Here is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B. It was written a few months after Hurricane Floyd devastated our area. Our community needed Jesus to take us by the hand and lift us up. About two-thirds into the sermon there’s a marvelous true story about the healing of a congregation.
He Will Lift You Up
A Sermon on Isaiah 40:27-31; 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10; Mark 1:29-39
There she lay burning up with fever. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was too sick to go to Sabbath services at the synagogue, too sick to help with Sabbath dinner, too sick to come to the table. The flu, or whatever the illness was, had knocked her flat and drained her strength away. There was no aspirin or Tylenol, no antibiotics or antiviral agents, and no intravenous fluid replacement. Bathing her with cool water was only available method for fighting the fever. Her caring family did the best they could.
The illness was a strain on the whole household. Several generations lived there together, and everyone’s hands were needed to keep everything going. The mother-in-law’s hands were needed, but even more her presence was needed. Her place was empty. And if Peter’s mother-in-law was anything like some of the people I know, she lay there worrying about being a burden on everybody.
Her worried family brought Jesus home straightaway from the synagogue, and before he could sit down, they told him about her. They had just witnessed the authority with which Jesus had cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue. Surely Jesus could help their sick loved one combat this fever.
In our household of faith, we have so many people to tell Jesus about. Look at the number of people on our prayer list, and there are many more named in our hearts! Some are literally down in the bed. Some are growing weaker and weaker. Many struggle with chronic illnesses or chronic pain. Many are so tired they can hardly go.
Just as many sick people and their loved ones gathered around Peter’s house that evening, many are gathered around and inside our household of faith. Some have been knocked flat emotionally. They have fallen into a pit of depression that seems to have no bottom. Down, down, down. Some suffer from mental and spiritual anemia. Their strength is spent.
Exhaustion and depression can strike groups of people. That was the case for Israel in exile. As a nation they were powerless. Babylonian soldiers had rolled through Jerusalem, destroyed their homes and their spiritual home, the temple. Then the Babylonians marched them hundreds of miles to Babylon. Deportation. Captivity. And Israel couldn’t do one thing to stop it. The Babylonians flattened the people’s souls as well as their homes. Overcome with despair, they found themselves wondering whether there even was a God. And if there was a God, where was his power? Where was his love? Had God forgotten them?
Our region is dotted with abandoned houses and businesses where floodwaters rolled through. The Harbour West apartment complex still looks like a war zone. Hurricane Floyd knocked people off their feet economically, emotionally and spiritually. Those who are working to help them back up can witness to the toll Floyd has taken, how the trauma has provoked a variety of emotional and physical illnesses. It is heartbreaking to see. And that takes a toll on the recovery workers. They are tired and sad.
Our prayers go on and on. Lord, please! Come and help all these people!
Through weak, drowsy eyes, Peter’s mother-in-law saw Jesus approaching. There was no waiting with this holy physician. The patient’s family told Jesus what was wrong, and he went straight to her side. There was no testing, no measuring her faith level, and certainly no checking of insurance coverage. Without a word, Jesus grasped her hot, dry hand and lifted her up. Those who have lifted sick loved ones know what this is all about. This took effort. This took power. This was no magic levitation. Jesus’ strength lifted Peter’s mother-in-law to new strength. Jesus lifted her to her feet, and he lifted her to renewed service.
The helpless victims of Babylon found themselves thinking, “Maybe God is powerless, too.” But Isaiah was quick to emphasize that there is no strength like God’s strength. “Haven’t you heard?” Isaiah exclaimed. “Don’t you understand how the earth was founded? Don’t you see God’s power in creation? Who made all these stars, for example? The Holy One. His power is so great not one star fails to answer him.
“How can you insist that God doesn’t care about you? God is the everlasting God. The creator doesn’t grow tired or weary. He gives strength to the weary and the powerless.
“By this strength God will lift God’s people to new strength. Those who wait expectantly for God will find their strength renewed. They will fly like eagles and run and walk in strength.” God takes people and whole nations by the hand and lifts them to new strength.
