"Win Regardless of the Score"

Date Sunday February 04, 2018
Service Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Text Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "The First and Last Word: Hope"
Next Sermon "Why Should it be Said, “Where is their God?” It Shouldn’t! #1"

     I’m guessing that the Northeastern Ohio Synod’s Bishop, Abraham Allende, is cheering for the Philadelphia Eagles in tonight’s Super Bowl game. That guess is based on a Facebook post he shared this week. It was of a church sign which said: “Bible Quiz: How many verses in the Bible are about eagles and patriots? Eagles: 33; Patriots: 0”

     It so happens that one of those 33 uses of the world eagle is in today’s Old Testament reading: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 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.”

     When you’ve been in exile for decades and finally are allowed to go home, only to find destruction around every corner, it’s good to know that God gives power to the faint. That’s the context of the Old Testament reading; Jerusalem is in ruins, the temple is destroyed, there’s no wall. All the comforts and protections a city would have offered in the ancient world are gone. So, amazingly, even though it was “home”, those returning from exile were afraid to live there.

     So, God promises to share his power with anyone who waits on – who turns to – him. Another of those “eagles” verses is found in Exodus 19:4 and is in reference to the people of Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt, another of that nation's difficult times. God proclaims, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

     Upon hearing the Prophet Isaiah’s reference to eagles, that we read today, the returning exiles may have remembered God’s announcement in Exodus – and remembered that God heard, and still hears, the cries of the people and empowers them – in exhaustion, in oppression and in other moments of greatest need. (1)

     This message still speaks to us, even when it’s not Super Bowl weekend. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” What a powerful word of hope for challenging times, which we all face. Can you imagine soaring like an eagle, above it all, observing difficulty from above? Or, can you imagine running and not growing wearing - good news for marathoners - or walking and not becoming faint, which those who use cains or walkers are glad to hear. This is how God supports God's people! 

     God’s loving response to human need continues in today’s Gospel lesson where Jesus’ addresses suffering in an expanding picture. When he leaves the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus goes to a private home where he heals Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever that may well have killed her. Then, the picture gets bigger as people from the city gather at that home, and there’s more healing.  The scene expands again as Jesus goes to neighboring towns to touch more lives.

     So, what’s the message? It’s a continuation from last Sunday’s Gospel reading in which Jesus picked a fight with hopelessness, giving hope to a broken man. Jesus then responds to the profound need around him, and heals, feeds, cares for and sets free those who are suffering. His actions announce that Jesus opposes all that keeps us from the joy and purpose God wants for us.

     Here’s what commentator Dr. David Lose has to say about it: “This isn’t just the message of the first chapter of Mark, of course, it consumes the whole of his account, all the other gospels as well, and indeed, the whole of Scripture: God wants to set free all of us so that we might live into our God-given identity and potential, claiming our calling as children of God, and join God in the mission to love and bless the world.” So, we are set free from sin, of course, but also from the various manifestations of sin – fear, loss, despair, insecurity and all manner of things that plague us. (2)

     Last Sunday I called all that the seedbed of hopelessness. So, the ministry of Jesus is about setting us free from hopelessness; but he not only sets us free from, we also are set free for a life of purpose and joy.

     I’m in the process of learning a lot about joy as I read The Book of Joy which is based on interviews with the Buddhist lead, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I just started it, so you may hear more as I read more; during their conversation these spiritual leaders outlined eight pillars of joy – four of the mind and four of the heart.

     They focus on joy as a human birthright that is even more fundamental than happiness. In fact, Archbishop Tutu described joy as being much bigger than happiness because it is not dependent on external circumstances. That’s good, since he also noted that discovering more joy does not save people from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak.

     Let me quote him: “In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet, as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.” (3) Wouldn’t you like those descriptions to be true of yourself?

     The book notes recent research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky who writes that only 50 percent of our happiness is determined by immutable factors like our genes or temperament. The rest is determined by our circumstances, over which we have limited control, and our attitudes and actions, over which we have a great deal of control. The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are: our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous. In turns out that these are exactly the actions and attitudes mentioned by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop as central pillars of joy. (4)

      My summary is that amid that which challenges us, we have hope. We have a Creator, God, who gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. We have a Savior, Jesus, who sets us free from all that keeps us from the joy and purpose God wants for us. We have a Sustainer, the Holy Spirit, who enables us to experience that joy and purpose even when life is difficult. Given all that, it’s accurate to say that we can soar like eagles, because regardless of the score, we will always win. AMEN

(1)   “Commentary on Isaiah 40:21-31” by Christopher B. Hays, www.workingpreacher.com

(2)   “Epiphany 5B: Freedom For” by David Lose, www.partnersinpreaching.com

(3)   The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams, Avery Publishers, 2016, pg. 12

(4)   Same as #3, pg. 49