…but no. The celebrity sighting would come in the most unexepected place – back at church.

On Sunday morning, we walked into the Youth Sunday School department at Highland Baptist, Jared grabbed my hand, told me I needed to meet someone and nodded towards an older African American man standing near the door named Tony Burton. I immediately asked who Tony Burton was, and why I needed my picture with him…only to find several people who couldn’t believe I didn’t know Tony played “Duke”, Apollo Creed’s father-figure and trainer in the first 3 Rocky movies, and then he became Rocky’s trainer in the 4th and 5th movies.

We walked over and Tony immediately put his arms around us, pulled us in close, grinned from ear to ear, and we snapped a quick picture. We stood there and chatted for a bit and what impressed me most wasn’t the fact that Tony was in the Rocky movies…because to be honest, I still haven’t seen them all… but I saw Tony Burton differently. What I saw was a man dressed like any other adult in the room in his Sunday Suit, joked with all the kids and adults, he taught one of the boys SS classes each week and was genuinely very nice and down to earth. I didn’t see Tony Burton, the moviestar…I saw Tony Burton, the SS teacher and follower of Christ.

So why am I telling you about a celebrity sighting, when I didn’t even realize I had met a celebrity until after the fact? Because when I began reading the Gospel lesson for this week, I wondered if that’s how Peter’s mother-in-law felt. I wonder if she saw Jesus differently after she experienced his power first-hand. Mark says, when Jesus left the synagogue in Capernaum, he went to the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, along with James and John. Here are four men who show up after church, unannounced, and simply saunter into the home. When they enter, then they tell Jesus about Peter’s mother-in-law who was sick with a bad fever and unable to get out of bed. Without hesitation, Jesus goes to see this woman and scripture says, he “took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Many had just witnessed a miracle in the temple and now here was another miracle!

Mark’s gospel repeats 5 steps as a general pattern for all miracle stories including:

1. the setting…Capernaum

2. the illness or problem…fever

3. Jesus words or action…took her hand

4. The miraculous act…raised her up

5. The response of the witnesses that confirm the miracle…she began to serve them.

We know she was very ill, because the word used in Greek is egeiró and it is used to mean awaken, or arise, but it is also the same word that is used when speaking about resurrection, just as when Jesus raised Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter, and when Jesus himself was resurrected. Plus, fever or illness would have been linked to some kind of evil in the first century, so when Jesus healed her (or in Luke’s version when he rebuked the fever as if it was a demon), this woman was physically healed from her illness and was also metaphorically freed from her sin. Perhaps one could say she was raised in newness of life.

I wonder if Peter’s mother-in-law saw Jesus differently after that encounter. She wasn’t at the temple to see Jesus call the unclean spirits out a man and then silence them. Her house was only a few hundred feet away from the synagogue, had she heard the rumors as people walked back to their homes or had she been too out of it to care? This is early on in Jesus ministry and he had just called these first disciples to follow him. Had she heard of this man whom her son-in-law and all his friends were following around and calling Rabbi? Had she cooked for them before? Maybe this was the moment that she recognized and saw the difference between knowing Jesus the Nazarene vs. believing Jesus the Messiah. I wonder if that’s the moment when she saw Jesus differently. This is one that spoke and acted with authority. When he took her by the hand, the Kingdom of God was at hand. Jesus was living out the message that he came to share with others – in

public spheres like the synagogue – but also in private homes, crowded rooms, and intimate gatherings. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God and by healing and caring for others, he not only got their attention and healed their bodies, but he was ultimately pointing to the power and the dominion of God over evil when he freed their spiritual bodies as well.

Verse 31 ends by saying that the woman began to serve them. Now some commentators have suggested that this is really the first example of a deacon! She jumped into service, kicking up the dust because she was on the move. If she had simply felt a bit better, she may have said thank you, taken it easy, got back on her feet slowly. But the immediacy of Mark’s gospel makes this read as Jesus took her hand, healed her, and she jumped into action – her first response to healing wasn’t praise, or worship, or pay him, or evangelism. Her first response to this miraculous moment was a deep desire to serve, and so she served the one that came not to be served but to be a servant! She began to provide food and wait on them, which would have been against the Sabbath Law as you couldn’t do any work and all the cooking and cleaning would have needed to be done the day before. But the rigors of the law didn’t stop her from honoring Jesus just as the Sabbath hours didn’t stop Jesus from raising her up.

