Saturday, February 03, 2018

February 4, Epiphany 5: Prophecy #5: The Message Is the Miracle

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

The Bible has many miracles, but not till Jesus does healing become the typical miracle. Before him, most of the miracles were miracles of judgment: like the Flood, or the Ten Plagues on Egypt, or fire from heaven on the enemies of Elijah and Elisha, and many more. Often these judgments included miraculous rescues from the judgment: Noah in the ark, or Israel escaping through the Red Sea.

Less frequent are miracles of sustenance: water from the rock and Manna in the desert, or the jar of meal and the jug of oil for Elijah and the widow. Least frequent are miracles of healing, only five: the healings of Miriam, Naaman, and Hezekiah, and two dead boys raised up by Elijah and Elisha.

With Jesus, none of his miracles are judgment, three of them are sustenance, and all the rest are healings and rescues and raising the dead. It’s a remarkable shift. From judgments to healings. It had been foreseen by the prophet Isaiah, but it is Jesus who makes the shift. The point is that Jesus makes the renewal of health to be the confirmation of the good news of the coming of the kingdom.

It’s not what they expected of the Messiah. They expected a warrior and a judge. That’s what John the Baptist expected. So I don’t think that the reason that Simon told Jesus that his mother-in-law was sick was to get Jesus to heal her, but rather why she would not be serving them, and to warn him that she might be contagious.

Yet Jesus enters her room and touches her. He raises her up—an early hint of resurrection. Quickly the word gets out, and as soon as the restrictions of the Sabbath day are over the people carry all their sick to him and he heals them. This new teacher is a prophet who has such authority to cast out demons and to heal. But that was not the job description of the Messiah that they were expecting.

That night he had to sort this out. Only just a day before he had never yet done a miracle! I wonder, when he touched Peter’s mother-in-law and lifted her up, how confident was he that she would be healed? How much was that a risk for him? How much was he making it up as he went along? No one had ever been the Messiah before. He had to create it. Was healing how he should occupy himself from now on? Is he supposed to deal with symptoms or with systems and structures? So to sort this out he goes to God in prayer, as much for understanding as for strength.

He talks to God at length, probably repeating the Psalms he knew, and listening to the silence, and he decides to move on. His message is most important, his miracles serve the message, not the other way around. He has to address the systems. The message is itself the major miracle.

But the Messiah was not expected to be a messenger any more than a healer. The Messiah was to be a prince, and a prince would have a messenger to go before him, his herald to announce the good news of his coming, but the prince is not his own messenger. How strange of Jesus to be the messenger of his own coming. He’s not acting like the Messiah should. No wonder many Jews did not believe in him, especially the educated ones. They figured he didn’t know what he was doing.

We could wish here that St. Mark would give us a decent summary of his message, more than just a phrase or two, but he doesn’t. Maybe he figured we’ve already got it from St. Matthew, who laid it out in the Sermon on the Mount. But actually I think that St. Mark’s particular point is that Jesus is his own message, his message is himself, his person, his “Here I am.” I am the miracle!

Who is this guy? What is this guy? Yes, a teacher, a prophet, maybe a prince, but more than all of these together. Yes, the Messiah, but here too he creates a new definition. St. Mark is showing us a person who is sui generis, unique, beyond definition, beyond expectation, to whom you can attribute many attributes but who exhausts them all, a messenger whose message is himself. “Here I am.”

What is St. Mark showing us? Not telling, but showing? In his own way—different from St. Paul who wrote before him, and different from St. John who wrote after him—St. Mark is showing us a person in whom we readers can recognize the presence of the Living God. How fully so, how totally, and in what way he does not define.

St. Mark does not explain how much Jesus knew about himself, or how far he could see ahead, or whether he equated himself with God somehow or just that he was doing what he thought God would do if God were there. St. Mark writes not as an omniscient narrator, he has no access to the private mind of Jesus. He shows us the effect of him, the startling effect of him, that he was saying, “Here I am, I am the miracle.” And in him we read God.

But isn’t God properly up in heaven? Doesn’t God sit above the circles of the earth? Have you not known, have you not heard, has it not been told you from the beginning? We are like grasshoppers before him, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads the heavens like a tent, who brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. The Holy One says, “To whom then will you compare me, who is my equal?” Be careful, this is God we are talking about, so how dare you say that even in such a remarkable guy as this Jesus, that in him God should be saying “Here I am!”

Because the prophet Isaiah foretold it. Have you not known? Have you not heard? This lofty and far-off God comes down to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. The one who counts the number of the stars and calls them all by name is the one who heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the lowly. And Jesus lifts up the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Yes, the message of Jesus is that in him God is saying, “Here I am.” The miracles serve the message that he himself is the miracle.

Melody reminded me that when we read the gospels, we are too easily drawn to the healings, just as the disciples were. Especially as we Americans are so preoccupied with physical health. She said that we spend one-third of our economy on health care, in which healing means getting to live a little longer with medicated symptoms. The message of Jesus is not that you can live a little longer with medicated symptoms. In fact he will call on you to die.

Better put, he calls you to a life you do not control the end of. There are limits to your power and boundaries to your knowledge. As I said, St. Mark is not an omniscient narrator. If the real miracle is the message that God says, Here I am,” then your life has meaning and value beyond the satisfaction of your expectations.

You see in this story the Lord Jesus as the long-expected one who keeps on acting unexpectedly. He acts no differently with you today. He is both faithful and surprising, he is both dependable and unpredictable, he is both constant and free, he loves you but you cannot hold him down. If he treats your symptoms he challenges your systems. You need him and you think you know what you need from him but he knows better and he keeps ahead of you.

So this is your take home: God satisfies your expectations and moves you unexpectedly. Yes, your God satisfies your expectations, never totally but sufficiently, but also keeps moving you unexpectedly. You find yourself like the disciples, saying, This is good, stay here, but he says, Lets go, let’s keep moving. Oh no, you can’t see what’s ahead, so how can you know it’s good? You do know what is behind, and even if it wasn’t great, at least you learned to live it. You know why people don’t like change: it’s not what they might gain but what they might lose of what they have. And yet your take home: God satisfies your expectations and keeps on moving you unexpectedly.

Your second take home is that you have a message to share and that message is yourself. I don’t mean some stock evangelism message that you have to tell someone for them to get saved. Don’t let the caricature ruin that you still have a message to share. Your message is yourself, by which I mean the meaning of your life as you get the meaning of your life from God. I mean your accounting of how and when in your life you felt God saying, “Here I am.”

Your message will evolve as God comes to you in evolving combinations of judgment and sustenance and rescue and healing. You recognize your message when you come to terms with your own life, and in your life you read God.

It’s only fair that I tell you my message. You might have guessed it. I testify that God has satisfied me with what I did not expect. That God is both free of me and faithful to me is the message of my life. And in that combination of freedom and faithfulness is what I recognize as love.

Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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