The New Yorker ran a cover last week about the month of January: did anyone see it? It is a cartoon called “The Cruelest Month,” and the author is Roz Chast. The days of January are laid out as if they were an old-fashioned Advent calendar. But when you open each day’s door, instead of a surprise or a treat, you see a depressing label. Early in the month, the labels read: Cold; Grey; Wet; and then: Cold, Grey, and Wet. Other labels include: Arctic Blast. Ice Storm. Flu. Flu. Flu. By the end of the month, it has progressed to: Weird frozen pellets. Cabin fever. Dentist. Why me, Lord? And, Still January.
On Friday, we progressed into the month of February, but regrettably, the groundhog predicts six more weeks of winter. To which I say, No Thanks.
Winter starts nicely in this part of the world. In November and December, as it gets darker and colder, we have holidays to distract and cheer us. The first few snowfalls, whenever they come, are beautiful. Early January can feel refreshing: it’s nice to have a new year, a blank slate.
But at this point, the darkness and the chill, the ice and slush, and the many, many illnesses have worn out my patience. Is anyone with me? This is to say nothing of all the non-weather-related reasons we each may have to feel tired and discouraged. I know there are many. Why not just concede defeat to winter, and retreat to a couch until further notice?
I feel a little embarrassed by my winter doldrums, however, when I turn to the gospel of Mark. We are stretching the earliest passages in Mark over many weeks in church, but back to back, they are a bracing read. Jesus is wasting no time at all. The gospel rushes from Jesus’ baptism, to Jesus’ first sermon and the calling of the first disciples, to an impressive sermon in a synagogue, to an exorcism, to a mass healing of every sick person in a whole city. Meanwhile, the writer keeps using words like “immediately” to help us get it: big things are happening, and they are happening fast.
How is Jesus keeping up this pace? Is this something we should be trying to emulate in our own lives? But before the passage ends, there is an abrupt interruption in the headlong trajectory of Jesus’ ministry. Following the marathon healing session, the text tells us, Jesus gets up early in the morning, while it is still very dark, and goes out to a deserted place, and prays. He takes a break. He fuels up with prayer.
Apparently, Jesus doesn’t let anyone know about his plan, because the disciples have to come looking for him. They seem agitated about his disappearance, saying “Everyone is searching for you.” The disciples serve as an ancient version of a neglected cellphone, beeping and buzzing to get our attention for 23 missed calls and 45 unread emails. But Jesus gives no explanations or excuses for stepping away. He just says, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”
Our other text for this morning is a famous passage from the book of Isaiah. This message is directed towards a people in exile, a people in despair. They have been crying out in dismay that they have been abandoned, disregarded by God. The prophet responds:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning?” Apparently, the people are in need of some reminders about the nature of God, and the prophet is willing to help. God is vast, he tells them, and powerful. She is beyond comparison, great and high and mighty and enduring and wise. And more than that: She accompanies us, giving power to the faint, and strengthening the powerless. “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 is one more story tucked away in our gospel passage this morning that I don’t want to miss: the story of Simon’s mother-in-law. She is the one who is in bed with a fever when Jesus comes in with the disciples. I wish we knew more about her; her name, or what she thinks about Simon’s new career as a disciple. How does she feel about his decision to stop fishing and contributing to the household, and instead follow an inspirational rabbi around? Whatever her opinion, it turns out that Simon’s connection with Jesus is helpful, at least in one way. Jesus comes to her when she is ill, and takes her by the hand, and raises her up. In response to this care, the fever simply leaves her. And she begins to serve her guests.
Three different stories. Jesus, the Israelites, and Simon’s Mother-in-law. But they have a lot in common.
In each story, people receive renewal and hope from God. Jesus is refueled after his first amazing stretch of ministry. The Israelites are brought back from despair, encouraged to put their trust in the God who gives them strength. And Simon’s mother-in-law is literally raised up. It is, one commentator writes, the first of many resurrection stories in the gospel.
Another common aspect of these stories is the response to renewal and hope. Jesus heads right back out to preach and heal. The Israelites are encouraged to mount up with wings like eagles, to run and walk without weariness. And Simon’s mother-in law rises from her sickbed to serve her guests.
Three stories. In each one, God is a resource in a time of need. In each one, the natural response to God’s help is to jump back into action, to serve others however we are called.
I invite you to take a moment to examine the state of your soul this morning. Consider whether there is any sign of fatigue or despair, any sickness of the spirit. If so, you are not alone. Sorrow and trouble are part of the human condition; spiritual healing can be a long and winding journey; and we have six more weeks of winter. But let us not forget that God travels alongside us, and offers us help.
Here in this place, we are planning for a Lenten season with lots of opportunities to be lifted up and encouraged by God. We’ll try a new kind of Ash Wednesday Gathering, which will build us up with holy practices of fellowship and prayer. There will be an after-church bible study, thanks to the efforts of leaders among us, so that we may gather around the word of God. There will be worship that makes lots of space for us to share our prayers. There will be a hallway full of words of hope, words of love. So amidst all the demands on your time, I hope you will come and join us here, throughout the season; and continue to find your own unique ways of tapping into the power of God.
Everyone needs some extra support now and then – even Jesus. And the help we receive from God is good, not only for us, but for the world; because it frees us to carry out our callings. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. Thanks be to God.