(Note: I preached this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 8, 2015)
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the morning, when it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”
Last weekend Kerry and I saw the movie Selma. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It follows Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as they plan a march starting in Selma to advocate for the right to vote. It’s got great scenes of big crowds and speeches and some violence, but it starts with Martin and his wife, Coretta, preparing for him to accept the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. As he’s getting dressed for his speech, they daydream about the future: he’ll pastor a little church in a college town, teach a few classes. They’ll finally be able to buy their own house. Life will be peaceful someday.
I’ll forgive you if you heard our Gospel today as a bit of a blur. Healings, crowds, we know the drill. This is Jesus, who heals people and attracts big crowds and gets up in the night to pray. We know this Jesus.
But if you look at it again, I think you’ll see a lot of drama in this little passage. Next week we’re leaping ahead many chapters to Jesus on the mountaintop, and then we’re off to the last weeks and months of Jesus’ life. But now it’s still early. This is still the beginning. And Jesus has difficult choices to make.
Jesus, we heard last week, has cast a demon out of a man in the synagogue during the sabbath. This makes Jesus famous in the town. But Jesus doesn’t wait around for people to find him; he goes to the house of his disciple Simon. There, on the same day, Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever.
Here Jesus has a first choice to make: Should he heal Simon’s mother-in-law? Unlike the demonic attack, this is something that could wait until the end of the Sabbath day. And unlike some other illnesses, this may be one that could pass on its own. But Jesus does what the people ask of him: he raises her up, makes her well, and leaves her with strength enough to serve the others.
But then, when the sun goes down and the Sabbath day is over, the whole town comes to him. They crowd around the door of the house, people suffering from demonic attacks, people who are sick. And Jesus heals them, too. I find it interesting that he doesn’t preach them a sermon. He doesn’t teach them about God or about how to be better people or whatever. He heals them. He casts out their demons.
And then, when everyone else is sleeping after their long, hard day of going to synagogue and battling demons and managing crowds, Jesus wakes up. He leaves the house and goes to a deserted place to pray.
While he’s there, his friends go looking for him. They hunt for him! When they find him, they say that everyone back home is looking for him. So what is Jesus going to do?
He has a choice, after all. He can stay in Capernaum, where he is already famous and loved. His ministry of healing has only been going on for one day! He could spend some time there, maybe become the rabbi of the local synagogue, teach the people there, be their kind and gracious spiritual leader. People would be curious about this healer; they would come from all over Galilee, maybe even as far away as Jerusalem. And he would answer their questions and guide their religious discernment and bless them. He would be known and loved; he would belong; he would have a home. “Everyone is looking for you!”
And you know, we can’t say whether this question tugged at Jesus’ heart, the way it would at mine or maybe yours. The way it tugs on the heart of Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie. We can only imagine. But from the outside, it looks an awful lot like Jesus had an important choice to make: stay home, where he is already known and accepted, or go out.
I suffer from insomnia—anyone else suffer from insomnia? I guess that’s one way we imitate Jesus. And I can tell you that I do not think 4 a.m. is a good time to make big life choices. It’s odd how life can look when you’re in that moment. It’s like you’re in a valley between two mountains. On one side is everything you’ve done and been. On the other side is everything you will do and will be.The best thing to do is to go to bed and get some sleep. Because if you get up, you may just start climbing that next mountain.
And what, in that hour, does Jesus say?
“Let us go on to the neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also; for this is what I came out to do.”
Jesus begins the day in the little circle of Simon’s house, healing Simon’s mother-in-law. And then he chooses to step into a bigger circle, the circle of the whole town who brings their ailing people to him to be healed.
And then he steps into a still-bigger circle, the world around Capernaum where there will be no end to human need, no familiar audience to greet him, no bed of his own to sleep in and no guarantee that he will be safe or accepted.
And by making this choice, he is choosing solidarity with humanity. At every step of the way, Jesus chooses to embrace the sick and the possessed at the risk of sharing their suffering. He doesn’t lecture them about their beliefs or their morals before he helps them. He just embraces them. And we already know where that will eventually lead him, when safety and a good reputation were there for the taking at Capernaum. He goes where the people are.
This is absolutely central to who Jesus is for us. He’s not the distant Judge who needs us to shape up. He’s not the Wise Man who can be sought out in his little village for the answers to life’s questions. He’s the one who comes out to find us and be in solidarity with us. We’re bad and he somehow absorbs the guilt. We misunderstand and he somehow lingers to steer us right. We doubt him and abandon him and try to live as if he never existed, never came to the Jordan, never washed us in the baptism of his grace and it doesn’t matter to him. Because every time he reaches the edge of one of those circles, every time he has a choice to make, he chooses to take one more step.