Jesus didn’t just stop at the unclean spirit in the synagogue or raising up Peter’s mother-in-law, both which would have caused a stir because He was healing on the Sabbath. When the Sun when down and the sabbath was over, many from the town found courage to come and seek out Jesus at this house. They began to crowd into the doorway and Jesus healed many different diseases and cast out demons – never allowing the demons to speak and continuing to

show his dominion over the evil of the world. Allen Culpepper explains “The casting out of demons was a sign that Satan’s dominion had been broken and God’s kingdom was breaking into history with it’s expected suddenness.” The people in Capernaum went from amazed and astounded bystanders that morning, to active participants, eager and ready to accept their own miracle by sunset. I imagine some crowding the doorway were desperate to be healed as nothing else seemed to work. Some were likely skeptical but willing to give this man a chance. And I imagine some came out just to see what was really going on…he taught with authority but whose authority? They wanted to know and see more!

I don’t know how many of you have ever had an experience with demons or someone that claimed to be demon possessed but I have and it is something I will remember for the rest of my life. In 2016, Jared and I served on a mission trip to the small town of Jalapa, Guatemala. Jalapa is an extremely poor area and we were partnering with a local church that was expanding it’s mission to a region outside of town near the city dump. A couple times a week, trash trucks would pull up behind the dump to the top of the u-shaped hill, and pour all of their garbage over the brink and it would pile up below in the valley. Below in the midst of the trash, roamed cattle, pigs, chickens, and dogs plagued with mange. The mix of the trash, the animals, and the waste was enough to make your stomach turn.

On one side of the trash dump was the cemetery with brightly colored tombs sitting atop the ground…more decay. On the other side was a small village with the church plant and a new medical clinic the church was trying to staff with mission teams. Children were everywhere as they would help their families earn

money by dropping out of elementary school and rummaging through the trash at the dump to pick out recyclables which might add up to $50 a month. What was worse, some families began living in the trash piles, using old tires and tarps to build their shelters.

One afternoon when the medical team needed some additional hands, Jared and volunteered to go to the dump with a team of doctors and nurses as they assessed the needs and we could help by carrying bags of medicine and supplies. We laced up our boots, tied back our hair, put on some medical gloves and into the trash we trekked. Everyone got vitamins and some needed to be bandaged or have Neosporin cream, cough syrup, amoxicillin, de-worming medicine, or Tylenol. For some, we were able to give out diabetic or blood pressure medications and doctors and nurses were able to hear their physical complaints and assess their needs. For each, we stopped and asked their name, the kids names, and we prayed with them or blessed them as we moved to the next makeshift home…places I wouldn’t have recognized as a home if they hadn’t pointed it out. After a long time, the sun began to set and we made our way back towards the path we entered and began walking towards the clinic. At the edge of dump, I saw a man sitting in front of a tent in a clearing with a chair pillow pulled up next to him. We had passed by on the way in but hadn’t stopped, so I was sure we would stop now. The group held back while the doctor and one of the pharmacy techs made their way over to the tent. The man was foaming at the mouth and swaying just a bit, and he asked someone to come and sit down with him. I watched as time slowly passed and after awhile, they came back to the group without so much as listening to his heart or giving him vitamins. I was perplexed as they said, “Okay, let’s go.” Now, those of you who know me well,

know that I’m pretty willing to speak my mind so I asked why we weren’t going over there. Did they need something out of one of our other bags? The doctor said no, let’s go and began to walk away. I couldn’t understand why and it was as if my heart was burning inside me, I was mad we weren’t helping, my hairs were standing on end, and when I get really upset tears begin to well up. Something wasn’t right and then finally, they told us the locals believed the man was demon-possessed. We had the right setup for a miracle: 1. the setting…the dump, 2. the illness or problem…demon-possessed, 3. words or action…invitation to sit, but we walked away at step 4. The miraculous act.

The doctors explained that they were afraid in that moment that he was actually trying to lure someone in and could potentially harm them as he was likely schizophrenic and they didn’t have the medication to treat him without other assessments. It didn’t matter…I didn’t understand why we didn’t try. I didn’t understand why we didn’t lay hands on him and pray for him. Just a few verses later in Mark chapter 3, Jesus would send out aspostles and preach and cast out demons. The disciples would try and sometimes cast out demons and sometimes fail…but at least they tried…and here we were, disciples following Christ, encountering what many claimed to be a man possessed, and we turned our back and walked away, not even glancing over our shoulder.

I’ll be honest, it was the hardest, most cowardice walk, and biggest regret I have about that trip. It was as if I could hear Jesus say, “Oh ye of little faith.” What if one of us could have been Jesus to that man? The only thing that brought relief to my soul that night was the assurance that the church would be checking on the man again, and now with a potential diagnosis, they could begin to seek

more advanced medical care. I was assured it was the right thing to do in that moment, but man did my heart hurt and I still was left to wrestle with my actions and how they intersected with the scriptures that I proclaimed.

