Our gospel reading today follows on neatly from last week’s where Jesus drove out a demon from the man who burst into the synagogue.
Today we see him healing and hiding.
By closely following the life of Jesus as we work through Mark’s gospel we aim for one thing: to know the Jesus we are claiming to follow, much more clearly.
We want to beware of remaking Jesus in our own image in case we end up following someone who is not very like the Jesus we encounter in the gospels.
So Jesus is healing again and our reading begins with the word ‘immediately’.
Mark is fond of the word ‘immediately’ – if you read the gospel straight through, you are constantly struck by this word.
There’s a break neck pace to the ministry of Jesus in Mark.
As John Pridmore points out, the word ‘immediately’ is not one closely associated with the pace of change in the Church of England.
‘Church leaders are adverse to the word ‘immediately’. It rarely occurs in reports published by the General Synod. The public ministry of the Son of God took far less time than the Church of England needed to revise its Ordinal.’ (p. 58, The Word is Very Near You’, 2009.)
But Mark loves the word.
So for example, immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Immediately they heard Jesus’ call by Lake Galilee, the fishermen get up and follow him.
And today, immediately they had come out of the synagogue, Jesus is off to Simon Peter’s house where Peter’s mother in law lies ill.
Just as the demon possessed man was a sermon illustration in himself, Peter’s mother in law is one too; Jesus has just been teaching and his actions also speak volumes.
Now I’ve been on the internet looking for mother in law jokes (acceptable ones) and I’m fairly sure that most mother in law jokes are told by men, so I’m not going to break that trend, except to say I did find this: (and apologies to all mothers in law here present…)
Question: What’s the punishment for bigamy?
Answer: Two mothers-in-law.
And this from Ken Dodd, who once remarked: "I haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for eighteen months. I don't like to interrupt her."
And finally, from Les Dawson (it would be Les Dawson…) "My mother-in-law has come round to our house at Christmas seven years running. This year we're having a change. We're going to let her in."
However, on the grounds that I get on fine with my mother in law, and also that I might become one myself some day, I think we’ll leave it there.
Joking aside, to be ill with a fever in pre-paracetamol days was no laughing matter and Jesus responds to this urgent need straight away by healing Peter’s mother in law.
It says ‘He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up and the fever left her.’
I think we can note from the way this happens, that touch and healing are inextricably linked.
The other day I had a chance to pray for someone in the street who I met and got talking to.
I was listening to her ailments, which were many, and I thought ‘what marks out a Christian from any other sympathetic listener?’
The answer was we can offer something greater than ourselves – we can put a person in touch with the Healing God by praying for them.
I was writing a sermon that week about words and actions going together, so I thought I’d better offer some prayer.
But I felt strangely reluctant (fear of what anyone might think etc.)
The moment came for the lady to move on and I still hadn’t offered any prayer, but as she turned to go, I instinctively put my hand on her shoulder and that’s when I got the impetus to pray for her.
So I think we underestimate the power of touch amongst ourselves, to comfort, to bless and even to heal. Without being inappropriate, touch and healing go hand in hand. It’s something to ponder for ourselves and our church family.
And so news of Jesus’ healing action spreads like wildfire and by evening, the whole town is gathered at Peter’s mother in law’s door.
We can’t stress enough the urgency of the need for healing here. Although there were doctors in Jesus’ day, they of course had nothing like the ability to make well that we enjoy on our National Health Service.
Again and again Jesus proclaims the Good News of the kingdom by actions as well as words. Demons are expelled, the sick healed, apparently instantly.
Does this mean that today with all our access to health technology we don’t need to bother as Christians with miraculous healing?
I admit I find this a difficult one. Someone has suggested three levels of belief involved in whether God still heals miraculously today.
1: I believe in theory that God can heal.
2: I believe He heals other people.
3: I believe He can heal me. (I think I'm somewhere between 2 and 3!)
Because we have a friendship with God, we will of course naturally talk to Him about any physical suffering (and sensibly take ourselves off to the doctor when need be.)
I don’t think prayer and medical treatment need be separate things.
We can, as a godly habit, lovingly commend each other to God in prayer whenever there’s a need, and follow the scriptural injunction that we should ‘pray for each other and confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.’
So Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God with actions, and these actions get him rather famous rather quickly.
And this is where Jesus is so very different from the celebrity and broadcasting culture that we all have constantly around us.
By ‘broadcasting culture’ I mean the tendency in the media to continually broadcast what is happening to people who are in the public eye.
By contrast Jesus seems to shun attention.
In a few short verses we have him forbidding the demons to speak, and getting up before dawn to find a deserted place to pray.
It’s not like Jesus to sit around after breakfast basking in the glory of the evening before when all those people clamoured at the door and got healed.
We must resist the overriding desire for numbers all the time.
Of course we want to see people turning up to events we plan, but do you know what? This is how numbers work: When people are hungry they’ll always seek out what nourishes them.
If people are not coming we need to ask ourselves a question: are we offering the true bread or an imitation?
John Pridmore (again) calls this passage a game of hide and seek.
Jesus hides himself. Peter seeks him out: it literally says ‘Simon and his companions hunted him down.’
Jesus is not interested in being in the limelight for its own sake: he wants to know what the Father wants, so he goes alone in prayer.
As soon as he is found he says ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is why I came.’
His statement ‘for that is why I came’ is a theological statement meaning ‘that is why I came into the world’, i.e. you could say mission is the reason for the Incarnation…
So Jesus works to the Father’s agenda, no one else’s, not even the agenda of need, because there’ll always be plenty of need on which to spend ourselves.
So as we go forward in our mission to grow our church and reach out to others, what have we learnt from Jesus, and what do we need to do about it this week?
This is what we see: Jesus is on an urgent mission. He acts swiftly. He heals and delivers. He seeks out solitude. He works to the Father’s agenda.
May God give us grace today and into the future to take these things to heart and to follow Him accordingly.