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 sunset, 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.
That Is What I Came Out To Do: Mark 1:29-39
This portion of scripture really has three parts that each show us something about how Jesus works in this world. In each section, one in a private home among close friends and their family, another in a more public space among strangers, and the third, isolated in the wilderness, away from everyone, we can gain insight into what Jesus thinks is important according to this Gospel. We are also able to get a glimpse of what it means to follow Jesus during the earliest parts of his ministry. In looking at these early stories of how Jesus lived and ministered alongside the people who had faith in him, I think we can learn something about how to follow him today, in our own families, out in public with our neighbors, and in our own places of quiet and solitude.
This reading begins where many of our journeys of faith began, within a family home, among people who love and care for one another. Scholars remind us that, in this time and in this culture, several generations lived with each other and, many times, branches of extended families lived together. This home is called Simon and Andrew's. Simon's mother-in-law lives there, too. There are likely many people who call this place home. And, this family is well known by James and John, the other two brothers and early disciples of Jesus. Now, at least one scholar I read this week, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, reminds us that Jesus has a tricky relationship with families in Mark. Like, in chapter three, when his own family comes looking for him, he says his real family isn't necessarily them, but anybody who does the will of God. I'm going to hazard a guess, but I bet that wasn't an easy thing for them to hear.
And, yet, here is a story where two brothers make sure that Jesus knows that a member of their friend's family is sick. From this story forward, friends and family are shown to powerful centers of compassion and care. That will continue throughout this gospel. Parents will ask Jesus to heal their children several more times in this book. These two sets of brothers, James and John and Simon and Andrew, will continue to care for one another even as they follow Jesus. Faith in Christ will consistently be situated inside the family, with family members encouraging one another to believe and to be healed. People will find Jesus within their closest relationships. And, Jesus will respond with compassion to those who advocate for the people they love.
That's what he does here. He responds to James and John's concern for Simon's mother-in-law by lifting her up out of the illness that may be close to claiming her life. In a time before Tylenol, a fever could be a terrifying sign. But, here is Jesus... stronger than the illness that was trying to claim her. The brothers had already seen him heal someone once. How much more would it mean to them to see him heal someone they know and love. It sure seems to have affected Simon's mother-in-law. It is too bad that we don't know her name, because she does something incredible. In what some may describe as the first glimpse of resurrection in Mark, she returns to her healthy life. But, she doesn't stop at simply being healed. She begins to serve.
We would do well to remember what the word "serve" means in the Gospel of Mark. Kittredge points out that the Greek word for service is used throughout the book of Mark to mean both serve at a table and to do ministry. Much of the time, it is used to describe discipleship or work with divine foundations. The angels served Jesus in the wilderness. A whole slew of women will become disciples of Jesus and serve with him. In Mark 10, Jesus will describe his own ministry this way: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Read this way, Simon's mother-in-law was the first person to be both healed by Jesus and then begin a life of discipleship with him. And, none of that would have been possible had her friends and family not advocated for her.
As this woman shifts into discipleship, the story shifts from the private sphere to the public. Or, at least semi-public. The next part of the story happens within the crowd of people who have gathered outside of the mother-in-law's home. Between her healing, the healing of the possessed man at the synagogue in the story just before this one, and Jesus' preaching in the synagogue, Jesus has gone from one who is relatively unknown to someone the whole town is talking about. People knew they could find healing with him. So, they came to him in droves. And, Jesus healed them, one by one, from their various diseases and possessions. For the second time in just a few verses, we see Jesus communicating with the demons as he draws them out. I didn't preach on this last week, so it is worth noting. Earlier in this chapter, when a demon tried to say out loud who Jesus was, Jesus stopped him. In today's reading, it says he did the same, forcing them to be silent because "they knew him."
Now, if Jesus is willing to preach and heal people in public, why would he prevent the demons he called out from naming him? Another scholar I read this week, Bonnie Bowman Thurston, says she thinks this has something to do with how Jesus prefers that people come to know him. It is one thing for people to observe him themselves and choose to follow. It is another thing for people to be convinced of his power by the word of supernatural beings. According to Thurston, for Jesus, it matters not simply that people hear about him, but that they observe him themselves and choose to follow. Later in Mark, Jesus will even tell Peter not to tell people he was the Messiah. Maybe it's because Jesus doesn't just want people to be swayed by the miraculous. You didn't have to be the Messiah to heal people. Magicians and healers roamed the countryside, performing miracles, too. Perhaps Jesus didn't want his reputation to be like that of any common magician. Healing is central to his ministry, but his work is more than simply magic. He was a preacher, too, sharing something new about God. The spectacle of the healings could not overshadow the core of his message of compassion and grace. So, don't make following him about the flashiest things done in his name. Make it about the invitation to come and see for yourself how he teaches and how he can change your life.
As the story shifts into the third part, we see yet another shift in location. After a full day of healing people, modeling sabbath for anyone who cares for other people, Jesus goes to an isolated place to pray. This isn't the first time that Jesus will pray in the desert. Jesus went to the desert to reconnect with God, the source of his power and the foundation of his identity. Thurston asserts that periods like this, where he is in the desert praying, remind us that all of his authority is rooted in his dependence on God, not in flashy feats of magic. They are necessary times of respite and reconnection in the midst of his hectic ministry. But, his disciples didn't seem to understand that. He is so far out of the way that the scripture says his followers have to "hunt" for him, as though he was lost. Their hunt isn't necessarily described as a good thing.
There was probably still a crowd of people around the house where Jesus had stayed. The disciples, either because they were excited that so many people wanted to meet Jesus or because they were afraid of offending the crowd, came to find Jesus to deal with them. But, Jesus was not interested in popularity. He would have directed everyone, human and demon alike, to spread word of his miracles if he was. No, he had a different calling and he was clear about it. I wonder if his time in prayer helped him gain clarity in his mission. When Simon seems to try to get him to return to the crowd, he tells them they need to go in a different direction. He said, "we're going to travel to other towns. I am going to preach again in those places. This message is important. It is what I came to share." And, so they followed, out into Galilee, where Jesus preached and healed people. But, all that work was rooted in prayer and time spent with God. He would have had no ministry without it.
This reading gives us three parts of a story. It reminds us three locations in which we live out our faith: among family, in public among strangers, and in private, with God. Perhaps, inspired by this reading, we need to ask ourselves three questions: How can we, like James and John, advocate for the healing of the people we love and welcome hurting people we don't know? How, like Jesus, do we center our faith around service and connection, and not around bombast? And, also, what are our deserted places that allow us to reconnect with God and fortify our own ministries? Ministry, both Christ's and ours, is not simple task. It is not done in a vacuum or with a few, attention grabbing events. It is a long journey that must be sustained through prayer, compassion, and advocacy. What is sustaining your ministry today? What have you learned from your time in the dessert?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing her sermon:
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3547
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.