I’m conscious of the pain and anxiety many of us have brought with us to church this morning. Some of you are to mourn and support a grieving family. I know that many of us are struggling right now to make sense of what’s going on in our city, our state, our world. Some of us have seen our lives and livelihoods attacked in the last couple of weeks and we’re worried about the future of our jobs and the future of the university. We’re angry, afraid, demoralized. We have seen horrific images of executions of innocent people by the Islamic State and of terrorist attacks and wonder about the spiral of violence and hate that encompasses the globe. I attended the mayoral candidate forum on Wednesday held at Fountain of Life and listened as the candidates struggled to come up with solutions to the shocking racial disparities in our community. Wherever we look, the problems we face seem insurmountable, the future seems increasingly bleak. The bright light of hope has waned into ash and dust.
It’s remarkable how a propos of our situation the reading from Isaiah is, even though it was written some 2500 years ago. It was written during the Babylonian exile, something I’ve mentioned repeatedly. After the fall of Jerusalem, the victorious Babylonians took with them back to Babylon the political and religious elite of the fallen kingdom, where they remained in exile for some fifty years. Cataclysmic defeats like this were usually interpreted in the ancient world as proof that the gods of the conquering power were more powerful than the gods of the defeated people and logically, the exiles should have faded into the mists of history, subsumed by the religion and political power of their conquerors. But in Babylon, the exiles recast their religious faith and wove a new story that would become the story of the Hebrew Bible and the story of the Jewish people. Their defeat was not proof of the Babylonians’ superiority, but rather God’s punishment on them for their sins. In Babylon, they articulated and sang a new faith, and a new hope that God would one day deliver them, return them to Jerusalem and establish a new kingdom with justice and equity.
Isaiah 40 is part of this new song of hope. We heard the first ten verses of the chapter back in Advent, the familiar verses beginning, “Comfort, Comfort, my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” That message of hope and comfort may have first been delivered just as the exile was ending and those who had lived for more than fifty years in a foreign land had come back to Jerusalem. Their desire to return, their hopes for the future now faced the reality of rebuilding lives in a Jerusalem that had been laid waste. As we know from other biblical books, the return to Jerusalem was difficult and dispiriting.
It is in this context that the words we heard this morning were spoken. To a people struggling to rebuild their lives and their city, the prophets words come as a reassurance of God’s incomparable power and majesty. So often the case, such invocations of God’s power and might, the fact that God created the universe, are used in scripture to emphasize the vast chasm between God and humans, to remind us that we are insignificant in comparison to God.
Here however, the prophet uses that language and imagery to make the point that God’s power and might intervene on behalf of God’s people:
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
There’s a dramatic allusion to God’s saving acts here, one most of us probably wouldn’t notice. That lovely and comforting image: “they shall mount up with wings like eagles” calls us back to the Exodus and to God’s words to the Israelites as they camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and waited for the giving of the law: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4).
Whatever our own situations and mindset, we know about the sort of bone-numbing weariness that can come upon us after a period of long and hard work and how it can be exacerbated when the task at hand seems to be beyond our reach. We know about being tired and disheartened and needing reassurance.
In the gospel, we see Jesus ministering among the people of Capernaum. He has just begun his public ministry, having called his first disciples, casting out an unclean spirit from a man while visiting the synagogue on the Sabbath. Now, it is later that same day and he and his companions have gathered for the evening at Simon’s house. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law of some sort of illness, and we are told that she serves them.
It’s a piece of information that jars our twenty-first century sensibilities. She’s been bed-ridden, and Jesus heals her so she can fix dinner for him and his friends! What, Simon could have made a few sandwiches or ordered takeout?
But there’s more here than meets the eye. Remember, in the ancient world, illness is never simply a matter of a bodily ailment. It affects the whole person and their standing in the community. When Jesus heals her, he not only restores her to health; he also restores her to the community and to her role within it. But there’s more. The Greek word for serve is the word from which we get our word “deacon.” Her service is more than preparing and serving a meal. She is ministering to them. This is underscored by something that happens much later in the gospel, at the crucifixion. There, Mark tells us, that while Jesus is being crucified, a group of women look on from afar. He tells us that they had followed Jesus from Galilee and that they had ministered to him, or served him.
For Mark, these women stand in contrast to the male disciples who abandoned Jesus in his last hours. These women stood with him, and they stand for what Mark understands by true discipleship—following Jesus to the cross and serving. So, when Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law, he is not merely healing her, he is enabling her to be a disciple.
As the passage continues, we see Jesus inundated by all of the sick and possessed in the community. We can imagine a crush of humanity, the hopeless cases that come to him after they learn that he has miraculous powers. We can imagine his exhaustion, physical and spiritual, at the end of the day. And we understand well his desire to escape the crush, to go out to a deserted place to pray, to rest and recharge. But his solitude is broken by the disciples who have been looking for him. They want him to go back to Capernaum, to minister and heal those who have come.
Jesus will have none of it. He won’t look back. His mission, his tasks lie on the road ahead. For in the other towns and villages of the region, there are also people in need of healing, people needing to hear the proclamation of the good news, the coming reign of God. To be a disciple, to follow Jesus, means doing that as well.
In both of these lessons, we are reminded of God’s power to restore and renew us. But more than that, we are reminded of God’s power to inspire us to do new and amazing things. I pointed out the use of the image of “eagle’s wings” in both Isaiah and Exodus. There’s an important difference in the two passages, however. In Exodus, it is God who carried the Israelites out of bondage on eagle’s wings. In Isaiah, God gives God’s people eagle’s wings, that they might soar, that they might run and not be weary, walk and not faint. Similarly, Simon’s mother-in-law is not merely healed; she is invited into a new relationship and a new role, following Jesus.
The road is never easy, the burdens are not light. We struggle with all of the cares and concerns of our lives; we know our own failings and weaknesses, our struggles and suffering. Sometimes, the road ahead seems impossible, and indeed, it may be. But we can be certain that God walks that road with us, that God may renew our strength, and that God is calling us to follow his son, walking with him and serving the world.