There’s a powerful story of group healing in a book on healing prayer entitled Stretch Out Your Hand. The authors refer to it as the story of the drowned church. It reminded me so much of the story of our region since the flood. A pastor was frustrated and baffled by the attitude of hopelessness and negativity that seemed to have the whole congregation in its grip. Church members were taking it out on each other, even going so far as to argue with each other openly outside the sanctuary before the Sunday worship service started. Nothing the pastor tried seemed to help. It felt like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. (See Tilda Norberg and Robert Webber, Stretch Out Your Hand, Upper Room 1998, pp. 98-103.)
The pastor asked a small group of friends to come and help pray for the healing of the congregation. When they gathered, one of the friends was immediately drawn to a commemorative plaque in the narthex that stated that the church building had been erected at the expense of the local government. This led these prayerful friends to explore the story behind this unusual source of funding.
It turns out that the original church building had been condemned by the state to make way for a dam and a lake. The church members hadn’t wanted to move, but what could they do? They had no say in the matter. They ended up removing everything they could save from the original building and carrying it to the present site. It felt like an exile. Now the shell of the original church home was underwater.
Now this had happened a generation before. Only a few church members remembered the actual event, which took place when they were children. As the prayer group considered the story, one of the friends commented on how the church had been drowned.
The grieving, the pain of loss, and the powerlessness had never been healed, and lived on as an undertone of defeat and depression. So the prayer group began to pray for the healing of this terrible memory, asking God to lift up this congregation to new life again. And to make a long story short, little by little, the congregation was lifted up. Little by little, the people stopped hurting each other, and developed a new interest in connecting with God. Those who wait on the Lord will be lifted up.
Surely, if God can lift up a drowned congregation, he can lift up our whole flooded region, to new life and new strength. Surely he can lift hurting individuals and families to new life and new strength.
The Apostle Paul experienced it. He had some kind of affliction that he termed a “thorn in the flesh.” The pain of it, whether it was physical or mental or both, constantly nagged him. It dragged him down like a ball and chain. Earnestly he begged God to take it away, to cure it completely. Even though Paul did not receive the cure he wanted, his prayer for healing was answered. Paul discovered the power of God operating in the very aspect of his life that was so weak and painful. God revealed this to Paul: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Every single day the power of God lifted Paul so that he was able to go on and fulfill his mission in this world. Every single day he had to rely on God’s power. No way could he function otherwise.
Even Jesus relied on God’s lifting power. Our text today is one of many that show it. Consider in our text what Jesus did in one twenty-four hour period: He went to the synagogue and taught, conquered an evil spirit, lifted up Peter’s mother-in law, and healed all the sick who came to him from all over town. He lifted person after person and family after family to new life. It’s no wonder that Jesus went out in the wee hours of the next morning to spend time alone with God. He held up his arms to God in prayer. Communion with God—waiting on the Lord—enabled Jesus to stay the difficult course right on to the cross, where the sin of humanity lifted him up to ridicule and death. And then, God’s power lifted him up to everlasting life on resurrection day. Those that wait for the Lord will renew their strength.
God lifts up those who wait for him. He will lift us up in his strength. That’s true in this life and in the next. The thing for us to do is to put up our arms expectantly, like children, eager for our heavenly Father to pick us up.
I can remember doing that as a child. When Daddy would come from the barn to the house at night, my little brother and I would plead, “Daddy, jump us in the air! Jump us in the air!” And Daddy lifted us much higher than we could ever reach on our own.
People of God, be as children, needing and wanting and expecting your heavenly Father to lift you up. He will lift you up when the darkness around you and within you is so deep, and your heart is so full of tears that it can’t hold any songs. He will lift you up when your strength is almost gone, and when you don’t know which way to turn. He will lift you up when the pain is just about to do you in. He will lift you up when your life here is done and you are ready to soar like an eagle into everlasting life. God will lift you up! He will give you peace, and he will lift you up!