“There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.”
It’s a simple little story, but the lesson from Mark’s Gospel that we heard this morning is challenging. It comes from the first chapter of the Gospel. As a continuation of what we heard last week, the narrative forms a king of paradigm or model for a day in the ministry of Jesus. On this day, Jesus is in Capernaum, a fishing town on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. It is Jesus’ first stop since his baptism and wilderness experience. He has already taught in the synagogue and driven out unclean spirits. And now, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and all the others who were brought before him.
Then, early in the morning, Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. While praying, Simon and the other disciples “hunted” for him. Upon finding him, they told Jesus that “everyone” was searching for him. The universal character of Mark’s language – the “whole city” gathered and “everyone” searching – provides a hint as to the importance of what is happening. Another big hint that something big is going on is Mark’s mention of Jesus praying. Mark specifically mentions Jesus in prayer only three times in the gospel (1:35; 6:46; 14:32) and in each of them a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry is taking place.
So the crowd is searching for Jesus even as Jesus is off by himself in prayer. But this crowd is no lynch mod. Rather, the crowd is after Jesus to entice Jesus to stay in Capernaum. It seems that they were working on an offer that Jesus might not refuse. They wanted Jesus to stay, to establish his ministry among them. Maybe even to become their rabbi.
Jesus could really put Capernaum on the map. It was a swell deal for everybody.
We make a mistake, I think, when we pretend that Jesus’ decisions were always easy…that he never struggled with his choices. In fact, I think that dehumanizes Jesus, removing his life from our lives. No, Jesus wasn’t reading from a script. Jesus knew that the delegation from Capernaum was offering him security and safety, prosperity and respect. These are things we all want – things people have always wanted. They are also things that Jesus knew he would never have if he kept on the path he was walking. But if he became their resident rabbi, he wouldn’t have to be poor, cold, and hungry. His family wouldn’t think he was crazy. He wouldn’t have to live in fear.
Jesus, of course, would not have been the first to trade challenge for security or to exchange the greatness for the assurance of competence. Many before and many since have swapped the call of God for the rewards that come from giving the crowds what they want. I doubt that Jesus’ decision came easily. Indeed, it was such a decision that he did the same thing he would do on the night before the crucifixion – he went off by himself to pray, to sweat out a tough decision. He had to decide which voice to follow: Would it be the voices rolling up the hillside, “We want Jesus”? Or would it be the other voice, the quiet voice from heaven, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased”?
Creation held its breath, waiting to see what would happen.
Of course, Jesus’ story is our story too. We know the enticing draw of security, prosperity, safety, and respect. We know how easy it is to settle – to settle for being just a little less than who we know we can be. We know what it is to heed the loud voices of the crowd and to let their expectations rule. After all, there is point when the costs begin to add up…when things get painful and when the uncomfortable becomes a little too uncomfortable. When that happens, the sense of who we are as beloved child of God can easily fade into the background. So, we have to make choices and the Lord of heaven and earth waits to see what will happen.
On the other side of the coin, we a Church also have a choice to make. We have a decision similar to that of the crowd from Capernaum. What are we going to do about Jesus? What are we to do with the one who comes proclaiming the kingdom of God is near, bringing healing and wholeness, and hope – a vision of new life? In Capernaum, they wanted to capture the preacher and the healer, institutionalize him. In Capernaum, they wanted to locate Jesus in their place, at their convenience, and for their purposes. They didn’t want to see beyond his gift of healing, to see that Jesus must go to all the world to proclaim the good news of salvation to the Gentiles and redemption for the people of Israel. And they wanted the gifts that Jesus brought but couldn’t see what that gift might ask of them. They were wanting Jesus in a gilded cage.
The church is often tempted to “hire” Jesus, to assume the Lord has come for our convenience and to carry out our plans. But when we yield to that temptation too cage Jesus, we find, sooner or later that in spite of our efforts and the nice house we built for him is empty, that Jesus has gone on to the next town.
To be sure, we need to know Jesus as the people in Capernaum did – powerful, merciful, grace-filled, healing, and whole. We need to hear the word, and to know the power and the grace of Jesus’ healing love. We can do nothing without it! But we can’t stop there, for if we do we have missed the point.
Indeed, perhaps the only person in Capernaum to really understand was Peter’s mother-in-law. We don’t know much about her. We don’t even know her name. But we do know that “He came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up. Then the fever left her; and she began to serve them.” She didn’t try to put Jesus in the medicine cabinet. She served. She moved beyond herself and the gift she had been given and she served.
Such is our choice as we live out the Gospel. As the church, we can try to hire Jesus or we can strive to serve as Jesus did. I’m not going to pretend that it’s an easy choice. It’s as hard as our personal choices between comfort and faithfulness. It’s as hard as Jesus’ choice between the cushy job and moving on to fulfill his calling.
In the end, through the grace of God, Jesus rose from prayer and went to the neighboring towns and throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. The people searching for him were probably disappointed but the Kingdom of God grew. That same grace is offered to us as we are invited to rise from prayer and to move forward in service.
The Kingdom of God continues to break into our world. All of creation is waiting to see what will happen.