Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Whole City at the Door

A Whole City at the Door1

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Cottage Grove, OR

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: February 8, 2009
Mark 1:29-39

One of my all-time favorite church magazine cartoons pictures a physician in his office, speaking with his bookkeeper. The subject of their conversation is a patient’s bill, which apparently had been in the accounts receivable file for a long, long time. The bookkeeper says to the doctor, “He says that since you told him his recovery was a miracle, he sent his check to the church.”

Our passage from Mark touches on the subject of miraculous healing. This early sequence of events in Jesus’ ministry seems to set the stage for his growing reputation. Mark says, “at once his fame spread everywhere throughout the surrounding region...” (vs. 28), “the whole city was gathered around the door,” “everyone is searching for you,” “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly...and people came to him from every quarter.” (vs. 45)

Invent a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Well, Jesus simply healed people, treated them for the demons that traumatized them and their families, and the people came to him in great mobs and multitudes. Without having moved beyond the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry seems to have turned into an overnight success.

Ask a person on the street what function churches are supposed to fill in our culture, and if they are not outright hostile toward religious faith, they will likely answer that the purpose of the church and its ministry is to do good works, to help make the world a little bit better place. I know for certain that the numerous transients who come through the doors of churches in many neighborhoods every day are hoping they can count on that common assumption that the purpose driving a church is the desire to do good things for people who need to have good things done. What kind of church worthy of the name wouldn’t do that? It’s a pretty nice arrangement, if that is the purpose of the church. We need to do good things, hosts of people need good things done, the world must be perfectly organized. But today’s lesson does not confirm that as the primary definition of ministry, at least not the ministry of Jesus.

From time to time, politicians and others will make broad statements about the churches in our country as organizations whose purpose is to minister to the needs of people, feed them, help them in their search for health care, and so on. I dare say, many of us seated here would join in that chorus of voices which refer to the church and its ministries as helping institutions employing people who are helping professionals. But today’s lesson does not confirm that limited definition of ministry, at least not the ministry of Jesus.

I suspect that this was also the sort of assumption driving the people who came flocking to see Jesus in the early days of his ministry. Mark tells us that following his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus came to Galilee — this region where today’s passage finds Jesus healing and casting out demons — “proclaiming the good news of God.” That is the very first thing said of Jesus’ ministry in the gospel: that he came proclaiming the good news of God.”

This is the clue that helps us understand why, when the mobs were beating a path to his door, and the disciples came to find him so he could continue in his high-growth ministry opportunity, that he did not choose the “do-good” definition of ministry, that he chose instead to move on to neighboring towns so that, as he said, “I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

That is what he came out to do. To proclaim a message. In the process of his proclamation, healings were signs of the message, signs meant to serve the message, not the other way around. Jesus fed his own ministry by retreating to quiet places to pray and reflect. He did not become a hyperventilating TV preacher pursuing a non-stop popular ministry. His own disciples seemed eager enough for him to do this, but Jesus knew the focus of his ministry. It included healing and doing good, but healing and doing good did not exhaust the purpose of his ministry. Likely, if we take our cue from him, it should not totally define or characterize ours either.

There’s a story of a wise old who rabbi saw a man hurrying along the street, so preoccupied with his task he was looking neither right nor left.

“Why are you rushing so much?” the rabbi asked the man.

“I’m rushing after my livelihood,” the man answered.

“And how do you know,” asked the rabbi, “that your livelihood is running on before you so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it’s behind you, and all you need to do is stand still.”2

Have you heard the type-A personality version of the old “Now I Lay Me Down” child’s bedtime prayer?

“Now I wake me up to work, I pray the Lord I will not shirk. If I should die before the night, I pray the Lord my work’s all right.”

It has been said that “most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play and play at their worship.”3 All the essential elements of life are there, but their order, and especially their focus, is upside down.

The disciples came to him in a rush of misplaced enthusiasm, “What are you doing out here praying in the desert? The whole town is looking for you, your ministry is a success, come on back and greet the multitudes.” Jesus’ response was not to go back, but rather to press on in pursuit of what he “came out to do.” And that was to “proclaim the message.”

In a word, he came out to preach. To proclaim the truth about God. Everything else about his ministry was secondary to that ultimate goal, to tell the world the truth about a gracious, loving God, who would stop at nothing to communicate his love for them. Marshall McLuhan was not the first to recognize the danger that the medium could become the message. Jesus knew it too, and saw the danger that his healing ministry might so overshadow his proclamation, that he would be reduced to little more than another itinerant side-show miracle worker. He rejected this role, left Capernaum, and went out through Galilee pursuing his ministry of proclamation, and assisting his message with signs and wonders, but keeping the content of his message ever before him.

The church that takes its cue in ministry from Jesus himself will look long and hard at his statement about his ministry and its purpose. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of conversations I have had with people over the years about the things the church ought and ought not do in order to fill the pews, to get people to want to come out to church. More of this sort of music, less of that, more pizzazz, less dogma and doctrine, more entertainment, less preaching and teaching. I’ve heard it all, and I’ve heard it a hundred times.

Then I look at the example of Jesus in this simple story. He healed, he cast out demons, and right away, everyone who had a bunion was at the door knocking. But is that what Jesus was about? Did Jesus come into the world — to borrow the language of John — so that he could start a popular healing and exorcism ministry? John says, “In the beginning was the Word...” Mark reports that Jesus’ first act in his ministry was the act of proclamation, of preaching.

There are three questions4 that we would all benefit from asking ourselves and our faith from time to time, to help us keep our focus as we walk the road of discipleship.

Where are you looking for Jesus? It doesn’t pay always to look for Jesus in the same place. I may have met him in prayer, but that does not preclude the meeting of Jesus in the face of another person. We may have needed a certain aspect of the ministry of Christ, but that does not limit his availability to us in every other circumstance of our lives. Where are you looking for Jesus today?

What do you want Jesus to do when you find him? Peter wanted Jesus to go back and keep on doing what he had been doing. We all want that. We would all like to go back to mountaintop experiences of our lives, to find him again just the way we found him before. But Jesus has moved on with his message, and to stay with him, we need to move beyond the limits of our own past and into the future where he is proclaiming who he is to all the world.

What does Jesus want to do? That is the key question. With the whole city waiting at his door, why did he forego that promising healing ministry, and move on insistently with his ministry of proclamation? What kind of Savior do we want? Sadly, it is often a Savior to do our own bidding that we desire. But what kind of Savior would that be? Are we going to demand of him what we want, or are we willing to follow, no matter where he leads us?

Especially for church leaders, deacons, pastors, elders, this is an important question. There is a whole city outside our door. What do we have to tell them about Jesus and his love?

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 This sermon, along with others of my sermons for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, appears in the recently published book: Sermons on the Gospel Readings: Series III - Cycle B, Css Publishing Company, 517 South Main Street, Lima Ohio, 45804,, © 2008.

2 Martin Marty in Context, 3/15/96, p. 4
3 Gordon Dahl, Work, Play, and Worship in a Leisure-Oriented Society, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972, p. 12
4 Thanks to Howard Chapman in note #34 on Sermonshop 2000 02 06, on Presbynet.