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Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31

 21Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; 23who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. 24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing. 27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. 30Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; 31but they 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.


Psalm 147:1-12

 1Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! how pleasant it is to honor him with praise! 2The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel. 3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars and calls them all by their names. 5Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. 6The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. 7Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. 8He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; 9He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. 10He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry. 11He is not impressed by the might of a horse; he has no pleasure in the strength of a man; 12But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favor.


 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-27

 16For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 19For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. 24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.



Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

 29Immediately {Jesus} left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. 33And the whole city was gathered together at the door. 34And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.


Lord of All

A while back, some older children were asked, how would you describe God?  One witty 11-year-old girl, who had obviously been watching way too much television, wrote,  “God is like a Ford: He has a better idea.  God is like a Coke: He’s the real thing.  God is like Bayer aspirin: He works wonders.  God is like General Electric: He lights your path.  God is like Tide: He gets the stain out that others leave behind.  And God is like VO5 Hairspray: He holds through all kinds of weather.  It’s hard to argue with her comparisons!

When you stop and think about it, often it’s the humorous, trite, or even slightly irreverent comments that move us to deep insight, and they challenge us to think more deeply about a subject.  I hope this is the case as we look more closely at our Old Testament reading for this morning.  But before we get to the assigned passage, I think it’s important for us to do two things: first, we need to keep the entire chapter of Isaiah 40 in mind as we consider our assigned reading.

In particular, I’d like for us to focus for a moment on verses 1-2, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  And then, down in verses 10-11, “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.  See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.  He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  You see, God, even in the midst of difficult circumstances, even when the situation we’re in is of our own making, seeks to comfort and remind His people of His love, guidance, and mercy.

Second, it would be good for us to keep the first article of the Apostles’ Creed in mind: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”  Ponder deeply the vastness of those two key words, “almighty and creator.”  How strong is almighty, and how powerful is God as the creator of everything?  Almighty, and creator of everything, now that’s big.

Speaking of big, a question that parents often ask their young children is, “How big are you?”  Small children are imaginative and will generally give the same answer as they stand on tiptoe and spread their little arms wide to illustrate how big they are.  With arms outstretched, they’ll inform their inquiring parent that they are “soooo big!”  What children are saying is: “I’m huge.  Can’t you see how large I am?”  When parents ask their children this question, they do so because they want them to realize they’re growing.

The exiles who once lived in Southern Kingdom now dwelt as captives along the banks of the Euphrates River, surrounded by their Babylonians captors who worshiped Marduk, Nebo, and other gods.  These imagined gods were part of the pantheon of Babylonian gods.  If you had asked the exiles the question, “How big is your God?” the answer might have surprised you.  Many of those in captivity felt that they were in their current predicament because of the powerlessness of their God to secure the safety of the nation.

Because of this, the Jewish community in exile was struggling to maintain their faith and they were in danger of losing their national and spiritual identity.  It’s into this setting that God sends His prophet Isaiah, the prophet of exile and comfort.  His whole purpose, as God’s messenger, was to remind them that God was still active and present in the midst of human history.  It was his job to call the people back to the one true God and to remind them that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not a figment of humankind’s imagination, but was in fact, Lord of all.  Despite their current circumstance and situation, God was all powerful and in control.  The same is true today.

Like those ancient exiles, we too live in a culture that has run amuck, a world that has tried to make God in its own image.  In a time such as ours, we need the ancient prophet to remind us, in no uncertain terms, that God, the true God, is Lord of all.  And just as the prophet of old reminded his people, we need to have our minds renewed to the fact that God remains active and still reigns supreme.  To accomplish his task, Isaiah begins by showing that God is above all powers by asking a series of staccato-like questions.

You can almost feel the exasperation as he delivers his proclamation, it seems that Isaiah couldn’t believe that the people’s faith had grown so dim.  In a majestic style of language, Isaiah paints a picture of God sitting on top of the earth, high and lifted up.  It’s from this exalted position, that those who inhabit the earth are seen as mere insects.  And what is God doing in all His splendor?  He’s still fully engaged in creative activity, forming, and stretching the heavens.  God is also described as being engaged in another activity, and that is of observing and controlling the political activities of the rulers of the earth.

God is involved in the political issues which confront the exiles in Babylon.  Yes, the earthly kings appear to be in power, but God in His sovereignty can destabilize and dislodge them from their thrones whenever He chooses.  Before God, they are helpless.  The prophet portrays God as blowing upon these earthly rulers, and when He does so, they are helpless.  Theologian and former Director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Duke Divinity School, the Rev. Dr. William Willimon, tells the story of an acquaintance of his who visited Russia in the late ’70s when the Cold War was at its peak.

The man was sent as part of a delegation from the World Council of Churches to investigate and bring back a report on the state of the Christian Church under an atheistic regime.  The man said he wasn’t impressed.  He told Dr. Willimon, in a condescending manner, that “the church is just a bunch of little old ladies praying.”  Willimon told the story in the early ’90s when the statues of Lenin and Stalin were being removed or destroyed.  Yes, little old ladies were praying, and God was listening, and He is Lord over all rulers.  We must constantly remind ourselves that God is almighty, and His timing is always perfect.  Furthermore, He knows exactly what He is doing.

