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February 6, 2000
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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On Being Lifted Up

A while back, an advertisement for the drug Prozac was "singing the praises" so to speak, of this wonder drug for human emotions. A cheerful, vivacious woman in her mid-life years was telling how she had never felt better since she started taking Prozac. Life was now full of happiness and she didn't worry about the "little things" any more.

It was a kind of a pharmaceutical Isaiah 40:31, "They that take their Prozac shall renew their strength!"   My physician told me he received a flood of calls when the ad first aired.  "Some of my patients actually demanded that I put them on the drug," he said. Personally, the ad seemed like something that would be televised on behalf of marijuana if the drug were legalized.

There is even a web site -- prozac.com that gives information on the benefits of the drug 17 million Americans are now taking.

I want to be careful to say that this drug, manufactured by the Eli Lilly company is indeed the treatment of choice for some people who struggle with depression. Having struggled with a medication induced depression myself, I would be the last person to make light of a serious ailment that robs countless people of the joy of living.

There is, however, a very strong spiritual prescription that relates to the joy of life in today's text from Isaiah.  Millions of people are missing out on this prescription.  It can help in the recovery of joy for living.

"They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength."

***

Our texts for today and particularly the Gospel of Mark point to two central issues for our lives today.  I would like for us to think about these issues in the form of two questions which we can only begin to answer in the short time we have. Fully answering these questions in a way that will impact our lives will require some reflection in each of our lives.

"Where do we get our strength for living?"

"What are we to do with this strength when we receive it?"

Another way to put this is, Where do you personally get your energy or vitality for life and living?  Do you have times when you seem to run out of  energy or simply find yourself exhausted with everything?   Those who remember the "energy crisis" of the seventies will remember the long lines waiting for gasoline and the scare that there would not be enough energy.  You can almost translate that image directly into what it means to say there is a kind of stress induced emotional energy crisis being experienced by many people today.  "So much to do... and so little time."  "So many bills... and so little money."  "So much pressure... and so little peace."

If there were a way to measure our life's vitality level in the same way we use a gas gauge in our automobiles, where would your gauge indicator be?  Would you be on "full?"  "1/2 or 1/4" of a tank?   Or would you be sitting on "E !"

The second major issue the gospel reading lifts up has to do with meaning and purpose in our living.  "Why do you want energy?"   There is a wonderful line in the classic movie, "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy says to the straw man,"What would you do with a brain if you had one?"  It is in Dorothy's innocent and honest spirit that I ask of you, "What would you do with energy if you had some?"

It will turn out that these two questions are very much connected and take us to our spiritual foundations.

***

Vitality!

Do you have it?

Vitality comes from the Latin word "vita"   - "life."    Vitamin is supposedly a substance that nourishes our vitality or life.  The vitamin industry is a multi-billion dollar business.  There is even a best selling book called, "The Vitamin Bible."

To have life without vitality is to not really have life as God created it to be. "God breathed into {Adam's} nostrils the breath of life; and {he} became a living being."  When God gave the gift of life, it was the gift of vitality.  Although the song says, "I never promised you a rose garden"   God did! (Well...  not just a rose garden, it was a complete Garden where there was peace, harmony and intimacy with God.)

You know the story, there are two chapters in the Bible where things go according to God's divine intent.  All that was necessary for fulfilled living was present in the Garden.  With the third chapter of Genesis the downhill slide toward "stress city" and the loss of vitality begins with three simple words put in the form of a question... "Did God say?"

In other words, the biblical drama from beginning to end affirms that when we are living our lives in fellowship with the Lord -- when we have a sense of intimacy and harmony with God -- we have vitality.  The problem is, there is a huge gap between life as it was intended to be and life as we experience it.  That's called the human condition.  In the Garden, intimacy with God and God-centered living was humankind's natural condition.  Beyond the Garden (from Genesis 3 to the year 2000) -- intimacy with God is something that has to be restored.  Sin separates us from God and from the life or vitality God intended us to have.  That's the bad news!

