February 5 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Theme: There is an unusual degree of agreement among commentators that Mark is describing a typical day in Jesus' ministry as witnessed by the disciples as they began their training: so perhaps the theme could be "A Typical Day", or, a little more dramatic, "The Action Begins". But notice the sub-text in Isaiah and in Mark is still the critical question of identity. Who is God/Christ? Which means, who do we say he is?
Introduction. It is a constant human failing to scale God down to size. We reduce him to "buddy" status, perhaps, or as a personal insurer/ medical practitioner/bodyguard/P.A./ Personal Trainer/Life Coach; or just and Agony Aunt/Bartender to whom we can pour out our troubles. Whenever we are tempted down this track we should hasten to re-read today's passage from Isaiah. Do you not know? Have you not heard? God is the Creator of all things; and you think he's out of his depth in dealing with your problems? But the opposite error is just as tempting: why should God worry about little old me when he is creating and sustaining the whole universe? So the gospel passage sees Jesus dealing with both individuals and crowds. St Paul reminds us about the difference between a calling and a career choice. With the former there is no choice, no terms and conditions, no agreed salary or recompense. The gospel is the only thing that matters to him, and he will do anything to get a hearing (although that doesn't stop him complaining bitterly!).
Background. I want to start with Corinthians today because it is so strikingly modern and applicable to our own situation. Paul is white-hot with anger. [Go back to the start of this chapter 9 and read up to today's passage.] Clearly, he has his critics in Corinth. Some have dismissed him as an outsider and a bludger. He's been accused, it seems, of living off his hosts and contributing nothing. That has really pushed his buttons! Paul insists that he was entitled to their hospitality, but also that he chose not to accept it. He earned his own living while he was with them. Verse 5 is particularly intriguing, as it implies that St Paul was married and his wife accompanied him on this travels to Corinth – although the comments may apply only to Barnabas.
The same tone of exasperation and anger permeates today's reading from Isaiah. The people are grumbling that God seems to overlook them in their daily struggles, because they are so obsessed with those struggles that they are wallowing in self-pity. The remedy is simple: look up! Look at the stars in the night-sky [remembering just how spectacular they would be in those days with a complete absence of artificial light]. Be reminded of the greatness and glory of God; compared to him we are all – the great and the famous included – like mere grasshoppers. Yet he cares for us. When we turn to him, cease our attempts to solve our own problems in our own way, and place our hope in him, he will reinvigorate us and we will soar high as if on eagle wings.
Mark is often thought of as a mere journalist, a reporter of events, and well aware of the shortness of the average reader's or listener's attention span. It's true that he doesn't rank as a theologian, and of all the gospel writers he seems the least interested in the content of Jesus' teaching. Perhaps he is best understood as the author of a training manual for those entering discipleship. The careful structure of his gospel would point in that sort of direction. He begins by making clear who Jesus is and the nature of his relationship with God. Then he records the calling of the first disciples; and now he has begun to show what a life of discipleship looks like from the inside. And we still haven't reached the end of chapter 1!
Start reading at verse 21 and we get an even clearer picture of what Mark is up to. He, too, is dealing with our inability to grasp the real truth about Jesus. The evil spirit recognises him immediately (verse24), but the crowds do not. They see him as a great teacher and miracle worker, but nothing more. Although "the whole town" comes to him, and he heals many and casts out demons, and so on, there is no suggestion that these wonderful deeds led to any conversions. At the end of the day (to coin a phrase) Jesus had the same number of disciples as he began the day with – precisely 4. News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee, but it was not news of the arrival of the Messiah. So far people were not sufficiently developed spiritually to recognise that truth: hence Jesus tried to keep secret his messianic identity until they were ready to hear and understand.
Isaiah. This passage comes at the end of the chapter that begins with those wonderful words, "Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God." The people are disconsolate. They have suffered national loss, disgrace and exile. They are downcast, convinced that God has given up on them, or, worse still, powerless to come to their aid. Now Isaiah proclaims that those terrible times are over; God is coming to his people with justice and salvation. But is it all wishful thinking? How can the people now believe such promises? By lifting their eyes above the common grind and seeing the majesty of God reflected in his creation. They will not be given a detailed strategic plan: their hope is not in a manifesto or a series of plans to be set before them. Their hope is in the nature and character of God. Hope in God because of who God is. When we do that we get a new sense of perspective, a new sense of what might be possible, a sense of excitement and a desire to be a part of it.
Taking It Personally.
