Thanks to modern technology while I watch more TV than I probably should, I don’t watch a whole lot of commercials. Ordinarily I zip through the advertisements placed in the shows I’ve recorded which make my evenings, especially in election years, much more pleasant. There is the problem however, of watching live sports events. When I do that I just have to bear with it and watch what’s there. Thankfully, every once in a while, there’s a clever ad that makes it all worthwhile. The image you see in front of you is a still shot from one such commercial.
I can laugh at it because in some ways I see myself in it. The folks there are waiting in line outside an electronics store. While it’s not named the stereotypes involved and the hints about their phones tell us they are Apple lovers - - not the fruit, but the products… like my own iPad here, like the iPod I use when running. I don’t have the phone, but you can catch my drift. I can see myself when I’m being parodied.
Anyway, these Apple users, shown in cities all across the country, are waiting in line at the electronics store, somewhat excitedly, somewhat grumpily, for the next update to their precious phones to be released when they notice something right in front of them. They see young men and women using a device that they can see is almost exactly the one for which they are waiting. ALMOST. The screen is bigger, the picture better, the service clearer, but…it’s not their beloved brand. It’s a Samsung. You can see the looks on their faces. They are defeated. They are behind. They are very clearly left out of the next big thing.
Being left out is a feeling we all know in one way or another. Whether we have been left out on the playground when teams are being picked, or the sorority or fraternity in college, maybe among a group of friends gathering for dinner, or hopefully not, but possibly even in the life of the church when it becomes dangerously close to a country-club-type existence, being left out is one of those universal human experiences. For some it is even one of the biggest fears about living in relationship with other people. There’s this nagging worry that somehow, somewhere we won’t know what is happening, we won’t be included, we’ll lose our place in the community.
Simon’s mother-in-law was left out. A fever had her left out. She was stricken with illness, confined to bed, and unable to go about her daily tasks, unable to fulfill her role in the family, in the community. Right away Jesus heals her without much fanfare and though her immediate return to service could be written off as a burden of women in a patriarchal society, there’s a hint to more in the way that it is reported. Immediately upon being healed, she began to serve them.
It doesn’t say she waited on them or helped them. She served them. It’s a word reserved for a special purpose. It’s the word used to describe what Jesus’ purpose is, he “came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). It’s the word from which we get our word for deacons, an ordained office called to serve the body of Christ and the world with compassion.
Immediately upon being healed she returned to her call, not all of womankind’s call, not to be “in the kitchen where she belongs,” but her call, her ministry, her place of service. Immediately upon being healed she was brought back into the role she held, she was no longer left out of the circle of people who are fulfilling their purpose, living their life with meaning, doing what they are meant to do. She was healed so she would be able to serve. So really, she was healed so she could be sent out. Mark pairs this healing with the exorcism we heard last week. They lose a bit of their combined impact when they are split over two Sundays like this.
Mark writes this first chapter of his gospel with such urgency. Everything happens “immediately.” We lose a bit of that when we divide the fast action of one day over the course of two or even three weeks. However, as soon as they left the synagogue, the crowd with its collective mouth still dragging on the floor, Jesus and his new brand disciples went straight to Simon’s mother in law’s bedside. In three quick verses she’s healed and up fulfilling her divine call.
The exorcism and the healing are placed side by side, and they go hand in hand. In the first a man who is gripped by an unclean spirit is freed from that possession. A man who is cast out from society, ignored, worse, even shunned for the evil that holds onto his spirit, is released from that captivity. Jesus brings him back into the circle of companionship. He who is left out is brought in.
In the home of Simon’s mother in law, the reverse takes place. She is used to serving. She is used to working among people. She is used to showing compassion and hospitality, but she is laid low by a fever and can’t participate in her called role. She is left out, but left out in a different way. A woman who is already accepted by her community, used to GOING OUT, used to serving others, can’t. She is held back. She is left out from the privilege of using her God-given abilities.
