Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 7, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
A fever is a sign that there is a battle going on inside your body. It is a sign that something has invaded – perhaps a virus, perhaps a bacteria, perhaps an infection – and your body is fighting it off. In these days of pandemic we are all very aware of the importance of monitoring for fevers. My wife usually gets up before I do in the morning, and for the past several months I’ve become used to lying in bed listening to her take her temperature to see if it is safe for her to go in to work for the Oak Harbor School District. I know the sound of the beeps that mean she’s good to go. Thankfully, she hasn’t missed a day yet!
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.
So we can imagine the concern that Simon Peter and his wife felt when his mother-in-law came down with a fever. It had laid her low. She was in bedridden. Simon brought Jesus to her bedside. Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up. The fever left her, and she was good to go. Immediately she began to serve them!
It might sound offensive to some that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve the disciples as soon as she was well. It might seem sexist and chauvinistic to have this woman get out of bed after having been sick and immediately begin making sandwiches for the men. I get it. But there are more than just patriarchal obligations that move Simon Peter’s mother-in-law to serve them. I appreciated the commentary on this passage written by my female professor of New Testament in seminary, Dr. Sarah Henrich. She notes that the Greek word for “serve” here 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 character in Mark’s gospel who exemplifies true discipleship.” So this serving comes from a place of faith, not cultural obligation. This serving is also a sign. It is a sign that she is well. It is a sign that she is good to go.
I remember a few years ago when our friend here at OHLC Jan had a terrible fall and broke several bones in her hand. Jan has been one of our treasured accompanists here at OHLC for many years now. I remember visiting her in the hospital after her fall. Eventually our conversation turned to the elephant in the room: Would she be able to play the piano again? Her hand was in really bad shape, and so I wasn’t so sure. I think I remember that the doctors weren’t so sure either. But there was one person who was sure, and that was Jan! She had a fierce determination in her eyes, and after many, many weeks of physical therapy with a special therapist who works specifically with musicians, Jan was eventually back on the piano bench. I remember the first time she played again. It was a midweek service. I remember my voice cracking as I welcomed her back. She was good to go! She was under no obligation to play for the service. It was what she wanted more than anything else! It was, and is, one of the ways she has chosen to serve her Lord Jesus, and so she resumed that ministry with gratitude and joy.
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 who were sick with various diseases. He cast out many demons. 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. Jesus healed many. He did not heal all.
And why? Because that is not primarily why he had come. 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.” The healings Jesus performed were wonderful for those who experienced it. They are a sign to us of Jesus’ compassion for all who suffer. They reveal that God is concerned about our physical well-being. But they were not Jesus’ primary mission or purpose.
Sometimes the people we pray for don’t get better. We rejoice when they do, but sometimes, in spite of our prayers, the virus digs in deeper, or the cancer spreads, or the dementia gets worse. Does this mean Jesus has abandoned us?
No. Because you see, there is a bigger battle going on inside of us – bigger than any virus or bacteria or infection. It is the battle against sin, death, and the devil. It is the battle against the sickness in our hearts that leads to selfishness and doubts and fear and hatred and despair. It is the fever in our souls that fights against the temptations and the lies of the evil one that can separate us from God. It is this illness that lays us low and prevents us from serving God with gratitude and with joy, and this is the battle Jesus has come to win.
And how does he do it? How is this battle won? How is this fever broken? Jesus fights and wins this battle by proclaiming the message. He does it by giving us his Word. He does it by announcing that he has come to be our savior and our Lord. He does it by announcing that our sin is forgiven. He does it by announcing that he is the Son of God who has come to serve us by taking our sin upon himself on the cross. He does it by announcing to us, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you, for the forgiveness of sin.” He does it by announcing that in the waters of Holy Baptism we have been joined to him forever, so that we who are united with him in a death like his will also be united with him in a resurrection like his.
This is what brings healing for the sickness of sin, the sickness unto death in our hearts and souls. This is what wins the bigger battle being waged inside us. This is what casts out demons and makes us well. This is what ultimately breaks the fever. It is the proclamation of the message, the announcement of what Christ Jesus has done for us.
We hear that Word today, and in so doing we are good to go. Made well by his Word, we rise up in response to the message Christ proclaims to us to gratefully and joyfully live in service to him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church