Gospel Symptoms

Mark 1:29-39

Jesus encounters many sick and ailing people in these weeks from Mark’s Gospel.  He reaches out with compassion to all whom he encounters .  But Jesus’ ministry is not a ministry of healing…

Jesus encounters many sick and ailing people in these weeks from Mark’s Gospel.  He reaches out to all who he encounters with compassion.  But Jesus’ ministry is not a ministry of healing…

In spite of the straight up awesome weather the past few days, it is cold season.  The question is common, ‘Has the cold bug hit your place yet?’  Comparing cold and flu symptoms, sick days from work, stocking up on Nyquil.  All companions of the season.

There are a lot of sick people in the stories we are hearing in these weeks.  Last week it was a man possessed by an unclean spirit, next week it will be a leper, the week after a man who can’t walk.  This week, we encounter both the fevered mother in law of one of Jesus’ disciples and the crowds of people who have every manner of illness who amass at the home where Jesus is staying.  He reaches out to all of them and has compassion on them.

But Jesus’ ministry is not a ministry of healing.

Jesus has had quite a busy 24 hours.  He preached in the synagogue, cast out a demon, healed a woman of fever, healed everyone with an illness in the village, got up early to get some time to himself but was sought out by his disciples who urged him to come back for more. And this is what he says to them.  “Let us go on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came here to do.” It is easy to miss this one sentence, this mission statement, because we get caught up with the disciples in seeing all the people who need healing and feel the urgency of needs unmet.  And, of course, the very next sentence is “he went out throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons.”  And the very next story is one of healing.

Jesus did all of those things but that was not his ministry – healing, and demon hurling.  Just as a sore throat and runny nose are symptom of a cold – a sure sign that some virus has taken a hold of your body, healing and feeding and comforting and exorcising were symptoms of a ministry of proclamation.  These symptoms are sure signs of the authority of God with which Jesus proclaims this message of justice.  Commentator William Loader says that these acts ‘maximize the impact of the good news.’  He doesn’t just preach love, compassion and justice, he enacts it.

And he will not let either the crowd nor the disciples co-opt or engage him in a ministry which is not his.  I have wondered why it was so important in the stories in Mark that Jesus silenced the demons – the evil spirits who were calling out his name, proclaiming him to any who would hear.  Was it just that he didn’t want an endorsement from the wrong backer?  Was it humility?  What rang truest for me as I considered and read this week was that these demons were trying to exert control of Jesus.  Naming a person meant exerting your authority over.  Jesus will have none of it – “He permitted none of them to speak, because they knew him” it says in verse 34.

Nor will he let his disciples decide for him.  “Everyone is looking for you.”  They say.  All of these people, all of these needs – come on, you know what to do.  Jesus knows that healing people supports and embodies his mission of Kingdom proclamation, but that the message needs to go elsewhere too.

Again, William Loader says, “Mark shows Jesus acting deliberately in ways which will maximize the impact of the good news, but,” he goes on to say, “Jesus will not be dictated to by the rules of the game. In some sense they also [the disciples and the crowds] belong to the powers from which he must liberate people.”[i] It’s not about the miracles but about the message that they proclaim.

The healing and wonder-working are also symptoms of ministry in the way that you know that you have a cold virus when you start sneezing.  You know that you have a fruitful ministry of proclamation and practice when people start seeking you out to experience it.  The more he heals, the more people there are to heal.  It begins to become noticeable once you are aware of it, that Jesus never, not once, goes out looking for someone to heal, or for a demon to cast out.  He does not set out in a search for hungry people or people with leprosy.  These people find him because they have heard about him.

We heard it in the song we just sang, “Heal us, heal us today.  Heal us, Lord Jesus.”  The plea followed him around everywhere he went.  Partly because of people in this congregation who are fans, I recently began to watch the British Sci-Fi program Dr. Who.  A recent episode had Rose and the Doctor encountering zombie-like humans that we infected with every imaginable human disease – human guinea pigs.  They chase after Rose and the Doctor longing for touch and healing, incessant and innumerable.  They are, in the end healed.

Often, in his ministry, Jesus is seeking not to immerse himself in the crowd, although he does heal the people who come to him, but to get away from people to a place of contemplation.  Maybe he was even trying to do that by going to the home of his friend and follower Simon, only to find that there too, Simon’s mother is ill and in need.  But in fact, Jesus’ ministry of proclamation of the good news is possible only because he finds a place to retreat.  It is centered in and grounded by and balanced with prayer.  It is telling that Jesus was able to clearly articulate his mission and purpose after he had had a time of solitude in the wilderness.

I think many people come to cities in the Pacific Northwest at least in part because of the closeness of ‘wilderness’ to the city, and that is one way that many people find space for centering and reflection and connectedness to the Creator.  But, of course, there are many way of finding centered-ness – many different kinds of prayer – for Jesus it was the wilderness and finding space alone.  I’m sure you can think of something that is specific to you: renewal in body movement, immersed in creativity, silence, music, the natural world, writing, even in the connection that comes not through absolute solitude by through intention connection and conversation and relationship with one or two others.

I don’t know about you, but for me it is easy to get on with life without finding centeredness until I’ve kind of veered of course.  It is often true that I wait too long to make that spiritual direction appointment and that my spirit is more frayed than I would like when I finally arrive.

We heard and read and sang the beautiful text from Isaiah 40.  Weldon read from the Inclusive Version of scripture: “Those who wait on YHWH find renewed power.”  This text speaks of mounting up on eagles’ wings, receive newness and rest in the practice of ‘waiting on the Lord’ but the prophet does not really give a guidebook on how to do that.  In some ways that is for each of us to figure out.

When Jesus returns to the wilderness he is giving himself the space to seek his source so that he can then return to ‘what I’ve come for,’ i.e. preaching the gospel of God’s Kingdom.  We each have our own calling as well as our own forms of prayer and centering.  We too have many demands on our time and energy.  Many of us are in serving professions that we do out of love for God and our brothers and sisters in the world.  These ministries (pastors are not the only ones who minister!) can echo the song we sang earlier: There’s still so much sickness and suffering today.

But I would quote Loader again, “Jesus did not exercise his ministry on the basis of his need to be needed, but on the basis of what he could do as a bearer of the Spirit, nothing more. That is always enough – and never enough to meet all needs.”

I think this is true for our congregational life, where there are many needs and many tasks.  We have retreated to the wilderness of restructuring.  Here we can reflect and pray and hopefully maintain that balance moving forward.  In Spirit attentiveness we can re-focus on how to be the Spirit bearers…and it will be enough.

May we wait on the Lord
May we find rest,
May we rise on eagles’ wings
full of the wisdom of God,
ready to that for which we have come
proclaiming in word and deed the Kingdom of God.


[i] William Loader, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkEpiphany5.htm