Preached online for All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 7 February, 2021, the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany.
Readings for this Sunday: Isaiah 40.21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
“Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk 1.38).
Today I want to talk about how Jesus’ message is simple: God seeks to heal us, and in healing we find our restoration to community, which is community with God and with one another.
Humans measure time by rituals attached to special days, and perhaps the strangest of those last week was the world waiting breathlessly for a large rodent to tell us how long winter will remain with us. For some of us, one of the rituals of February 2nd is watching the 1993 film Groundhog Day with Bill Murray, about a vain and unpleasant TV personality who is trapped in a time loop where only he realizes that the day repeats endlessly, resetting itself each morning at 6 AM. This year a number of commentators have cited the film as catching the spirit of the pandemic, where we seem to be trapped in a stasis where nothing really seems to change.
However, the film’s message is that people can change. Over the course of countless repeating days, Bill Murray’s character learns evolves from a conceited, celebrity-seeking jerk to a man who learns to love and serve the people around him. Like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the message is that living death is isolation from our fellow human beings, while healing and redemption come from being in community with others. While the film is totally secular, its director, Harold Ramis, said that he was inspired by the Buddhist idea of the slow perfection of the human soul over time. It’s an interesting example of how a commercially successful film can be a vehicle for profound truths about the purpose of life.
There’s another connection with February 2nd – in the life of the church it is known as the Feast of the Presentation, commemorating the day when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple in keeping with Jewish law and custom for the firstborn, as told in Luke’s gospel. Luke tells us how the infant Jesus is recognized as the Messiah by the aged prophets Simeon and Anna as the Messiah.
Simeon thanks God that
…– “…my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2.30-32).
Simeon’s words have come to be known in our liturgy as the Nunc Dimitis, the prayer of the faithful at the end of the day before we take our rest. Perhaps because Simeon recognizes Jesus as the light of the world, this day also became known as Candlemas, because of the custom of blessing the candles to be used in the church that year. The faithful would also be given blessed candles to remind them of the light of Christ in the depth of winter. Thus Groundhog Day brings us to Candlemas brings us to Jesus, the light of the world that shines in the dark, which lightens the winter of our souls and brings us to the light and life of God.
However, in the pre-dawn darkness of a deserted place outside Capernaum, that light that Simeon hailed is not easily found, as the disciples frantically seek Jesus. It’s the morning after a busy day in Capernaum, a day whose beginning we heard about in last Sunday’s gospel. Unlike the film Groundhog Day, where twenty-four hours endlessly repeats, Jesus has no intention of being trapped. Time passes quickly and relentlessly in Mark’s trademark style of piling one event on the next: “As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew” (Mk 1.29). Jesus has done a lot here in just a day, healing Simon’s mother-in-law and many others, but now he tells the disciples, “Let’s go, I’ve got to bring my message to the next towns, that’s my job” (Mk 1.38). In just thirty-eight verses, Mark has thrown us into a whirlwind of action as we try to keep up with Jesus, and here we might ask, what exactly is Jesus’ message? Has Mark actually explain it? Am I sure that I understand it?
During those 24 hours in Capernaum, Jesus’ message is seen almost entirely in action. Mark tells us that he began the day teaching in the synagogue (1.21), but his driving the unclean spirit out of the man is what eyewitnesses seem to recognize as “A new teaching – with authority!” (1.27). Right after this, Jesus cures Simon’s mother-in-law of her fever, and then at the end of the Sabbath day there’s a crowd outside his door and he “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1.33). Finally, all that Mark says about his tour through Galilee is that Jesus went “proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1.39). Whatever the words are in this preaching, they don’t seem nearly as important to Mark as Jesus’ actions, and all of these actions have to do with healing and restoring people.
Just after his baptism, Jesus summarized his message very simply: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (1.15). Or, as a contemporary translation puts it, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom us here. Change your life and believe in the Message”. The good news, the message, seems tied to the nearness or even the presence of the kingdom of God, and the kingdom is seen, not just in the healing and curing of the people, but in restoring them to community with God and with one another. Freed of the unclean spirit, the man in last Sunday’s gospel can properly enter the synagogue to be in community with God’s people and give thanks for his healing. Healed of her fever, Simon’s mother in law can return to her vocation of hospitality to her guests.
We might think it sexist of Mark to give her a name, and to think that her only role is to make sandwiches, but in Mark the word “serve” is vitally important. The Greek word, diakaneo, is the origin of word “deacon”, one of the three holy orders with a specific focus on ministry to others. Jesus himself uses the word diakeno to describe his mission: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45). In our culture, the words “serve” and “service” can often have a menial connotation – think of how little prestige we attach to jobs in the “service industry” – but for Jesus, the kingdom of God is about service as a vocation, about a purpose in life. Healed, Simon’s mother can resume her proper vocation which includes offering hospitality to her guests. Hospitality and service are what makes community and communion with others possible. The people from All Saints rightly see preparing meals for the CrossLinks residents as part of their vocation.
Finally, Jesus’ focus on service to others explains why he is so shy of publicity, the so-called “Markan Secret”. He could have stayed in Capernaum and basked in the gratitude and adulation of the people he cured. Instead he hides in a place so deserted that the disciples have to hunt for him, and when they do find him, he says it’s time to move on. Jesus has an aversion to fame and celebrity that seems totally remarkable in our society today where people are famous for being famous, and yet how many celebrities can we think of that have been chewed up and spit out by the fame factory? Whereas Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day has to learn to let go of his desire for celebrity and attention, Jesus from the very beginning knows that the one who truly knows and understands him is God the Father, which is why the disciples find him in prayer. Jesus’ identity is firmly rooted in his relationship to God and in his ministry to others. He needs nothing else.
Jesus in Mark is thus revealed as someone who wields so much power that demons fear him, and yet he used that power to heal and restore. Jesus’ message is that we see the kingdom of God most fully when we are in community and communion, with God and with one another. In this communion that we find our healing, and our saved from the forces that would refocus us selfishly on our needs and our desires, a kind of possession that can only lead us to the despair of our inadequacies. At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character, now totally changed, exclaims that he wants to stay in the small down that he despised at the start of the film. True communities, whether Capernaum or Punxsawtaney, is where we find our true identities in love and service to God and to one another.