5th Sunday after Epiphany Year B

 Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c; I Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39.  

The vast distance between God in heaven and those who wait for healing is bridged by the labor of the servant of the Lord.

Isaiah 40:21-31.  

The prophetic reading is a colossal hymn to covenantal monotheism, to an almighty and universal God who nevertheless cares about the neglected ones who wait.  

The doubting and long-suffering human partners in the covenant groan, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God” (verse 27, NRSV).  

This is the sort of despairing that Elijah expressed on his trip through the wilderness to encounter God at the holy mountain (I Kings 19:4).  The poor harassed servant of God in the desert, or the discouraged exile in a distant land (as in our passage), takes little comfort from the vastness of the skies and their innumerable stars.  That servant feels abandoned and of no value.  

But if the prophetic passage proclaims covenantal monotheism, it declares a powerful God who in good time attends the neglected, who “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (verse 29).  As Elijah was urged by the heavenly messenger to renew his strength and complete his journey, so the prophet urges the discouraged folk to “lift up your eyes on high and see.”  

Look at the stars!  Consider that even those distant emblems of secret destinies are shepherded—counted with a staff, and called each by its name (verse 26).  The stars can give assurance that when God shepherds a flock, “not one is missing” (verse 26)!  

The cosmos itself speaks of hesed, “steadfast love,” that will in time reach the faithful ones who wait for the Lord to renew their strength.  

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c.  

The Psalm selection is a hallelujah response to the prophetic message, repeating in hymnic phrases the caring aspects of God’s power for the human world.  

The psalm makes more explicit than the prophetic passage the interest in Jerusalem, which God is building up by bringing back the “outcasts of Israel” (verse 2, NRSV).  It is also interested in God as one who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (verse 3).  Here, God not only shepherds the stars and counts them (verse 4), he waters the hills and feeds “the young ravens when they cry” (verse 9)!  

A final assurance to the outcasts is that God is not intimidated by human appearances of strength and power:  God has no regard for the fierceness of the war horse or the speed of the runner (verse 10).  Therefore, we need not be surprised if God’s shepherding of human events runs contrary to conventional human expectations.  

I Corinthians 9:16-23.  

The Epistle reading is, on one level, about pastoral salaries.  

After arguing earlier that he and other apostles have the “right” to a decent salary (9:3-14), Paul here elaborates on why he in fact takes no support from the Corinthian Christians.  This leads him on to affirm that he has no choice in the matter.  He is compelled to do the work of the gospel, not by some human arrangements, but by his assignment from God.  He is an extension of God’s work, not of a board who pays him.  

It is this unqualified commitment to winning people to the gospel that makes Paul a “slave to all” (verse 19).  He must go to where people are, become one with them as he finds them.  That is, to the Judean he becomes as a Judean; to those outside the law he becomes as one not bound by legal practices, and to the weak he becomes weak himself, that he may show them the power of God (verse 22).  

The mighty God of the universe sends God’s worker to meet people as they are found in God’s world and bring them the true good news, news of healing and covenant love.  

For the called servant of God, such labor is its own reward.  

Mark 1:29-39.  

The Gospel reading continues the long day of works of power by Jesus.  It is the day in Capernaum that was begun in last week’s Gospel reading.  Having expelled a rowdy unclean spirit in the synagogue service, Jesus and his four fisher disciples go to Peter’s home.  There Jesus is informed that the lady of the house is ill.  He goes to her, takes her hand, and thus brings her healing.  She immediately rises and prepares the evening meal for them.  

When the sabbath ends at sundown and people are free to move about the town again, many folks gather at the door bringing their needy ones, and the caring and healing go on into the night.  We are given no details here, only the impression of continuous consultings, healings, and exorcisms taking place on behalf of the awestruck, humble, but urgent petitioners who come because they have heard some good news.  Power is exercised over the demons who are expelled, preventing them from revealing who Jesus really is—keeping the vast power of the Spirit of God a secret while the humane works are being done by the modest man from Nazareth.  

The passage gives a sense of urgency, of mission and labor to be persistently carried on.  This atmosphere is sustained by Jesus’ early morning devotions out in the wilds (verse 35).  When the disciples find him, presumably to bring him back to continue in Capernaum, Jesus sketches for them a sweeping mission through the other towns of Galilee.  “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” (verse 38, NRSV).  

Jesus “came out” to carry on a work that is urgent.  It needs doing before it is too late.  Thus Mark is constantly saying everything happens “immediately” (e.g., in the Greek of 1:21, 23, 29, omitted or phrased more smoothly in NRSV). 

The first day in Capernaum, showing the power of God’s Son to heal the possessed and the sick, is only the first stage in bridging the gap between the neglected outcasts of Israel and the power of God’s heavenly reign.  As the work goes forward, it will gradually evoke resistance and opposition from established religious authorities, who here serve masters they know not of (from Mark’s viewpoint). 

 

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