Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 4, 2024
Dear friends, grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
A fever is a sign that there is a battle going on inside your body. It is an indicator that something has invaded – perhaps a virus, perhaps a bacteria, perhaps an infection – and your body is fighting it off. It is like the “check engine” light in your car. It is a sign that something isn’t right.
A fever is also often seen as a flashing light saying, “stay away.” We all remember from the pandemic (if I dare bring that up) how there were temperature check stations at every hospital and clinic and nursing home. If you had the slightest sign of a fever, you weren’t allowed in. We remember school districts encouraging staff and teachers and parents to take temperatures, and if it was higher than 98.6, to stay home. Costco started carrying those instant-read thermometers so employers could zap their employees, sending them away if they had an elevated temperature. Families were even using them to see who was allowed to come over and who had to stay away. And it’s true, it’s a good indicator. If someone has a fever, they should stay away!
A fever was an even more serious concern in Jesus’ time, because in those days when there was one of those battles going on inside your body, there was little you could do to fight it. There were no hospitals. There were no antibiotics. There was no Tylenol to knock that fever down if it got too high. For many people in the ancient world, a fever was often the beginning of the end. It was certainly a sign to stay away.
But when Simon Peter’s mother-in-law came down with a fever, Jesus didn’t stay away from her. When Peter asked Jesus to come, he did. He came close to her. Jesus made a house call, coming to her bedside. He even took her by the hand! St. Mark seems to want to tell the story of Jesus in as few words as possible, and yet he includes this detail: Jesus took her by the hand.
Personally, I’m a big fan of hand holding. My wife and I hold hands on our evening walks, and while I know that makes some people cringe or roll their eyes, that little extra gesture of closeness has a way of healing any recent strains on our relationship. We find that it is hard to stay mad at someone you’re holding hands with. Or there was the time I had my upper wisdom teeth taken out and the nurse held my hand until I was out. It was a complicated procedure for me because of where they were, and I was nervous. Holding a patient’s hand isn’t necessarily a required protocol, I’m sure, but she sensed it was what I needed, and it was such a comfort. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve held someone’s hand in their last hours. Sometimes they are unable to receive communion. Sometimes they can’t talk. But in holding their hand, feeling that slight squeeze of their hand responding to you, there is a closeness.
This gesture of Jesus in holding the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law wasn’t necessary. He could heal with a word. He could heal from a distance. But in his great compassion, his great love, Jesus came close – close enough to hold her hand. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her. She was well again.
And then, immediately after she was well again, she got up out of bed and began to serve them! Now if my mother-in-law had been sick and then was made well, the last thing I would expect from her would be to get up and start serving everyone in the house. (I am wise about some things.) That this woman immediately served them might sound offensive. It might sound like there are some patriarchal cultural obligations at work. Why are they letting this poor woman who just moments ago was sick in bed serve them? I mean, come on guys, can’t you make your own sandwiches?
But this misses the point entirely. The point here is that when Jesus took her hand, he gave her strength. He empowered her, and she chose to use that strength, that power, to serve. You’ll notice that nobody asked her to serve them. She just did it!
I’ve been visiting one of our members regularly since she has been receiving treatments for cancer. Many of our visits have been like little tea parties, and most of the time she insists on pouring the tea. I try to tell her it isn’t necessary, that she doesn’t need to make a fuss. Her husband is a great caregiver. He stands by and offers to help out. Sometimes if she’s a little shaky that day he will do the pouring. But it is important to her to do it whenever she can. She wants to use whatever strength she has in that moment to serve, and as sheepish as I sometimes feel about letting a cancer patient pour my tea, it seems more wrong to tell her she can’t or shouldn’t. It is so obviously important to her. It is so obviously coming from a place of love, from the heart of a joyful servant.
I appreciated the commentary on this passage written by my professor of New Testament in seminary, Dr. Sarah Henrich. She notes that the Greek word for “serve” here in this gospel reading is diakoneo, which is the same word Jesus uses to describe his own ministry. It is where we get the word “deacon.” Dr. Henrich goes on to argue that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is willingly and joyfully serving Jesus as an act of gratitude and faith. She writes that in her serving here “she is the first person in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.” This was no mere cultural obligation. This woman was now a servant of the Lord, a servant in his church. She had been lifted up by Jesus’ compassion and mercy. She had been strengthened by his touch, such that she now willingly, freely, responded to his love through joyful service.
The news that Jesus had healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law spread quickly. By the end of the day all kinds of people showed up at the house to be healed by Jesus. They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. St. Mark tells us that “the whole city” was gathered around the door! Jesus cured many of them.
But then Jesus left. First he went to a deserted place by himself to pray. Then, when Simon Peter told him that everyone was searching for him, Jesus said it was time to move on. And why? Because Jesus had not come primarily to be a healer of physical ailments. He had not come primarily to be a nurse or an EMT. Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Jesus’ healing ministry is important. It is a sign to us that Jesus comes close to those who are sick. Jesus’ healing ministry reveals to us that God is concerned about our physical well-being, that God cares about our bodies. But this ministry of physical healing was not Jesus’ primary mission or purpose.
You see, Jesus had an even bigger fever to break. Jesus came to heal us of the bigger disease of sin, that spiritual disease we all confessed to having at the beginning of our service. Jesus came to cure the sickness in our hearts that leads to selfishness and doubts and fear and hatred and despair. He came to break the fever in our souls that rages as we fight against the temptations and the accusations and the lies of the evil one. Jesus came to heal us of everything that separates us from God. In fact, Jesus came to cure us of death itself.
And he does all of this by coming close to us with a message. He does it by coming close to us and giving us his Word, revealing to us that he has come to be our Savior and our Lord. He does it by coming close to us with the promise that he has conquered sin and death for us through his death and resurrection. Jesus comes close through Word and Sacrament to assure us that through his saving work on the cross, the bigger fever has been broken. The ultimate disease has been cured. And so we have nothing to fear.
We have many in our congregation who are battling serious illnesses. As that battle in your body is fought, know that Christ will not stay away from you. He will come close to you to give you strength and peace. If you like, we have healing prayer ministers who are here today to pray for you and with you during our distribution of the Lord’s Supper. If you like, they will take you by the hand and pray for you or for people you care about, so that you would know his closeness, his compassion, his caring heart, his healing love.
And for all of us who continue to know the fever caused by sin as that battle rages in our souls, our Lord Jesus comes close to us too. He doesn’t stay away. He comes to us with the message that we are forgiven and loved and redeemed. He comes close to us with the Word that makes us well. He takes us by the hand and lifts us up by his grace and mercy, strengthening us by his touch, so that we gratefully and joyfully live our lives in service to him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church