Sermon: 5th Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

  • Isaiah 40:21-31
  • 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
  • Mark 1:29-39
  • Psalm 147:1-12, 21c

The Collect

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen

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One the one hand, I don’t feel like Jesus at all. I’m not miraculously curing fevers and casting out demons. I’m not so famous that the entire city is beating down the doors to get to me. But on the other hand, Jesus leaving town in the middle of the night to pray in a deserted place away from people is very relatable. 

One time during my senior year at Fresno State, one of my roommates said “let’s drive to the mountains. You get the snacks.” It was already almost dark, but whatever. It was not quite finals, and all of us honors college nerds were already overwhelmed with school work. We needed a break. 4 of us got in my friend’s little 2-door car and we drove up 41 past Coarsegold. We stopped at a what was probably a scenic lookout point in the daytime. But it was completely dark. And we sat on the trunk of her car for a long time, eating cheezits and craisins. A concerned highway patrol guy stopped and asked what we were doing, if we were ok. We were fine, we said, we were just eating snacks. 

I don’t know what he thought of us. But probably something like what Simon thought when he found Jesus in the deserted place. “Everyone is searching for you.” The whole city had gathered by his door the night before. Why would he leave?

I wonder what would have happened if Jesus had stayed at Simon and Andrew’s house that night. Everyone in the city was already showing up there. I wonder if Jesus would have become more and more known and people from the entire country could have made pilgrimages to seek healing. That doesn’t sound bad. That sounds like good work, useful work. But something about that situation must not have felt right to Jesus. He had all these people around him, looking for him, looking to him for salvation from illness and demons. It took getting out of town to clear his head and pray in order to discern what it was he was meant to be doing. 

I think sometimes I also get so caught up in things that are good work, doing things that people need to get done, that I lose sight of what it is I was out here to do in the first place. Like when my friends and I drove to the mountains. We needed to get away from our papers, get out of our heads for a minute, and then we could come back with a better focus.

As good as all the healing and casting out of demons was, Jesus wasn’t meant to just do that out of Simon and Andrew’s house. Jesus was supposed to go out and tell people in different places his message. I wonder if sometimes we also need to go out to a deserted place and recalibrate. Refocus on the message. We don’t need to keep going in the work, even good work, if it’s not what we are meant to be doing. 

We’re going to hear the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness in a couple of weeks. That’s another time when Jesus goes off alone to pray and comes back ready to start his ministry. In the wilderness Jesus was shown all of these tempting visions by Satan. One of those visions was to be the ruler of the world. Maybe that’s why Jesus is so careful with the demons he casts out. He doesn’t let them speak so that they won’t tell people that he’s the Messiah. He doesn’t want to rule the world on the word of some demons. 

It’s a weird contradiction though, that Jesus wants to spread his message in Capernaum and all the other towns, but he won’t let the demons say who he is. This is one of the main threads woven through the gospel according to Mark. Jesus being revealed and kept secret at the same time. We’re in the season after the Epiphany for another week. That means it’s time for Jesus to be revealed, right? But he’s still so mysterious. He teaches with authority, we heard last week. This week we see him exorcising demons and healing people. The people are flocking to him. He could rule the world, or at least Galilee, right now if he wanted, no Satan involved. But instead he goes to a deserted place to pray. And when his disciples find him, he doesn’t go back to the city. He takes them out to the other towns where his fame hasn’t spread yet. It’s such a strange way to be the long-awaited Messiah. 

Part of all this secrecy is that Jesus’ purpose is not fully revealed until after his death and resurrection. He can’t tell people who he his because no one can understand it yet. If he goes around announcing he’s the Messiah, and all the demons support him, he might raise an army and be able to overthrow the Roman empire. That’s what people expect from the Messiah. Jesus is not that kind of Messiah. The salvation Jesus is preaching is not just from the Roman empire, but from all the powers of evil. It’s not something that people can even comprehend until Jesus’ death and resurrection bring that salvation to completion.

If Jesus had listened to the people and demons around him, maybe he would have stayed at Simon and Andrew’s house forever. Maybe he would have avoided execution by the Roman empire and been able to heal so many more people who visited him in Capernaum. That would have been good work, and it would have kept Jesus busy. But instead of just keeping busy with the work literally at his doorstep, Jesus sneaks off to a deserted place to pray. 

Satan tempted Jesus with visions of fame and fortune. Jesus could have achieved those things in Capernaum. Maybe this is a continuation of that temptation – stay here, everyone is looking for you, everyone loves how you heal people and cast out demons. You could do so much good.

When Simon finds him, Jesus says that he wants to move on, proclaiming the message in other places, because that is what he set out to do. He didn’t set out to build up his fame and fortune as the conquering Messiah everyone expects. He set out to proclaim his message not just in Capernaum but in other places.

Even if those other places eventually lead to the dangers of Jerusalem. Even if those other places eventually lead to his death. There’s another story of Jesus going off by himself to pray. Right before his arrest and passion in Jerusalem, he goes with his disciples to the garden of Gethsemane. He leaves his disciples and goes a little further into the garden to pray. He prays that the suffering will be taken from him, but also that God’s will be done. Jesus’ life is marked by all these times when he goes off by himself to pray. And just like at Capernaum, Jesus’ prayers give him the resolve to do what he set out to do, to do God’s will.

Jesus is the Messiah, but he’s not the kind of Messiah everyone was expecting. There were so many moments when he could have been that other kind of Messiah. But sometimes it takes going off to a deserted place, getting away from all the expectations, all the work people think you should be doing, and discerning what actually is God’s will for you right now. 

As we approach the season of Lent, lots of people are going to be talking about Lenten disciplines. Practices you can add to your routine, bad habits you can refrain from. That is all good. But instead of making lent like a second try at new years resolutions, let us consider how we can become more like Jesus. Not necessarily in the miraculous healing and casting out demons. But following his example of prayer and true discernment. Not falling for temptations of fame or fortune or even doing good work. But proclaiming God’s message like we had originally set out to do. Proclaiming the truth of the resurrection – Jesus is the Messiah, not how we expected, but in a more wonderful and mysterious way.

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