The good news is that God's desire is for us to rise up from the lethargy that has stolen our vitality.  That's why Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly." [John 10:10] There is and inherent recognition here that life is not what it was designed to be, so Jesus adds the "more abundantly" to the idea of having life.

Now to the question, "Why do you want vitality?"    Most of us would answer along the line of wanting more energy for living because we are tired... worn out... stressed out.  One of the disturbing things about contemporary living is the fact that stress is increasingly a factor for the younger population.  Some years ago, my 14 year old son said, "I need a vacation!"

I laughed.

Now school psychologists are helping teachers deal with children in the earliest grades who are dealing with stress.  Psychologist Jon Carlson told a gathering of parents in a local church that by the end of this year, the average child will live with three different families by the time they finish eighth grade.  This includes their family of origin, a family with a step parent, and a third family when the second family breaks up. [In a presentation at the United Church of Christ, Williams Bay, WI - March, 1999]

There are lots of people who need a vacation!

The intent of God in creation was not to have us live in perpetual vacation, but the design did include the peace and harmony that come from intimacy with the One who made us.  The short answer to the question is, "I want energy so that I can live the life God intended for me to live."

***

Listen to these words from our lectionary readings:

"The Lord lifts up the downtrodden..."  Ps. 147:6

"Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength...
they shall mount up with wings like eagles."  Is. 40:31

"He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless."  Is. 40:29

"He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up." Mk. 1:31

The simple story of Jesus coming to the home of Simon points to the heart of what it means to be "picked up -- or lifted up."   Jesus restores the vitality of Simon's mother-in-law so that she can live a life of fellowship with and service to the Lord.  Note, "Then the fever left her and she began to serve them."

(This is not to say Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law so she could become a waitress!   Rather, the natural response of being with Christ is a desire to serve.)

Here is the central message of the scriptures.   God is the Creator, the One who gave us life and in whose hands the gift of life is intended to remain.  We receive the gift of life and then the gift of new life from the hand of God and -- we are designed to live in fellowship with and service to the Lord.

***

Our reading from Mark demonstrates what it means to receive strength from Christ and how that strength is used to serve him.  No one can deny that we live in troubled and stressful times.   And likewise -- almost no one in our pagan culture - (I use the term pagan lovingly) - will get the connection between lack of vitality and lack of a relationship with God.

And so -- there is an urgent message to take to our world.   When Jesus is out praying before the sun comes up, his disciples awaken to find him gone.  They go searching for him to tell him that everyone is looking for him.   His healing ministry brought the crowds who wanted their vitality restored.   But Jesus says they have to stay on the move, "Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came to do."

The message is urgent!  It was then and it is today.

In the Epistle reading, Paul says that he is under divine obligation to preach the gospel.  He goes so far as to say, "woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!" [1Cor. 9:16] Paul says he has been entrusted with a commission and that he will do everything possible to reach people with the good news of God's divine intent for our lives.

***

You and I are under that same obligation and entrusted with that same good news.  What kind of friend would I be if someone I called friend was suffering from an illness and I withheld information about a possible cure?

We can not imagine such a thing.

Here is a cure for much that robs people today of quality of life.

"They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength...
they shall mount up with wings like eagles."

It's true.

God has promised us a garden!

Let's share the good news!

 


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

Isaac Watts' hymn, "I Sing the Mighty Power of God,"  fits the texts for today.  The power and might of God is displayed throughout creation and in the lives of those who live in relationship with God.  There is a broad theme which runs through these scriptures which suggests that in our contemporary culture, the sovereignty and caring presence of God in the lives of those who choose them, may be the best kept secret of our time.

What a contrast these verses are to the "God who has vanished" of our contemporary world.  The prophet's words, "Have you not known?  Have you not heard?" are so very relevant for today.  It is as though folk have not heard -- or maybe don't care to hear.

Yet, the basic truth here is that there is a sovereign God who is indeed the ground of all creation and the strength of every trusting heart.   It is the simple trust of a soul reaching out to the Lord which becomes the foundation of a whole and healthy life.  If you were to do a message based on the broader themes of today's readings you will want to focus on:

"His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, who hope in his steadfast love."  [Ps. 147:10-11]

"... those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength..."  [Is. 40:31]

"They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons."  [Mk. 1:32]

Those who know and embrace the Lord are compelled to share the news.

