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Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 5B

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We continue this week following the narrative in the Gospel of Mark of Jesus’ first days of ministry in Capernaum. The church assigns Mark 1:29-39 which reports on a period covering only eighteen hours during which Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law in the afternoon (a private moment), heals many in front of the whole city (a public moment), prays to receive guidance for the next step in ministry (a devotional moment). The revelation of the apostolic side of the Son of God is on display when he declares to the disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (38).

The long OT reading assigned from 2 Kings 4:8-21 (22-31) 32-37 tells the story of the first meeting of a long friendship between Elisha the prophet and a Shunammite woman and her husband. The worshiper will note the parallel between Jesus helping Peter’s mother-in-law and Elisha helping this woman (neither of whom is named in the narratives in which they appear). The power of God to heal is also on display in both readings. The appointed Psalm 142 is another song of personal devotion in which “David” makes his complaints to God about the persecution he faces from his enemies. By this psalm, the worshiper this Sunday takes on the voices of those who need deliverance in the other readings: Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your Name (8, BCP Coverdale).

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Our next assigned NT reading is from 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, in which Paul, seeking to provide a model for the Corinthian Christians of his own attitude toward the weak in ministry, will claim, I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some (22). His famous line, “Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel!” at the beginning of the passage, complements Jesus’ saying that he must go to other villages to preach the gospel. In language reminiscent of the psalm, the assigned Collect is a plea to God that, out of his “great goodness,” he might continually defend the church by his mighty power. 

The Collect

O Lord, our heavenly Father, keep your household the Church continually in your true religion, that we who trust in the hope of your heavenly grace may always be defended by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen. 

As the LORD lives, I Will Not Leave You (2 Kings 4:8-21(22-31)32-37)

[Elisha] said to Gehazi, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. Therefore he returned to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.” When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out (29-37).

In the passage quoted above, two actions of the woman might come across as highly surprising: First, when Elisha sends Gehazi off ahead with the prophet’s staff, the woman does not accompany Gehazi to get home sooner, saying to Elisha, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” (Though I am not convinced, some commentators suggest this was her way of convincing Elisha to go personally). Next, after the healing, when the woman is instructed by Elisha to “Pick up your son,” instead of running quickly to the boy as one might expect, She came and fell at [Elisha’s] feet, bowing to the ground. The narrator of 2 Kings clearly wants the reader to pick up on the woman’s priority of devotion to God and to the bearer of God’s word, Elisha. The story is clearly about the word of God being revealed through the prophet. However, in the development of this woman’s character, it is also emblematic of the relationship between Israel and God in general. Here is an Israelite with her allegiances straight, in contrast to the people of Samaria, who are lost in idolatry (see preceding chapters of the book).

In my long ministry, I have had the privilege of serving many people like this Shunammite—men, women, and children who, no matter how complicated and frenzied their lives become, show first with devotion to the Lord. It is not scripted or formulaic–how could it be in the heat of trials?–but the gift of faith, supernatural trust in the sovereignty of God, even when the outcomes do not end as happily as it does for the Shunammite. People such as these, our fellow church members, and the characters we meet in Scripture are gifts to us in the community of believers. Here is Thomas a Kempis offering what could be construed as commentary on the woman clinging to Elisha at the end of the story: “O Perpetual Light, transcending all sources of created light! Let the ragged lightning bolt from the sky search the nooks and crannies of my soul. Purify, glorify, clarify, vivify—with all Your powers—my Spirit that it may cling to You with joyful hugs.”

I give thanks for the example of all those I read about and know personally who look to you first in all things. They are, to me, icons of Jesus. Today, in the Spirit, make me more like them.

In the Cave (Psalm 142)

A Maskil of David, when he was in the cave. A Prayer.

With my voice I cry out to the Lord;
    with my voice I plead for mercy to the Lord.
I pour out my complaint before him;
    I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
    you know my way!
In the path where I walk
    they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see:
    there is none who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
    no one cares for my soul.
I cry to you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my refuge,
    my portion in the land of the living.”
Attend to my cry,
    for I am brought very low!
Deliver me from my persecutors,
    for they are too strong for me!
Bring me out of prison,
    that I may give thanks to your name!
The righteous will surround me,
    for you will deal bountifully with me.

