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Epiphany – Expecting the Unexpected

Date: 04/02/2024/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Epiphany: Expecting The Unexpected

Mark 1:29-39

4 Feb 2024

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver who surprises us with new insights, understandings, and revelations for our growth, sometimes through the most unexpected moments. Amen.

This Sunday, I’ll be speaking about Expecting the Unexpected and it is based on Mark 1:29-39. This is the last sermon in our Epiphany series before we enter into the season of Lent. In our faith journeys, we sometimes encounter the unexpected and that is not always easy.

Question 1 (Word Cloud)

How do you feel about the unexpected?

It’s normal for us to feel all these things. We often fear the uncertainty and discomfort that comes with the unexpected. But it’s also in these unexpected moments that God sometimes surprises us with new insights, understandings and revelations for our growth and journey ahead. The question is: Will we keep our hearts, minds and souls open to what God might have in store?

Mark 1:29-39 (NRSVue)

As soon as they[n] left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed by demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “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.” 39 And he went throughout all Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

This passage begins with “as soon as they left the synagogue” so the natural question would be to ask what happened at the synagogue before this? So Jesus was preaching in the synagogue and people were amazed at his teaching because he taught as one who had authority. Then a man with an unclean spirit started shouting at him, and Jesus commanded the spirit to be quiet and come out of the man, and it did. The people were even more amazed and Jesus’ fame started spreading throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

You would think that Jesus would ride on that momentum and continue to build up his public ministry but he does something unexpected. Instead of building on the momentum, Jesus does the complete opposite.

Just as his fame was starting to spread, Jesus shifts from public ministry to the private sphere by entering the home of Simon and Andrew, and he chose to spend time in that domestic space with their family.

It is there that Jesus is informed that Simon’s mother-in-law was ill and in bed with a fever. When he hears that she’s feverish and bedridden, he goes to her side, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up. Immediately, the fever leaves her body, and she is restored to health. What is remarkable about this healing is its brevity and its tenderness. In verse 31, Jesus “came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.”

The action is simple and direct, and “lifting her up” is actually reminiscent of the resurrection – a foreshadowing perhaps.

Sickness or illness can oftentimes be unexpected. In the case of Simon’s mother-in-law, she had a fever. We shouldn’t underestimate the seriousness of a fever because in a world without antibiotics, her condition may prove fatal, depending on the circumstances. But we hear that the fever immediately leaves her body, and she began to serve them.

Why didn’t Simon tell his mother-in-law to take it easy while he served the guests? For Mark, the author, it was important to mention this little detail. Perhaps he was trying to indicate that the woman was fully healed at once. What a miracle — no recuperation period needed! But “the problem with miracles,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own.  Every one of us knows someone who is suffering.  Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”

And so Christians have tried to explain sickness away in different ways: “God is using this sickness to build your character.” “God is preparing you for something great.” “Maybe Satan is testing you — stay strong!” “You need to have more faith.” “Maybe there’s some secret sin in your life — have you tried confession?” “God’s timing is different from ours — just be patient.” “Have you tried fasting or praying more?”

Besides being insensitive and hurtful, these claims and admonitions are based on the assumption that health, wholeness, and comfort are the norms we should expect to experience in this life, especially as Christians. Everything else — physical pain, mental health challenges, emotional struggles, chronic illness — is considered abnormal and unwelcome. No wonder people flock to religious and secular spaces that promise prosperity, healing, and happiness.

As a human being, this is perfectly understandable but I’m here to gently remind you that life often brings unexpected moments – some of them good and some not-so-good, and that is normal. In fact, it is so normal we need to learn to expect the unexpected. It doesn’t mean you’ve been a bad Christian or that the universe or God is against you. Life brings us a mixture of moments – joy and suffering, happiness and sorrow, confidence and uncertainty, peace and fear, and the list goes on.

Whatever unexpected things you encounter, I want to be clear that when bad things happen, it doesn’t mean God’s favour is not with you. Life just brings unexpected moments – some good and some bad. But I want you to know you don’t have to fear the unexpected. Why? Because you don’t have to face them alone.

I wish I could promise you that your whole life will be filled with happiness, health, and wealth (especially with the Lunar New Year coming up). But I know that’s not the reality we all face. Even in our story today, we see that Jesus heals “many” — not all. He casts out “many demons” — not all. 

But although that might be the reality, one thing I can promise you is this: Jesus touches everyone who reaches out for help. He loves without measure, because love cures many ills. He doesn’t assume that illness and demon possession are punishments from God, because such assumptions are cruel and wounding. Jesus offers the sick and the broken his calm presence, his warm grip and embrace, and the good news of a kin-dom that is coming — a kin-dom without sickness, sorrow or fear.

Maybe that is our task as well. To touch everyone who reaches out for help, to love without measure, to offer the sick and the broken our presence, our embrace and the good news of a kin-dom that is coming – a kin-dom without sickness, sorrow or fear.

Question 2 (Open)

What is something unexpected that happened in your life recently?

In our Scripture passage for today, we see Jesus doing another unexpected thing. He disappears very early in the morning and the disciples go around searching for him.

Jesus moves from public -> private -> deserted/secluded

Mark tells us that Jesus goes out to a quiet deserted place to pray early in the morning. We know this is not a one-off thing. From the other gospels such as Luke, we read that that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5:16) Or in Matthew: “After he had sent the crowds away, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray; and when it was evening, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:23).

