‘My way is hidden from the Lord ,
and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles…
He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
The people of Judah became captives in Babylon. They felt God had forgotten them. Their prayers counted for nothing. But Isaiah promised the people of faith that God would raise them up. I imagine there are many people around the world who have prayed day and night for a loved one with Covid. Many would feel that God had not listened to their prayers. And if a pandemic is not frightening enough, I listen to someone speaking about China and Taiwan. He wondered about the possibilities if China invaded Taiwan. Would the US enter into war, would we follow suit? The discussion sent chills down my spine. No doubt we will all pray that nothing of the sort will eventuate. Pandemics and Environmental Crises need global collaboration not rampant nationalism. Is God listening to our prayers?
Isaiah wants us to hear that not only is God listening, but God is entering into the mess of humanity and raising up those who look to him. In Mark’s Gospel the most profound expression of Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled. Jesus comes into the space where Peter’s Mother-in-Law is and taking her by the hand raises her up. Before we go on to reflect on this beautiful story in Mark. It is important to say two things.
Firstly, when faithful Christian souls have been living good lives and then something like Covid robs them of two or three family members the depth of their pain is impossible to imagine. Most words we think to say are better not said. Silence and sitting with them in the pain may be all we can do. If they feel God didn’t listen to their prayers acknowledge the feelings. Don’t try to fix them.
Secondly, if someone has just been told their daughter of 25 has been killed in a car accident when one car careered off their side after being hit by another car, again just sit with them in the pain. They hadn’t been praying because their daughter had just gone to the shop to by food or was on her way home form work. Their feeling may be that God was absent if God even exists! We don’t need to justify God. All we can do is take them by the hand with silent gentle love. Jesus taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand is the gesture to remember.
Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of all four Gospels. The temptation in the wilderness only gets two verses. Here we get a few more but it is light on details. What was Peter’s mother-in-law’s name? why is there no mention of Peter’s wife? I wonder whether like Naomi and Ruth the two women have come to Peter’s home because “Naomi’s” husband had died. And now maybe “Ruth” has died in childbirth as well. Why didn’t the men just hop in and prepare lunch and serve Peter’s mother-in-law even after she recovered from the fever? We’ll never know the answers.
The important thing Mark wants us to hear is that Jesus goes to her takes her by the hand and raises her up. As I said that gesture of taking her by the hand is very powerful by itself. Human touch is very powerful and even the snuggling in of a family pet can touch the heart in a way words cannot. Sadly, with Covid and Ebola it is too dangerous to take the person by the hand. Even family dogs sense the danger. In this case words and simple expressions of love need to replace touch.
Now Jesus goes beyond the touch and raises her up. And the next morning we hear that Jesus rises early. Mark is pointing us in this first chapter to the final chapters. Jesus is crucified and raised up on the cross for all to see. (see also John 3:14, although Mark uses two other Greek words for raised up.) Then on Sunday morning the women rise early to go to the tomb, but they find the tomb empty. So, when we here Jesus raising up Peter’s mother-in-law and rising early to pray, we need to hear Mark’s subtle signal that the work of incarnation and redemption has begun.
Now when Peter’s mother-in-law is raised up, she immediately puts an apron on and starts serving. We need to put aside our concerns about the lazy men not lifting a finger to serve her. The word serve is the word we use for Deacons, διάκονος. We will hear it again most strongly in Chapter 10 verse 45. There Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Service is at the heart of the ministry we are all called to. While Luke tells us St Stephen and others were the first deacons Mark implies that Peter’s Mother-in-law id the first deacon. The men take a little while to get it. In Mark 6 when Jesus is preaching to the great crowd the disciples suggest that the crowd should be sent away so they could by food for themselves. ‘You give them something to eat’ Jesus says. We know the story. Jesus takes the loaves and fishes and blesses them and the disciples have to serve everyone taking the fish and bread around. After everyone had eaten, they had to go around and pick up the leftovers. We usually focus on the miracle of abundant food. But perhaps equally important the disciples were beginning to learn the importance of serving.
So, as we grapple with the awfulness of the pandemic, the capacity of nations to contemplate war and ignore global crises as well as horrible things unrelated it is good to hear Isaiah’s promise and of Jesus ministry. Yes, God is aware of our needs even before we pray. God comes into the messy world with warmth in the simple action of holding the hand. Jesus came as a servant. Jesus doesn’t just bring healing but deep salvation.
Our actions of simple wordless touch can help others experience the grace of God. When we serve, providing hospitality, welcome and nurture, people encounter the Holy Spirit in us. Yes, we still need to take time out to pray as Jesus did. I still tend to hold a whole list of needs before God in a kind of childlike confidence even though a part of me knows just being with Jesus in silence is enough. Part of the service we are called to his speaking out with authority against the forces of evil. The unclean spirits that suffocate people with addiction or greed or power, or lust, or superiority etc need to called out. Let’s rise up like Eagles on strong warm currents of air and be the deacons we are called to be.