From the deep chambers of my inner cave, Lord God, I seek your face. With the madam from Shunem running to find the man of God (Where can he be?), and with the vast crowd of sick and possessed desperate to see the Rabbi (How can he possibly ever attend to me?), I cry out to you, LORD. Can you see, my God, I am actually moving here, living my everyday life? And yet, like David, I’m trapped—still, alone, and fainting to feel your touch. Bring me out of prison, Jesus. 

In the Spirit of David, I find confidence rising within me even as I speak your name. Lord. Jesus, I, too, declare that I will give thanks to your name! I, too, believe this to be true: The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.

I Am Under Compulsion (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (16-18)

Or, I am under compulsion; for woe to me if I do not preach the gospel (16, NASB). In this passage, I believe there is a distinction between the compulsion of the gospel generally and the compulsion to preach the gospel specifically. The first is the universal calling to join the enterprise of spreading the good news; the second is the defined activity of preaching. Unless we make this distinction, the non-preachers’ temptation to distance themselves from this passage as a word for preachers only is too great. Thanksgiving rises for the good and vital work of church leaders, but then it is off to living life. 

In the case of Paul, the apostle, we find these two parts come together. As a preacher, pastor, and apostle, his compulsion for engaging in the gospel enterprise is to preach. Most do not have the calling to preach formally; there is no compulsion there, yet the testimony of Scripture elsewhere is that we all are accountable to a compulsion from the call to broadly “proclaim” the good news of Jesus. Our Lord teaches from the mount to the disciples and the crowd:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven, (Matthew 5:14-16)

Compulsion for all. 

Devotionally, what is the compulsion of the gospel for those not called to preach and for preachers when they are not preaching? Is it not simply to take advantage of every opportunity God gives us in the day-to-day to show the Christ difference in us through our speech, actions, and attitudes? To care for others in those moments when the world dictates watching out for oneself. To be thankful and humble at all times, giving credit to the love of Jesus whenever we are asked to explain our behavior. To–yes, in the style of the preacher–be ready with a personal testimony of God’s healing or provision or conversion whenever the opportunity arises to share it. (When I have done evangelism training in my church, we would prepare two-minute and five-minute testimonies in all these areas and practice them on one another). 

Today, far from distancing myself from Paul’s calling to engage in the good news movement, I embrace from the text my own compulsion of the Spirit to be a light of Jesus Christ—and woe to me if I do not let it shine.

And He…And He…And He (Mark 1:29-39)

Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told [Jesus] him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. (30-35)

And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (38-39).

I have divided the passage above in such a way as to provoke reflection on all that Jesus does in the space of about eighteen hours. In contrast to the previous passage (last week’s Gospel reading), here, there is no space given to the people’s reaction—no amazement here; not even the demons are permitted to speak. What do we find? He heals Simon’s mother-in-law in the early afternoon; he eats with Peter’s family; he heals everyone who comes to the door in the evening (many in Mark being a Hebraic expression for “all the sick”; see the parallels in Matthew 8:16, Luke 4:40); he rises early the next morning to pray and informs his disciples of the next move before setting to travel. 

Here, we see not only the rigor of the itinerary but also the great range of gifting from the Son of God. In the space of a few hours, Jesus is shown to be in the midst of a crowd here and alone in prayer there. He is compassionate with a sick woman at one moment and decisive with his disciples in making plans the next. And he…and he…and he. The Father reveals his Son to be constantly working in the world and working extraordinarily well. So in John, describing himself to the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus says, My Father is always at work to this very day, and I, too, am working (John 5:17, NIV).  

Devotionally, how shall we respond to this revelation of Jesus? Surely, not with any foolhardy notions that we should be doing the same. Yes, we are meant to put our hands to the plow as diligently as we can, but that, we must admit, can never approach this level of endurance and skill. No, our first reaction must be the same as in last week’s passage–amazement, joy, wonder! Our Lord is at work, and it is good. Even when we are sleeping spiritually or wayward in behavior, Jesus does not fail to do all that is needed for us and those we love at all times. We may take inspiration and, within our means, imitate the best we can, but first, we will be astonished and grateful. 

Today, absorbing this passage in Mark, Holy Spirit, give me the eyes to see the glory of the Son of God hard at work in the world, to rest in the knowledge of it, and to join in my smaller part assigned. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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