Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, and Sexagesima

Mark 1: 29-39

Again, good morning and grace and peace.  As I mentioned at Evensong on Thursday: there is this symmetry, 40 days from Christmas to Candlemas, 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and in the interval a space of “Pre-lenten” transition.  Taking down the last of the holiday decorations while discussing what kind of disciplines we might want to take on in the season of penitential reflection ahead.  Giving up things like sweets or alcohol, adding a devotional book to the reading stack on the bedside table.  What would be meaningful and helpful this year?  The traditional title of this Sunday in our three-Sunday count-down transition from Epiphany to Lent, Sexagesima, reminds us that we’re about 60 days, eight Sundays before Easter.  In the grip of a cold winter, but before we blink twice it will be Holy Week.

In our lectionary this is the last Sunday that we’ll be settled here in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been reading it section by section, with the addition of a brief side-trip into John’s gospel to amplify the story of the calling of the first disciples. 

We begin this Sunday right where we stopped last week.  Jesus with Peter and Andrew and James and John.  From that dramatic moment in the synagogue at Capernaum—the crowd stunned with the power and authority in the words and presence of Jesus, like nothing they’ve experienced before.  And the challenge and confrontation with the unclean spirit, as Jesus overwhelms the power of the dark one and defeats him, casts him out with a word of command.

Now this morning as we’ve heard in the next paragraphs Jesus and his friends leave the synagogue and go on to Peter and Andrew’s home, apparently nearby, where Peter’s wife’s mother is ill.  Jesus enters, takes her hand, and at once the fever miraculously leaves her.  Continuing and building on what has just happened in the synagogue.   In the coming hours crowds from the town and surrounding area who have heard about what has been happening at the synagogue and beyond come streaming in, and the wonders continue: healings and exorcisms.  It’s all high drama.  To borrow a word from Robert Schuller’s old Crystal Cathedral telecast, it is an “hour of power.”  An hour of power.  Again and again we would say, just as they said in the synagogue, “we’ve never seen anything like this before.”   This power, this “authority.”

Anticipated and foreshadowed even now, in these Sundays before Lent, out ahead in the far distance, the power of the Cross--making its presence known and felt, bursting forth in victory, from before time and forever.  Here in the very first chapter of Mark, the first sentences, before we’ve even turned to page two, the message of the whole story unfolds for us, the deep pattern of God’s presence and God’s purpose made manifest.  Exile and return, sin and redemption, death and resurrection.  The message of the whole “heilsgeschicte.”   Love that word.  The Sacred Story.  From the first chapter of Genesis through the twenty second chapter of the Revelation.   From the synagogue in Capernaum to 5801 Hampton Street, Highland Park.  The whole story—and we are both readers and characters.  For us and about us at the same time.

So here in the final paragraph this morning, the launching of the mission.  What we would say is Mark’s Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church.  Their commission and marching orders.  Our commission and marching orders.  It begins in prayer, in the heart of Jesus.  Which is where we still find him. Word and Sacrament.    After Jesus was baptized we remember just a few verses back that he went out into the wilderness for that great 40 day retreat.  Facing down the Adversary and preparing himself in heart, body, mind, and spirit for the work that now was before him.  Now again, before dawn, he goes again to the deserted place—in the quiet hour of the dark morning to commune with the Father. 

His disciples come searching for him with the exciting word that everybody now is searching for him. The whole world rushing in.  Eager.  Yearning.  They have caught a glimpse, and now they want to be a part of this story too.  This story of power, authority, hope, healing, forgiveness.  Now to know just what that name really means, and not just in theory.  “Immanuel,” God with us.  Everybody everywhere  is searching for him.  And of course he doesn’t turn away.  Not then, not now, not ever.  “Let us go to them.”  If they want him, they will have him.  Giving of himself.  Giving himself.  “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Again, the meaning of this time of Epiphany.  His manifestation.  God in Christ showing up and showing himself, revealing himself, sharing himself with us. Giving himself as a gift and offering and sacrifice.  “Let us go on,” Jesus says.  “This is what I came to do. This is what you and I together are going to be doing from now on.”

The great modern American writer Annie Dillard grew up not very far from here over in the Point Breeze neighborhood.  An old Pittsburgh family in the steel business.  She went to Ellis School and the Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  And in her autobiography “An American Childhood” she writes a wonderful reflection in the context as I remember it of the Shadyside Sunday School giving Bibles to the children of the Sunday School.  Looking back on the scene and recalling her memory of the children coming up to the front of the church to receive their Bibles,  she is astonished, she says, that anybody who knows anything about the Bible would give the book to children, and certainly to allow and encourage it to be read without adult supervision.  She then says:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” 

And I think this is just right, exactly what Mark wants to do for us here in the first page or so of his gospel.   He’s saying, this is not a test of the emergency broadcast system.  Not a test.  Not a game.  Not a hobby.  This is the real deal.  If we want the power of God to be made manifest in our lives and our world—here he is.   Seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.  The promise we are each one of us invited to hear this “pre-lent.”  To which each one of us may respond, in our minds and our hearts.

And if we do, if we will: fasten your seatbelts!   To take our hands off the steering wheel and to let him drive.  Power, authority.   The threshold of Lent, 60 days until Easter, and--  put on your crash helmets.  Let him into our lives, into our world, and things are going to change.  We are going to change.  That word in the Revelation to John not just hypothetical:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Expect some changes.  Bright light illuminating some of the corners we perhaps would just as soon have left in the shadows.  Healing, forgiving.  Ejecting the Father of Lies from the cozy home that he has made in the daily routine of our lives and our world.  Shaking things up good.  This is really happening, Mark says to us this morning.  This is really happening, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth fall silent before him. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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