Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7th, 2021


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We have come to the fifth Sunday after Epiphany and the sixth and final Sunday is next week. So too the direction of our readings will change. So a brief word about that.

In the Christian Year Easter is of course the fixed moment, the GM line.

And it found its place in time with reference to Passover and Jesus’ Last Supper. In time Easter was fixed as the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, at least in the West. So the date of Easter can move forward and backward in our calendar time by 4 weeks.

The Lenten season leading up to Good Friday and Easter is a fixed period, replicating the forty days of Jesus in the wilderness and OT counterparts, as a season of Christian fasting and waiting. It always consists of five Sundays and Passion Week.

This means that the Epiphany ordinary time leading up to it also expands and contracts, given the movement of the Easter date.

The final Sunday of Epiphany-tide always commemorates the Transfiguration. There could be as many as eight Sundays prior to it or as few as four. This year there are five.

I’ll have more to say about Transfiguration and its place before Lent next week. It’s really a Sunday for preparing for the coming Sundays when Jesus walks to Jerusalem to his passion for us. It is less a last Sunday of Epiphany and more an entry window on Lent.

It also marks the next to last Sunday we see of the Gospel of Mark until after Easter. Then the continuous reading in Mark will resume.

So this is the final Sunday of our slow walk through the first chapter of Mark. Lent begins with the short account of Jesus in the wilderness. We return in Pentecost time to Mark chapter 2.

The Gospel of John replaces Mark for the Sundays after Transfiguration and Wilderness in Lent and Easter. We see the same general pattern in Matthew and Luke years. It gives us the opportunity to hear John’s clear baritone voice.

As we look at the passage from Mark for today I want to say a little bit about the last section of chapter one which follows it, so as to get a good sense of the direction of the chapter as a whole before we leave it.

One important phrase sits quietly there in verse 38. It could sum up the force of Mark’s opening chapter. Translated variously:

for that is why I came out (RSV)

for that is what I came out to do (NRSV)

That is why I have come (NIV)

for to this end came I forth (ASV)

for therefore came I forth (KJV)

Because the greek verb implies a place Jesus was that he has left, the Fathers typically thought of that place along the lines of the Gospel of John. Jesus has come forth from his life with the Father. Mark does not develop this idea though in some ways he is consistent with it.

In Mark’s opening chapter we could infer that, if Jesus had a place, its location is far from clear. Nazareth, Capernaum, even the wilderness are contenders. Mark has no birth narrative. John appears in the wilderness. People go out to him, including an adult Jesus, from a Nazareth we hear nothing more about. In Galilee the action shifts to Capernaum, the synagogue there and the home next door that as the next chapters of Mark imply, seems to be his base of operations. It is he house of Peter where his mother in law lives. Leaving the synagogue he heals her and she serves him there. The whole town gathers around the door for healing. It will have been a busy day. After the sundown marking the formal end of the sabbath the people begin streaming to him for healing.

With little sleep, Jesus gets up long before day break to go pray in a wilderness place. Perhaps the wilderness is his real home: the place where he prays is home. Or maybe the point is that for Jesus no place and all places are the place of his activity, his life such as it is, with us. He has come forth and is forth and must be so.

We also get a clear sense that his healing ministry has briskly taken off, but equally could be all he does. Yet he has come forth, and will be forth. He silences the demons and insists at the end of the chapter that a man he has healed out of compassion not blaze it abroad. But he does. Yet Jesus cannot be constrained and must continue on through the neighboring towns, likely on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, moving from synagogue to synagogue. That is why he has come forth.

The chapter ends with Jesus again returning to the desert, given the fame spreading due to his healing and man warned not to speak ignoring him. People come out to him there in the desert all the same, much as they had done for other reasons to John in the wilderness, as chapter one opened. Even in the wilderness Jesus is forth. The demon last Sunday was right to note that Jesus had come out against him. In the spirit of God Jesus is always forth and must be so. His ministry is who he is.

So while Mark does not have any developed thought about Jesus’ preexistence, in the same way as John does, Jesus has come forth into this world and is tirelessly in his very self manifesting the kingdom of God.

Our lesson relates that immediately after teaching and driving out a demon in the synagogue Jesus steps straight into the house of Peter. # 2 Main Street, Capernaum. Before he can sit down for a meal, the one who will attend him must first be attended to. Lifted up, healed. The verb to lift up is redolent of resurrection and was likely heard in that way in time.

One cannot miss the emphasis on just how pressed and crowded about Jesus is. His coming forth strikes the world like lightening, and he is overwhelmed but up to it fully. With little sleep, like the prophets of old running before a chariot, he is off to the next stop, taking only precious time to pray.

Listen then to Paul’s account of his ministry. In the wake of Jesus, himself like an urgent prophet, he cannot be constrained. This comes in a section where Paul is defending his apostleship and how he goes about it. He demands no wages. Yet he must of course live. Though he maintains his rights, he is prepared to forego them. If he works freely, his only ground of boasting is that he has the privilege of sharing the gospel without cost. Preaching is not something he wills, but something that has been laid upon him. A commission. Here we find interesting parallels with Mark’s account of Jesus, working tirelessly, immediately, urgently, for this I have come forth. Paul’s reward, such as it is, is the joy of sharing the Gospel as he proclaims it and brings others within its saving orbit.

Our OT passage comes from the comfort, comfort section of Isaiah. Israel in exile has received double for all her sins. Her debt is paid. Yet she is sluggish and worn down, like those Jesus confronts in Peter’s mother in law, and those thronging his door. God speaks here as Jesus acts. God remains fully in charge and fully able to create anew. Kings and rulers are at their best agents in his hand, doing his bidding. They come and go, but God remains king forever. He is tireless in giving power to the faint and the weary. He lifts them up as Jesus lifts up and serves. They not only arise but run without wearying. They are made like unto him who lifts them up, and made ready for service like Peter’s mother in law or the man with leprosy in Mark’s conclusion. Jesus is moved with compassion as God speaks the double word of comfort to Israel.

The Psalm for the day doubles down on Isaiah and Mark. The Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, who wait for him, as Isaiah says. The wicked who come to destroy men and women are brought down and driven out. God gathers the exiles, he lifts up the lowly from their sick beds. He delights in rebuilding and remaking and is forth for that purpose 24/7. To which the only response is, then and now, Halleluia.

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