Ever question God’s providential care? You’re not alone. The Israelites in the midst of their Babylonian captivity felt utterly abandoned by God. They were defeated, hauled away from their homeland, and made to live as second class citizens in a foreign place. They threw up their hands and complained, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God” (40:27). The lament shows the Israelites great fear that God was both powerless, and unable to provide justice.
Isaiah chapter 40 begins what scholars refer to as Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah sought to encourage the exiles, and remind them that God had not abandoned them. Second Isaiah envisioned a time when Israel would regain its sovereignty and national identity and become a light to the nations.
In answer to the Israelite’s lament the prophet twice rhetorically asks “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” (vs. 21 & 28). The prophet reminds the exiles in beautiful poetic prophecy that God is the eternal creator God who powerfully sustains all of life, and compared to this God all rulers and kingdoms (even Babylon) are small potatoes. The prophet reminds the exiles that God does not grow tired, or weary, and that those who wait upon God will be rewarded for their perseverance.
The words of the prophet of Second Isaiah remind us of the importance of identifying the laments of our own time and addressing them with the truth of God’s eternal care for the creation that God brought into existence.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
The psalm lection, which is often in response to the Hebrew Bible lection, picks up many of the themes present in our reading from Isaiah 40. The Psalm asserts that the LORD is the one who “builds up Jerusalem [and] gathers the exiles of Israel” (vs. 2). Moreover, to those lost in hurt and lament, God is the one who “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (vs. 3). God is able to do these things because God is the creator God who “determines the number of stars and calls them each by name” (vs. 4; cf. Isaiah 40:26). The psalm calls forth belief in God’s ability to do these great acts by reminding the congregation that God is not impressed with might (powerful horses, and the speed of a runner) but rather “delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (vs. 11).
Our psalm lection reminds us of the importance of statements of faith, trust, and hope in our liturgies. Hearing the community proclaim the unfailing love of God can be a balm in Gilead for those who struggle to make like confessions on their own.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
How can we get along? And moreover, how can we proclaim the gospel in a world of great diversity? The Corinthians were not getting any answers right. Rampant division in the church over who would be their leader, the propriety of eating meat sacrificed to idols, the place of spiritual gifts, the observance of the Lord’s Supper, the proper way to wait on the Lord’s coming and other related matters were strangling their gospel proclamation. Paul sought to show the Corinthians how they could achieve a unified proclamation of the word. Paul’s solution–become all things to all people.
Becoming all things to all people does not mean ceasing to be one’s self. The ‘all things to all people’ that Paul speaks of is the discipline of recognizing where people are in their journey toward freedom in Christ, and assessing how our actions affect such people for good or for ill. Not every exercise of our liberties will have a liberating result. So even though we are free in Christ, we find ourselves a servant to others.
Paul’s self emptying (similar in ways to Christ’s self emptying in Philippians 2) for the sake of another is a radical way to live. It reminds us that spiritually hindered people are not ‘problem’ people, but rather people awaiting liberation. We are to meet such people with compassion and understanding, and we are to willingly give of ourselves so the gospel can be made known to them in all its fullness.
A very good commentary on this passage (that I can’t do better on) is written by Sarah Henrich and is available here (hint: click on the “gospel” tab).
Summarizing Henrich’s commentary (but you really should read it yourself), I offer the following:
Peter’s mother in law is sick with a fever, a very dangerous situation in the ancient world. Jesus “raises her up” (the same verb is used at Jesus’ resurrection). Upon being ‘raised up’ Peter’s mother in law serves her guests (i.e. she is a deaconness to them–the verb is diakoneo). She is the first in Mark’s gospel to serve as Christ served. She is the first to ‘get it.’ The verb diakoneo is never used of the disciples in the gospel of Mark (mainly because they fail to get it, over and over and over again).
Some recoil at the fact that Simon Peter’s mother in law immediately begins to serve the males in her house after her healing (as if that is the only thing a woman should do). Sarah Henrich correctly points out that it was Peter’s mother-in-law’s correct social position, and place of honor, to show hospitality in her home (a very important Jewish virtue). The healing restored her to honor in her social world.
The story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law reminds us that our restoration is to a life of service to others (see the above commentary on 1 Corinthians). We are also reminded that the humble servants are the ones who ‘get it’ and they are exemplars to us of the proper response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the unfailing love of God. Each week our worship is visited by people in various times of exile. Many are in seasons of lament and are proclaiming “My way is hidden from the Lord.” As a community we support these weary souls with faithful liturgy that accepts lament, yet stands firm in praise of the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who transcends all our temporal circumstances.
For those who worship with a firm sense of grace received, and freed from our time of illness, it is our task to serve the Lord by serving others as did Peter’s mother-in-law.