Waiting is Not Doing Nothing (Isaiah 40:21-31;1 Corinthians 9:19-23;Mark 1:29-39)
All week long I have been thinking about our annual meeting and the conversations we had. I appreciated the spirit and tone of it all. Since, we’ve been together a long time now as pastor and people, it’s good to reflect on things that have been accomplished over the past decade and a half. It has been a work of love on the part of both Maxine and myself to offer leadership to what is very much a church of leaders with good ideas and stamina. Over the years we’ve been as creative as any ABC church in Wisconsin (and, I think, more widely than that). Small churches don’t always go this way. Over the years, we’ve learned who we are as a congregation and where we want to go until we can’t anymore and then we simply will not. I say that because it’s popular now for churches now, when stressed, to plan to die for several years so they can “die a good death.” I cannot chart a course for others, but I prefer to work on living so we can live a good life as long as we can. It’s also very “in” now for churches to speak of their legacy, which means how much money they’re going to leave to other non-profits to carry on their work. This is, again, just planning to die. I’d prefer our legacy (or at least mine) to be service until we can’t. I hope we can agree on that.
I hope we haven’t said our last word on creative ministry to our communities, but, like so many other things, it’s impossible simply to be creative on command, as if, we can announce a time and a place where we’ll all be creative together. One way we can open ourselves to creativity is by continually thinking about the scriptures, not as relics of the past, rehashing what we’ve always thought about them, or been taught they said, but trying to re-think, re-understand, and re-tool their language to meet situations in which we find ourselves. To do all this, while still being faithful to the core of the scripture’s message is a big job. I want to try some of that before we’re done today.
The nub of all the Lectionary readings comes down to being a part of God’s wide embrace of love for the whole world, not, primarily, as a concept to be affirmed, a doctrine to be believed, or even a sermon to be preached, but as a reality to be put into the core of our beings and lived into the lives of those with whom we are privileged to share the human pilgrimage in our communities and beyond.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean. As many of you know, I love Christmas. I love it, not because of all the trappings (though I am fond of them), but because it is the perfect picture of what God does and doesn’t do. God didn’t sit in heaven and tell us something. At Christmas we celebrate the reality that God is enfleshed in a real human being to show us someone, in this case, God’s own self, and God’s outgoing love in Jesus.
Furthermore, Christian life is intended to mirror this Christmas miracle, and is more about showing than telling. Mind you, it’s important to tell people by our words what we have showed them by our deeds, but it’s just like first-grade, it’s show, first, and then, tell. The Christmas miracle radiates through the Epiphany season to show forth God’s love that shines out in Jesus. This gets me back to my words about creativity. How do we get into a place where we can be creative about this whole business of enfleshing the Good News of Jesus in real acts of kindness, grace and love in our communities so that they are an epiphany, a showing of Jesus?
Some of my favourite words in Isaiah 40 (already my favourite Bible passage) are the last ones, and they are well-known.
…Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
There are two ideas here, waiting and walking (or soaring). The whole idea of “waiting,” seems inactive, like it’s “doing nothing,” but in this text, the poet-prophet is calling for anything but passivity. Waiting is both an attitude and an action. The Hebrew word found here in Isaiah 40:31 is related to a word for a “line” or “cord,” and means to wait, stretched tight, like a cord – in vibrant, hopeful expectancy, in eagerness, even restlessness that looks expectantly for God’s presence that will help us to soar like an eagle, and run the course without wearing out, or just to walk it, without passing out. However fast our locomotion, God enables our response in the world. We call that response “faith”: the act of the whole being in response to the action of God’s love. That response may begin as only a spiritual openness, but as it comes to full-flower, it issues in action that mirrors the love, grace, and mercy of God to our neighbours. Waiting, hoping, stretching forward with mind and spirit for God becomes a primary metaphor in the Bible for that active word faith, which is not just believing that a thing is true, or that I can swallow it, or recite it by heart in church, but is an action based in trust. It is not standing back and saying, “I believe the bridge will hold me up,” it is stepping out and walking across it.
But, whatever I say about the active nature of this word “to wait,” the word does connote that we are taking a pause in action to stand still. It is regularly necessary to stand aside from the hurly-burly of life to reflect, think, and listen. This is one way to discover creativity in life, ministry, or anything. Creativity demands time for waiting. No walking without waiting.
