Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39
Have you ever had the experience of walking in on the middle of a conversation and completely getting the wrong end of the stick? I know I have. Here’s an imaginary example: I walk into a room and hear my doctor talking to my husband, and the doctor is saying, “oh… she’s in terrible shape… I don’t think she’s going to last more than another month or two.” I start to imagine the worst… when my Mr.-Fix-It husband pipes up and says he’s going to be working on the doctor’s old car.
Today’s scripture readings are like that. Both of them start in the middle of a story, and it would be really easy to get the wrong end of the stick. In both passages God comes across sounding almost like He’s scolding, like a father who’s annoyed with his children. In Isaiah it’s “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” and in Mark we see Jesus doing all he can to get away from the ever-increasing demands of the crowds.
To interpret these passages that way is to get the wrong end of the stick. The fact is both of these passages are about the comfort and confidence God’s people find in a God who is infinitely great and infinitely loving and who is the King of all creation. Both passages are about good news, not bad news.
Starting with Isaiah, for the proper meaning and context we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 40.
As you came in this morning you were given a copy of the text of Handel’s Messiah and you can refer to this if you like. The beginning of Isaiah 40 also happens to be the opening words of Handel’s Messiah.
I’m including Messiah in today’s sermon because there are some really interesting connections between this piece of music, and the scriptures for today, and the Methodist Church. For those of you who are not classical music buffs, bear with me, I need to back up and fill in some historical detail.
Messiah is probably best known today for its Hallelujah Chorus. You all know the piece: (singing) “Hallelujah!” But like the Mona Lisa, Messiah is one of those famous masterworks that everyone’s heard of but few people in our day actually know well.
Messiah was written in the early 1700s. It’s a large work for orchestra and choir, and the words the choir sings are all taken from the Bible.
The man who selected the scripture passages and strung them all together like pearls on a necklace, Charles Jennens, had a purpose in his choices. He chose the scriptures as an argument against Deism – a popular belief in the 1700s (and today as well) that God is somewhere out there, far above and far away from creation, and has nothing to do with the day-to-day functioning of the world.
In other words, Deists believe God does not get involved with the affairs of human beings. It’s the same idea as in the song “God is watching us… from a distance.” Jennens disagreed (and so did Handel) and so he compiled the scripture texts of Messiah in such a way as to present the gospel, in a way that shows God is involved in the world God created.
Jennens chose Isaiah chapter 40 as the place to begin telling the Gospel story. Let’s take a look. You may recognize these words as a passage often read at Christmas-time:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
So the message of today’s reading from Isaiah is one of comfort. God’s words are meant to encourage, not offend.
There are two other meanings behind Isaiah’s words that Jennens pulls out of this passage. The first is that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. Isaiah’s words are not just about ancient Israeli history. This is also prophecy. The second meaning is the message of God’s involvement in the world. God will reveal his glory and all people will see it. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. And when God speaks, things happen.
There are a couple of footnotes to the history of Messiah that I wanted to share, not because I’m a history buff but because history tells us something about who we are, how we got where we are.
When it was first performed, Messiah caused a scandal. It was too controversial to be performed in the churches, so it was sung in opera halls, in front of nonbelievers and the ‘common rabble’ as they said back then. It scandalized people who thought scriptures should only be taught in church. But the press and the public loved it, and the concerts were sell-outs everywhere it played.
But the very first performance of Messiah was a fund-raising concert to benefit a debtor’s prison and two hospitals in Ireland. The performance sold so many tickets that 142 people had their debts paid and were released from prison and returned to their families. Even in music, the name of Jesus sets the captives free!
The second footnote is this: The only time Messiah was ever performed in a church during Handel’s lifetime, John Wesley was there. The founder of the Methodist movement remarked he had never seen a congregation so attentive to a sermon as they were to Messiah. And John’s brother Charles, who wrote many of our hymns, said where it came to music he “preferred Handel to all the world”.
