5 Epiphany, Year B
Mark 1: 29-39
News of the healing power of Jesus has spread all around the region of Galilee. Jesus is with his disciples, the fishermen Simon and Andrew. James and John are there too.
The healing story in today’s gospel appears near the start of Jesus’s public ministry. Even though Simon’s mother-in-law is unnamed in the text, she is more important than her being unnamed might suggest. She’s important enough that Jesus chose to heal her on the Sabbath; as it was unlawful for healing to take place earlier in the day, the crowd waited until sundown to bring Jesus those who were sick or possessed with demons.
Jesus takes her hand and restores her health. In the New Revised Standard Version we heard, he “lifted her up.” In another translation, he “helped her up.” But in the Greek, the verb more closely translates as “raised her up.”
“Raised up” foreshadows the coming resurrection and the road to the cross that Jesus takes, a road Mark emphasizes throughout his gospel. Jesus is not eager for this journey. By contrast, Simon’s mother-in-law is eager to serve, even if it seems unfair that the minute she’s well, she starts serving the men.
It’s easy to think she is of lesser value in this patriarchal society, but she actually holds a social position of honor – the one whose role it is to demonstrate hospitality. She arises from her sick bed out of gratitude for restored health, and out of gratitude fulfills the role for which she is chosen. Showing hospitality is pleasurable work, transformed by the touch of Jesus’ hand. Jesus’s healing restored her to physical health, and to a wholeness that allowed her do the work she was called to do.
Her position of serving others is an honorable one, bestowed because she is the eldest female member. While it also is one of servitude, she reclaims her role in the household only when healed – giving her purpose, freeing her to do the work that comes with her position.
Some have called Simon’s mother-in-law’s “the first deacon,” noting her response to being touched by Jesus. She rises up as one who serves, and demonstrates that serving others is a role to be carried out with grace and dignity.
Jesus, in all he does throughout the gospel, prepares for the fulfillment of the role for which he is chosen. It is a heavy journey towards the cross and until then, Jesus silences anyone who proclaims that he is the son of God. We see this in today’s passage when Jesus does not permit the demons to speak, “because they knew him.” (Mk. 1:34, NRSV).
Jesus silences those who try to identify him as the Messiah, son of God. There are other places in Mark’s gospel where Jesus invokes silence about who he is. He wants his identity kept secret until he reaches the cross, when all will be made known.
Why doesn’t Jesus stay in the city long enough to heal all the sick people who are brought to him – doesn’t he care about them? Yes, yet he cannot remain in one place for long, for he and his disciples must press on to spread the gospel in other places. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mk. 1: 38, NRSV).
While the disciples and crowds hunt for Jesus, he knows that withdrawing from their commotion is necessary. His mission is to move on to the next town, to proclaim and preach. His work here is done.
When the disciples look for Jesus, he’s nowhere in sight. Can you imagine how annoyed they are with him? He’s gone to a deserted place to pray. When they find him they ask, “Where have you been? Crowds are calling for you!” He knows he can only accomplish his healing work strengthened by time apart with God.
The gospel tells us that, following the example of Jesus, we are to value prayer highly. Yet many of us admit that we are not comfortable with prayer.
Sometimes being asked to offer prayer in community comes as an anxiety-provoking endeavor. Episcopalians are known as a people of the book, thought to panic if asked to pray spontaneously in a meeting room or informal dinner. Not everyone carries The Book of Common Prayer at all times (even if some of us have it on the home screen of our mobile devices). What if our words fail us or aren’t good enough?
A few of you may have heard me tell a favorite story about spontaneous prayer.
In British novelist David Lodge’s book, Small World, the pilot of an airplane realizes that the plane is headed for a crash. He asks the nervous stewardess to go calm down the passengers. She doesn’t know what to do, so he tells her “just pray!”
The stewardess blurts out the only prayer she can remember: “O God, for what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful.” So our quest for the perfect words may entirely fail us.
When Jesus headed for wilderness places to pray, perhaps he used the prayer he taught us: “Our Father, who art in heaven….” or perhaps no words at all. Being about prayer doesn’t need to be about finding language worthy enough for God’s ear.
A few days ago, when our beloved parishioner Rich lay near death, a call went out among Trinity members for prayer. As I dropped everything to pray, I sensed this community’s interconnected web of prayer, a gift of presence much greater than ourselves, greater than what we know.
Soon, the season of Lent will be upon us. How can you choose time apart with God? What physical space might be your refuge? With lives crammed full, how do we make space for intentional and deep quiet?
As we travel though our own desert places in these days before Lent, know that even Jesus needed the strength that comes from stopping for prayer, wrapped in God’s loving presence.
Like Jesus called Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him, he calls us. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote of all who try to follow Christ. It is, of course, Christ who is the true light – blazing, inextinguishable. But Tutu says that “we are only the light bulbs…and our job is just to remain screwed in!”
As we move toward Lent from this Epiphany season of light, may Jesus take us by the hand as he did Simon’s mother-in-law and lift us up, so that we are prepared to step boldly into all the places God sends us.
 David Lodge, Small World (New York: Penguin Books; 1995).
 Richard Rohr, Falling upward: a spirituality for the two halves of life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), ix.
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