Yet, Jesus reverses both conditions. The one who is cast out and shunned is brought into wholeness and community. The one who is held back and insulated is sent out to serve. This, Jesus says, is the message he needs to get out and proclaim. It’s what he has spent his day proclaiming with his actions; it’s what he proclaimed from the minute he started his ministry. “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). It’s the whole reason, he says, that he is on the loose – to proclaim the message, a message of reversal, a message of repentance.
Repent! We hear the word and we think of the folks whose eye contact we avoid, carrying signs, shouting on street corners, lining the walkways into sporting events and political debates. “Repent!” Jesus proclaims as he travels the countryside and people come flocking. “Repent,” we hear, and we shrink away, turn aside, and start to feel guilty for what we did or didn’t do. We think of being made to feel guilty or getting caught. We immediately berate ourselves for being jerks, punishing ourselves as we think we should be punished, taking God’s job and making it our own, which we are really really good at doing.
But that’s what we’ve done with the word. Or at least that’s what’s been done to it in our presence, and we have just gone along with it. The folks on that Galilean countryside, however, heard it different. They heard it in the way Jesus enacted it as he displayed the exact ministry, the exact kingdom of God that came near in him.
Repentance isn’t about feeling guilty and groveling. It isn’t about beating ourselves over the head, stopping us in our tracks, rendering ourselves immobile. In fact, the call to repent is one of the most active calls in the gospel. It’s not a call to shame; it’s a call to action. It’s not like screaming “Stop!” It’s like screaming “Turn around! Come this way!” Repentance isn’t an exercise of the mind or the perfect words we speak in prayer. Repentance is the reversal of our way of life. It’s a turning away from whatever keeps us from living in as if God’s kingdom has really come near and turning toward the good news. The message Jesus proclaims, and the action to which he calls us, is one of complete reversal. Those who are left out are brought in and included. Those who are broken are healed in order to make others whole.
In this one day in Mark’s gospel, in Jesus’ first day on the job, Jesus shows the message he proclaims. Jesus shows the message we are also called to proclaim. The kingdom of God is near. The way God intends for the world to be is coming close. In this person, in this Jesus, we will see what it’s all supposed to be like, and the shocking thing is that everything we thought was true, everything that we thought held power and was holy and was blessed isn’t necessarily powerful, sacred, and desirable. Jesus spends the rest of his ministry expanding on what he started in this very first day.
He takes the least holy, the demon possessed, and cleanses them, brings them in, and gives them a place at God’s table. He takes the broken and sick, and touches them, lifts them up, heals them, and sends them out to serve in his name. He points to those who are powerful in the world, leaders of armies and nations, and declares their power is nothing compared to God’s. He looks at those who guard the temple and the presence of God and shows them their building is empty; God’s Spirit cannot be confined to sanctuaries made by human hands. He says the peacemakers are blessed, not those who divide and conquer. He says the poor wll inherit God’s kingdom, not those who try to buy it with their wealth. He says the sinners are welcome, not those who see no need for grace in their life. He says the old will not get tired. He says the young have credibility.
This is the message he proclaims. This is the good news he scatters through the countryside. This is what it means to repent, to go in a completely different direction, to go in God’s direction. This is what we are called to proclaim in his name - - an amazing grace that shatters the assumption of the world in which we live, that breaks down the barriers that have been constructed around God, that calls for a complete reversal of the way we are used to treating each other, ourselves, and God. We are called to proclaim, to ENACT a kingdom that is entirely different from what the world expects, a world where the weak are not whole, the poor are excluded, those of different races aren’t even considered fully human.
That world is not what God desires. That world is full of unclean spirits. That world is sick with the fever of injustice. That world is NOT REAL. The kingdom of grace, the kingdom of renewal, the kingdom of welcome, the kingdom of servanthood, the kingdom of reversal is real. The kingdom of God is real. And the kingdom of God is near. Believe it. And proclaim it. Amen!