St. John’s Lutheran Church
4 February 2024 + Epiphany 5b
Rev. Josh Evans
Give the woman a break!
As quickly as Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up out of bed, and cures her of her fever, she gets up and begins to serve them?!
It sounds ridiculous – and a little sexist – to our 21st century ears. “Feeling better? Great. Now go make us lunch.”
Except that’s not exactly what’s going on here. One of the dangers of using our 21st century ears to hear these ancient stories is applying those same 21st century standards to a 1st century world. That’s not to say that sexism didn’t exist in Jesus’s world – after all, Mark doesn’t even bother giving this woman a name. (He probably never took the time to learn it.)
But Mark does give us something else, hiding in the Greek: “She began to serve them.” Diakoneō. It’s the word we get “deacon” from – the title given to ordained ministers of Word and Service in our church. This isn’t a subservient kind of service, reinforcing oppressive gender roles. This is a kind of service that arises from God’s call.
It is, in fact, the same word Jesus will use to describe himself later in Mark’s gospel: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (10:45)
Jesus’s act of healing here is an act of liberation – of restoration to community – not unlike the healing of the man with an unclean spirit in the scene immediately before this one.
The healing itself is never the endgame – it’s what the healing means. Jesus frees a man from an oppressive spirit, liberating him from his isolation, and restoring him to community. In the same way, Jesus frees Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever, a debilitating illness that kept her physically bedridden, yes, and also cut her off from her own unique place in her community.
Jesus heals her and restores her to dignity and purpose. Jesus calls her to a life of service – diakonia – not menial or trivial labor – but purposeful and indispensable participation in the community of the kingdom of God that he is building.
This is as much a call story as it is a healing story.
The tactics are different: In one story, Jesus calls out to fishermen from afar, “Follow me!” In another, Jesus takes a woman by the hand and lifts her up. He raises her – just as, fifteen chapters later, he himself will have been raised. (Same word!)
The tactics are different, but the message is the same: Follow me – and I will make you and transform you. Take my hand – and I will raise and resurrect you to new life.
When Jesus calls us to follow him and to be his disciples, there is transformation and resurrection.
So much has already transpired in just this opening chapter of Mark’s gospel: John the baptizer appears preaching repentance to prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus himself seeks out John to be baptized, while the very same Spirit that descends on him in the river soon drives him into the wilderness to be tested.
Then, just as quickly as John is arrested, Jesus picks up where he left off, proclaiming the good news of God and urging the people to repent – to turn toward God – and to believe in this good news. With great urgency, he calls his first followers from a group of fishermen, and when confronted by a man with an unclean spirit, he frees him from his possession.
So much has been revealed about who Jesus is and what he is all about in these texts of epiphanies – a microcosm of the wider scope of his ministry that is to come:
Jesus, who has everything to do with those people and places where others dared not go, confronts head-on the oppressive forces and fevers that possess us.
Jesus brings resurrection and transformation here and now, and Jesus calls us, with Simon’s mother-in-law, lifting us up to a life of service for the sake of the community of the kingdom of God and the movement that he is building.
Jesus who calls, heals, liberates, raises, and transforms us also invites us to one more thing. It’s not so much in what he says, but in what he does. In one minor, passing verse, transitioning us between scenes, Mark narrates: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
Take care of others – and: Take care of your soul, too.
“It is indeed right, our duty, and our joy” to serve – to heal and to liberate, and to transform the world by our witness to the gospel.
It is also important to tend to our spirits – sometimes easier said than done, even for those of us who spend their professional lives preaching it to others.
It’s why we are beckoned – week after week – back to this table of mercy:
To be nourished in order to feed a hungry world.
To be re-filled ourselves as we pour ourselves out for others.
To behold what you are and become what you receive: the body of Christ, given for you – for the life of the world.