Our Gospel Lesson is divided into scenes that mirror waiting and walking. Part of it is hectic with Jesus engaged busily in God’s work. Last week, we looked at how he began re-ordering a synagogue by casting out what was unclean from the presence of Holy God.
Now, I remind you that Mark’s Gospel is telling Jesus’ story to those who came about 40 years after Jesus. Being that life expectancy, then, was between 30 and 40 years (if one lived to age five, that is), there were not many in Mark’s group that had known Jesus. Further, it was probably written to Christians in and around Rome, where for some reason, the synagogue and church separated much earlier than some other places.
The centrepiece of this passage takes place next door to the synagogue in Peter’s house. Now, when the synagogue and church separated the word used for the church was “the house.” So, Mark is saying more than just that Jesus and his chums went next door to Peter’s place. Jesus, after ordering the synagogue, enters the house, the church, to do some work. And the work he did was to heal Peter’s mother in law who was living with him (and his wife we assume).
We often read over this seemingly incidental detail, but, in the Mediterranean culture, married couples or a married widow lived at the house of the husband’s father. That she was living with her daughter meant that she was probably a widow with no surviving family members of her husband’s house to care for her and give her honour. Living in Peter’s house was highly irregular and meant she was in need. Peter did not have to give her the protection she needed in that culture, but he did. The point Mark makes is that in “the house” (the Church) the under-class or vulnerable were cared for as family. Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever that was not only life-threatening, but, in that culture, also threatened whatever honour she had by keeping her from doing what the oldest female in the house did, supervising the hospitality to others. Jesus’ act enabled her to “serve them.” This should not be seen as a menial act, but as allowing her to fulfill her duty and live a normal life. In fact, the verb, “to serve” here is the one that Mark and Paul (and others) in the New Testament use for church-ministry. This woman was engaging in ministry. Discipleship to Jesus and ministry in the “house” is “service,” notably that of hospitality. The church is a welcoming place.
That’s the “service” part, but what of “waiting”? That begins in verse 35 where Jesus got up before daylight the next morning to be quiet and pray or “to wait for the Lord.” After his work of the day previous, Jesus waited on the Lord in prayer and renewed his strength for soaring, running, and walking. Like Jesus we need to take time to slow down, to breathe, to centre ourselves, to pray, to think, to wait in expectation. That leads to reinvigorated effort; in the words of Isaiah 40: “to run and not be weary, to walk and not faint.” Do we pause to wait and reflect and listen to God? I have found, more and more, that I have no creativity if I don’t. Waiting leads to finding creative ways to lift up those who are abused and oppressed, those who lack a sense of direction, those who have found in the church a place of confinement and condemnation, and remember that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law to give her purpose and ministry, and a place in a community of hospitality.
The Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 9, adds an important dimension to what the church discovers in this miracle story of Jesus. Paul has been discussing his freedom from all kinds of things since he has been “in Christ,” and we find in this text that because Paul was free in Christ, he was free to serve others for Christ’s sake. I think one aspect of this freedom, was freedom from drivenness that afflicts so much Baptist piety that gets so busy with programs and meetings, that it’s hard to remember that people have individual stories and needs. Paul was free to be creative and flexible. He was free to honour the tradition of others, and enter sympathetically into the tradition of others, so that in the end of the day, he would have the credibility to share God in Christ with them, so that they, in turn, might share in the benefits of “waiting for the LORD.” He says, “To the Jew, I became as a Jew, to the one under the law as one under the law, to the one outside the law, as one outside the law, to the weak I became weak.” This flexible attitude certainly reflects the compassion of Jesus, and is an attitude to which we’re called. We broaden our outlook to love those who God loves, even those who aren’t like us.
So what do we learn. That we have to learn to wait for the Lord, eagerly, hopefully, faithfully, so that we can be creative enough to serve (there’s that word again) others with a touch that, though it’s distinctly ours, is the gentle touch of Jesus, that honours, uplifts and brings God’s wholeness to others.
Thus, waiting for the LORD is not “doing nothing,” but is an active attitude of faith in the God of love that issues in flexibility and sympathy with others, so that we might have the opportunity, through our hands, to bring others to the gentle touch of Jesus. As the little song says:
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for You;
Make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do;
Let me watch you, Jesus, ‘til I’m gentle too,
Till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.