Alan Jacobs, in an article published in 1996, notes that one thing that Joseph Stalin, the ruthless Soviet leader, could not tolerate was laughter.  He lived with such paranoia that he worried that people might be laughing at him.  The empire he created was dark, dingy, and grim.  Even his parties and celebrations were dark and laughter-less affairs.  The good news for us, on this Lord’s Day, is that our God reigns supreme and is always in control.

God is Lord of presidents and dictators, kings and sultans, princes and principalities.  He is above all rulers.  And whether theses national leaders realize it, or even acknowledge it, all earthy powers answer to God.  And this gives you and I, as the people of God, a reason to celebrate.  Even in the midst of troubling times, it’s time for joy.  A joy that is deep and calming, a joy that only God can give.  God is indeed in control over all the kingdoms of this world.  Therefore, we can rejoice because our God reigns.  Aren’t these the same lessons for us, as they were for those ancient exiles?

The message of this Epiphany season is that God has revealed Himself to the world.  He came to us in the flesh in Jesus, to be with us, and to save us from darkness and sin.  The first article of the Apostles’ Creed and our First Lesson for today invite the church to, once again, reflect on God’s goodness and His greatness.  When the Church really focuses on the purpose of Epiphany, we can become so “God aware” that the life of the Church is ordered by joy which breaks forth in the doxology, “How great thou art!”  God is indeed Lord and sovereign over all nations and rulers; moreover, He is also Lord over all gods.

Just as there are critics today, there were also detractors in Isaiah’s day who maintained that God doesn’t see, hear, or care.  These detractors proclaim loudly that God is not, and was not, interested in each individual.  The problem with these detractors was, and still is, that they’re looking for instant answers, for the preverbal genie in a bottle.  They look for the immediate fix, for a magical potion.  Because of this, they look to this world for answers, and they chase after temporal things and become caught up in the worship of idols.  Isn’t this a picture of what’s happening today?

You don’t have to look too hard to find fortune tellers, psychic readers, astrology charts, and horoscopes readily at hand.  When Ronald Reagan was president, his wife Nancy created quite a stir when the news media reported that Mrs. Reagan regularly consulted an astrologer for advice, not only on a personal level, but also on world matters.  Isn’t this what satan wants, for people to become fascinated with other gods and worship creation, rather than the Creator?

A group of clergy, attending a meeting, had a good laugh when it was reported that the Psychic Television Network had declared bankruptcy.  One pastor in the group, with tongue in cheek, exclaimed, “With all of their supposed psychic powers, you would have thought someone would have been able to foretell the coming bankruptcy.”  The Creator of all wants His creation to look to Him and remember that it was by His power that He spoke everything into being, in heaven and on earth.  In this passage, God is reminding the Hebrew people in exile, and us as well, that He is the transcendent and the “Holy One” who is Lord of all.  God is King and Ruler of all kings, He is the God of all gods and thus He is Lord over all. 

The exiles were fearful and uncertain about their future, so God comes to allay their fears by promising them that He will give them His power for their weakness, and they will have His strength for their weariness.  God is preparing the hearts of His people for His entrance.  God does this by revealing His oneness and uniqueness.  In the spring of 1998, a series of tornadoes ripped through the southeastern part of the United States, spreading death and destruction.

The day after one of the deadly tornadoes hit, the National Public Radio program, All Things Considered, aired a story about the Church of the Open Door, whose building had been destroyed by the storm.  The children’s choir was rehearsing when the storm hit.  The pastor saw the tornado coming and quickly gathered the children into the main hallway of the church.  Terrified, they huddled in the hallway while the winds destroyed the structure around them.  In an effort to calm the children’s fears, the pastor led them in singing, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”  Some of the children were injured, but miraculously none were killed.  A deeply moving part of the broadcast was the report of a little girl who said, “While we were singing, I saw angels holding up the hallway.  But the winds were so strong that the angels shouted out ‘We need help!’ and more angels came and helped them.”  This is an amazing story!  I guarantee that little girl will never forget what she saw.  She will always believe what the Bible tells us in Psalm 91:11: “he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”  God certainly sent His guarding angles to watch over those children that day.

You and I may have trouble accepting what the little girl reportedly saw.  Yet, when we reflect that our God is Lord over all, why is this so hard to believe?  The Lord who created all is the Lord who rules overall – the gods of this world, the kings, the tyrants, and the elected leaders; He’s even Lord over all nature.  When people realize their own powerlessness, it’s then that they will be open to the power that saves — God’s power.

Kierkegaard’s statement, “The purity of heart is to will one thing,” reminds us that there must be no distraction in the human heart.  The human heart, when it has divided loyalties, is confused and chaotic.  Out of his own experience Augustine reminds us: “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless, till they rest in Thee.”  God, like a forceful wind, sweeps away all obstacles to His Lordship.  This forceful wind, which is His Divine Breath, fills the heart that is purified with hope and love.  Today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us that quick fixes, magical cures, and false gods simply will not get the job done.  But for those who recognize who God is, the creator of all, both in heaven and on earth, who is above all and in all, and the Lord God Almighty, we can then surrender our lives completely to God.

When we turn our lives over to God, the prophet’s words are deeply encouraging.  And these words of encouragement can ring in our ears: God is the One who does not faint or grow weary, and God will give power to the faint and strength to the powerless.  The God of Isaiah is our God, and God is Lord over all.  God’s word is sure, “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” (Isaiah 40:31).


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