Lectionary Commentaries for February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge

Jesus intervenes in the conflict between the power of evil and the power of God by doing deeds of power and preaching.

This lection has three parts: a healing story, a description of the multitude brought to Jesus and the many who are healed and exorcised, an account of Jesus going to the wilderness to pray and, when found, expresses his resolve to go to preach in the towns throughout Galilee. The scenes alternate between “private” and “public,” an encounter among a few people in a “house,” then a crowd outside “around the door,” then prayer in a deserted place, then decision to preach farther and farther in Galilee. The sequence illustrates Jesus escalating “fame” (Mark 1:28), the tension which that creates — Jesus going in the dark to the desert to pray and forbidding the demons to speak.

The center of gravity is the healing of Peter’s mother in law. Preaching that minimizes the significance of this story with jokes about mothers-in-law misses the importance, beauty, and resonance of the episode. Like many of the stories in Mark, this one is in the process of being “theologized,” developing into a symbolic story that reflects the experience of the early believing community. In Mark’s healing stories, the details matter — who it is, where it is, what the ailment, the symptoms. The specifics of the story can channel the preacher’s imagination.

Here it matters that the setting of the house of Simon and Andrew and that the person who is ill is a member of the family. Although Mark is sometimes claimed to be “anti-family” (Mark 3:31-35) family bonds, particularly the bond of parent and child remain sacred throughout the story. Parents beg for healing for a child (Mark 5:22-24; Mark 7:24-30; Mark 9:14-29). Here the one healed is a mother. Jesus is informed about her by James and John, the second set of brothers introduced in Mark 1:19. Jesus “takes her by the hand” a practical action to help her up and a connection of touch that is an element in the healing. Jesus takes of the hand of the daughter of Jairus in Mark 5:21 and the epileptic boy in Mark 9:27.

The word, translated by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as “lifted her up” is the word, “raised” — “he raised her up.” In Mark 16:7 the young men tell the women, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The ending of the gospel sends the disciples (and the readers) back to Galilee where Jesus performed his powerful deeds of healing and feeding. Readers of Mark are not told of Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection (in the original version of the gospel of Mark that ends at Mark 6:8). Rather, they are sent back to Galilee where they will remember, Jesus’ ministry of resurrection. The verb to “raise up” is used in healing stories in Mark 1:31, 2:9, 2:11, 3:3, 5:41, 9:27. The healing of Peter’s mother in law is the first resurrection story in the gospel.

Just as the demons do in the previous scene, the fever “leaves her.” Having been “raised,” she “serves” them. On the most literal level it may mean that she gets up and prepares and serves food. But the verb “to serve” is another key term in Mark’s gospel. Its presence here shows that her service is to be interpreted as a paradigmatic response of faith. Meaning both to serve at a table and to do ministry, the verb diakonein is used of the angels in the wilderness who “serve” (translated in the NRSV “waited on” Mark 1:14) and of the women who followed Jesus and served him (translated in the NRSV “provided for” Mark 15:41) Serving epitomizes Jesus’ own ministry: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). She is an icon of resurrection and a paradigm of Christian ministry.

Mark’s gospel invites us to look for experiences of resurrection in everyday life in the lives of families and in the social and political order. A debilitating fever is equivalent to death if one cannot do what is human to do, to serve, to feed, to provide for. To be released from illness and restored to oneself means one can fulfill responsibilities to others. Repair of the bonds of family is a dimension of resurrection. In Mark’s gospel there is no “individual” healing, only those that repair relationship, son to father, daughter to mother, and here, mother to children. Even the unaccompanied woman in the crowd, when healed, becomes “daughter” Mark 5:34.

The resurrection life that Jesus proclaims here at the opening of Mark’s gospel and that Christians experience, is not unambiguous or uncomplicated in the world in which we live. The verses that follow this story of resurrection suggest the enormity of the suffering (“the whole city was gathered around the door”) and the toll the ministry takes on Jesus. Mark’s gospel is honest about the opposition to and the cost of proclaiming the good news.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31

Charles L. Aaron, Jr.

Every pastor has observed a person coming to faith for the first time, whether a sudden transformation or a gradual process, such as confirmation.

Every pastor has spent time strengthening the wavering faith of a person struggling with doubt. This passage deals with a different phenomenon of faith. How does a prophet enable people to poke around in the ashes of a long-dormant faith to find a small spark still left? All of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), offers hope and encouragement to questioning Judeans who have the opportunity to return from exile.

