|Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Feb. 8, 2009.
Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
As Jesus begins his public ministry, it has been fifteen hundred years since Moses. There has not been a prophet in the land – not a true prophet anyway – for six hundred years. In the meantime, after a few skirmishes during what is called the Maccabean period, the Romans came and took over everything.
By the way, you do know, don’t you? That’s the way the Romans operated... by taking over everything. The people found themselves at the mercy of their conquerors. They looked to their own people for leadership only to realize that they had their hands in the pockets of the Roman tunics. It was a desperate, difficult time, a time of little or no hope.
Are you angry that Wall Street CEO’s are still giving themselves billion dollar bonuses with the government’s – with our! – bailout money? Imagine how first-century Jews felt when they turned for help and discovered that those who were there to protect their interests were in cahoots with their captors.
They had a law as old as Moses that every Hebrew had the right to own land, but the political leaders – generally the Herods and their toadies – were finding ways around the law and were gobbling up all the real estate they could find. They were placing unbearable tax burdens on those who were least able to afford them. The rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.
Their government wasn’t scrambling to try and make things better. Their government was right in the middle of all the shenanigans. The one word that held little capital in that part of the world in that day was the word hope.
And that’s the way it was when Jesus started his public ministry.
The religious structures were becoming as corrupt as the political leadership. In fact, the line separating the religious and the political was being erased more and more every day. Rome ruled through the machinations of the high priest and the local aristocracy that controlled the temple. “The primary qualification (for religious leadership) was wealth – Rome trusted wealthy families.”1 In the process, the temple became, not a holy place, but a place of commerce and political activity... which, of course, is why Jesus notoriously cleared out the place with his angry whip (John 2:13-16).
It had become a world in which it was every man for himself... where anarchy ruled the day and those who had no means of striking back lived in the kind of abject despair in which there can be little, if any, real hope. And then came Jesus, who started his ministry in his home country of Nazareth but soon moved on to the area around the Sea of Galilee.
He was, needless to say, first viewed with a wary eye. Sure, he could do some pretty miraculous things, and yes, he was calling a few disciples. But look at what kind of people they were. Anyone knows you can pull the wool over the eyes of those type of folk. Poor people will follow anybody, common folk will believe any thing, “these kinds of people” will hope in that which is ultimately hopeless. They are hardly the barometers by which to measure the quality of one like this Nazarene in whom they have entrusted their lives. We’ll keep an eye on him and see what happens.
What happens is that Jesus eventually settles in the fishing town of Capernaum. And it didn’t take long for him to catch on.
It started with his teaching. And yes, he was good, very good indeed. For one thing, he didn’t sound like the scribes. The scribes were educated, that is true. And they were held in great respect.
I am told that in the 18th and 19th centuries, here in our country, some of the more famous preachers were the celebrities of their day. Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, endorsed a particular brand of soap in the New York newspapers.2 They had that kind of influence.
So did the scribes of Jesus’ day. But truth be told, they did little to add to the spiritual discourse nor did they make things any better.
For one thing, they didn’t – they couldn’t – say anything without citing a previous source. They had no authority of their own, only that of those who were long dead. If they said anything close to approaching the profound, you could be certain that someone had said it before. So if all you do is quote dead people, the only scripture you can bring to life is the one that says there is nothing new under the sun.
But with this Nazarene there is a freshness to what he has to say. He does not cite anyone but God alone, as if he and the One to whom he refers as his Father are constantly in conversation with one another. Just the way he carries himself, you can tell there is a sense of true authority about him. The scribes aren’t like that, not at all. Every word he speaks has value and power. The people of Capernaum can feel their blood warming to him and to what he has to say, and it’s a mighty good feeling indeed, in a time and place in which good feelings are few and far between.
And then came the miracles. The first was an exorcism. “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” He went to the home of one of his new disciples, the fisherman Simon. Simon’s mother-in-law would have served the meal for everyone, but she was quite sick with a fever and unable to do so.
This is the way the story is told... It was on a sabbath, and as was his custom, Jesus went to the local synagogue for worship. He began teaching, again not as one of the scribes but as one who had real authority. It was during the lesson that he was confronted with the man who had the evil spirit. And even though the spirit recognized Jesus and called him the Holy One of God, even when evil calls out the good, it is still evil. So Jesus commands the spirit to leave the man, and it does.
We’re not sure if Jesus resumed his teaching, but we know that it was immediately after they left the synagogue that they went to the house of Simon and his brother Andrew. It was there Jesus lifted Simon’s mother-in-law by the hand and healed her.
