Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Today’s readings join the themes of vocation and power. When we are in tune with God’s movements in our lives, we mediate power that transforms our lives and the world. This power does not insulate us from life’s tragedies and failures, but it gives us insight and courage to respond to them.
The reading from Isaiah integrates the cosmic and the personal dimensions of metaphysics and spirituality. Like Psalm 8, it begins with a sense of God’s grandeur and the finitude of humankind. In words anticipating modern physics, Isaiah and the Psalmist assert that God’s energy created the universe and gives life to all things. By comparison, we arise and perish in a day. At first glance, this could lead to depression and feelings of being lost in the universe. There is no geocentrism here, but a divine omnipresence that both de-centers and centers.
Yet, like Psalm 8, Isaiah 40 assumes that humans have a vocation within the vastness of the universe. If God is the omnipresent energy and intentionality moving through all things, then all things are both infinitesimal and infinite. Every creature is at the center of the universe and has a role in the well-being of the whole. Nothing is all-important, but everything is important.
God’s revelation is ubiquitous but Isaiah assumes a preferential option for the vulnerable, weak, and faithful. “God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” The “1%” appear to be the locus of power and authority in everyday life, but “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.” Openness to God’s movements in the universe and in our lives awakens power, energy, and creativity that give life to our communities. We channel the divine energy for our time and place.
Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c, celebrates God’s grandeur and moral character. God is abundant in power, giving birth to galaxies and stars. Yet, God’s power is not morally indifferent, nor is God’s power self-aggrandizing and narcissistic. God’s power determines the moral as well as the creative character of the universe. God has a vision and an intention for the cosmos and human life. The moral arc of the universe is aimed toward outcasts, the broken-hearted, and the wounded. God heals and restores in the micro, our planetary life, politics, and personal relationships, and guides the macro, our individual lives, toward beauty and wholeness. Creation and salvation are synchronous. There is no implied fall, despite our imperfection, but an irrepressible movement toward truth, beauty, and goodness in all things.
In Corinthians, Paul proclaims his vocation is to be “all things to all people” to promote the good news of God’s salvation. This is not some sort of wishy-washy greased weather vane liberalism, but the recognition that just as God as a personal relationship to all things and all people, so should we. God’s vision is both personal and global. God adapts to our situation, providing possibilities and energy appropriate to who we are and our personal context. For example, I believe that God is working in my toddler grandson’s life, luring him forward through his interests and evolving gifts. God is also moving through my life as his grandfather. An hour ago, I fed him dinner, bathed him, and put him to bed. We sang songs and recounted the day, and I rocked him to sleep. This was my vocation in that moment. Now that the house is quiet and I am waiting for my son and daughter-in-law to come home from work, my vocation is to reflect on the good news of these lectionary readings to build up Christian communities and inspire and support preachers.
I preach the same message of God’s grace, personal and global, and God’s evolving care for the world, wherever I go, but the nuance differs depending on context. My style and language might differ if I am preaching to an emerging congregation or a college church, a primarily African American congregation or a Central Pennsylvania German church. In spiritual direction, we have the same goal of enabling people to discern God’s movements in their lives but the pathway differs depending on the person.
God is a different God depending on God’s relations and the unfolding events of our lives and the world. Though God seeks wholeness everywhere, the nature of this quest is always intimate and personal. The same intimacy applied to Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry, and should inspire us in our own spiritual leadership.
Mark 1: 29-39 presents a “day in the life” of Jesus. Jesus has just preached at the local synagogue. He gains notoriety that day not only for his message but his healing of a demon possessed man. He then retires with his inner circle for dinner. Jesus is still “on duty” – there is no rest for the pastor among congregants, nor does Jesus find rest at Simon’s house.
Simon’s mother-in-law, the matriarch of the house, is sick with a fever and unable to fulfill her vocation as hostess and hospitality-giver. Jesus raises her up, and she responds by serving her guests. This is not a matter of sexism or women’s roles, but vocation in this time and place. Our vocations are always contextual, rooted in our time and place. They are constantly evolving both personally and culturally. Healing is never solely for our personal aggrandizement, it issues in reclaiming our vocation or discovering our calling for our unique time and place. We receive God’s healing touch so we can share in the healing of others.
The passage concludes with a description of Jesus at prayer. Jesus has worked late in the night, healing ailments of body, mind, and spirit. He has restored bodies and social standing. He has transformed outcasts into insiders. As morning dawns, Jesus retreats to a solitary place for a time of prayer and meditation. Jesus’ ministry involves the rhythm of action and contemplation. His healing power and personal authority come from “waiting on God” (Isaiah 40). In silence, Jesus claims his vocation as a global teacher and healer. His disciples seek to limit his mission, but out of the depths of his relationship with God, he moves forward to other communities. He follows his calling, yet remains in pastoral relationship with his followers.
Healing takes many forms. It involves touch that transforms cells and intimacy that transforms souls. No issue is too small for God’s healing care. While we may understand healing differently than Jesus’ first followers, we are called to a naturalistic healing ministry in our time. Prayers, actions, and rituals truly activate divine energy to make persons and communities whole. (For more on Jesus’ healing and healing in the 21st century see Bruce Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus and Healing Worship: Purpose and Practice).
Vocation emerges from prayer, from waiting on God, and a sense of God’s movements in time and place. When we live out our emerging vocation, we gain energy and direction to bring healing and wholeness to our communities and the world.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty one books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. He is available for lectures, workshops, and retreats.