Grace Presbyterian Church
February 8, 2015, Epiphany 5B
What does it take to draw a crowd these days? I mean a serious crowd, throngs of people.
We had one such answer a week ago, of course. Thousands of people crammed into a stadium, thousands more pouring into Phoenix, and millions around this country and others watching via television, for a football game. The numbers are pretty impressive. Nothing like a World Cup Soccer final, mind you, but pretty impressive.
Who remembers, though, that a little more than twenty years ago that game was the object of a particularly daring and successful stroke of counterprogramming designed to draw off at least some of those crowds for a special, live episode of the sketch comedy program In Living Color? Timed to begin at the end of the first half and end in time for viewers to get back to the game, the counterprogramming stunt was successful enough to draw about 22 million viewers away from the Super Bowl halftime show, which that year featured singer Gloria Estefan and figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano.
Well, the NFL was going to have none of that. For the next year’s halftime show the league booked no less than Michael Jackson, only the biggest performer on the planet at the time. The pre-emptive strike worked, and in the twenty intervening years the halftime show has become a spectacle that equals if not dwarfs the game itself. Between the halftime show and the increasingly expensive and popular commercials that air during the game, it can become easy to forget there’s actually a game going on.
What such a story reminds us is that crowds are fickle. You can attract crowds, to be sure, but once they are pulled in, how do you keep their attention?
One gets the idea that Jesus knew this, when one sees how today’s gospel reading turns out. When last we left our story, Jesus had just astonished the synagogue crowds with his teaching, with an exorcism thrown in as well. This got tongues wagging, as we were left with the statement that “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28).
So for a follow-up to this smashing introduction to the people of Galilee, Jesus goes to … the house of Simon. Maybe everybody needed a rest. It still seems an odd way to follow up that experience in the synagogue.
As well, this must have been an interesting return for Simon. Remember, we first met him back in verse sixteen, where he and brother Andrew “immediately” dropped their nets and walked right off the fishing boat in response to Jesus’s call. Even at the time we noted how that seemed a rash decision. One can only wonder how Simon was contemplating explaining all this to his family, especially his mother-in-law, perhaps. “You mean to tell me that you just up and walked away from a perfectly good fishing business to follow this homeless preacher? Son, have you got any sense in you at all?” I have to wonder if Simon might have been wishing that Jesus would change his mind and go looking for more demons to cast out.
Instead the homecoming became an occasion for another act of healing from Jesus. It’s interesting that Mark describes the event rather un-dramatically, even anticlimactically. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever; Jesus took her hand and raised her up, and she got up and started to serve. Simple. (Yeah, right. Simple.)
Again word starts to spread, and before the day is over the whole town is gathered outside the house, with all those with illnesses or unclean spirits crowding around Jesus to be healed. For the people of Capernaeum this must have been an occasion of great joy, with health being restored and wholeness being reclaimed and burdens of suffering and despair being lifted.
Yet I ask you to consider that this is only the first occasion for healing to be found in today’s scripture.
I realize that the rest of today’s reading doesn’t use the word “healing.” Verse 39 does allude to more casting out of demons, true. But specific mention of healing? No, not in the rest of this passage.
And yet, after a full Sabbath day, first in the synagogue with the man with the unclean spirit, then at Simon’s home raising up Simon’s mother-in-law, and then with myriad people seeking healing, we need to pay attention to what Jesus does the next morning.
He goes to find a “deserted place,” according to Mark. Away from the city, away from the synagogue and Simon’s home, away from the crowds which were, according to Simon and his companions, searching for Jesus.
Jesus went away to that deserted place, and he prayed.
If Jesus, son of God, “eternally begotten of the Father” as the creed puts it, needed to pull away from the crowds and find a deserted place and get back in touch with his Father in prayer, we certainly can’t expect to be able to press on relentlessly without pause or without recharging our spiritual selves. If Jesus needed to pray, we need to pray. If Jesus needed to retreat to a deserted place, we need to step away ourselves.
In those moments there is healing to be had. In prayer there is nothing less than re-energization, from the very source of our being. In the retreat to prayer God is present to restore our strained energies, our frayed nerves, our exhausted spirits and worn-down souls. We cannot possibly think that we are superhuman enough to press through the grief, the stress, the weariness when our very Lord and Savior made a point of seeking out solitude and prayer.
It’s hard to fathom in our world where we are taught never to press the pause button. If Jesus were being directed by some kind of modern corporation or publicity firm, can you imagine their reaction to his going off to a deserted place to pray? First of all there’s no way he could have done what he did on that Sabbath day without being hustled out the next morning to be on all the Monday morning news shows. The pursuing crowds would no doubt be joined by jostling cameras tracking his every step. Had Jesus been so bold as to slip out and find that deserted place, the handlers and spin doctors would have no doubt gone ballistic. “You’ve got to capitalize on the moment,” they’d say. “If you want to take advantage of this momentum you’ve got to get out there RIGHT NOW and press your advantage. Rest is for the weak.”
You get the idea; our culture does not reward or even understand what Jesus did that next morning. At what would seem to be a high point, a moment of triumph, Jesus disappeared. Simon seems to have organized a search party to find him. And Jesus didn’t relent and return to the disciples; they had to go and find him. Jesus took this time of restoration and healing seriously. We can do no less, no matter how much the world we live in discourages such behavior.
Of course what happens next is equally intriguing. Simon and his companions finally find him and let him know in no uncertain terms that he had disappointed a whole lot of people that morning. And Jesus’s response was…to leave town.
Not to plunge into the crowds and sign them up for long-term membership. Not to exploit the masses for fame and recognition. For Jesus, the next step was to get on with the work of proclaiming the good news.
Notice where Jesus’s attention was focused; his job, “what I came out to do” as he puts it in verse 38, was to proclaim the gospel. Given his retreat and prayer time, Jesus came away focused on the core of his mission, taking us back once again to what we might in modern jargon think of as Jesus’s mission statement, back in verse fifteen; “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The temptation to continue to work the present crowd, to ride the wave of popularity, would be very hard for us to pass up. Yet for Jesus, his own retreat and healing and prayer brought him back to his basic animating purpose, and he walked away from the crowds to find the next synagogue in which to teach, and continued to proclaim the good news.
We as a church are at a new juncture. I’m new here, as you know. We’re at a place of looking forward, trying to catch a vision of just what God is calling us out to do. For this congregation it’s been a long time coming, working through a transition period and waiting for that next step to come forward. My wait hasn’t been quite as long as yours, but we all come to this moment aware of the passage of time, and aware of the uncertainty before us. What is our next step? Where do we go from here? What are we to be as a church, both as a worshiping community and as a witness to our town and our world?
Let one thing be crystal clear: we will go nowhere without all of us, together as a church and individually in our own homes and prayer closets, taking time to step away from the immediate crush of worry and uncertainty and restoring our connection to the One who calls us his children. We can make ourselves exhaustingly busy doing many things, but without the time of prayer and discernment and searching and listening for the still small voice amidst the whirlwind and chaos, we will go nowhere fast.
We’ve been through much as a congregation. There have been some wounds, some disappointments, some weariness as this church has sought its way forward. We cannot find that way forward without some time for healing and recharging, time spent in prayer and searching and discernment, a work that is not done with my call here, but is in fact just beginning.
For healing that comes in many forms, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “To God Be the Glory” (485), “O Christ the Healer” (380), “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (298)