(Seventy days until Easter)
- Introit: The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrows of hell encompassed me; and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy temple. -- (Ps.17. 2, 3). I will love Thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer.
At first sight, it may seem odd that the lectionary offers us a reading from Isaiah that is all about God the cosmic creator and giver of power, and then there is a reading from Mark’s gospel that includes the small scene of Jesus’ healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. How does the might, majesty, dominion, and power of God the Creator, as set forth in Isaiah’s poetry, shed light upon Jesus exorcising demons and healing people in the Gospel of Mark?
The first clue lies in our liturgical context: the season of the Epiphany, which began with twin themes of our baptismal identities and the light of Christ shining in the world.
These themes led us first into readings about God’s call to us. By trying faithfully to understand the shape of that call, we have revisited our responsibilities as outlined in our baptismal promises. As we have been engaged in this, we have invoked the light of Christ to shine ever brighter upon our path, helping us to discern our ministries and mission in the world.
Now we turn to pick up another side to the Epiphany message: that Christ is a light “to the Gentiles” – to those who lie outside our usual framework.
Our Isaiah reading today shows the prophet encouraging his despondent hearers. It was a long moment of great crisis for our ancestors, who continued to live in exile away from the Land of Promise, without Temple or monarchy, and under the rule of a foreign, pagan people. Isaiah wants his hearers to know that their God is a lot bigger than they seem to think he is. Not only is God the maker of their covenant relationship, the maker and savior of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the savior manifest in the mighty acts of the Exodus, the God of Moses, the God of David, and so on; their God is also the Creator and maker of the universe.
In a magnificent reinterpretation of the first chapter of Genesis, our reading from Isaiah slowly and deliberately shows that in calling into existence the whole cosmos, God has also called into existence all the peoples of the earth. They are consequently under his divine jurisdiction as are the sun, the moon, the stars, and everything else “on high.” Therefore, although God’s understanding of the various nations and peoples may be quite inscrutable, the reach and scope of God’s activities are universal and endless in scope.
Beneath and behind the vicissitudes of any given political situation, this God is hard at work; for the God of Israel is also the God of the Gentiles. So even in crisis and in a situation where they cannot see any positive outcome, Isaiah’s hearers are instructed to “wait for the Lord.” By “waiting,” Isaiah means trusting, even when things look hopeless we are still to trust this God.
When we turn to the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus the Son of God manifesting the universal reach and scope of God’s activity. Because his gospel is first and foremost the Good News about Jesus, Mark does not worry about cosmic matters.
Unlike Luke, for example, Mark does not even fill out the historical and political context for us; he simply rushes Jesus onto the stage and shows the Son of God in action. Unlike Matthew, Mark does not paint in the background of Torah and the rest of the Sacred Writings. With Mark, it is for us to infer that this Jesus is Son of the same “God of the whole universe” whom Isaiah was talking about, and that the people of God are, once again, in some sort of historical and political crisis.
In last week’s gospel reading we saw that Jesus has the authority and power to cast out demons, and now we have a scene of Jesus with the power to heal bodily illness. In terms of Mark’s first-century audience, both episodes demonstrate the universal reach and scope of God’s activity embodied in Jesus. You and I would call psychiatrists, doctors, and spiritual directors when we have mental, emotional, psychological, or physical symptoms of some sort. In the world of the New Testament writers, such symptoms were understood as the manifestations of cosmic spiritual disorders.
What Mark shows right up front in the first chapter of his gospel is that God is establishing the beginning of His kingdom on earth in the person and work of his beloved Son, Jesus. This kingdom is about reordering the condition and priorities of peoples’ lives – not only in opposition to the political order established in King Herod and the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, but also against what St. Paul and others generally call the unseen “principalities and powers” that operate outside the control of human beings.
These principalities and powers were every bit as important to the people of Galilee in the first century as their political oppressors. Jesus’ healing brought Peter’s mother-in-law back into everyday life in God’s presence. She is the first of several nameless women in Mark’s gospel whom Jesus heals and thus reestablishes to their proper social and religious lives.
The good news of God in Christ is intended to set us all free from everything that blocks our ability to “get up and go” into the kingdom of God in our time. Nobody is beyond the scope of God in Christ, no matter the crisis: not the people of Zimbabwe, not the Palestinians in Gaza, not the population of Mosul and Basra, not the men and women in the poppy fields of Afghanistan and Kurdistan, and certainly not your best friend with breast cancer or your uncle with Alzheimer’s.
Nobody and no circumstance is outside the reach and scope of this God. Yet for us, as for Isaiah, the ways of God in dealing with Zimbabwe, Gaza, Mosul, and Kabul are often hard to understand. What we have to do is trust in this God and live into our Baptismal Covenant as best we can. This means focusing on our own political reach, attending prayerfully to the scope of our created gifts and skills in the communities where we work and vote, sending the fruits of our life and labor to assist in God’s liberating work in places of crisis, praying for the peace of God, which alone can reestablish order in everyday life.
The Epiphany light is still shining on our paths so that we can be a light to the world.