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Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Isaiah 40:21–31, 1 Corinthians 9:16–23 & Mark 1:29–39

Today’s gospel passage begins with the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, who was in bed with a fever. Some of us may think this particular story is guilty of reinforcing the old stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home waiting on men, because we hear that even though Peter’s mother-in-law has obviously been unwell, as soon as she is healed by Jesus, she waits on him, along with Peter and Andrew, and James and John.

But this is far from the truth, for the reality is that her actions demonstrate a call to serve others, just as Jesus himself serves others. In fact, immediately after Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, we are told that all the sick people in Capernaum, and those possessed by demons, are brought to Jesus and he cures them and casts out the demons. Then, having taken time to pray on his own, Jesus gathers his disciples and goes throughout the region of Galilee, where he continues to serve, proclaiming the gospel and casting out demons.

Neither Jesus, nor Peter’s mother-in-law, are forced or pressured into serving; it is something they both freely choose to do. Similarly, the Apostle Paul, in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, states that he has chosen, of his own will, to serve by proclaiming the gospel. 

Today’s passage follows on from last Sunday’s reading, where Paul was calling on the members of the church in Corinth, who were more advanced in their thinking and understanding of the Christian faith, not to lead the more superstitious and gullible members of the church astray, by eating meat that had been offered as sacrifices to idols of foreign gods. Those who were more advanced in their thinking understood that idols were merely man-made objects in honour of gods that didn’t really exist, and so they didn’t see what all the fuss was about in eating meat that was sacrificed to those idols, but Paul was concerned that other members of the church, who had previously been worshippers of these foreign gods, and who didn’t possess the same knowledge and understanding, could easily become confused, and be influenced to also eat such meat, and then feel extremely guilty and shameful about what they had done.

So Paul cautions the more advanced members of the church against thinking they are intellectually superior to other members of the church, and that they are somehow more privileged than others. In today’s passage he uses himself as an example of someone who has more right than anyone else to claim certain privileges for himself, but that he doesn’t because he doesn’t want them to hinder the effectiveness of the gospel he proclaims. Paul argues that the very ministry he has been called by God to fulfil, which is to proclaim the gospel, is itself the greatest privilege. And he seeks no reward for his ministry because his reward comes in the satisfaction of bringing the gospel freely to anybody who would willingly receive it.

If Paul were alive today, it would be interesting to see if he still held the same view as that which he did more than two thousand years ago. For the perception I have is that Western society is less receptive of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, than it was in Paul’s day, and in the places where he proclaimed the gospel. Paul might look at the state of the world today, especially the suffering that exists in much of the world, and wonder where God is. He might think that God has abandoned the world, or that God doesn’t care.

That was the situation the prophet Isaiah was addressing in today’s Old Testament reading. The country of Judah had been conquered, and the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple,  had been destroyed by the Babylonians. Much of the population had been taken into exile in Babylon, and those that remained in the land were subject to ongoing raids and attacks from various marauding groups. The people believed that either the gods of the Babylonians were stronger than their God, or worse still, that their God had abandoned them. 

In response to this, Isaiah asks the people to whom they would liken God, or to what would they compare Him, and he then poses a series of questions. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?” Isaiah answers his own questions by telling the people that God is without equal, there is no one with whom to compare Him. And he also tells them that God’s understanding is “unsearchable”, it is beyond their capacity to comprehend.

The same is true for us today. We will never fully understand how God works in the world, why suffering continues and evil reigns in so many places. And God’s understanding is not likely to be revealed to us instantaneously in some sort of an epiphany. Instead, we come to know how God works in the world through years of living with God and God’s people. Years of exploring, seeking, reflecting, and acting with God. Over time, through Bible study, worship, practices of faith like hospitality and forgiveness, stewardship and service, we come to a place of knowing God’s ways, even if we cannot sufficiently put words to it.

And the message of hope, that Isaiah had for the people of Jerusalem and Judah, still holds true for us today.  “But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

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