We can hear their questions: “why should I go back?” “How do I know God is in this experience, after decades of wondering if God had lost a cosmic battle, or had just abandoned us?” Using every rhetorical/poetic tool from soothing tones (Isaiah 40:1) to sarcasm (46:5-7), the prophet seeks to convince the Judeans that they are still the people of God. Our passage (verses 21-31) actually falls within a larger unit that begins at verse 12. The longer poem contains a surprising detour into idolatry. The RCL has us start just after that detour. The material from verses 21-31 continue the same themes that began in verse 12.

Here in this part of Isaiah 40, the prophet adopts almost a pleading tone, as he invites the people to reflect back on the understandings of God that initially brought them together and initially drew them into a relationship with God. The insistent tone of the questions seems perhaps designed to shake up the people, to force them to consider the questions the prophet asks.

Within these verses, the prophet paints a picture of a creative, strong, “above the fray” deity. If the people held any notion of YHWH losing out to the Babylonian deity, the prophet dispels that idea. God sits (an image of one undisturbed, unthreatened) above the dome that forms heaven and holds back the waters of chaos (see Genesis 1:6). God is transcendent and “other” enough that people seem like insects. The heavens form God’s “tent,” suggesting that God acted creatively and feels at home in the creation. The creation is God’s abode.

God exercises sovereignty over political and military authorities. Even though they seem powerful now, God has real power. Those who wield so much power now are, to God, like plants that a strong wind could blow over. God does not even need to touch the rulers to defeat them; merely the divine breath will accomplish that. God’s power and creativity mean that God has no earthly or heavenly equal. God stands alone.

After declaring the power of God over earthly rulers, the prophet returns to the theme of creation, interweaving his ideas. The defeated Judeans can lift their eyes to the sky to behold the heavenly bodies, who bear witness to the divine power and creativity.

By verse 27, the prophet switches gears to bring home the point that this powerful, creative God, sitting up above the heavens, cares about the Judeans. The God who exercises authority over the most powerful of people sees them. The people cannot hide from the deity.

This powerful, caring deity will provide the energy the people need for their journey back to Jerusalem. If their experiences have sapped their strength, they can draw on God’s strength for renewal. Isaiah 40:30-31 often appears on inspirational poster and shirts. Youth who run track often consider it a motivational word. These popular uses should not distract us from the deeper purpose. When life has worn us down, when the spiritual battle seems too fearsome, when we feel as though we cannot go on, the prophet offers us spiritual energy from the powerful, creative, but engaged God. The New Revised Standard Version does not quite capture the image of the second phrase from verse 31. The verse does not depict an eagle spreading its wings to soar and mount up, but rather a molting eagle who exchanges old wings for new.

In one sense, the prophet offers encouragement to go back. The scattered exiles can go back to Jerusalem from the far-flung regions of Babylon. In reality, though, they do not go back. They go forward. They accept a new adventure. The thesis sentence of this part of Isaiah comes in 43:19, that God does a “new thing.” The people will go back, but in reality, everything has changed. They cannot go back, they can only move into God’s new future.

The contemporary church cannot go “back” to anything. The church can only move forward into an uncertain world. Where would we start with the problems the church faces? Declining numbers and influence. A divided society that cannot seem to communicate. Threats both international and homegrown. What does the church need moving into that future? This passage offers a call to harken back to the faith that formed the church. That faith includes God’s power and creativity as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us. God cares for us. God can give the church the energy it needs to move into an uncertain future. Although these words originally spoke to people whose faith might have faded nearly away, they can speak persuasively to people whose faith is shaky and tentative. They can speak a word of courage to those who see reason for fear in what the church faces.

No preacher can promise that the problems of the world will go away. But a preacher drawing on these words of the prophet can promise that a strong, creative God can give energy for whatever the church faces. This passage gives the preacher warrant to proclaim a God both transcendent, above the fray, and engaged with the world and the church. This powerful, creative God moves with the church as it goes forward into this uncertain and dangerous world. The passage gives the preacher permission to do some goading: “You believe this, don’t you? You trust God, don’t you?” Maybe less explicit, but with some challenge in the voice.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

Shauna Hannan

“Praise the Lord.” What more is there to say? “Praise the Lord.” Period.1

The psalmist has offered five ways to proclaim praise to the Lord with the five Hallelujah Psalms that conclude the Psalter. Even within each of these five psalms, the psalmist offers myriad ways to say essentially the same thing: “Praise the Lord for the Lord is worthy to be praised.”

Isn’t this our task as preachers? We proclaim the gospel, the same enduring good news, week after week? This psalm offers homiletical possibilities regarding both content and form for saying the same thing in a number of ways. The former (content) helps us preach about the psalm and the latter (form) helps us preach like the psalmist.