In seemingly “minor” verses like these, we see glimpses of Jesus’ deeply rooted spiritual life, the source of his strength and vision. We see his need to withdraw, his hunger for solitude, his desire to rest in God’s presence, recuperate, and reorientate his heart. 

Even Christ, the Messiah, prays, rests, reflects, and meditates. Even Jesus needs time alone. He needs time alone with God. He is just like us.

More than anyone else, Jesus understands the ongoing tension between compassion and self-care in a world desperately in need. Jesus lives with this tension every day, and he is unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. Even as the crowds cry out to him, he feels no shame in retreating when he needs a break.

This is an important lesson for many of us who live in cultures where tireless striving is considered a virtue, and the need for rest is considered a weakness. It’s also a challenge to those of us who might think about prayer a lot — without actually setting aside time to pray. When you actually sit down and think about it, how many of your minutes or hours in a day do you spend alone with God? One minute? Five minutes? One hour? Perhaps it’s time for us to recalibrate and reorientate our hearts.

When the disciples finally find Jesus, they inform him that everyone was looking for him. And Jesus makes an unexpected announcement. He 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.” Just when everyone in this area knows who he is, Jesus announces that they are going to move to a new area.

He makes this decision despite the fact that his disciples interrupt his prayer time to tell him that everyone is still searching for him back at Simon’s house. Clearly, there are compelling reasons for Jesus to stay where he is. But his response is to set a boundary. To say no. To move on in keeping with his own sense of mission and timing.

Given Jesus’s compassionate heart, I would imagine that Jesus doesn’t make this decision lightly. It must have been difficult for him. But after a morning of prayer and reflection, he recognizes and trusts the voice that says, “It’s time to go.”

In response, Debi Thomas asks the following important questions and I offer them to you for your reflection:

Can we learn anything from Jesus’s choice? Can we learn to hold calling, timing, and need in productive tension?  Can we trust that sowing a seed and walking away is sometimes enough? Can we relinquish fame and power, and choose obscurity instead? Can we risk the new and the unknown? Can we hold firm to our sense of vocation even when our loved ones don’t understand or agree with our choices? Can we establish and honor healthy boundaries? Are we able to let go and move on when God calls us to?

So we see that Jesus moves from public -> private -> secluded -> public again

This reminds me of an article written by Henri Nouwen that we refer to from time to time. It’s called Moving From Solitude to Community to Ministry. You can find the pdf of this article when you google it.

Nouwen says: “Community always calls us back to solitude, and solitude always calls us to community. Community and solitude, both, are essential elements of ministry and witnessing.”

There are many gems in this article but the point I want to make is that like Jesus, we need all three: solitude, community, and ministry. We are called to be involved in and practise all three, and it is only in finding the right balance (the right flow) that we can be healthy and thrive as followers of Christ. So which area might you be lacking and needing a little more practice today? Is it solitude, or community, or ministry?

Question 3 (Open)

Share one thing you learnt from something unexpected that happened in your life.

Our Spiritual Practice: Expecting the Unexpected

Get curious – we usually make assumptions and jump to conclusions too quickly. What would it be like if we pause when something unexpected happens in our lives? What if we pause before jumping to conclusions and get curious instead? Would we discover new things about ourselves and about the situation?

“When things get shitty in my own life, I try to get as curious as possible. It has been a healing place for me, the not knowing, the decision to discover everything I can.” -Mira Jacob

Be willing to sit with discomfort – the discomfort of not knowing, the discomfort of not having all the answers. Be willing to let go of our own sense of control.

Live with the mystery of “already-and-not-yet”

The first time I ever heard the phrase “already-and-not-yet” was more than 20 years ago when I first attended seminary. What it means is yes, the kin-dom of God has already come, and it was broken in during Jesus’s time on earth, marked by all kinds of signs and wonders. And at the same time, the kin-dom of God has not fully come, and those signs and wonders are not our daily reality. Someday, somehow, all will be well, but all is not well yet. So the great task, the great calling, the great journey, is to live graciously and compassionately in this often challenging in-between. Already and not yet.

And during this in-between time, we are called to be like Jesus – to touch everyone who reaches out for help, to love without measure, to offer the sick, the suffering and the broken our presence, our embrace and the good news of a kin-dom that is coming – a kin-dom without sickness, sorrow or fear. In this in-between time, we wait and work together with each other and the Spirit of God to bring about God’s kin-dom on earth.  

As we close, I want to share this insight about epiphanies by Richard Rohr with you.

Epiphany: An epiphany is a parting of the veil, a life-changing manifestation of meaning, the eureka of awareness of self and the Other. It is the radical grace which we cannot manufacture or orchestrate. There are no formulas which ensure its appearance. It is always a gift, unearned, unexpected, and larger than our present life. We cannot manufacture epiphanies. We can only ask for them, wait for them, expect them, know they are given, keep out of the way, and thank God afterward. (Richard Rohr)

May you experience Epiphany as you learn to expect the unexpected, get curious when things don’t seem to be going your way, be willing to sit with the discomfort of not having all the answers, and live with the mystery of already-and-not-yet, knowing that the love and presence of Jesus is with you always. Amen.