Homily for Epiphany, 5 February 8, 2015
“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.”
This is one of many well-known lines from the prophet Isaiah, and many people, myself included, have had that saying on their wall, accompanied by a picture of a majestic eagle soaring in the sky. It is an inspired and poetic image that expresses God’s promises of renewal and refreshment and of being lifted up. But for some, it can be hard to believe.
Indeed, at the point when this prophecy was offered, we can imagine that the people of Israel were feeling weary and defeated and thoroughly humiliated after decades of being in exile and slavery. At this point, they are returning to their homeland and trying to find their bearings. Having lost their pride, even their identity, they are now struggling to figure out what kind of people they are going to be. Their home country, even Jerusalem and the Temple, is in ruins, and their homes, if they are still standing, are inhabited by others.
They could be excused for feeling a little sceptical about their relationship with God. Israel has been through an ordeal but the prophet urges them not to underestimate God’s power to restore. The prophet makes an elaborate point about how superior and incomparable God is – above and beyond our world to the point where people look like grasshoppers to God (Isaiah is noted for creating that larger sense of perspective). That sense of the vastness and even the incomprehensibility of God can be helpful when we are tempted to become so preoccupied with ourselves that we lose a sense of the whole – the larger picture.
Grand as that may have sounded, this wasn’t easy for the people of Israel at that time. 70 years ago, the Auschwitz death camp was liberated and the films show the survivors, the remnant, staggering toward their liberators, or just standing there mute, or lying on the ground unable to rise. They were free, but what were they supposed to do – where were they supposed to go?
Like the survivors of the Holocaust, post-exilic Israelites apparently had a choice to make: to allow the trials of the previous generations to continue to disempower and enslave them, or to embrace the new life and hope signified by the compelling image the prophet was proclaiming.
Child inmates at Auschwitz 1945
The prophet urges the people to see things from a larger perspective and reassures them that it is now a time of promise and potential – a time of renewal and blessing – a time of healing and restoration. No matter what their past has been, no matter what their experience has taught them, from now on, the prophet proclaims, let the soaring eagle be your symbol, not some lowly insect.
The image of God soaring grandly above our miserable life, a being who cannot be commanded or controlled by anyone, has been a popular one in Christian theology. But the prophet creates a bit of a paradox in offering this image celebrating the cosmic grandeur of God, who is far above all the petty things of earth, and yet is also concerned for the welfare of an obscure, unimportant and weak nation like Israel.
This understanding of God, of being superior yet not above stooping to help and lift up the weak and the lowly, is revealed in a very personal way in today’s Gospel, with Jesus being asked into the home of Simon Peter and encountering Peter’s sick mother-in-law. It’s an interesting case. Just recently we heard the Gospel story of Peter and his brother Andrew being called away from their fishing nets, and their livelihoods, in order to follow Jesus around Galilee and beyond. The calling of the disciples is a dramatic and inspiring story, but what happens to those who are left behind — the fathers and mothers, the wives and children, and the mothers-in-law?! The Gospel of Mark offers us a glimpse.
I can imagine Peter’s mother-in-law not being terribly well disposed toward Peter, and especially not toward the man who called him away from his family and his responsibilities to go traipsing about the countryside trying to change the world.
Mothers-in-law are hard to please in the first place – they don’t give up their daughters without a fight, and often persist for years in trying to prove that they were right about their son-in-law in the first place (which sometimes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). A Japanese proverb says “Never rely on the glory of the morning nor the smiles of your mother-in-law.” It’s a thing, as they say. So Peter’s mother-in-law could very well have been seething with worry, resentment, anger and hostility for months if not years (the Gospel writers are not very clear about chronology and the amount of time elapsed), by the time Peter returned, perhaps to such a degree that she made herself sick about it.
So here is Peter, the primary disciple, the rock, and according to some the first Pope, pictured less as a hero than as a very ordinary married man with a very typical domestic life. We can only assume that Mark had several reasons for reporting this apparently minor encounter. (One thing to note that is significant in and of itself is that the Bible is one version of history that does not just commemorate and venerate the powerful and successful – it pays attention to many of the minor characters, and that is certainly reflected in the readings this morning.)
The Gospel proclaims that Jesus walks in, extends a hand, and Peter’s mother in law is immediately back in business, apparently quite happy to serve the crowd that has arrived.
This mother-in-law had a choice to make. She could have locked the door, sulked or tried to milk the situation; she could have complained and carped and spewed out accusations and blame. Yet it says something about Christ’s presence that her recovery was instantaneous, much like the man on the pallet (and many others) who only needed a word from Jesus to be released from whatever burden had made them ill. Jesus was not merely charming — his presence radiated the creative energy and goodness and love of God; his presence healed people and brought them back to life.