There is a deep connection – probably not fully realized at the time – between Messiah and the founding of the Methodist church. They’re both cut from the same cloth. They’re both products of the same era. And they both address many of the same issues and needs. Messiah’s words being taken from Scripture, and relying so much on scripture, is in total agreement with John Wesley’s teaching on the importance of lay people reading and studying scripture for themselves. And Messiah’s focus on the Kingdom of God, and on the message of God’s grace to all people through Jesus Christ, was absolutely central to the Wesleys’ faith and teaching.
Because of all this, I felt it would be appropriate for you to have the words of Messiah to look at, and I encourage you to do so this week. It only takes about ten minutes to read through (as opposed to listening to the music, which takes over two and a half hours… but if you’d like to hear it, click below). Guaranteed you’ve never heard the gospel presented quite like this anywhere else.
So Isaiah chapter 40 begins with comfort for God’s people, who are invited to rest in God’s power, and trust in God’s provision.
Isaiah tells us about a God who “stretches out the heavens” to create a tent for people to live in. Isaiah tells us of a God who brings down the mighty but who counts each one of us and calls us by name; a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who is the King of Kings, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom. And Isaiah 40 ends with the promise that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles. This is good news.
Moving on to the gospel from Mark – our reading for today begins with the words “as soon as they left the synagogue…” which tells us we’re in the middle of the story again. We need to go back to the beginning for meaning and context.
In the synagogue at Capernaum, on the shores of Galilee, that day, Jesus had not only taught from scripture in a way that made people marvel at his authority, but he had also cast out a demon from a man who was suffering. Talk about what Jesus did spread all over the region like wildfire. When worship was over, Jesus and the disciples walked down the street to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for a meal and they found her not well. Jesus heals her, and she gets up and gets a meal ready. Meanwhile a crowd starts to gather outside, so many people that Jesus spends all night healing and freeing people from unclean spirits
Before I move on to the end of the passage, one thing I’d like to point out: Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t do anything before she was healed. She didn’t ask for anything, and she didn’t offer anything. After she is healed she gets up and serves; but the healing itself was a gift, unasked-for and un-earned.
This kind of jumped off the page at me because it tied in with something else I read this past week. It was an article in the Leadership Journal by pastor John Ortberg. Ortberg was writing about a problem many of us have, in that we’re so busy trying to do good things we neglect our souls and our relationship with God. He says that while it’s true that a healthy soul is marked by generosity and service, he says, “Jesus calls those who are weary and heavy-laden and promises ‘rest for your souls’”.
He goes on to say that Jesus said, “If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Jesus did not say, “Try to find a balance between abiding and fruit-bearing.” Jesus did not say, “Work hard to produce much kingdom fruit but try… to make your life sustainable so you don’t end up in a moral ditch.” Or, as my old pastor once put it, if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, we don’t have to push fruit out… we just have to stay connected to the vine and fruit will happen.
Jesus said, “Abide.” We live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. (We tend make it more complicated than it really is!)
At the end of today’s passage from Mark, we see Jesus following His own teaching: he gets away from the crowd and spends time with God in prayer, doing some ‘abiding’ of his own, and setting an example for us. And from there Jesus goes on to continue doing what he came to earth to do. He avoids the trap of the cult of celebrity that is starting to form around him, and moves on to the next village to preach the gospel, the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
And those are our stories for today: Isaiah, comforting and encouraging God’s people; and Jesus, setting people free and preaching the good news that God is king and God’s kingdom has come.
At this point in the sermon preachers usually plug in something we’re supposed to do, some way to apply the lesson of the day. But these two lessons talk about what God has done for us, and will do for us.
Which leaves us with the hardest lesson of all: To learn to be still and just receive. To rest in God’s truth; to abide in God’s love; to give up the thought that anything we do could make God love us more… or make God love us less.
It may be more blessed to give than to receive… but for many people, myself included, it’s harder to receive than it is to give. But that’s what God calls us to. To stay connected with God. To rest in God and receive all that God has to give.
How do we go about doing this? I think it’s different for everybody. It may mean prayer, or eliminating a thing or two from busy schedules to sort of carve out a Sabbath somewhere in the week. Or it may be something as simple as, saying to God, in the words of Samuel in the Old Testament, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. The important thing is to be connected to God, as God leads us. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 2/8/15