Maybe the doctors were right and we did the “safe” thing, but I still wonder what if we had done the “faith” thing? We didn’t have to worry about Sabbath laws being broken or ridicule if it didn’t work. We didn’t have crowds of people pushing down a door, or 10 lepers waiting to be healed. We had one man, asking for someone to sit with him, and we walked away. What if our “faith” was bigger than our fear?

And it’s not just there in Jalapa, Guatemala. We know that there are demons in this world today that are just as powerful as any bodily possession. Many in our world battle demons of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness, self-deprecation, PTSD, depression, and so much more. Many people struggle with things that feel outside their control and like they are fighting each day to survive… as if some demons have a grip on reality, even though they aren’t seen. There are so many things that dehumanize and divide our world. Things that tear us apart and tear us down. They affect the person, the family, the friends, and the community. There is so much evil, and yet, the Kingdom of God has broken into the world to redeem and bring hope to hopeless and offer mercy and healing for the broken spirit. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for anyone to stop medication or treatments or therapy, in fact I believe God has gifted us counselors and tools and medications that will help us treat and combat many of the demons we face in society, but I also know that it takes someone believing there is hope for that help to make a difference…believing that there is someone

that is on your side and willing to stand with you and for you. The healing doesn’t always immediately vanish like a magic trick, but there is power in knowing that Jesus is walking you through each step of your trial. When Jim asks us to imagine what the world would look like if Heaven came down to earth…I think of world where you can feel the power of the Risen Christ and his dominion over evil in this world, where love wins and the Kingdom of God truly is at hand. But I think it’s going to begin when we can become a world where people believe each other, believe in the good and the better, and thank God for beauty in each person and every place, even the demon-possessed sitting in a heap of garbage.

Our passage this morning finishes up after a full night of healing when Jesus awakes early and finds his way out to the wilderness to pray. It’s in those still, solitary moments that he is most at one with the father’s will. He’s so far removed from the house that scriptures say the disciples, these fishers of men, have to hunt for Jesus. How do you lose the man who is healing the entire town? He as there all along, but they had to find him… perhaps also a good lesson for us! It was in that wilderness place that Jesus knows his ministry is more than just exorcisms and public displays, so against their plea for him to come and see everyone in Capernaum, to be the celebrity doctor of the day, he invites the disciples to join him in a Kingdom way of life as he continues to travel to nearby towns in Galilee, ushering in the Kingdom of God…he has come to spread good news…and so they go. The crazy part is, before he can even make it to the next village someone else needs to be healed! Ultimately, Jesus’ ministry is one that is both spoken and demonstrated. It is good news and hope…and it is healing the sick and setting the captive free. I like to think these two acts – preaching and healing –go hand in hand. These two are the very things that would lead so many

to become the first believers and we know they would also lead many to question and condemn this son of God.

So, how do we concatenate these 10 simple verses? How do we reconcile a God in flesh that raises the sick, casts out the demons, and preaches good news with a world that is self absorbed, too easily turns their back, and is riddled with modern day demons that go un-named? The only answer friends, is Jesus. Jesus is the one that would make the sick well enough to serve. Jesus was the one who made the possessed proclaim. Jesus was the one who would heal lepers, call out unfair tax collectors, eat at tables with the sinners and prostitutes, and turn the world upside down even though he was a simple carpenters son from Nazareth.

You can call me crazy, or naive, but I still believe in Miracles today. I still believe that God’s word is being preached and miracles are being witnessed. I still believe in the power of prayer and healing. And even crazier…I still believe that you and I can be agents of change for the better in this world. The ancient Greek Palestinean historian, Eusebius, wrote that Jesus “thought good to use the most unsophisticated and common people as ministers of his own design. Maybe God just wanted to work in the most unlikely way…When he had thus called them as his followers, he breathed into them his divine power, and filled them with strength and courage.”

You may not be an A list celebrity, who doles out autographs and gives big hugs to adoring fans, but you may just be the only Jesus that somebody needs. You may be the only one to notice someone who needs to be healed, touched, lifted up, or seen. You may be Jesus to the one on the street who needs a hot meal. You may be Jesus to the one who thinks everyone has forgotten their name.

meal. You may be Jesus to the one who thinks everyone has forgotten their name.

You may be Jesus when you take time to sit by the bedside of a widow at the hospital. You may be Jesus to the one with Alzheimer’s whose memory has long since faded. You may be Jesus when you offer to babysit for a tired mom or stop to ask a teenager about their day. You may be Jesus when you choose to be kind instead of snarky to the cashier whose had a rough day. You may be Jesus to a world that is actively hunting for him, and it may be through your eyes, your feet, your heart, that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

May it be so. Amen.