Sometimes, we resent the world beyond our doors and we don’t want intrusions by others – “not in my back yard” has become a phrase that captures the tendency to want to remain isolated and unbothered by the presence of other people. Modern cities around the world are prepared to countenance the presence of thousands of people living below the poverty line and around the margins, while many enjoy an extravagant and wasteful lifestyle. But it seems that God is always creating larger perspectives and opening doors of perception, which is what happens when you ride on the back of an eagle or follow the way of Jesus, because the God we serve is concerned about the weak, the marginalized, the apparently irrelevant ones – the ones that the powerful and successful prefer to ignore or abuse.
Jesus himself, meanwhile, continued to serve the huge number of hopeless cases that were being carried and dragged to the door of this home. If Peter’s family weren’t aware of what it would mean to follow and serve Christ before, they certainly did now. Jesus led by example, to the point where he exhausted himself and needed to go off alone into the countryside to pray and meditate. In this, Mark suggests that even Jesus, the Son of God, is not above the need to turn toward the Source for renewal, and to place his own trust in the ancient wisdom expressed by Isaiah: “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength . . .”
Pope Paul VI defined evangelization as the “process of bringing good news into all the strata of humankind and, through its influence, transforming from within and making it new” (Evangelii Nuntiandi). Good news, to every level of human life – transforming, renewing.
Saint Paul was willing to risk and even lose his life striving to share this amazing good news of new life and freedom that was available to all – willing to go to any length, and do whatever he needed to do to make that message and life relevant, understandable and available. This was not merely a hobby for Paul or an academic interest. Paul felt compelled to do this, even in the face of hostility, misunderstanding, threats, and accusations. Not motivated by money or fame, Paul persisted in serving Christ simply so that others might embrace (or be embraced by) the Good News of God in Christ.
Peter’s mother in law has become a metaphor of the Church, in terms of confronting the choice to lapse into self-pity, obscurity and eventual irrelevance, to lie back and expect others to serve us, to feel useless and unappreciated and rejected, or instead to stand up to serve and to be a positive force in the world. This incident was not included in Mark’s Gospel just as an anecdote – there is a message here for future generations about what it means to be a Christian. As a modern saint (Mahatma Gandhi) once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” That old lady chose to be that change, rather than continuing to lie there lamenting her plight, and so she has become an example for the Church in every age.
I believe we are meant to be the community that mediates Christ to the world. I believe we are called to embody Christ, to represent him, to be his ambassadors, as St Paul says. In my view, churches are places where the life of Christ is celebrated, studied, practised, demonstrated, and offered, especially for the sake of those who are downtrodden, weak, and demoralized. Do you believe that? If so, do you believe it enough to act on it?
As Peter’s mother-in-law quickly discovered, Christianity is not about being served; it is not about becoming a passive recipient (or consumer) of blessing and favour; it is about becoming like Jesus who brings life to others. Jesus raises us, but not to be like pampered princesses and princes. As Isaiah points out, such people come and go like the grass and make almost no impact. Jesus raises us not so we can be superior or above others. We are lifted up, in one sense, so we can see the bigger picture, but more importantly, we are lifted up in order that we may become servants, because those who serve in even the smallest way are never irrelevant or useless or powerless.
I hope you can hear the Word speaking to you today, because it is issuing a summons to life. Christ is life, even to those whose suffering is severe –even to those who seem to have nothing – even to those who are beyond humiliation and no longer know or care who they are.
In any given moment, and especially in this Eucharist, we are being given the power to rise up like eagles – to have our hope and purpose and identity strengthened – to renew our will to serve and to make a difference – to be blessed, but more importantly to know that we are called to be a blessing to the countless people we interact with on a daily basis.
May the Church in our day rise up like an eagle – rise up like the mother in law summoned by Christ to a healthy life – rise like Jesus from death into the fullness of a truly universal and cosmic life.
O God, you came among us, and became one of us, in Jesus the Christ, sharing our weakness in order to heal us, gathering us out of exile and slavery, healing our broken hearts and binding our wounds, and raising us up on wings like eagles. He faithfully followed your call all the way to death on a cross. As he raised others, so you raised him up and promised that all who trust in him will rise up as a new creation and never lose heart. We pray that we might go where you send us and be what you need us to be without ever growing weary or faint as we serve in your Name.
The Venerable Grant Rodgers+
Readings for Epiphany 5:
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. 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.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c Praise the LORD! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. The LORD lifts up the downtrodden; he casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre. He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. Praise the LORD!
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
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.