That’s when his fame really started spreading. And just think, he was theirs. True, he had come to them from Nazareth, so he was not a native son. But he had chosen to settle down with them, the good folk in Capernaum. Life would never be the same in their little fishing village, hard against the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. They had their very own prophet, and remember, there had not been a true prophet in the land for a very long time.
Jesus was going to put them on the map. Capernaum, next to Jerusalem of course, would be the most important town in the world, for Jesus the prophet had come and was now one of them.
At sundown, every sick person – whether it was physical illness or mental – was brought to him for healing. Why at sundown? It wasn’t because of the afternoon heat. You can be sure of that. The sabbath was over at sundown, and everyone knows that healing is work, and work cannot be done on the sabbath. So they waited until evening to bring the sick folk to Jesus. “The whole city,” we are told, “was gathered around the door” of the house where Jesus was staying with Simon, Andrew, and their family. And he cured them all... each and every one.
Jesus was theirs. He had come to be one of them, to live with them, to be their very own prophet.
Now, Simon and his brother Andrew were early risers. You had to be when you were in the business of catching fish. Fish didn’t catch themselves, you know. Had to get an early start. That’s why they were surprised, when they rose early in the morning while it was still quite dark, to find that Jesus was not there. So they went looking for him. They found him in a deserted place, where he had gone to pray, to talk with the One he called Father.
“Everyone is searching for you,” they say to him. “Everyone is searching for you.” There are still more sick folk, more crippled and demon-possessed folk, who need him, those who are hungry to hear what he has to say, to be healed by what only he can do. After all, he is now one of them, he has come to live with them, to be their very own prophet.
And he says to them, “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.”
Hmm. He was not theirs after all. He belonged to no one in particular but to all. Even his own mother Mary finally had to realize this, a painful lesson to learn don’t you know.
You’re familiar with the story, aren’t you? We’ve talked about it before. Mary comes with Jesus’ siblings to Capernaum. They’ve been hearing some disturbing things and think it their duty as his family to come and get him, to take him back to Nazareth, give him an opportunity to have some rest and recuperation, maybe get back into the family carpentry business – at least for awhile – to regain perspective about things.
When Jesus hears word that they are outside calling for him – you remember what he said, don’t you? – “Who are my mother and my brothers?” He then looks at those who are sitting around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-34).
It is a hard lesson to learn, that Jesus is not one’s sole domain. Sometimes, I think, we believe we have a franchise on Jesus... that our particular brand of faith is the only way to believe in him, to serve him, to know him. Sometimes – isn’t it true? – we think we own Jesus. We speak exclusively for him, to the point that no one else can do it. Jesus is ours, and ours alone.
I’m not sure I can say it any better than Barbara Brown Taylor...
Jesus is terrible at meeting people’s expectations of him. He engages the sorts of people he should ignore and ignores the sorts of people he should engage. He accepts the wrong dinner invitations. He is rude to respected religious leaders. He scolds his own disciples, while he praises the faith of a Roman soldier. All in all, this is not a man you want teaching the first-grade Sunday school class (although he is crazy about children). He is impossible to manage. He will not stay in role. Every time his handlers think they have him handled, he vanishes from their midst.3
That lesson comes home to me at least once every three months when our church, through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, serves as host to homeless families. We did so again just last week, and I have to tell you this time around it was a particularly trying experience... for all of us who participate in this ministry. One reason for that is that these people, in many respects, are not like us.
The former director and I were talking about that one night, and she related a statement made to her by one of the ministers at another church that participates in the program. He said to her, “You need to understand these people are not in this situation because they have made good choices.”
But I look at them – as misguided as some of them may be – pitiful, perhaps, at least by our standards, ready to take advantage of any situation in which they find themselves. My first tendency is to look down at them, thinking myself somehow better than they are. And then I am brought up short by realizing that Christ is in them as much as Christ is in me. Yes, their lives are different from mine, their attitudes sometimes foreign to how I believe, their actions a bit alien, perhaps, to the way I choose to behave. But Christ is in them, Christ loves them, Christ died for them as much as he has done this for me.
I have no ownership of Christ. And if I find myself, like Simon and the others, going out into a quiet place to retrieve my Jesus, and he says no to me, or does not respond to me, because he feels the need to be somewhere else with somebody else, it might just be because I have no exclusive claim on him. I do not own him. The only thing I can do with my Jesus is accept him and then, to whatever extent I can, share him with others.
And in that sharing he comes to me again, offers his hand, and bids me walk with him. That is enough, far more than I could ever ask for, and it gets me through yet another day.
Lord, when we are tempted to want to own you, thinking we are the only ones who can speak for you and live for you, show us that you are much bigger than that. And give us the humility to walk with you wherever you take us. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.