Preaching about the psalm

The focus of Psalm 147 is on God as both the agent of creation and the ongoing active (very active!) agent in the healing of the world. This striking combination is worthy of exploration and emphasis. How amazing it is that the one who is the mighty and powerful creator (verse 5) is also the one who heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (verse 3). The one who determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name (verse 4) is also the one who builds up Jerusalem and gathers the exiles of Israel (verse 2). This incarnational revelation that began at Christmas continues into this season of Epiphany.

Curiously, despite the creative power of this one (verses 8-9), God’s pleasure is not in the usual ways the world expresses power (verse 10). Instead, the Lord delights in those who fear him and who put their hope in his unfailing love (verse 11). Praise the one who possesses such an intriguing and life-giving combination of characteristics.

Another possible way to attend to the content of this psalm in the sermon is by imagining the psalmist’s proclamation in Psalm 147 as a response to Isaiah’s questions (Isaiah 40:21).

  • Have you not known the LORD who gathers the exiles of Israel?
  • Have you not heard that our Lord is great and mighty in power?
  • Has it not been told you that this one’s understanding has no limit?
  • Have you not understood that the Lord covers the sky and supplies the earth?

You too might consider offering a sermon that is a response to Isaiah’s questions. Psalm 147 serves as your guide.

Preaching like the psalmist

The psalmist is a master at using various literary and grammatical devices for saying similar things in multiple ways. For the week-to-week preacher, these are crucial skills to adopt. One literary device (contrast) was explored above. This section offers two additional devices: allusion and mood.

Literary Device: Allusion

An allusion offers a brief reference to something without dwelling on it or “over explaining” the connection. For example, a sermon might refer to the dark places of this world as “valleys of the shadow of death” into which the light of Christ shines so that we might “fear no evil.” Without even naming Psalm 23, most hearers would make the connection. In fact, referring explicitly to Psalm 23 might actually diminish the power of the allusion. The psalmist utilizes this device often. Before reading on, see how many allusions to other texts you identify in Psalm 147.

Compare your list with this one.

  1. The opening and closing “Praise the Lord” point me to the other five Hallel Psalms that close the Psalter. (Reading Psalm 146-150 as one unit might yield some insights.)
  2. The seemingly contrasting claim that God is both mighty creator (Psalm 147:4, 8-9, especially) and pays careful attention to the brokenhearted ( 3), for example, is reminiscent of Psalm 8:3-6.
  3. I cannot help but recall Psalm 133 when I hear: “How good and pleasant it is.” In fact, this phrase resonates with parts of scripture beyond the Psalter as well. Recall Jacob’s foretelling of the blessing of his son, Issachar, who “saw that a resting place was good, and that the land was pleasant” (Genesis 49:15). Remember from the Song of Songs 7:7 — “How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!” Also, the word “good” alone hearkens back to the creation story itself (Genesis 1:1).
  4. Determining the number of the stars and calling them each by name reminds me again of the creation story (Genesis 1:16) as well as the Lord’s words to Abram accounted later in Genesis, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them … So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5).

So, beyond considering the content of the psalm, preachers might consider doing as the psalmist does and allude to the psalm or other parts of scripture in the sermon. The preacher might also consider alluding to experiences of the congregation in order to undergird the mandate to “Praise the Lord.”

Grammatical Device: Mood

Paying attention to mood can spark sermonic substance. Notice the absence of the interrogative and conditional in Psalm 147; there are no questions and there are no “what ifs.” This psalmist has something to shout out and does so convincingly. He is not asking for our opinion or expressing wishful thinking. He is not asking questions as Isaiah did; he is answering them! Using the indicative (“The Lord builds Jerusalem”) and imperative (“Sing to the Lord … make music to our God … ”) moods, the Psalmist is proclaiming God’s greatness and encouraging (demanding!) a response.

Review your sermon in terms of grammatical mood. Are you using (overusing?) interrogatives when a biblical text prompts more conviction in proclamation? Are you expressing wishful thinking of possibilities (conditional/subjunctive) when a biblical text urges indicatives that describe the way things are.

The challenge

Take a cue from Psalm 147 in order to preach like the psalmist by using literary and grammatical devices such as contrast, allusion and mood of verb tenses. This challenge may help you offer the worthiest challenge of all to your hearers: “Praise the Lord!”


Notes

1 Commentary first published on this site on Feb. 8, 2015


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Carla Works

What are we willing to do so that others can see God?