Isaiah 40:21-31

The prophet's words are addressed to the people of God who should be acutely aware of the power and glory of God who "gives strength to the weary."  Yet, they live as people who've never heard of the Lord.

"Have you not known?  Have you not heard?"   The words are spoken twice in a few verses.  Israel lives as those who are strangers to the Lord.  They act as though the God who brought them out of Egypt and settled them in a homeland hasn't a clue as to what they are thinking or how they are living.

They are reminded that the Lord God is absolutely sovereign in the universe.  There is no other meaningful power in the world.  The Lord brings kings and kingdoms to nothing and the pride of humankind is a joke.

An application question for this passage is simply,  "How does my life reflect my understanding of who God is?"

Mark 1:29-39

This classic passage has always pointed to the absolute priority prayer had in the life of Jesus and thus should have in the disciple's life.  When he was most pressed, Jesus found time to get away and be alone with God.   The text begs a message on the model Jesus provides for ministry:  [1] He Taught,  [2] He Healed,  [3] He Prayed,  [4] He Proclaimed.  The central idea is that ministry is not possible without continuing, conscious contact with God!

There is a note of caution in Jesus' example.  Most of us would consider this beginning time in Jesus ministry a time of great success.  His popularity was rising and the crowds were gathering.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark spends only two verses on the temptation of Christ. (1:12-13)  This passage, however, gives a bit of insight into the temptation.  It is exactly at the time of great success or response to our ministry that we most need the presence and perspective of God.  What kind of Messiah is Jesus going to be?  Shall he perform a miracle, feed the hungry, cure the sick?  As Jesus countered the scripture quoting devil in Matthew and Luke, here he silences the evil ones who know who he is.  In Mark 8:11 and 12 he will confront those who want miraculous signs, "The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation."    There is strong medicine here for those fringe groups that make "signs and wonders" the center of their ministry and evidence of authenticity.  When the signs don't come -- the temptation to manufacture them may be too great.

At the last, it is the bringing of the message to others that is the core of our faith.  "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."   (Mk.1:38)


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 147)

Leader:   How good it is to sing praises to our God,
People:  Because God is gracious -- it is fitting to sing praise.
Leader:   The Lord heals our greatest wounds and deepest scars,
People:  And places the joy of faith in our hearts.
Leader:   Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised,
People:  We are blessed beyond measure because we trust in the Lord!

A Prayer of Confession

O Lord God, have mercy upon us, your children, for we have strayed away from your desire for our lives.  We have fallen to the temptation to worship at the false altars of this world.  We prefer comfort to challenge, and the praise of humankind instead of the blessing of the Lord.  Cries of need and want go unheard while the voices of greed gain our ear. O Lord, our merciful God and Savior, we turn to you for strength to turn away from the glamor of this world to the glory of your presence.  Forgive us, your children, as we humbly come to you with repentant hearts.  Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Friends, believe the good news!  Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have forgiveness of sin and newness of life.  As you trust in Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

O gracious and almighty God of heaven and earth, we come before you today with expectant and open hearts.   None of your promises have gone unfulfilled and no heart that has ever turned to you has been turned away.

How can we not love you and give thanks with all our hearts.  We are most fully alive when your praise is in our hearts and on our tongues. We see ourselves most clearly in your presence.  Our cups are never empty when we lift them up to you.

O God of all creation, we see your love and care in every cloud that passes by... in every child voice that laughs.  Your power and glory are evident in every mountain top and ocean view.   Your thoughts are ever toward us, and your love is ever round us.

Come now and fill your people with the joy of your presence and claim our lives for the glory of your kingdom.  Amen.

A Prayer of Dedication

Gracious God of every good gift, we can not give except you first give to us.  How we see your love in this act of giving!  That you should delight in anything we bring to you is joy beyond our ability to understand.  Amen.