Epiphany 5B, Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39, Sermons

Those Who Wait For the Lord

(I’m late posting this, and it comes with a Kleenex warning.)


A sermon for Epiphany 5B–February 5, 2012– Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39

Just a few weeks ago, I was sick enough to go the doctor twice in the same week. I had chest x-rays and a breathing treatment with a nebulizer the first time. They sent me home with antibiotics and fancy cough medicine and an inhaler. They said “Call back if your symptoms change.”

So when I developed a fever, I called back.

We might tend to take a fever lightly. We’re accustomed to dispensing Tylenol and seeing things get
better.

But a fever in Jesus’ day meant a life-threatening event.

There was no doctor to see. They couldn’t go to the medical center for MRIs and CT Scans. They didn’t ask for a referral to the cardiologist or the oncologist. They had home remedies and tender loving care. And if those didn’t help, they turned to God and prayed and offered sacrifices and hoped.

It must have been like this in the family home of Simon and Andrew, a place where an extended family lived. In a first century Jewish home, the women kept house and did the cooking. In this family, the men fished for a living. We know that Simon and Andrew had been off with Jesus. Now that they have stopped home for a meal, they find Simon’s mother-in-law so ill that she cannot rise from her bed, laid low by a fever no one has any power to control. They surely feared for her life.

When I served as an on-call chaplain at Maine Medical Center, I once sat with a woman worrying about her mother. The daughter was in her late 50’s, the mother in her early 80’s. The daughter was terribly upset at the prospect of life without her mother. I knew how she felt, even though my mother and I were both much younger when we faced that moment together. It doesn’t matter, you see, how old your mother is, or even how satisfying or disappointing the relationship has been. The loss of a mother changes the landscape permanently.

Maybe you have lost your mother, or someone else whose death changed the look of the world around you. Maybe you remember the feeling of awful anticipation. You can imagine the scene in Simon’s house. What could they do to help her? They couldn’t even keep her comfortable. Surely, surely they would see her die.

But that didn’t happen to Simon’s family. Instead Jesus walked into the house, took his mother-in-law by the hand, and lifted her up.

And she began to serve them.

It may seem like some old-fashioned stereotyping when we hear that Simon’s mother-in-law got up from what might have been her deathbed to wait on people. But maybe that was exactly the thing she most loved to do. Maybe, like a modern-day mom laid low by an illness, she was lying there thinking how untidy things were getting and how much she wanted to set it all right again.

Or maybe she had a sense of being in the presence of the holy.

And she began to serve them.

The Greek word translated as “serve” in the gospel is the root for our word Deacon, diakonoi. It’s the same word used earlier in Mark 1 when Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and nights, and the angels minister to him.

Simon’s mother-in-law began to minister to them. She began to wait on the Lord.

Imagine another scene. In a big old house in Virginia, my mother sat weakly in a comfortable chair, watching her grandsons play. My little boys were 7 and 2, and although they didn’t know it, their grandmother was dying of cancer. The doctor told my parents she might live another four to six weeks, and my father got on the phone, asking me to bring the children to see her. My mother had very little energy; the melanoma that began years before as a changed mole on her back was now in her liver, among other places, and she grew frailer and fainter each day.

On the morning we were to leave, Mother wanted us to pack a lunch for the airplane. She was a very frugal person, and although my father was the kind of dad who usually pressed money into my hand on the way out the door, my mother couldn’t bear thinking we might waste money on expensive food in the airport. We all gathered in the kitchen while I made the sandwiches; my mother mustered her strength to sit in a straight chair at the kitchen table.

She asked for a cutting board and two apples. She sat there, peeling and coring the apples, cutting them into neat slices, then putting them back together. She wrapped them in waxed paper, with a twist at the top that looked rather like a stem. When we opened the apples to eat on the plane, my eyes filled with tears. It was the last time I would see my mother do something for another person, and she had wrapped those apples for my little boys.

A sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” We claim only two sacraments: Communion and Baptism. But I will always remember that moment as the sacrament of the apples, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual love being shared, enabled by God’s grace. Those were healing apples for all of us. They carried her love, and that love became part of each of us. And preparing those apples healed my mother, too, for in that small act of caring she was herself in a way she hadn’t been during her illness.

Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, wrote Isaiah, or in some translations, “those who wait *on* the Lord.” My mother and Simon’s mother-in-law were not strengthened so they could cut apples or fix dinner, but in a moment of renewal, each used the strength she had to serve in a way that expressed love and care.

Think of them all, gathered outside Simon’s house. We read that by sundown the whole city was gathered at the door, people bringing their beloved mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, their children and their friends who were ill, physically or mentally or spiritually. Imagine the patience required as he moved among them, the way they waited for the Lord to speak to them and touch them. He healed many, and he dealt with the demons among them, telling them to be silent.

The demons, the afflicted, the dying – did they all recognize him? Did they all know him for who he was?

Would we?

By the end of that day, Jesus needed to rest and recuperate from his efforts. He went off to pray, alone. In the silence he became clear about what he needed to do next. He couldn’t stay in that one little place waiting for the world to come to him. His work and his being were the same. His life was to be the Good News of God’s love for all people.

Renewed, he went on to serve us.

Think of it. God’s own self took a rest, and came back renewed, and then used that strength to care for us.

Think of it. God came to serve us, to minister to us, to be broken and poured out for us.

It’s inconceivable, until the day we feel it. It’s hard to grasp, until he takes us by the hand and lifts us up off whatever sort of sickbed we inhabit. It’s incomprehensible, until we feel the way love renews our strength, and the next thing we know, we’re lifted up to serve. The next thing we know, we’re slicing apples and wrapping them in waxed paper, with love. Those who wait for the Lord *will* renew their strength, and they will go out to wait on the world, in his name. Amen.

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