Taken out of context, today’s epistle reading may sound a bit off-putting: “to the Jew I became as a Jew…to those under the law I became as one under the law…to those outside the law I became as one outside the law…to the weak I became weak.” Paul’s chameleon-like behavior seems to be changing based on whomever he is around at the time. To our twenty-first century ears, this may ring inauthentic, a mere sycophantic way to appease people. Ripped out of context, this passage could be dangerous — especially to those prone to be people-pleasers already. But is Paul really advocating inauthenticity or pleasing others for one’s own sake? Perhaps, there is more to this passage than initially meets the eye.

The context is the argument surrounding the consumption of idol food, an issue first raised in the previous chapter (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). Since few had homes large enough to host a party, banquets were often held at the local temple, which had plenty of dining rooms to use for such an occasion. But eating within the temple precinct meant that not only was one consuming idol food, but also participating in rituals that honored the gods.

The congregation is divided over whether to eat idol food. Some in the congregation are claiming that it is perfectly acceptable to dine at the local temple, even though all food at the local temple would be “idol food,” that is, food that had first been offered in celebration and honor to the patron deity of the temple. For them, the idol means nothing because they affirm that there is only one God and one Lord. This knowledge means that they can go through the motions of the ritual without really honoring the idols as gods.

Others, however, are witnessing the behavior of the “knowledgeable ones” and thinking that it is acceptable to honor the other deities alongside Christ. For them, whom the know-it-alls have called “weak,” the idols still exist, and the rituals have power. They question whether participation in religious ceremonies means that it is acceptable to worship other gods alongside Jesus.

To relate this dilemma to a context that we can understand, many of us pray before a meal. To some, that prayer may seem perfunctory, a mere ritual. To others at the same meal, that prayer may be deeply meaningful. Nonetheless, the words of the prayer give thanks to God. Does participation in the prayer necessarily mean that one is acknowledging that there is a god who is worthy of thanksgiving? Can one participate in religious rites out of respect without believing the words that are being spoken?

To consider the Corinthians’ context, what about those who used to believe in other gods and return to their former religious practices based on the example of others in the church? How does participation in the rights of the local temple affect one’s witness to the God of Israel, who is a jealous God? These are the questions at the heart of the debate in First Church Corinth.

Paul encourages those who have power and privilege to be willing to renounce their privileges when their behavior would lead others astray.

The divisions are not just over “knowledge.” The “weak” in the community are likely those who are never issued invitations to a banquet because they are not of a socio-economic class where they could reciprocate such an invitation. Those who regularly attend parties are of a particular social circle — one that can afford to host banquets. Accepting dinner invitations is part of maintaining social status.

Eating at the local temple — even if one does not believe in idols — is prompting others to return to former religious practices. Paul’s language to describe the situation is harsh: “And so by your knowledge this weak one is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brother and sister and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:11-12).

Paul wants the Corinthians, particularly the “know-it-alls” who have social status, to consider their brothers and sisters in Christ and to be willing to renounce their rights, status, and privileges when necessary. It may be permissible for them to attend the banquet, but it is not beneficial to the good of the community.

In 1 Corinthians 9:1-27, Paul talks about his own practice as one who has authority as an apostle to receive financial support from the church, but who willingly renounces that right to bring the gospel free of charge. He would rather take up labor, that the Corinthians consider demeaning, than to take their money. What goes unsaid in this passage is the etiquette of patronage. To accept the money of those of social status would make it impossible for him to correct their behavior. He cannot be indebted to them. Rather, in our text for today he speaks of his debt to the gospel. He owes his life and existence to God.

This sense of compulsion and indebtedness leads him to be a servant not just to his own people, but to the nations. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, he connects his argument explicitly to the language that the know-it-alls are using: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.” No one in the Roman world strives to appear weak. Weakness is not a virtue. Paul is asking those with power and status to come alongside those whom they deem “weak” and consider the situation through another perspective. After all Christ died for this so-called “weak” one.

Jesus’ voluntary self-lowering is the paradigm that shapes Paul’s instruction (1 Corinthians 11:1; see Philippians 2:6-11). Seeking the advantage of another rather than one’s own advantage (1 Corinthians 10:33), however, would not have been a popular message in First Church Corinth. Paul’s advice would have social repercussions. For instance, how many times can one decline a dinner invitation when the host is a business partner? If one’s attendance at that banquet, however, is destroying a brother or sister, is the status gained by the meal really worth it? Social privileges come at a cost.

Paul is convinced that the gospel turns this world of privilege upside down. In this season of Epiphany, what might those of us with privilege need to relinquish so that others can see the love of God?