· What are you most worried about at this time? On a scale of 1 to 10, how big is this issue? Do you feel that "my cause is disregarded by my God"?
· Ponder verse 21. Let the sting of irony sink into you. Respond to those questions. Yes you have heard; but have you understood so deeply and fully that you can say, "I know"?
· Find a small insect or something similar. Stand up and look down on this creature. See how small it is. Now read verse 22.
· Find a picture in a newspaper or magazine of some important people. Have the picture in front of you as you re-read verse 23.
· Think of the devastation caused by floods, or the Christchurch earthquakes, or tornadoes and hurricanes. Now ponder verse 24.
· Finish with a few minutes of meditation on verse 26. Might you have been guilty of trying to scale God down to size?
Corinthians. Paul's less pleasant side of his character is on show throughout this passage. Whatever we may be told about suffering in silence, turning the other cheek, forgiving our enemies, and all that stuff, Paul is not always very good in practising what he preaches (or, at least, what Jesus preaches!) A constant source of irritation for him seems to be the refusal by many Christians to accept him as an apostle, equal in rank to Peter, Andrew and the rest of the original dream-team. Notice his special pleading on this point in verses 6 and 7. But, as mentioned above, he is particularly incensed at the suggestion that he was imposing himself on them and expected to be fed and watered without cost. He argues his right to such rewards with great vigour in verse 7 to 12; but no sooner has he established (to his own satisfaction) his right to payment in cash or kind, than he switches tack and insists that he has never exercised that right. Even then, he can't leave the bone alone: he returns to the fight in verses 13 and 14, and then insists again that he has not exercised his right.
To our modern eyes verses 19-23 paint an unpleasant picture. It looks too much like a politician trying to re-invent himself for each different audience. But Paul is concerned only with the gospel: that he will never change. How it is presented will be different for each group, and on such less important matters he will adapt and compromise and do whatever it takes to get the gospel preached and heard. Preaching the gospel brings its own reward (after all!)
Taking It Personally.
· Accepting that Paul has been unjustly treated, how do you feel about the tone of his response? Can you recall an occasion on which you were falsely accused of something, or your motives were seriously and unfairly questioned? How did you react?
· Is there a lesson for the Church here in dealing with conflict? Is it better to "have it all out there" or accept the slings and arrows of outrageous critics and say nothing to keep the peace?
· Notice how Paul argues that he is compelled to preach the gospel. To get a grasp on this read Jeremiah 20:7-10.
· Read verses 20 to 23 again. How do you feel about Paul's tactics here? Is it about sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others, or is it political trickery?
· Overall, how does this chapter 9 affect your attitude to Paul? Does it make him seem more human? Is he being too emotional for your taste? Is he driven on by concern for the Corinthians or is his own pride at stake? Now stop judging Paul and ask God to show you what your attitude to Paul says about your own character.
Mark. There are three little episodes joined together here. Verses 29-31 feature the healing of Peter's mother-in-law. The story infuriates some feminist theologians who are angered that the poor woman is raised from her sick bed so she can wait on the men! Methinks they protest too much. Usually, when a fever leaves a patient she is too weak to do much for a while. But healing from Jesus is the whole deal. He hasn't just taken her fever away – he has restored her to full health and vitality. And the proper response is one of service to him. Then, after sunset (to avoid any breach of Sabbath law) Jesus heals the crowds who come to him. He is there for individuals, and for multitudes. Thirdly, we see Jesus get up very early in the morning while it was still dark (the phrase will return in Mark's account of Easter morning: 16:2), and prays. We are not told what about, or whether this was his usual spiritual practice. What we are told is that the disciples and everyone else were looking for him. We miss the import of this because of that translation. In the Greek the meaning is more like "hassling" him. Today we might even say they were stalking him. The sense is that they were after him for what they could get from him, to receive healing, not to give him all praise and thanksgiving.
Taking It Personally.
· Which of these three episodes most appeals to you? Why?
· Put yourself into the second story. Notice the crowds queuing hour after hour. How do you feel about them? Compassionate? Tired? Resentful? Would you rather Jesus paid you more attention instead of them?
· Notice how Jesus wants to move on, rather than stay with the admiring crowds. What lesson is there for the church in that?
· Focus on verse 39. Notice the balance between preaching in their holy places and practical ministry – (driving out demons). What lesson is there for the church in that?
· Ponder the apparent fact that of all the crowds to whom Jesus ministered that day, none became his disciples. What do you make of that?